Interview with Julia Spencer-Fleming

The following interview first appeared in the September 2005 issue of Crimespree Magazine and is reproduced here with kind permission. Julia Spencer-Fleming's own website is at:

JS-F: Did you study self-defense first and then write Charlie, or vice versa?

ZS: A little of both. I try to make sure that whenever I write a fight scene or an action scene with Charlie − whether she’s taking a knife away from somebody or dislocating their shoulder − they’re all techniques I know and understand. That way I can make them more realistic and easier to follow on the page.

But I originally realised I ought to learn some self-defence because of various incidents in my job as a freelance photo-journalist working for motoring magazines. One time, I met a guy at one of the big classic car shows who claimed to have a feature-worthy vehicle. So I’d talked the idea over with my editor and then rung the guy up and made the appointment to go and see him.

But, when I arrived, the car he’d told me about didn’t actually exist and he looked mightily surprised when he opened his front door to find I was accompanied by a male companion who is 6ft 3in. It was only afterwards, as we drove away, that it really dawned on me that he’d been expecting me to turn up on my own. And then what? I was never a fast runner, so I thought it was probably time to learn some ways to inflict serious pain instead.

And then there were the death-threats. And the time someone mentioned what they were going to do to my kneecaps with a baseball bat. But that, as they say, is another story.

I’d done a little judo as a kid, but I then started learning self-defence with two guys called Ian ‘this won’t hurt’ Cottam, and Lee ‘yes it bloody does’ Watkin, at Lancaster University. They were both brilliant. Ian was also a karate instructor and a proponent of kyushu-jitsu, which is largely pressure-point fighting. I could always find the pressure points the day after lessons with Ian because I’d have finger-end sized bruises all over my arms!

The more I’ve learned, the more I think everyone should learn some basic techniques. Last year I read Meg Chittenden’s terrific book, Snap Shot, in which her heroine is attacked by someone who tries to strangle her. I happened to mention to Meg that it’s actually very easy to get out of a stranglehold and she said, ‘Show me.’ That’s why the pair of us ended up giving our not-so serious self-defence demo at Left Coast Crime earlier this year, and why we’ll be back for another go at Bouchercon. We’re calling it You Can’t Run in High Heels.

JS-F: Charlie possesses many of the tools of violence often carried by men. The effect of carrying those tools on the individual is rarely discussed in works written by men, who most often have their protagonists whack away at the bad guys and then move on. What drew you to the theme of violence? And do you think having a “killer instinct” does affect women differently than men?

ZS: Good question! Yes, I do think it’s much less acceptable for a women to be violent than it is for a man. Charlie has a huge capacity for violence, which she keeps under wraps most of the time. But put her in a situation where she − or the people she’s protecting − come under threat and it’s like someone’s flicked a switch.

There’s a scene in First Drop where she and the boy she’s looking after, Trey, are being attacked by two guys in a Buick who’ve already killed a cop. ‘I held the Sig in both hands with my elbows resting on the ground, keeping low as I waited for my chance. The guy in the passenger seat was closest. He was big and still wearing the suit that had made him look like a salesman when I’d seen him outside the house. He got out first, so I shot him first. Two rounds high in the chest.’ But afterwards, once the immediate danger’s over, she’s physically sick because of what she’s had to do.

That duality of Charlie’s character is one of the things I find most fascinating about her. The fact that if anyone messes with her she has the ability to shut them down, but at the same time she’s not totally unfeeling. She does what’s necessary and worries about the consequences later. Lee Child described her as an ‘equal-opportunity killer’. Yeah, I think I’d agree with that.

JS-F: Why did you elect to have Charlie be a victim first, then evolve into a tough girl? Somehow I can’t see Jack Reacher being victimized.

ZS: No, neither can I! But then, Jack Reacher is a big guy who’s spent most of his life inside the army machine. With Charlie, I felt that without the catalyst of her attack and subsequent dismissal from the army, her behaviour now would be almost unacceptable and maybe even inexplicable. Her ability to kill would make her a monster if it didn’t have a background in her own pain and suffering. That ability was probably always there on some subliminal level − otherwise she wouldn’t have made it into training for Special Forces in the first place. Had she completed the course she would have had a legitimate outlet for that aspect of her personality. She was certainly good enough, but perhaps it was her very prowess that marked her out as a suitable target for the men who attacked her. As it is, going into close protection work was about the only other way to channel those abilities, that instinct. Plus it keeps her close to Sean, of course!

JS-F: Is it true that you are able to rebuild a water buffalo (I am reasonably reliably informed that’s what one calls a water-cooled motorcycle stateside . . .) with your bare hands? Blindfolded? While in a sensory deprivation tank?

ZS: A water buffalo? Seriously? That’s a new one on me! Surely for that you’d need a veterinarian. Actually, I’ve never had cause to rebuild a motorcycle engine. All the bikes I’ve been fortunate enough to own have been new enough not to require that kind of drastic maintenance. After I passed my test I treated myself to a brand new race-replica Suzuki 250 that required no uninformed meddling on my part and would do just short of 140mph. Er, though never on the public road, your Honour . . .

