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Background dictates Chemainus author’s storylines

Thrillers stem from Crown Prosecution and Police Complaint Commissioner office experience

There’s a fine line between fact and fiction in Joanna Vander Vlugt’s writing.

That’s because the Chemainus author and illustrator uses personal work experience and also incorporates the significance of world events into the plot while crafting her stories.

Vander Vlugt, who turns 58 later this month, has just released her third novel, Spy Girls. It’s another thriller that follows in the same vein as her debut novel, The Unravelling, and subsequent book Dealer’s Child.

Vander Vlugt has a flair for this type of writing. She tried writing romance novels at one time but received notice from Harlequin that her talents might be better suited to another genre.

“They said, ‘Joanna, your story is too dark,’” quipped Vander Vlugt.

It’s just as well because she’s found her niche with the books she’s published so far. Chapters Woodgrove in Nanaimo is hosting a book signing with Vander Vlugt Saturday, March 16 from noon-3 p.m. and will be showcasing her previous two novels at the same time.

Vander Vlugt, whose maiden name is Szasz, was born in Nanaimo and lived primarily in Lantzville with brief forays in Chase River and Ontario before graduating from Nanaimo District Secondary School in 1984.

“As a child, I hated to read,” she confessed. “My mom would make me read for 15 minutes before school in Lantzville. It was my mom saying to my sister, ‘find her a book she’ll like.’”

The Bobbsey Twins did it and then she was hooked on books.

As a teenager, Vander Vlugt drew charcoal portraits and wrote mysteries, a precursor of things to come.

She enrolled in Malaspina College, the predecessor to Vancouver Island University, and spent two years in a program she had doubts about from the start. “I didn’t want to be a legal assistant,” conceded Vander Vlugt.

She later worked one year for a defence lawyer, but thought better of the other side and wound up spending 13 years working in the prosecutor’s office – 12 with Nanaimo Crown Counsel and one in Victoria – and another 10 years later in the office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.

She also worked in another ministry, The Office of Legislative Council, for three years before ending that part of her career.

“I would consolidate and proofread regulations,” Vander Vlugt said.

It all formed some of the basis and inspiration for her novels.

“I started writing when I was 25,” Vander Vlugt added. “I wrote for 10 years. I had some short stories published during that time.”

Under the pseudonym J.C. Szasz (her maiden name), her short mysteries Egyptian Queen, and The Parrot and Wild Mushroom Stuffing were both published in Crime Writers of Canada mystery anthologies.

The Unravelling and Dealer’s Child were Canadian Book Club Awards finalists. Her illustrations of motorcycles and scooters add another element to her books, including Spy Girls.

All in all, it’s been a great transition for Vander Vlugt into this stage of her life.

“The big thing for me, you go for years in government showing up at 8 (a.m.) and leaving at 4:30,” she pointed out.

Vander Vlugt has enjoyed the freedom, but still keeps herself on a working schedule as much as possible from force of habit.

Drawing on all her experiences, her writing has even earned accolades from the likes of Joe Goldberg, author of the award-winning The Spy Devils thrillers.

He read Spy Girls and “I really am grateful that he took the time,” said Vander Vlugt.

Goldberg has been a CIA covert action officer, corporate intelligence director and an international political campaign consultant.

“The other thing that got me is Joe Goldberg said what you write about is not uncommon – political interference and our elections,” said Vander Vlugt.

In taking some manuscripts she had left on the shelf for a while, Vander Vlugt found rewriting was in order.

“What struck me was how laws had changed,” she said. “When I originally wrote The Unravelling, cannabis was illegal, for example, so I had to change that.”

World events and her own personal knowledge of all facets of the justice system have become prominent features of her stories.

“I took all these things that were happening and wove them into a story,” she said. “I said to a friend ‘why do I have to write some dark and heavy stuff?’”

There’s definitely an appetite for it among the reading public that Vander Vlugt is fulfilling.

In Spy Girls, a CIA action officer is released from prison, a chief justice is murdered and the Law Society is scrutinizing character Jade Thyme’s conduct. Her life can’t get much worse until she is coerced into finding an elusive double agent. Tangled in lies and political agendas, high speed chases and more, Jade’s life is threatened by a dangerous Hungarian assassin.

Vander Vlugt also has a podcast, SAM magazine, a forum where she’s interviewed many authors.

“I started that in (COVID) lockdown about three years ago,” she said. “I felt I had to talk to people.”

Vander Vlugt and her husband Ed have lived in Chemainus the last three years after several years in Victoria. Ed grew up in Chemainus and works at Country Grocer.

The couple has two daughters living in the Vancouver area, Ashley Coulter, 36, who’s expecting their first grandchild, and Kara, 33.

Vander Vlugt is self-published and “it’s trying to find your way,” she said. She’s grateful to Chapters for going above and beyond with her books and photos of her books on its website.

Her website at provides much more information.

Each of Vander Vlugt’s books are available for purchase at Jollity Farm and Cafe in Chemainus, formerly Nic’s Cafe.

Don Bodger

About the Author: Don Bodger

I've been a part of the newspaper industry since 1980 when I began on a part-time basis covering sports for the Ladysmith-Chemainus Chronicle.
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