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To Die For: Author Lisa Jackson Uses Montana as Backdrop for Thrillers

With 85 romantic-suspense novels under her belt, how does bestselling author Lisa Jackson keep creating those dynamic plots and compelling characters that keep us turning our collective pages? The short answer: she now lives to write, just as she once wrote to live.

Fans of Jackson’s set-in-Montana “To Die” series featuring Detectives Regan Pescoli and Selena Alvarez are flocking to #86, Willing to Die, in which Pescoli, on maternity leave, learns that her sister and husband, Brindel and Paul Latham, have been found shot to death in their tony San Francisco home. The untimely investigation deepens, when the couple’s teenage daughter Ivy lands on Pescoli’s doorstep in Grizzly Falls, Montana.

And because one title a year is rarely sufficient from the prolific Jackson, her new stand-alone thriller, Paranoid, has also just hit the racks. In it, a troubled Edgewater, Oregon woman is haunted by the delusion or memory that she may have murdered her half-brother Luke 20 years ago.

Jackson admits her rural Oregon upbringing likely set the stage for her own life’s journey.

“I grew up in Molalla, Oregon. We had the Molalla Indian tribe. My great-great grandfather came out on the wagon train and settled there, and the last person in my family just sold the last piece of it. Kind of sad after, well, since 1849 when the first settlers came. I lived there all of my growing-up years,” she says. “I still am an Oregonian, but I don’t live in that little rural town. So a lot of my stories have that kind of Western/rural vibe to them. I live in Lake Oswego part-time. I also have a place at the beach, but I don’t tell people where I live because I always write creepy stories and I don’t want anybody to know.”

The technological limitations of her pre-sixties childhood helped create a literary home life that sparked Jackson’s creative fire.

“I grew up when we had TV but it was black and white and three stations. My family were voracious readers; they read fiction and mysteries. Mom and Dad were always reading books and doing crossword puzzles. And all before cable. My friend back then said he was the remote, getting up and changing channels,” she recalls.

It wasn’t until she was married with two young sons that books became more than a pastime.

“I wrote articles for the school paper and I always thought I would write, but I also thought it was a pipe dream. I didn’t really get into it until 1980, when my sister Nancy and I read an article in Time magazine about these young women and mothers (which we both were) writing romance novels and she said, ‘I think we can do this.’ And I just laughed at her and said, ‘We’ve never read a romance novel in our lives. What makes you think we can do this?’

“But I went to my regular job, which was babysitting because I had little kids, and I thought maybe Nancy has something here. So by the time she picked up her kid, I don’t know how but I’d pulled out this whack-a-doo manual typewriter and typed the seven-page prologue with little kids at my legs. I don’t know how I did it; I’m a terrible typer and a terrible speller.

But when Nancy came, I handed over her daughter and the pages and said, ‘Let’s do it!’”

The sisters dreamed up a story idea, researched and wrote it and voila, it sold. Nancy then wrote and sold her first solo teen romance in 1981, and a year and a half later, Lisa followed suit, leaving behind some lingering regrets.

“I’d gone to college for two years at Oregon State University. I guess I went to a community college, too. I didn’t graduate; I got married instead. Real smart move. But I’m an optimist and I believe it worked out, because I do believe that if I became an English teacher, I wouldn’t have become a writer. I believe one thing begets another in your life; if you take a left turn instead of a right, your life is going to obviously end up different. So it all worked out,” she says.

At the time, romance titles differed drastically from suspense novels, a reality the sisters vowed to change.

“Nancy and I have a lot of trouble writing romance,” Jackson admits. “Since we grew up on mystery and suspense, we learned to write by writing romance. When I was writing for Silhouette, there were many, many restrictions placed on your writing: no gunplay, no violence, no suspense. It was just a love story.

“And there came a point in my career where I was at a crossroads – I was lucky enough that Kensington wanted me to write bigger books, and I was lucky enough to write these big books; I saw women struggling to do it because they were good at the romance and crappy at the suspense and I saw men doing it and they were excellent at the suspense and couldn’t write romance for shit.

“But I could write a male perspective and I had in several of my books because of my growing-up period, so I saw almost this path between two forests, one male dominated, one female dominated, and I thought, if I can go right down the center of the road, that’s where I want to be. I’ve striven to do that – I’m not sure that I always accomplish it; I get complaints from everybody – but I try to write the books that I like to read. I like a little bit of romance but I like a lot of suspense.”

