Jayne Ann Krentz
Youíd expect Krentz to have a feel for media relations, of course. The Seattle author been writing professionally since 1979 when a now-defunct publisher bought her novel ďGentle Pirate.Ē Since then, she written more than 120 romance-genre books under a number of pen names, including Amanda Quick, Stephanie James and even her birth name, Jayne Castle. More than 30 have been listed on the New York Times best-seller list.
But expecting a writer to be comfortable with the media is about the same as expecting a romance writer to know all about love. In that arena, though, Krentz is also blessed. The native of Cobb, Calif., been married to the same man, retired aerospace engineer Frank Krentz, since the late 1960s. The two moved to Washington so that Frank could take a job at Hanford.
Krentz was recently scheduled to read from her new novel, ďTruth or DareĒ (Putnam, 416 pages, $24.95), but the winter weather caused her to rethink the trip (sheís notoriously afraid of flying). The talk, which was to have been held at Auntieís Bookstore, has been postponed until March.
Yet Krentz was happy to spend a half hour on the phone in mid-December to answer questions about her life, her work and her new book. The conversation was with Spokesman-Review Books Editor Dan Webster:
Webster: Iím amazed at the number of books that youíve written.
Krentz: Welcome to the wonderful world of a survivor of popular fiction. Lots of different names, lots of different books. I consider myself a working writer.
W: Iíve heard that story from a number of writers. Of just how difficult it is. People look at your name and say, ďBoy, thatís a successful writer.Ē But I imagine somewhere deep in your soul youíre afraid that youíve just got to keep putting it out there and putting it out there.
K: Yeah. Youíre only as good as your last book. It really is the nature of the business. I love it, donít get me wrong. Iím thrilled to be able to make a living at what I love. But thereís a certain amount of ĎYouíve got to be better than youíre last time out.í
W: Itís amazing. Every popular writer that I talk to, from Stuart Woods to James Patterson, all you guys who work in genres and are successful beyond the belief of almost any struggling writer, you face that same struggle.
K: I think the secret is being able to reinvent yourself every couple of years. And the ones who donít manage that are usually the ones who fade after a couple of decades.
W: But thatís got to be difficult, too. Because if you reinvent yourself too much, then you lose the faithful following you have who read you for a particular reason.
K: Yeah. Maybe adaptation is a better term, because Iíve never really left my roots. But if I look back at the first books of my career and I compare them to the ones that Iím writing now, theyíre definitely different. Things do change. Maybe life changes.
W: So does that mean your perspective on life, that youíre maturing?
K: I think so, yeah, just getting older. Characters get older and the situations become a little more complicated I think.
W: But, Jayne, the sex is still steamy.
K: Yeah. Well, it will always sell. The basic emotions always sell. You canít write a murder mystery without a really good murder. I often think that thereís a lot of similarity between the necessity of violence in a suspense novel and the necessity for sex in a romance novel. Because those are the primal emotions that you are tapping. And if you donít tap those in popular fiction, you are not successful in this business, Iíll tell you right now. Iíve often said that the most important thing that a writer can have is a really interesting storytelling voice. Or at least one that is interesting to enough people to form an audience. The greatest sin is being boring.
W: And that picks up the other part of what youíre saying. Itís not just putting those things in there, itís putting those things in there in a way that is readable, that flows from one page to the next, from one chapter to the next and keeps you moving.
K: Storytelling. Itís just basic storytelling. And not everybody responds to the same storytelling voice. I mean, I wonít get every reader in the world liking my books. Thatís just the nature of the business, too. But. . .
W: Well, Stephen King doesnít get everybody either.
K: Nobody does, really. And that speaks to the enormous scope of fiction in general, that it does have so many different audiences and so many different writers and so many different voices. But as far as Iím concerned, there are people who love my stuff, there are people who hate my stuff. And you know what? Iíd rather have it that way than that they forget my stuff. Love it or hate it, but please donít forget it.
W: Well, I want to get to larger questions, but letís deal with this book for a second. This is the second of the Zoe Luce stories set in Whispering Springs?
K: This is a two-book series, so this is it.
