Sometimes NO is the Right Answer

After last week’s blog people have been asking me to look into publishing the first book I wrote, the 1400-page behemoth called By Reason of Insanity. My answer to that is a hard NO, and I’m going to tell you why. As per usual, it’s a long story. As Bill says, with me there’s no such thing as a short story. People who have come to live events may or may not have heard this already, but that’s the thing about stories—some tales can be told over and over.

When I moved to Seattle in 1981, I was still working in insurance sales. Having just come through a divorce, I was worn to a nub. At that point, my employer encouraged salespeople to enroll in the Dale Carnegie course by offering to pay the tuition. Thinking a course in Winning Friends and Influencing People might improve my sales track record, I signed up. Instead of improving my sales skills, Dale Carnegie turned me into a writer.

Course participants are required to deliver talks on various topics, one of which in my case was “Something that changed your life.” Trying to sort through whatever happened to me, I suddenly remembered Friday, May 22, 1970. Jerry Janc, my first husband, and I were still working on the reservation at the time and living at a place we call the Hill, thirty miles away from our teaching jobs in Sells and thirty miles from Tucson in the opposite direction.

That was prom weekend, and I was the junior class sponsor. Although we were expecting out of town company for dinner that night, I had to stay late after school to decorate. With that in mind, once school got out, my husband walked out to the highway and hitchhiked home. The guy who gave him a ride, not only took him as far as our turnoff, he also drove him up the two-mile dirt track that led to our house. Along the way he asked my husband, “Do you leave your wife out here by herself?”

“Well,” my husband said, “she’s got the dogs.”

When I was done decorating, I drove home. At that point we loaded the company into the car and headed into Tucson for dinner. Shortly after turning onto the highway we were stopped at a roadblock where a deputy told us that there had been a homicide on the reservation earlier in the day. We drove on, but stopped at the Three Points Trading post a few miles down the road to fill up with gas.

For some unknown reason, I always called my husband by his last name rather than his first, so while Janc filled the tank, I went inside to pay the bill. In the process I overheard a deputy talking to the clerk say something about a man in a green car and two little kids. Back in our vehicle, I repeated what I’d just heard. A mile or so down the road Janc said, “A man in a green car. I wonder if that’s the guy who gave me a ride home today.”

We did a U-turn, went back to the trading post, and spoke to the deputy, telling him who we were, where we lived, and that we didn’t have a telephone. At 6:30 the next morning, Jack Lyons, Pima County’s chief homicide detective, was on our doorstep. He told us that the previous afternoon, some Indian miners, driving home from work, had come across two little Anglo kids, a toddler and a four year-old, walking along the shoulder of the road ten miles west of Sells. When asked what they were doing, the little boy said they were walking on the beach. When asked where their mommy was, the boy pointed behind him and said, “She’s over there. She’s dead.” Their mother had been forced off the highway at gunpoint, shot, raped in front of her children, and left to die.

After cluing us in, Jack spent the next nine hours interviewing my husband about the man who had given him a ride home on Friday afternoon—what he looked like and what he said. Next he wanted a detailed inventory of every item inside the vehicle. He finally left the house about 3:30 in the afternoon, and Saturday night we went to the prom. Sunday morning we met up with Jack in Tucson and spent the day touring car dealerships until it was determined that the vehicle in question was a green Maverick. On Monday we went back to town where Janc did a composite drawing of the driver. When the little boy saw it, he said, “That’s the man who killed my mommy.”

After that, we went back to work. For the next two months, as far as we were concerned, nothing much happened. Jack was busy. Using some of the information supplied by Janc and the make and model of the car, he was able to identify the suspect. Did he tell us? No. He advised us to go stay someplace other than our isolated place on the Hill, but we were young and stupid, and we didn’t leave.

Janc worked construction during the summers and was mostly out of town. For the next sixty days, I was alone on the Hill for approximately forty of them. I wore a loaded weapon and was prepared to use it. I was able to start the rope-pull pump on the well, making it possible to get my own water. During that time, I gained a measure of independence no amount of bra-burning can duplicate.

In the meantime, Jack Lyons was working the case and had come to the conclusion that he was dealing with a serial killer—one who killed people at twenty past two on the twenty-second day of the month. He shot a teenaged girl off her bicycle. He shot a forty-something man on a bulldozer. His third victim was the twenty-eight year-old woman on her weekend trip to Mexico.

Jack was intent on building his case, but he was concerned that the incidents were getting closer together. On the 20th of July, he took my husband to San Manuel where Janc identified the suspect as he came off shift. On the ride into town with the killer in the back seat, he admitted to having been at our house on three separate occasions in the intervening sixty days. We were scheduled to be July twenty-second.

