‘Tale’ author’s return visit draws renewed interest

Aug. 18, 2008
Local News, The (Batavia, N.Y.) Daily News

BATAVIA – Julia Spencer-Fleming continues to be a star with “A Tale for Three Counties” readers.
The Maine mystery writer and 2005 Tale author entertained nearly 100 readers Friday with stories about her writing and the characters that populate Miller’s Kill. The fictional Adirondack community has been the setting for Spencer-Fleming’s six books that find the Rev. Clare Fergusson and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne investigating both crimes and their own passion.
Spencer-Fleming’s latest appearance, which featured a buffet dinner, talk and booksigning, was a fundraiser for Tale, a community reading project started in 2003 by libraries in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties.
Following the sold-out dinner, the 95 participants retired to the library’s reading room where Spencer-Fleming briefly recounted her career, drew frequent laughs with often self-deprecating humor, read a scene from I Shall Not Want with Daily News Lifestyles Editor Ben Beagle reading the parts of the reporter character of the same name that Spencer-Fleming has used in her two most recent books, and answered a number of reader questions.
In describing her path to becoming an author, she told how she took up writing as a hobby after several other attempts at “wanting to try something creative” didn’t quite work out. In one instance, a left out ingredient ended her canning experiments after some tomatoes “turned really foul.”
“This has come to be known as the ‘salsa incident’ in our house,” Spencer-Fleming said.
A writing group followed and she decided to tackle writing a novel.
“I’m not sure why,” she said. “It’s kind of like deciding to get married.”
Spencer-Fleming noted how she was only hoping to make connections or get feedback about her first novel when she entered a best-new mystery contest from St. Martin’s, but instead won. Subsequent books allowed her to give up a job as a personal injury lawyer.
“Discovering that you are going to be published after working so long, nothing else compares,” said Spencer-Fleming, who began writing about 1997 and saw her first novel arrive six years later. “It’s the one thing that can make a writer at a loss for words.”
I Shall Not Want, published in June, is Spencer-Fleming’s sixth novel. It opens with a hostage situation and dramatic shootout. It then jumps back six months and before long Clare and Russ are investigating the apparent murders of three immigrants and the involvement of a downstate drug gang.
Spencer-Fleming also answered reader questions about:
– THE USE OF REAL PEOPLE: In addition to Beagle, Spencer-Fleming’s mother, Lois Fleming, is the only other character directly based on an actual person.
Lois, the church secretary in the book, has “the same haircut and odd diet” as Spencer-Fleming’s mother. The author has promised her mother that the fictional Lois will always be a size six.
“Then (Spencer-Fleming’s mother) said she wanted me to give Lois a hot romance. And she said that in front of my dad,” Spencer-Fleming said, “Boy, did she get a look.”
Most characters, though, aren’t modeled after real people because the major characters have to “grow and react organically with other people in the world I’ve created, and can’t be too firmly based on real people. You’d get jammed up and the two worlds would completely collide,” Spencer-Fleming said.
– ON CHOOSING THE ADIRONDACKS: Spencer-Fleming’s mother’s family settled in Argyle in the 1720s and remained there into the late-1990s. While Spencer-Fleming was a military brat and moved around as a child, she lived four years in Argyle before the family retired to Liverpool.
“The Adirondacks,” she said, “are very brooding and mysterious. There’s some very painful history there. Colorful stuff. A lot of old history.”
After living in Maine for 21 years, Spencer-Fleming said she is just now feeling comfortable writing a story set in Maine.
– ON WRITING VIVID ACTION SCENES: Spencer-Fleming said she tends to visualize the scenes she writes, “as if a movie is playing.”
“It’s as if the scene is projected in my head,” she said. “Then, the trick is pinning down the best words to describe it. That’s the challenge, how to write it so that you create a picture, but not with so much stuff that I lose the reader. I like reading and writing action scenes, but they are some of the most difficult to write.”
– ON CHOOSING HYMNS FOR TITLES: Five of the six titles in Spencer-Fleming’s mystery series have been taken from Episcopal hymns. Some, such as In the Bleak Midwinter and Out of the Deep I Cry came easily. Others, such as All Mortal Flesh were a little harder.
Spencer-Fleming had originally proposed the title Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent, but then her agent called to say the series’ fifth book was going to get “big book treatment” and that “big books need little titles.”
The latest, I Shall Not Want, does not come from a hymn. “I made a little token protest,” said Spencer-Fleming.
– WHAT’S NEXT: Spencer-Fleming is working on the seventh book in the Rev. Clare series, is developing her first novel set in Maine, which involves the closing of Maine State Prison, and another series with a character she describes as “the anti-Clare.”
While the next Rev. Clare mystery will be the last for while, Spencer-Fleming acknowledged the possibility of revisiting Miller’s Kill, possibly through the eyes of other characters.
“But I promised my husband I wouldn’t kill off Russ or Clare,” she said. ” ‘Cause he said, ‘If no one buys any of your other books Š’ ”
Spencer-Fleming’s first novel, In the Bleak Midwinter was the 2005 Tale selection. She previously returned following the release of her fifth book, All Mortal Flesh, in October 2006.
Tale organizers are working on lining up an author for 2009.

The evening also included a moment of recognition for Richmond Library Director Diana Wyrwa, who stepped down from the Tale council earlier this summer citing the increased demands of being library director.
Wyrwa had been with the group since it started, having first served as a representative from Genesee Valley BOCES’ School Library System. After becoming director of Richmond in 2004, Wyrwa shepherded the group’s effort to incorporate as the non-profit Tale for Three Counties Council Inc., which was finalized in summer 2005, and also served as the Council’s treasurer.
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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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