Posted by: Kristi Tuck Austin | September 13, 2010

Event Recap: Jan Neuharth at Books on Broad

I’ve told you how much I enjoy Books on Broad at the Library of Virginia because of its warm, intimate environment, energetic author talks, and conversation with readers, authors, and booksellers.  Author Jan Neuharth and her husband, Joseph Keusch, greeted me at the door of The Virginia Shop last week, and they made me add clothing to the list of reasons Books on Broad is fun.  Jan wore black and white—print on paper colors—and Joseph wore his Hunt Master attire, a nod to the characters and setting of Jan’s three Hunt Country Suspense Novels.

Inside The Virginia Shop, readers mingled as they browsed displays of Virginia products and books by Virginia authors and, of course, sampled the refreshments and wine served by the lovely hostesses.  Conversation buzzed, never lagging but never wooden.  Jan talked about her books and graciously asked questions to get to know the readers.  I met another reader who frequents nonfiction events but never attended a fiction reading.  At the end of Jan’s presentation, she found me to say that the evening was wonderful and she looked forward to more events.

Introduction

As usual, Mary Beth McIntire, executive director of The Library of Virginia Foundation, had to corral us into the conference room for the reading to begin.  We were eager to go, but reluctant to end our conversations.  Inside, we settled down and Dr. Sandra Treadway, Librarian of Virginia, introduced Jan.  Jan is an attorney, avid equestrian, and cofounder of Paper Chase Farms, a world-renowned equestrian center.  Her début novel, The Hunt, was a Benjamin Franklin Award Finalist.  Her second novel, The Chase, won the IPPY Award for Best Regional Fiction and was a notable winner of the Eric Hoffer Book Award.  Both novels were nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Award.  She continued, “[Jan] lives in Middleburg, Virginia, and I really don’t know what’s in the air or water up there, but there is an amazing group of writers in that general area, all writing on different subjects and in different genres, fiction and nonfiction, but I think that if you want to be a writer, I suspect that might be a very fertile place to go.”

Jan began her reading with a passage heavy with the Middleburg setting.  I’ve never been there, but I smelled the leaves of the Virginia autumn and my skin prickled at the thought of damp breezes and fog rolling over the hills.

A shot exploded in the hushed twilight and grumbled through fog in the hollows.  The report cracked back through soggy crimson leaves, then faded into a stillness that swaddled the rambling Virginia countryside.  On a nearby knoll, a lone buck darted for cover in the surrounding woods.  The bite of gunpowder hugged the raw air.

The shooter lowered the rifle and leaned it against the rail.  Adrenaline pumped hard, but the shooter curbed the swell of triumph, sucked in a deep breath, and exhaled a cloud that oozed into the dusk.

Focus.   Wipe off the prints.

Opening lines from The Kill

Setting

Jan set each book in the Hunt Country series in and around Middleburg. People often ask Jan how she comes up with plot ideas for that area. “I wish I had some great formula for coming up with plot ideas,” Jan said, “I’ll tell you with The Kill I was driving down the road one day, past the Steeplechase course I’d driven past hundreds of times, and something about that morning—it was foggy, I don’t know what it was—I looked at it and I thought, ‘That would be a great place for a murder.’”

Once she had the murder scene, Jan developed the victim, the murderer, and the cause, and the plot went from there.  Instead of outlining, she creates a murder web similar to police diagrams.  She places the victim in the center surrounded by suspects and witnesses and then draws connections between them.  “As with many mystery writers, I don’t know the ending when I start out.  I know approximately where it is going, but the story really builds itself as it goes, and it often does not go the way I thought it would go.”

Surprisingly, she struggled with the setting for the first book.  “Should I use a real setting?  Should I not? Of course my lawyer said, ‘Don’t use a real setting, you’ll get sued.’  But Middleburg, like Richmond, is a really special place and it is the center of hunt country, and to create a Middleburg that was better than Middleburg, maybe I’m not creative enough, but it would be hard to do.  The names—The Red Fox Inn, and the coffee shop is A Cup of Giddy Up, and the hair salon’s Pony Tails—how would you come up with names better than that? So I decided I would use real places, but I would never portray a real place unfavorably.”

Despite the favorable portrayal, she has received some good-natured ribbing from neighbors.  In The Hunt, Jan set a murder in the parking lot of the community center.  When the annual giving letters went out from the community center, Jan’s had a handwritten note, “Dear Jan, we hope you will give generously this year so we can increase security in the parking lot.”  And, of course, she did.