W: OK. Because I did jump to the end and I saw there was a happy ending, of course, but everything is open to the third book or a fourth book, if you intend to go there. But youíre not going to with this one?
K: At the moment, I have no plans to.
W: ďLight in ShadowĒ and ďTruth or Dare,Ē thatís it.
K: Yeah, I wrapped up the core stories there. I could go back if I ever wanted to, but I donít think so. I usually donít. Once Iíve set my course and I know how many books Iím going to do. . . I donít do very many series at all, but when I do them I usually know ahead of time exactly how many books will be in that series. And then my brain seems to wrap itself around that size, if you will, of that story. And when itís done, itís done.
W: So rather than a 700-page Harry Potter book, we get two 400-page Zoe Luce books.
K: Well, if I could get a lot of adults to sit down and read 700 pages the way all those kids are willing to do it, Iíd be happy to. It doesnít work the same way in adult fiction. I donít know why.
W: It seems like we talk about kids having the attention span of a gnat, but you tell that to these kids who are reading these books. Or are having them read to them. I mean, they stay with those books. Whereas itís the adults who have the attention span of a gnat, it seems.
K: And time, actually. More fractured time frames. But I think it is a tribute to the power of the magic of old-fashioned storytelling. Itís got to be the oldest magic in the world. And it never ceases to amaze me. I think Iím more aware of it, actually, when I hear a story told. You know, the old oral story traditions. Youíll find yourself just kind of listening. You just canít help it, you know?, even on a book that you might never have bought and sat down and invested the time in. Once the tape starts playing, thereís just something magical about the whole process.
W: Itís appropriate that you would mention tape, because my wife and I drive over to Seattle quite a bit. We spend the first half hour talking, and then we throw in a book on tape, and thatís it. As a matter of fact, thatís how we discovered Allison Janney a few years ago. You know, the woman who plays C.J. Cregg on ďThe West WingĒ? We listened to a book, and I canít even remember the book, but it was popular fiction, and she did every voice ó old, young, English, American, American Northeast, American South, uh, man, woman, child, and she did every voice amazingly.
K: Well, that whole business with the books on tape has become this, talk about a great between-gig, uh, gig for a lot of working actors. And in fact, one of the people who handles my audiobooks in New York was saying that they really prefer the stage actors because there you get the training for the voice that can sit and go for five hours straight through. Whereas Hollywood tends to be more of a three-minute kind of situation. But when you get that classically trained actor, it brings the book alive, no question about it.
W: Well, I was interested, I found that you went to UC Santa Cruz.
K: Uh huh.
W: Did you go there as an undergraduate and a graduate student? Because I. . .
K: No, I got my degree in history there. And then I got my library degree at San Jose State. Which is about 20 miles north.
W: So you got your MLS, then?
K: Yes. I got my MLS at San Jose State.
W: Because I was reading an article on you and I got a bit confused. So, you did get your undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz. Which means that weíre fellow UC grads. I went to UC San Diego.
K: Oh, no kidding. And we all end up in the Northwest.
W: Right, exactly. Where are you from originally?
K: Little town called Cobb (Calif., pop. 1,638).
K: Outside of. . . you know where Santa Rosa is? In the wine country?
W: Santa Rosa? Sure.
K: Itís about 50 miles up around Clear Lake. It truly was a dot on the map.
W: No kidding.
K: I think one of the reasons that I chose Santa Cruz was ó this is dating me ó that was only the second year that it had been open. At the time it was such a small school, and I was coming from such a small school.
W: Well, look, back when I went to UC San Diego it was just a little campus, 6,000 students. There was Revelle, Muir and Third College. They just called it Third. Now they have about 85 colleges. I went back down there recently and I didnít even recognize it.
K: Same story.
W: So when did you graduate from high school?
K: Hmmm, I graduated from Santa Cruz in í70. So four years was 1966.
W: Iím a year older than you are, hey.
K: Baby Boomers, weíre taking over the world.
W: My daughter was saying the other day, Dad, if I pay into Social Security, will I get Social Security payments when I reach retirement age? And I said, Sweetheart, I may not get any money.