On the other hand, I was messing with cars more or less as soon as I learned to drive, but I think that was just because I couldn’t afford to buy anything decent! I ran a series of broken-down Triumph Spitfires, which I rebuilt, resprayed, and tuned to varying degrees. I learned to weld because the floorpans were always full of holes that needed patching.

JS-F: Your dream cycle? Can I say “cycle”? Ducati seems to be getting a lot of play lately. Or is it Bugatti? What about an Indian? Educate me.

ZS: OK, if we’re talking cycles then it would probably have to be a Marin Mount Vision. I have a Bear Valley at the moment that’s ancient and has been woefully underused for the past couple of years. Ah, you don’t mean bicycles, do you? I know cycle is a very US phrase, but we tend to call ‘em motorbikes over here, or bikes, but I think that means something more like a moped or a scooter in the States. Have I got that bit right?

I do like Ducatis, but they tend to be very tall, which is no good for us vertically challenged lot. OK, I’m 5ft 5in, but I like to be able to get my feet on the floor otherwise I don’t feel in control. My last bike was a Honda CBR400RR − a Baby FireBlade. My dream bike for a long time has been a Honda FireBlade, which is why Charlie acquired one. But I was doing a photo shoot at a Harley Davidson showroom in Manchester recently and had the opportunity to look over the latest Buell XB12R Firebolt. Very different from a ‘Blade, but what a machine! I think Charlie might just be getting a new bike before long. Which would mean, obviously, that I’d have to get my hands on one − er, purely for research purposes, of course.

JS-F: What’s next for Charlie? Do you have a master plan we can read about on yur website?

ZS: Yes, I have a master plan for Charlie. I’m working on the next book at the moment, which is set in Boston and New England. I’m turning the tables on Charlie a little in this one because she gets badly injured in the course of her work. That isn’t giving anything away, incidentally − she gets shot twice on the first page! But it does mean that she’s at a physical disadvantage for the first time, when she’s used to being so capable. She has trouble coping with this during the course of the book. Plus she’s trying to find out why it all went horribly wrong.

I’m just in the middle of a huge website revamp, which should (hopefully) be sorted by the time this comes out so please go and check out the new look site and let me know what you think of it!

I’m going to be touring round part of the States after First Drop comes out on September 1st and will be attempting my first tour blog at the same time. Nothing like making life easy for yourself. And, trust me, this looks like being nothing like making life easy! But it should be fun. We’re hitting Chicago for Bouchercon, then Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona; Houston, Dallas and San Antonio in Texas; San Diego, Pasadena, and various bits of Los Angeles, then heading north to San Mateo, all in California; then we’re back to Chicago and moving up to Milwaukee and Madison in Wisconsin. Then it’s back home to sleep.

JS-F: What new (or old) writers have you read lately that really rev your engine?

ZS: Well, without wishing to suck up, I was hooked on your To Darkness and To Death right from the start. (Anyone who can write about an Episcopalian priest and include references to the Spanish Inquisition sketch from Monty Python is a genius in my book!) I’ve also just finished the latest Moe Prager book by the wonderful Reed Farrell Coleman, Redemption Street, and Robert B Parker’s Double Play, about baseball player Jackie Robinson, which I loved. And One Shot, of course. Another terrific set-up from Lee Child. I’m currently reading a manual on crime scene procedure, a book on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Denis Lehane’s Mystic River, which I somehow missed when it first came out and I didn’t see the film. As a writer, every now and again you come up with a beautiful phrase of way of describing something. Something you’re justly proud of. Denis Lehane seems to manage it on every page. It’s a beautifully written piece of work, in the same way that SJ Rozan’s haunting book, Absent Friends, really gets to the heart of people’s lives from childhood onwards.

JS-F: How has your literary agent helped shape your career? Your editor? Other?

ZS: I was very lucky to be approached and taken on by top literary agent, Jane Gregory, at the beginning of this year. Jane represents Minette Walters and Val McDermid and a lot of other top writers. Jane and her in-house editor, Emma, have made me work much harder at the planning stage of the next book than I’ve ever done before, which is wonderful. I haven’t had a great deal of direction so far and felt I needed it in order to develop my writing abilities.Other than that I’ve relied on friends and family to test-read the books and shred them for me.

JS-F: Favourite writing food?

ZS: Er, endless cups of redbush tea, and jelly beans. But not the liquorice or root beer ones, or the cinnamon. All the other flavours are great.

JS-F: How does it feel to have Lee Child say, on the record, that Jack Reacher would team up with Charlie Fox in a heartbeat?

ZS: Amazing! And somewhat unreal. I don’t know about you, but in the back of my mind I always have this secret fear lurking that one day someone’s going to stand up and point at me and cry, ‘Imposter! You’re not a real writer!’ No? Oh, OK, it’s just me then.

But to have someone with as much talent − not to mention success − as Lee Child take such an interest in someone so far down the pecking order is just remarkable. It helps that I love his books. I was absolutely bowled over when George Easter (at Deadly Pleasures) first likened Charlie Fox to a female version of Jack Reacher. I wouldn’t have dared make the comparison. But they would make a hell of a team, wouldn’t they? And now both Lee and myself have been nominated for Barry awards. Good job we’re in separate categories − The Enemy in the Best Novel and First Drop in Best British Crime Novel − otherwise I’d be rooting for him instead of for myself!