Telling a bigger, better lie

People often ask Jan if she researches since she is fully immersed in the world she writes. She responds, “You have to be more careful about the research to make sure you are portraying it to readers that aren’t part of that [world]…. The thing about having a real setting is that everyone wants to help.”  In The Chase, she needed an inmate to escape in a realistic way.  The Loudoun County sheriff came to the rescue.  For The Kill, Jan needed to get a character out of Afghanistan and back to Virginia.  She talked with an ex-military friend who described how they’d get the reporter out, what kind of plane would be used, and the appearance of the plane’s interior. She added that a fiction writer is always researching, always listening to dialogue and always observing.

Of course, research is also a family project.  She draws on Joseph’s expertise with the hunt, but he also aids in unconventional ways, like helping her visualize a car crash using their son’s Matchbox cars.  For The Chase, Jan needed to know what prisoners wore when they went out in the yard, so Joseph drove to Leesburg and waited outside the jail to see prisoners come out in the orange jumpsuits with numbers across their chests.  He thought he had it and started home.  He called Jan and she asked, “Do they have letters in front of the numbers?”  He didn’t remember, so he turned around and drove back to Leesburg. The prisoners were no longer in the yard, so Joseph went into the jail and asked the guard, who explained the uniform in detail.  The clock doesn’t impact when Joseph’s on call for research help.  “Middle of the night, she wakes me up. ‘Honey, when the ambulance comes, does the light flash red, white, then blue, or just red and white or blue and white?  How does the ambulance’s light flash?’ And I said, ‘Well, if you ask me again, you might see it.’”

Jan interjected over the audience’s laughter, “But you did find out for me.”

“Of course,” Joseph said, “but not at four o’clock in the morning.”

Jan summed up by quoting another author, “Fiction writers research so they can tell a bigger, better lie.”

Q&A

Here’s a sample from the Q&A.

Q. At what point do you title your book?

A. It is a group effort with the editor and book designer.  The first book was The Hunt, which was a natural name.  The book designer said the second book needed ‘The’ and then a short word.  Same for the third.  When the books are on a shelf, the spine photos line up, so she can’t have a long title ruining the aesthetics.

Q. Does your law career come into play with writing?

A. “Absolutely.”  In Jan’s first book the protagonist is an attorney and his wife is a criminal attorney.  Her career enters into the characters and plots.  “I think there is something about lawyers, particularly litigators or trial lawyers, that has [elements] similar to writing fiction.  I don’t mean to be funny about that.  Lawyers tell the truth in their briefs, but you get to be creative.  Lawyers in court are sort of like actors.  It is about being persuasive and creative.”

Q. Do people ever tell you they see real people from the area in your characters?

A. “They are not real people.  At all.”  Jan’s characters might be a composite of real people, because the characters seem real when their traits are realistic, but they are never pulled directly from life.

Q. Are you far enough along with your next book to give us a preview?

A. “No.  Well, it will be The Something, and it will be set in Middleburg, and none of the people will be real.  I wrote The Hunt as a stand-alone novel with a little twist at the end because I didn’t want it wrapped up in a bow at the end of the book.  Every book reviewer said, ‘Oh, she set it up as for a sequel.’  I had no sequel.  Every book club I talked to said I had to have a sequel, so The Chase became the sequel to The Hunt. When I wrote The Chase, I made sure I didn’t set it up for a sequel, but I did introduce some characters that I knew would be my characters in The Kill.  I didn’t know what role they’d play, but I knew they’d be in there.  I’ve done that again with The Kill and the next book.”

If you’re interested in hearing Jan read, you can find her at these upcoming events.

September 16, 5p.m.  Tri-County Feeds, Etc., Marshall, VA

September 18, 2:30p.m.  Edinburg Ole Time Festival, Edinburg, VA

October 2, 1-4p.m.  The Waterford Fair, Waterford, VA

October 6 Beacon Hill Book Club, Leesburg, VA

October 8 World Equestrian Games, Equine Village, Saratoga Saddlery Booth, Lexington, KY

Find more events here.

There will be no Books on Broad in October, but there will be many events building toward the October 16 announcement of the 13th Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards. Stop by The Virginia Shop and find a new favorite author.  I look forward to seeing you at Books on Broad in November.

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