K: There ainít gonna be nuthiní left for you, honey.
W: So you got your MLS. You had planned to be a librarian.
K: Oh, I made that decision out of absolute desperation at the last year of college. I had to have a job, you know how that goes. And history didnít look like a job. It was one of those fell-into-it, serendipitous things. But it turned out to be the career path for what became my real job. It was one of those things that you look back and say, ďThat was perfect.Ē I donít know what I would have done that would have been better.
W: How did it fit in?
K: Well, a lot of what I do requires research. And one of the things, the thing that you learn in library school is research. Thatís the fundamental skill of a librarian. And on the Web and Internet, itís all the same skills. Itís just the technology that has changed. So itís been a great asset. The other thing I think that it capitalized on, and the thing that writing capitalizes on, are my serial interests. Like serial biography, or something. I just go from one interest to another, and youíre always reading about whatever I happen to be interested in this time last year.
W: Where did you begin writing?
K: When I was working at Duke University, in the library.
W: So you went from San Jose State and your first job was at Duke?
K: No, my first job was one year as an elementary school librarian in the Virgin Islands. And it was an unmitigated career disaster.
W: Oh, wow, why?
K: I was not cut out to be a school librarian. The landscape was gorgeous, but I really floundered in the classroom. And the thing about a school librarian, of course, is that they have to have both sets of skills. And I only had the librarian set, not the teaching set. So I scrambled out of that one and moved up to the academic world, and I was a little better at handling that one.
W: But those jobs even then werenít easy to find.
K: Well, no, I guess itís always just rough for libraries, because budgeting is always an issue.
W: So you were at Duke and you started writing? Just one day you sat down and said, ďI want to writeĒ?
K: I think whether or not you become a writer of popular fiction depends on whether or not you feel the need to start telling the story your own way. Iíd always read a lot of popular fiction, and I had always loved it. And there comes a point in which. . . I did not sit down and say, ďWell, I can do better than this.Ē In fact, I was pretty sure that I couldnít. Write better than Dick Francis? I donít think so. But I just needed to tell a story my way, and I think if that compulsion is there itís like an addiction. You canít quit. And it took me six years to get published.Ē
W: How many books?
K: I couldnít even tell you how many proposals I wrote and sent out and got rejected. I probably only finished two or three books in that time, but there was proposal after proposal, which in those days was 50 pages and an outline.
W: What made the difference? What did finally get accepted?
K: Actually, it was just standing on the street corner long enough, and the bus finally came by. What happened was, I was writing for the romance market, usually with a paranormal twist. Neither was a real hot item in New York at all. The only romance market in town was really out of town, that was Harlequin in Canada. And Harlequin was notorious for sending back very polite rejection letters that said, ďThank you very much, but we already have our North American author.Ē What happened was, Harlequin was distributed in the United States by Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books. The story is that the head of Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, the distribution arm essentially quarreled with the publishing arm in Canada and said, ďWell, heck, anybody can publish these books. All we need is our own stable of writers.Ē And so, with that, quite suddenly the New York market took off. Suddenly, everybody wanted a piece of the action because I guess they realized how much money probably had been trickling off to Canada all those years. And so every house needed a stable of writers, and they had never cultivated them, so those of us who had been sort of working away in the wilderness, suddenly they needed us. And I guess after six years of writing proposals, I had taught myself the craft. So I was able to sell the book.
W: And what one was that?
K: A book called ďGentle Pirate.Ē
W: Yeah, because Iím looking here on your Web site. . . Oh, ďGentle Pirate,Ē as Jayne Castle.
K: That happens to be my birth name. I lost that one along the way due to contractual reasons. Brilliant, brilliant. The perils of self-representation in this business. You just buy anything that they give you. I got it back, but for about 10 years I couldnít use my real name.
W: Here on the site it says 1980. And thereís several that were published in 1979.