Once the hybrid of suspenseful romance took off, Jackson faced a new challenge: choosing her all-important series settings.

“There’s a distinct feel with each book, whether that comes from the local character or just the ambiance of the place. When my editor first said she thought this series (“Hot Blooded,” “Shiver,” and “Malice” with Detectives Rick Bentz and Reuben Montoya) should be set in New Orleans, I thought well crap! I’d never been to New Orleans, or maybe just once, and hey, that’s a whole different culture and feel and history than I’m used to,” she recalls. “But I hopped on that plane so I could experience it myself, which I don’t always do. But in that case, I certainly did, because I thought, oh man, these Southern people are going to say, ‘Well, she don’t know nothing!’”

The success of her New Orleans series prompted another intriguing suggestion from Jackson’s editor that inadvertently inspired Grizzly Falls.

“The New Orleans series had been very popular and I had written another couple of books, and he asked me, ‘What do you think about a series where the protagonists are two women cops?’ And I thought, ‘Oh God no, ‘Cagney and Lacey,’ the ‘80s, oh I just can’t see that!’” she chuckles. “But then I thought about it and said well, what if I had the cops where they’re their usual thing and not like opposites, and what if we set it in a rural location where there are lots of unique characters? I grew up in this little rural town where people used chainsaws to do art, and I thought I would set it somewhere ranch-y because I’d written stories in San Francisco and L.A. and the Portland area and I wanted something different. Wyoming was a little more remote than I wanted to be, but western Montana had the right feel. I felt it would be enough like where I grew up that I could make it work.”

Jackson created the setting based on the rural towns where she grew up, but eventually fell for the charms of the Bitterroot Valley.

“I patterned Grizzly Falls a little bit off of Oregon City, which is a two-tiered town where the river runs at one tier and then a lot of the city is up above the cliffs. Because I don’t write the series one after the other, each time I went back there it helped me get back in the heads and where they are living now. It helped to have patterned the town a little bit like Oregon City. It was just a stroke of luck that I set Grizzly Falls in the Bitterroot Valley where my ex-in-laws ended up. It’s not exactly as I pictured it but I think it works. But I wrote several books before I actually went over there, and now I have ex-family but really good friends who live in Hamilton, so I have been there recently.”

Jackson also had her own take on the character and relationship of her female detectives.

“I used the setting because I wanted the feel of Montana, a medium-size city, a fake county because I wanted the sheriff’s department to be up there. And I wanted Pescoli to basically have been up there a lot of years and to have the children and marriages, and Alvarez to be kind of this lone wolf who is always kind of running away from her past, a brilliant woman who had bad things happen to her in the past and ended up in a podunk town where she’s a little bit of a fish out of water. I wanted Pescoli to be the fish in the water and Alvarez to be the fish out of water. I don’t know that it actually worked that way because Alvarez is a by-the-book character more so and Pescoli is kind of out there; she runs on emotion and the other one tries not to.”

Which character would Jackson most resemble?

“I probably relate more to Pescoli because I’ve had children who have been a challenge; they’re adults now and they’re fine but during their teen years they were a challenge. As a matter of fact, one time my son Michael read one of my books and he says, ‘Hey, mom, this kind of losing kid who can never get his act together? That’s not me, is it? He doesn’t keep his room clean and it always in trouble with the law and his mom’s exhausted. That’s not me, is it?’” she laughs. “And I said, ‘Well no, Michael; these are fictional characters.’ I didn’t write about (sons) Michael or Matthew, but some of their traits certainly show up in the books.”

Divorced since 1996, the 68-year-old Jackson looks back with gratitude at the life she was able to provide for her sons by taking her sister’s challenge.

“I feel like I’ve always been a lucky person. I’ve had a lot of hardship in my life but all in all, I’m very lucky. My boys are 40 and 39 now, and I have five grandchildren, and let me tell you, they are the loves of my life, loves of my life. The other day, we don’t do the gun thing or nothing, but it was a hot day and I went to the grocery store and bought eight water pistols and I shot them, and it was so much fun. I thought well, the parents won’t approve of this but we’re going to do water pistols. I’m a lot more fun grandparent than I was a parent!”

—Jay MacDonald

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