It's No Mystery

Successful novelist Julia Spencer-Fleming ’83 writes what she knows, with a twist. by Alex Meril ’07

Mystery novelist Julia Spencer-Fleming ’83 is a bit odd among authors: she didn’t always harbor a burning desire to write. At IC she tested out of her writing requirement, and in four years she didn’t take a single writing course. She started out as a B.F.A. theater candidate, but after two years switched to history, where, she says, “I loved the intellectual rigor.”

After graduation, somewhat at a loss, Julia earned a master’s degree in museum studies and a J.D., and then worked as a lawyer. Later, as a married stay-at-home mother,
“for fun,” Julia joined an online writer’s group. It wasn’t long before she discovered her true calling.

She grew up a military brat and lived all over the world, from Rome to Mobile. Yet Julia’s bestselling crime novels take inspiration from her time living in her favorite region—the southern Adirondacks, where her mother’s family settled in 1720 and where Julia spent the majority of her childhood vacations. “I adore upstate New York,” she says. “It feels like home to me.” Not only does the area inspire her, it also serves as the backdrop for the tantalizing plots of Julia’s novels, which have received critical recognition.

 Julia began writing short stories, but soon decided to try a longer piece. In her first novel, The Bleak Midwinter, she used her army background, knowledge of the Episcopalian church, and years in the Adirondacks to create a world for protagonist Clare Fergusson, an army pilot-turned-Episcopalian priest. Julia was pleasantly surprised when the book received a slew of awards, including the Anthony Award and Agatha Award in 2003.

After such a dazzling debut, Julia was worried about the fate of the sequel, A Fountain Filled with Blood. “I was afraid of looking like an idiot,” she confesses. She needn’t have worried. All of her subsequent novels have been well received critically, and all have sold well.

Julia says that both her childhood experiences and the years she studied acting at IC have deeply informed her writing. “In all of my novels there’s a recurring theme of the outsider,” she says. “When you move around a lot you’re always the outsider, the new kid.” And she routinely uses the same process to develop a character on the page that she did as an actor bringing characters to life on stage.

Julia lives and writes in the 180-year-old farmhouse in southern Maine that she shares with her husband, Ross Hugo-Vidal, and their three children: Virginia, 6, Spencer, 13, and Victoria, 14. She enjoys the isolation of writing in a rural setting, but notes that balancing her writing career and her family is a juggling act. “Superwoman is a myth!” she asserts.

Julia still keeps in contact with IC friends—her freshman roommate, Rachael Burns Hunsinger ’83, is her best friend and godmother to her two daughters—and finds IC connections wherever she goes. One such connection is drama graduate Andrew Martin ’78, who is vice president and publisher of St. Martin’s Minotaur, Julia’s imprint.

So far, Julia has published five novels. She doesn’t have a lot of leisure time, but hopes someday she will. One thing she’s sure of is that she wants to continue creating stories. Now that she has found her calling, she says, “I’d hate to even think about switching occupations.” No doubt her readers are happy to hear that.