K: Those actually were with a sleazy little publisher called McFadden. They put the copyright on the book that was actually the date of the contract, not the date of the book. They were not real precise about the details, and they have since gone out of business so I can slander them to my heartís content. Actually, Iím grateful to anybody who bought a book from my in those days, so no hard feelings. But when it comes to the dating, they took the line of least resistance, which was just to slap the date of the contract on it.
W: Thatís another common refrain that Iíve heard from writers, that so many of them have been treated so badly in one way or another, not so much by editors, but just the publishers themselves.
K: Itís a tough business, and it takes a while before you realize just how much of a business it truly is. Youíre so involved with the writing and the story that in a country that is 3,000 miles from coast to coast it takes a lot of muscle and a lot of money and a lot of just basic business stuff to get those books out from one end of the country to the other. And thereís a lot of competition from the other publishers. It can be tough.
W: I imagine so. And then you have the whole independent bookstore vs. chain bookstore problem, and Ingram and the whole distribution system.
K: Itís complicated and itís far-flung, and thatís why I think a lot of people are so excited about e-book publishing. At last, there is the potential for getting around that. But I think itís got a long ways to go before we get there. People forget that downloading a book is not the same thing as downloading music, where you can duplicate the experience that you would get if you went in and bought the CD and put it in your own CD player. When you download a book, you do not get a beautiful book out of it. At best, all youíre going to get is a stack of paper. But thereís something special about the book in that itís not just the reading experience, itís the artifact itself. It really feels good in the hand. You like the weight of it. You like good paper. You like good cover art. We respond to those elements just as much as we do the story.
W: And I think thereís something else, too. Regardless of how someone got published, if a publisher takes a chance on a writer then immediately youíre prone to think, well, there must be something good here. But if you simply download a book, you say, ďWell, whoís telling me this book is any good.Ē And so you donít have expectations.
K: And thatís the big problem. There is no gatekeeper in that sense.
W: Yeah. Certainly thatís a problem for someone in my position. I get 100 books a week as it is, and so then people say, ďI just published a book on 1st Books,Ē and I answer, ďWell, Iím sorry, but Iím not going to do anything with that. If you have signing someplace, Iíll list that. But Iím not going to even take a look at your book.Ē
K: Itís the old story. Before this, people in your position were inundated Iím sure with the Vanity Press stuff.
W: Exactly. Unless itís a self-published book that has some historical significance to this region or something, I just canít.
K: Itís one of the reasons why the librarian in me will not yet let me totally trust the information I find online. So I use the Internet, but I always back it up with a second or third source. Because thereís no librarian on the Internet telling me that this fact is true or that I can trust the source. So, itís the same problem with the information and the research.
W: Letís go back for a second. Where along the line there did you meet your husband? Were you at Duke or what?
K: Actually, no. We met at library school. In San Jose. He was a bearded hippie freak. . . .
W: And so it was love at first sight.
K: And I had my life all mapped out. I had a job waiting for me in Modesto. Good old Modesto. Isnít that funny town? Who among us raised in California would ever imagine that Modesto would hit the news so many times in the past decade? Itís become a joke in our house. ďGee, Dan, you could have lived in Modesto if you hadnít married me.Ē
W: I always use Bakersfield when I talk to people. Thatís another one.
K: At any rate, it was a whirlwind courtship. We got married the day after I graduated from library school, and we took off for the Virgin Islands.
W: So he went with you? Iíve read that heís an aerospace engineer.
K: Yes. Actually, he was an MIT grad who got sucked into the flower-child movement. And for a few years he was selling books. He was selling books on campus when I met him. Then he went back to engineering.
W: But how do you do that free-lance? You guys went to the Virgin Islands, and then you went to Duke. Was he following you? Were you following him?
K: The first year we both found jobs in the Virgin Islands. There was a book out at the time, I canít remember. ďHow to Travel and Get Paid For ItĒ or something about how to get an interesting job in an exotic location. So we followed that, and thatís how we ended up in the Virgin Islands. After that, reality sort of set in and we started sending out resumes. His came back first, and he was offered an engineering job in North Carolina. So I followed him at that point and got the job (at Duke).
W: What brought you the Northwest?
W: Ah, and what year was that?