JS-F: So, I understand you grew up on a boat. Just how did that work? Did you row to school?

ZS: No, I had an outboard motor! Living on the boat was great, in the summer. It was a 42ft catamaran so there was plenty of room and I just loved the whole relaxed lifestyle of living on board. My parents took me sailing from when I was eighteen months old and I crewed yachts for a while − I used to be able to do astro-navigation in the days before hand-held GPS. I still get very nostalgic when I go into marinas and look at all the rows of boats. At SleuthFest in March there was a boat trip along the Intracoastal and we went past all these fabulous multi-million dollar yachts and I was just desperate to get back out there on the water.

JS-F: I’m seeing a pattern here. Are you, or have you ever been, an adrenaline junkie?

ZS: No, I do all my scary stuff through Charlie! Although things get very interesting at 140mph on a motorbike, and over 150mph in a car is quite an experience. I also went out in a Sunseeker race boat recently. Doing around 75mph on water feels surprisingly quick. And I do love rollercoasters − the bigger the better. Superman at Magic Mountain in California hits 100mph and tops out at 400ft. Bring it on!

JS-F: Ever bungie-jumped off a bridge? That’s big in West Virginia and New Zealand. Both frontier societies. I don’t know about Cumbria.

ZS: Cumbria can be wild and beautiful − when it’s not full of tourists, or raining. Don’t think it quite classifies as a frontier society, but there are a lot of sheep. Hm, I’m not sure I feel the need to jump off a perfectly serviceable bridge with a piece of elastic tied round my ankles. My problem is I’m not that keen on heights. It never stopped me climbing the mast when I was sailing − or climbing the second lift of scaffolding while building a house − but it’s not something I do for fun. Having said that, we went up the Empire State Building on our trip to NYC in June and that caused no qualms. Why do they sell golf balls up there?

JS-F: What exactly does a professional freelance car photographer do?

ZS: Hang out of cars trying not to get run over, lie in the middle of ploughed fields in the rain with a camera, and stand in the middle of two cars doing power-slides round me with their front wheels about a foot from my knees. No, actually, as a spectator sport it's not exactly riveting to watch, but I thoroughly enjoy the job and you get to meet some fascinating people. It’s surprising how many arms dealers have exotic car collections!

I do magazine feature car shoots, everything from 1902 Rolls Royces to the latest high-power Japanese sports cars, with just about everything in between. I also do a little bit of legal work − photographing accident scars − and the occasional commercial shoot, but the magazines are my bread and butter. When I first started out I believe I was the only female photographer working in the motoring field in the UK, and I still get some funny looks from the guys. We went out to cover a big motorsport event in Japan and I think I was still the only woman taking pictures there.

JS-F: Do men frequently admire your equipment? Especially the 24-70mm zoom lens?

ZS: Actually, I find they’re usually more impressed by the 70-200mm zoom lens. (Yeah, size is important. It’s a guy thing.) I get a lot of heckling in this job. There’s always some wit who offers to take his clothes off and lie across the bonnet − sorry, hood − with a knowing leer. I usually just offer to use a macro lens, and warn them that although I’m not easily shocked I am very easily amused.

JS-F: Should I get myself a digital camera? And why won’t those disposables I pick up at the drugstore take a decent shot past 10 feet? Can’t the technology do better? Is this like the energy industry where Big Oil is hiding all the secret formulas to the hydrogen cells?

ZS: It depends what you want the camera to do. I waited to go digital for quite a while because it wouldn’t give me as good a result as film. A lot of the time you’re paying for convenience, not quality. I mean, the iPod is a very easy way to carry your entire CD collection in your pocket, but that doesn’t mean it sounds particularly good.

And I can’t take a decent picture with a little disposable camera, either! I partly put it down to the weight. A camera that doesn’t weigh twenty pounds just doesn’t seem balanced to me.

JS-F: Charlie Fox, Matinee idol. OK, who gets to play her? Angelina Jolie? Pamela Anderson (my husband’s choice)? Hilary Swank? Or would she have to be British?

ZS: I keep getting asked this question and I’ve yet to come up with a really good answer for it. I think because the books are written in the first person and I see everything looking out through Charlie’s eyes, I don’t have a clear picture of her appearance. When I’d finished the last book, someone pointed out that I hadn’t described Charlie anywhere at all and I had to go back and add a few bits in.

I have a much better picture of the other characters (especially Sean, trust me) who would probably be much easier to cast, but Charlie’s a difficult one. I’d have to disappoint your husband and say I don’t see Pamela Anderson in the rôle, though − sorry, Ross! She’d be no good in a bike crash − her airbags have already gone off. Angelina Jolie would be an interesting choice, as would Hilary Swank. Anyone who has that edge to them. Maybe Jessica Alba. I was a fan of hers in Dark Angel and she suddenly seems to have hit the big time this year. I’d like to think Charlie would keep her English accent, but that doesn’t mean she would necessarily have to be played by somebody who was British.