If the fiction writer’s mantra is “write what you know,” then Kristi Belcamino has amassed a career’s worth of background material. A crime reporter by trade, the Minneapolis resident based her debut on a series of interviews she conducted with a convicted kidnapper who claimed to be a serial killer. BLESSED ARE THE DEAD is a gripping fictionalization of that encounter, putting the reader in the shoes of young Gabriella Giovanni, a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper reporter whose second adventure was released as BLESSED ARE THE MEEK on July 29.
I’ve known Kristi for three years. We met via Twitter, when she found out I was visiting the Twin Cities to research my second novel. Kristi threw me a wonderful dinner party with her writer’s group, set me up with contacts in the Minnesota PD, and hooked me up with tours of the locations I’d set out to research. BLESSED ARE THE DEAD was still searching for a publisher then, but in the years that followed, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Kristi find an agent and a home for her wonderful debut.
Recently, I lobbed a few questions at her about the series, the writing process, and just how many similarities she shares with her protagonist.
Kristi, your debut, BLESSED ARE THE DEAD, was just published by Harper-Collins. Congratulations! Tell us about the book.
Thank you! It’s been a dream come true for sure. The book, which features an Italian-American crime reporter and is the first in a series of at least four books, is inspired by my dealings with a serial killer while I was a reporter on the crime beat in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some of the actual jailhouse conversations I had with this man are in my book. When he died in prison a few years back, I was called for a comment.
In many ways, the book seems like something of a roman à clef: young Italian reporter (and amazing cook!) investigates a kidnapping based on a real-life case. What characteristics do you share with Gabriella Giovanni, your protagonist? Where do they end?
I think that is the danger of writing in the first person, and I fall prey to that as well—thinking that the writer and the character are essentially the same person. But I’m not Gabriella.
With that said, we do have some similarities. We are both Italian-American, we both bake biscotti and are crime reporters.
However, I was never raised around the Italian side of my family, I never lived in San Francisco, I’ve been with the same guy for twenty-three years, and thank God, I never was subjected to the childhood tragedies that she experienced.
Like Gabriella, you have plenty of experience working the crime beat. What appeals to you about the crime beat? Is crime something you set out to cover when you became a reporter?
I never set out to cover crime at first but found an intensity and an emotional weight to covering crime stories. I feel an obligation to do the victim justice with my story. Like Gabriella, I vow to make sure every victim I write about is more than just a name in the paper.
BLESSED ARE THE DEAD is based on your real-life interviews with a convicted kidnapper who claimed to have been a serial killer. You mention on your website that the real-life case in question haunts you to this day. Was it at all cathartic to write about it in a fictional way?
I think that is why I first sat down to write this story—to purge the monster out of my head. It was very cathartic. One important reason this story is fiction, is that honestly, sometimes reality doesn’t always transfer well to fiction. It is sort of boring in a way compared to what our imaginations can cook up. The closest parts of my book to reality are the conversations that take place between the killer and Gabriella. Many, but not all of them, are the exact conversations I had with the man I based my antagonist upon.
Can you talk a little bit about the path you followed to getting published?
I took the traditional path of slogging through the query trenches looking for an agent. I queried around one hundred agents before I signed with mine. During this query journey, I learned how to write by being obsessive about seeking feedback, studying books on writing, and reading as much as possible. I call it my home school MFA program.
BLESSED ARE THE DEAD is the first book in a series featuring Gabriella Giovanni. Did you set out with a series in mind, or was that something that came later?
In all honesty, when I finished the first book, I was convinced I could never write about any other character except Gabriella so I almost immediately sat down and wrote the second book. I wanted to be back in her world and her life again.
Writing is, fundamentally, a solitary pursuit, but you’re one of the most social and outgoing writers I know, both in person and online. Do you feel that this has been a benefit to you? What advice would you give writers who are looking to join the crime writing community?
Good. I have everyone fooled. I don’t feel social and outgoing, but thanks. I spend the majority of my workdays sitting by myself for eight to ten hours at my computer and I’m totally cool with that. But I do have a blast interacting with people online during my writing breaks. My advice would be to stick with writing crime fiction because it is the hands down greatest group of people around.
What else are you working on these days? Do you have plans for Gabriella beyond these two books?
Right now, the plan is to have at least four books in the series. I’m chomping at the bit to get going on them!
Kristi Belcamino is a writer, photographer, and Italian mama who also bakes a tasty biscotti. As an award-winning crime reporter at newspapers in California, she flew over Big Sur in an FA-18 jet with the Blue Angels, raced a Dodge Viper at Laguna Seca, watched autopsies, and conversed with serial killers. She now works as a weekend cops reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Her first novel, BLESSED ARE THE DEAD, was inspired by Belcamino’s dealings on her crime beat with a serial killer who police and FBI agents linked to the kidnapping and murders of little girls.
To learn more about Kristi, please visit her website.