K: Oh, somewhere in the late í70s. I canít remember now. Anyway, weíve been here ever since.
W: What is it about the Northwest?
K: Well, I always sort of thought that it was a newer, younger version of California in a lot of ways. It was what California was maybe 40, 50 years ago. Not just the landscape, particularly, but the kind of free spirit, the entrepreneurial atmosphere, the sense that you could carve out your own destiny. And it had a kind of grungy, laid-back style to it, where California was kind of slick and dressy. I donít know. Maybe thatís just a fantasy version of it.
W: Iím a San Diego boy, though I moved all over the country as a kid, and when I moved to the Northwest as an adult I said, ďOh, seasons.Ē
K: Thatís a change, yeah. I was actually born in Borrego Springs (a desert community some 80 miles northeast of San Diego). Lived there about the first 10 years of my life. So I know the Southland. Iíve had friends whoíve moved up here, at least over here on the West Side, and they ó the one is a Laguna gal ó couldnít handle the gray skies. It did them in.
W: I know that feeling. It does get darker earlier up here in the winter, but then March and April come and, wow. Although over there itís probably still gray skies.
K: Well, thereís always Hawaii. Direct flights to Maui.
W: You know what Iím curious about. I know now when you began writing. But when did you become Jayne Ann Krentz? When did you become the force in the business that you have become?
K: The mid-1980s. That was coinciding with the time of the romance publishing wars, if you will, were starting to heat up. And as I said, those of us who were there at the start ó Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, myself ó were among the host of names who got a start.
W: Some of them from the Northwest.
K: Yeah. This has actually quite been a hotbed of popular fiction writers here. Every time that I do something for the King County librarians, thereís always this string of writers they pull out and then you realize how many of us live here.
W: So, what do you think made the difference? I mean, obviously talent has something to do with it.
K: My agent once likened whether or not you survive in popular fiction with the notion of publishers throwing a lot of writers into a pool and then watching which ones swim to the other side. And the ones who look like they will reach the other side, they back. Itís a very Darwinian sort of career. If they see that youíre working at some level out in the world in terms of sales, they start putting money behind you. They start backing the books. And then it just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in that sense. If you donít look like youíre making any waves, they let you sink. In addition to talent, the big factor in this business is perseverance. And the writers who are going to make it I can always tell because theyíre the ones that just keep writing. And itís not that theyíre just writing the same thing over and over and itís bad. What happens is that this is a very self-taught craft. And those who keep writing do teach themselves the craft. So thatís one of the reasons why I think perseverance does off in this business because you do learn, you do teach yourself.
W: Thatís probably the best explanation of that Iíve ever heard. And itís probably the reason why some people canít stick with it. Because to steep yourself in a fantasy world, like you dealing with the paranormal in some of your books, your court madness.
K: You have to be comfortable with the fantasy world. I havenít tried this out with male writers, but other women writers that I know had very active fantasy lives from before they could even remember. I can remember sitting in second grade telling myself stories about Superman, instead of paying attention to math class. It was so natural for me to slip away into that world even then. I canít even remember when I started doing it. And other writers I know say that it was always there for them, too. And I think that regardless of your passion in life, the thing thatís probably what makes it your passion is that itís so natural. And you take it for granted. So you assume that everybody else he same way of tasting food and therefore will become a good cook. Or somebody else has the same ability to see numbers in their head, and they become a mathematician. But everybodyís a little different.
W: How does it work for you?
K: With me, itís the storytelling. I do think that most popular fiction writers have a core story. They tend no to stray too far from it. If they do, they tend to lose their power. If I went off and wrote a Tea Cozy or a Tom Clancy type techno-thriller, I wouldnít be able to do it. I would not have whatever it would take to make those work because it is not my core story. Iíve often said that what I do now is a sophisticated version of Nancy Drew. I loved those books as a kid, and the allure of that story has never palled for me.
W: And as you said, it all comes back to sitting down at the keyboard and just keep doing it.
K: Yeah, in terms of tips for writers, I always advise people to remember that having a core story is all well and good, and itís good to identify it.
W: What would you say is your core story?
