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.

45 thoughts on “Sometimes NO is the Right Answer

  1. Such a horrific event in your life. I bet you will never forget any of that even if someday you develop dementia or Alzheimers. That scary story will remain. The one time I assume you said ‘yes’ is when that woman asked you to tell her about that evil maniac so she might better deal with it since her mother would not talk about it. What a blessing you must have been to her that day of your book signing, finally getting some information about her father’s killer.

    • I agree, J A Jance, that it was great that you could share with one of your readers the history of how Hour of the Hunter came to pass. Her nightmares must have been awful, so being able to give her some peace is a treasure worth millions. Thank you for just being who you are–kind, compassionate and caring. Those skills come through in your writing.

  2. An incredible story. And you are incredible, too, living in such an isolated home with danger present. …. As to the professor’s comment about genre fiction vs literary fiction: nonsense. A well-told story transcends genre.

  3. I swear, I look forward, way more to your weekly blog letter, than a new book. Don’t get me wrong; I really look forward to those as well. All your personal experiences are spellbinding. What a privilege to share that with us, your admirers.

  4. Judy, NO is the right answer…the only answer…
    What a life changing experience…thank God you lived to tell about it.

    • Just an added thought…my son was a prison guard at Florence…wonder if he ever met this man.

      • The man’s name is Dains. As far as I know, he’s still alive and in prison.

  5. The Hour of the Hunter was the first of your books I read. It was chilling and remains my favorite. I laughed out loud upon learning the disgusting prof was one of the victims in your book. Thank you for sharing your gift with us. It is a perfect time to reread the book while waiting for your new release,

  6. Frightening to know how close you came to becoming the next victim. Tragic for the families that lost their loved ones.
    Good compassionate decision about not re-publishing that book.

  7. Of all of your books, Hour of the Hunter is the one I can relate to. I taught on the Crow Reservation in South-Central Montana. I was so excited to see the next therr books related to the Walker family.
    Really have enjoyed going to book signings at Third Place Books in lake Forest Park. Although I am a bit older than you, but am also Scandinavian, have tons of family in South Dakota, and am a voracious reader, but not a good writer. I was also a Girl Scout from Brownie to Senior Scout. My dad was also a huge supporter of our troop — he would provide all of the soup for our camping trips and allowing our troop to use an empty apartment to store cookies during Sookie sale time.
    What I especially love about your books is the research that yu do to give your books authority.
    Keep writing wonderful stories!!!

  8. Wow! This remembrance brings memories to me. In 1971, newly arrived in Texas, my now late hubby and I rented an apartment. Next door was a young couple who had some spectacular fights. They eventually divorced. Before that, though, we bought a house and they helped us move. Some months later I saw him on tv, in handcuffs, charged with killing 2 teen aged girls and dumping their bodies. He was convicted and died in prison. I understand why that 1409 pages will remain unpublished. But, I’ve learned much and enjoyed every word you have printed and eagely await future installments to all 4 series. Thank you!

  9. What an interesting back story! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised…your books are always hard to put down and I love when I have figured it all out only to find you spoil that for me. I love your books and have, more than once, reread a book from the first words to find the clues I failed to note.
    I would love to read that first book. Your reasons are valid but I now have a genuine desire to read it.

  10. I have heard this story before but I never tire of it. So much to it, not just the serial killer part. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Thank you for sharing such a personal part of your life.

    Yes, you are completely right that “Sometimes, NO is the right answer”. I have also learned that “No, is a complete sentence.” For a long time, I did not understand that and would always try to justify my “no” even when it did not need justification. I am thankful that you did not make this “no” a complete sentence. By doing so you presented the lesson of why sometimes it is necessary for “no” not to be a complete sentence but also not to be a published book.

  12. Wow! What a back story! As I’ve attended your AZ talks and signings whenever I could, I knew that you had “killed off” the Creative Writing Professor in one of your books, but I never made the connection to which book it was. Thank you for clearing that up and for giving all of us tons of great stories to read!

  13. Great story of your history and uphill battle. I’m happy you stuck with it. Any more J.P. Beaumont stories in the future?

  14. Despite having heard you tell this story before, I never get tired of hearing it. As in much of, writing fiction and nonfiction, there’s always something new that catches the eye. This time I laughed out loud as I read how you made the creative writing teacher the serial killer lol. I love that. Thank you again

  15. I was intrigued by your post today. I’ve never been able to go to one of your book signings so hadn’t heard about your horrible experience. You were so brave to spend that time alone and isolated. I’ve loved all your books but the Johanna Brady ones are my favorite. I do remember that you based a serial killer on your short-sighted and downright cruel Creative Writer professor. I have a granddaughter who’s an erstwhile writer and told her your story. Things are a lot easier for her than it was for you. Keep on writing. You write good stuff.

  16. Wow is right! What an incredible back story! I love reading your J,P, Beaumont books because as a resident in the greater Seattle area I can picture where everything is happening. I’ve never read any of your books taking place in Arizona for that reason. But I must say, it’s sounds very intriguing, so I just might have to have a go at it.
    I’m looking forward to seeing you later this month at Third Place Books!