There was no trial. The killer pled guilty and, to this day, is still serving his life sentence in Florence. So that’s the story I told at Dale Carnegie that night because, in retrospect, I realized that after that event I really was a different person.

During the coffee break after my talk, one of my classmates, Carol Erickson, said, “Someone should write a book about that.”

Shortly after we married, Janc told me there was only going to be one writer in our family and he was it. When Carol made that remark, the thought that went through my head was this: “I’m divorced. What have I got to lose?”

That was on a Thursday night in the middle of March. I thought about it for two days and finally decided late Saturday night that I’d tell that story as a novel. Sunday afternoon after church, I put pen to paper and started writing By Reason of Insanity.

Over the next two months, every spare minute was spent in a frenzy of writing. I finished that 1400 page manuscript on a very memorable day—May 22, a little over two months later. By Reason of Insanity was a barely fictionalized version of that real story. When it didn’t sell, I was disappointed, of course, but I shrugged it off. Considering it my on-the-job training for writing, I shoved the manuscript into a bottom drawer and left it there.

Time passed. I wrote and published nine Beaumont books in a row. By then I was tired of J.P. and told my editor, John Douglas, that I was considering knocking J.P. off in the next book. “Don’t do that,” he said. Instead, John suggested that I revisit that first book, the one that never sold.

I agreed but shortly thereafter, I realized I had a problem. Janc was dead by then, but the killer was alive and in prison. I didn’t want to write a book that would bring me to his attention.

I had a contract, an advance, and a deadline. What was lacking was a bad guy, resulting in a terrible case of writer’s block. With the book stuck in neutral, when my Arizona Alumnus magazine showed up, I read the whole thing from cover to cover. In the back, just before the obituaries was a glowing article telling how the reconstituted Creative Writing program was just going swimmingly.

Back in 1964 as a college junior, I had tried to enroll in that program. The professor refused to admit me saying, “You’re a girl. Girls become teachers or nurses. Boys become writers.” By the way, Jerry Janc who was allowed to enroll in the program, never published anything.

Nevertheless, inspired by that article, I reached out to the current director of the Creative Writing program. I told him who I was and what kind of books I had written. I finished up by asking him if he’d like me to come be writer-in-residence for a semester in the sun.

His response? “Oh, we don’t do anything with GENRE fiction here. We only do LITERARY fiction!”

It was a miracle. I was healed of writer’s block on the spot. Instead of being a retelling of May 22, 1970, Hour of the Hunter became an entirely fictional work. Diana Ladd, the female protagonist, is a teacher on an Indian reservation who has always wanted to be a writer. (Where do you suppose that came from?) Garrison Ladd, her husband, like mine, had been allowed in a writing program that was closed to her. (Guess what? Garrison Ladd is dead at the beginning of the book!) As for the crazed killer? He turns out to be a former professor of Creative Writing from the University of Arizona!

Believe me, writing that book with all the different points of view and all the interwoven Tohono O’odham legends was like going on vacation. But because the story grew from the dark seed of that since the story had its origins in that very real story, it’s hardly surprising that the resulting book was darker than my other books. That’s true of Hour of the Hunter and of the other Walker books as well. By the way, when Brandon Walker turns up in the story, be advised that he’s a slightly fictionalized version of the real Detective Jack Lyons!

Over the years, I was never tempted to pull that original manuscript out of the drawer. For one thing, I knew it was a beginning effort, and, as far as I was concerned, writing Hour of the Hunter had dealt with that story. So more time passed. Lots of it. Then in 2001, I was invited to do a signing at the library in Pinetop, Arizona. The event drew a standing-room-only crowd, but as I did my talk, one of the standee’s in the back of the room caught my attention. She stood with her arms folded across her chest. She never smiled. She never laughed at any of the funny lines. And she was clearly there by herself as opposed to being with someone.

As an author doing signings, I’ve developed a certain amount of situational awareness. In almost every audience there’s at least one problem child—someone who isn’t the least bit interested in buying a book but who is intent on having the author’s undivided attention. By the time talk was over, I was pretty sure she was the one, and I was right. She waited until the end of the line before approaching the table asking, “Was your husband a witness in a series of homicides that took place around Tucson in the early seventies?”

“Yes,” I replied, “he was.”

Then, with no further introduction, and as though we had been having that conversation for the past thirty years, she continued, “My father was the man on the bulldozer. My mother was pregnant with me when it happened. She would never talk to me about it. What can you tell me?”

And that’s the reason By Reason of Insanity will never be published. Real cases affect real people. They never get over it. I’m pretty sure two those two little kids found walking along a hot, desert highway have never gotten over it, either.

Yes, sometimes NO is the right answer. In fact, sometimes it’s the ONLY answer.