K: That mix of romance and danger, and the psychic. When I look back, theyíve been there from the very beginning. Things have changed in the books, but I still play with those three elements. The other thing that is core to an author that does stay consistent, and it determines what kind and how much of an audience you get, is the underpinning value systems of the books. For most writers I know, that doesnít change. Even if they change genres, and I have known some romance writers who have gone over 100 percent to suspense, that sort of thing. But the core vales donít change, and readers respond to those more than anything else.
W: Core values of the books meaning core values of the writers that come through the books.
K: Yeah. As I look back on my career, I can see that the same values were important to me then as they are now. For me, things like honor really matter. Courage and determination, the old heroic values, theyíre just there. I couldnít take them out if I tried.
W: You look at any fiction, itís the same. Take ďCold Mountain,Ē Charles Frazierís book. It basically is one on loyalty and honor and of a personal code. I hate the way he ended the book, but. . . .
K: Thatís what happens when you take yourself seriously as a literary writer. You gotta kill off the hero.
W: I threw the book across the room. I didnít care that he killed him. I didnít like the way he killed him. He just throws the character away.
K: That, I think, is one of the deciding distinctions between what we today call literary fiction and popular fiction. If the character had lived, that book would have been called popular fiction. However, I do think that it is in popular fiction that our culture does perpetuate it real core values. We donít want to seem overly old-fashioned or sentimental, so we donít talk a lot about honor and courage and determination and things like that. But theyíre there in our books. And thatís where we go for them. Thatís where we perpetuate them from one generation to the next.
W: Which explains their popularity.
K: Exactly. Thatís why no matter how much criticism youíre gonna take for popular fiction, you canít kill it off. I mean, itís just too fundamentally important to the culture.
W: In a sense, what was Dickens but the popular fiction of his day? We look at that now and consider it great literature. And it is great literature. But, still. . . .
K: Well, one of the things that he was doing, and a lot of the novelists of that time did, they were confronting the stews of London and that they had an obligations as a society to take care of these orphans. These were real issues, and the fact that they were confronting them first in popular fiction and then through newspaper exposes, those were the two things that drove the whole social rights movement in England in the 19th century. So I think every generation has its own problems, and the solutions to those problems arenít necessarily there in the books but an illustration of the problems and a call, a subtle call to the culture that it has an obligation to do something about these problems is what popular fiction does.
W: Do you do some of those things in your books?
K: Yeah. I think the huge importance of romance fiction can be directly correlated to the huge rise in divorce and split families. I donít think thatís any coincidence. Not that there hasnít always been romantic fiction, but we look at it now not because we expect every marriage to be happy. We donít. Nobodyís that sentimental anymore. Everybody understands that marriages donít work a lot of the time, that families split up a lot of the time. But the core value that family is important doesnít go away. And thatís one of the things that romance fiction speaks to is the belief in that value.Ē
W: How have you, if you donít mind the personal question, kept your marriage together for so long?
K: Perseverance. Same way everything else works. It doesnít work unless both people are committed. And we got lucky, in that sense. Until you find the other person who can commit, itís not going to work. It was interesting when, out of curiosity, Franks and I took a (compatibility) test, and we werenít terribly compatible in a lot of ways, because we have such different interests. Heís an engineer, Iím a librarian. I like fiction, and he doesnít read anything but hard-core electronic stuff, computer stuff. But the section on values? One hundred percent agreement, absolutely lined up all the way down the line. So I suspect thatís where the key lies, both sharing that same value system. We didnít know it. Itís just sheer luck. My guess is if we could find a way to administer those tests to everybody before we gave them a marriage license, we could cut the marriage rate considerably.
W: And if we could get away from seeing this ideal of beauty and equating that with love, then that would do it also.
W: Jayne, thank you very much. Itís been a very pleasant conversation. I really appreciate the time that you spent with me.
K: Well, I am very grateful for the interview and Iíll look forward to meeting up with you one of these days, if you ever get over to Seattle. I know itís a long drive, and youíve to go through Ritzville, but there you are.
W: Thanks a lot.
K: Bye-bye. Have a good holiday.