  17. No is definitely the right answer. Perhaps that was God protecting the families of the victims when your manuscript did not sell. Just as he protected you while your husband was away and the killer was scouting your home. Wonderful blog. Glad you are still here to tell the story. God bless.

  18. This story about how the Hour of the Hunter came to pass reminded me of when I first met you in Tucson at a Southwest Writers Conference. You even signed it and I have it still….I am NOT a published writer, more a reader of great books., especially yours which I have pretty much memorized I’ve read them so often. I now live in Salt Lake City and got to one of your readings at one of the libraries in SLC. I have been at a number of your book signings or (during Covid) a number of online meetings, but have never heard the full story of the murders, so I am glad that you wrote this story. It explains a lot on why it is was harder to read and why it is still hard to read that book. (I did enjoy you having your ex-husband die at the beginning of the book.)

  19. I started reading Hour or the Hunter and I’m liking it. Yet after reading some of it I’m having to put it down for just a little while then go back and read more. The problem is the anticipation of what is going to happen the reason I put it down then pick it back up. I don’t want to know what happens because I don’t want anything bad to happen to Davy and his mom. Not many books affects me like this one. I will get through it but not fast and once I get through it I feel the other books will be fine. After reading this blog I get why this book is affecting me. Getting quickly attached to your characters doesn’t help I don’t want anything to happen to them. In my book makes you a very good writer and the professor was so wrong.

  20. What a blessing to read of your memories/life experiences and the results of your creative mind. You certainly are in the right profession! Thank you for the joy you bring to this reader!

  21. Sandy, Anne, and I are looking forward to seeing you March 26. Glad you still have that original book you wrote and, at least part of it have appeared in other books.

  22. Your insight into people is amazing. That is truly why after all these years people come to your book signings to hear just what you are up to! Looking forward to March 26th.

  23. Never published? Good for you JA Jance!
    You are a fine, caring human being, Judy. I’m proud of you.

  24. Even tho I have heard this story before, I still get chills thinking about it. As far as I know, I have had no contact with a serial killer and I want to keep it that way.

  25. Wow! This is actually two amazing recounts in one. First is how a suppressed individual can surmount prejudices and thrive. Second is how our life experiences can flip the switch and allow us to express ourselves in a way that brings enjoyment to others. Thanks for sharing and your initial work is best left on the shelf

  26. What a great story. I’m glad you are here to tell it. You are so lucky. I’m glad the guy is still in jail.

  27. I guess those two young children have not been in contact with you? Amazing story.

  28. Judy, I’m so glad to read the full story of what happened in 1970. I guess I was 16 and somehow never got the whole story. I do remember that Lynn Beverly and I spent a couple of weekends at your house because we did have a bit of concern for a few weeks knowing that that guy knew where you lived. We put a brave face on. As a kid I never got the whole story.

    • I’m sorry I was so rushed yesterday that there was no time to chat. Please accept my condolences on the loss of your dad. 100! What a milestone, and his work on the Papago dictionary has been at my side every moment I’ve been writing the Walker Family books. I was surprised when, working on the next one–Blessing of the Lost Girls–to learn that the Tohono O’odham have no word for autumn. Are you still in touch with Lynn Beverly? If so, please tell her hello for me.

      • Thank you for your condolence. I knew that I’d have to sneak a word in edge wise. I know how it works, I had to run with you from place to place a couple of years ago.

        I have not been in touch with the Beverly’s since 1973. I’ve looked and looked for them. The last I knew they were in Dallas TX.

      • I sooo understand about the rushing around. I ran from place to place a couple of years ago with you. That’s why I stuck the info in real quick.

        I haven’t seen any of the Beverly’s since 1973. The last I knew they were near Dallas TX. I’ve looked hard for them. Perhaps Ali Reynolds could find them. ?

  29. Wow, that real life story just blows me away. Thank goodness you escaped being the next target.

  30. Wow, what an incredible and terrifying story! And you’re right–real crimes affect real people, and it must be terribly painful for them to have their stories told without their permission or involvement.

    • I’m sure that goes for the innocent members of a killer’s family as well. They didn’t do it, but a common perception is that they should have known or done something to prevent it.

  31. What a powerful and frightening story. I’m sure all of your readers , family, and friends are very grateful you were not the next victim. It would have been a tragic loss of an amazing storyteller and kind, generous person. I do wonder what became of those poor children. I totally agree with you. No was the only answer.

  32. What do I call you? Mrs. Janc/Jance?

    I got goosebumps all over when I read your blog post. I remember that well. I can’t believe you didn’t go somewhere to ride out the time until they caught him. But now I understand where you found your courage to live your life!

    I can thoroughly understand why your first “book” will never see the light of day.

    • Jance. After Jerry Janc died in 1982, I got tired of being called Judy Jank by people who always mispronounced the name, so in 1983 I went to court and bought a vowel. I paid $400 for that e, so people would pronounce it Jance like dance. Believe me, it was worth every penny! When I met Bill and he asked me to marry him, I told him fine, but I just paid four hundred bucks for this name and I wasn’t changing it. (He didn’t change his, either.)

  33. S0me times your stories get to me and some times I just enjoy them…..this one got to me.

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