The Art of Obituary Writing
Jill Orr’s debut mystery is my favorite kind of book: it makes you laugh so hard that if you’re reading at Starbucks, people will glare from behind their laptops (sorry, y’all). It makes you think, and it touches your heart. Her protagonist isn’t a sleuth by trade or nature, but a smart woman who sees a question (or twenty) and sets out to find the answers and get justice for an old friend. Love for the truth and a loyal pal—Riley is a woman after my own heart, and I’m looking forward to her next adventure!
It was such fun to get to ask Orr a few questions about her first novel, and how she devised such an endearing and witty heroine.
Congratulations on the release of THE GOOD BYLINE! These days, it seems there are as many paths to publication as there are authors: can you share a bit about yours?
Thanks! This is such an exciting time. My path to publication was as circuitous as most people’s, mainly because I didn’t figure out I wanted to write books till I was in my thirties and both my kids had started school. It took a few tries to get it right (I have two “drawer” novels) and I received too many rejections to count along the way, but eventually I wrote THE GOOD BYLINE and that’s when things started clicking. I was able to find my agents (I’m co-represented by Margaret Sutherland Brown and Emma Sweeney) within a few months of querying and they sold the book fairly quickly after that. It wasn’t fast or easy, but I’m so glad I didn’t give up. I always say that even if the book doesn’t sell a single copy, at least I taught my children that you don’t have to be good at something the first time you try it.
Isn’t that the truth? I think our little ones learn so many important lessons from watching us navigate this career. Speaking of lessons, I love that Riley starts off with the time-honored trials of the obituaries: nothing will teach a reporter faster to check every fact twelve times. Beyond the natural nosiness and affinity for research, what do you think are the most important qualities journalism brings to a sleuth?
So, in THE GOOD BYLINE, Riley doesn’t start out as a journalist. She’s working at the library and agrees to help out by writing her friend’s obit. It’s Riley’s complete fealty to the truth that causes her to start sleuthing. When she comes across some fishy details while writing Jordan’s obituary, she feels compelled to find out what really happened. She has a natural curiosity, but she struggles with whether or not to trust her instincts. As the series continues, we will see her grow and come to depend on those instincts, like all the best journalists do. And while she isn’t particularly tough (I always think reporters are so tough!), she will take risks to get the truth, which can—and does—land her in hot water.
Readers learn a lot about the art of obituary writing from this book, and Riley’s passion is a big part of THE GOOD BYLINE’s charm. Do you have a background in obituary writing?
I don’t actually. The idea of writing a mystery with a protagonist who is obituary-obsessed came to me after I read a really funny and touching obituary that went viral. It was for a person I’d never heard of and appeared on Legacy.com, a website where people write and submit obituaries for their loved ones. After I read the one that went viral, I read another, and another, and eventually fell down this rabbit hole of amazing obituaries. But even more amazing than the obits themselves was the fact that I stumbled upon this entire community of people who read obituaries as a hobby! It’s absolutely fascinating. They even have their own conferences! I thought, “Wouldn’t this be a great quirk for an amateur sleuth?” After all, where there’s an obituary, the death is already built in. All you have to do is throw in a little murder and you’re off to the races!
When I first got the bittiest glimmer of my first book, I actually said aloud to my dishwasher (I was loading it at the time), “I write short nonfiction. I’m a reporter. I can’t makes stuff up, and I can’t write a whole book.” Did you ever feel similarly?
Actually, I love to make stuff up! My least favorite part of journalism was fact-checking. That’s why I decided to set my book in a fictional town—so I don’t have to deal with pesky things like “geography” and “accuracy.” I mostly write magazine features or creative non-fiction as a freelancer, so to me the scariest part about writing a novel was, “Can I come up with a story strong enough to carry a reader through 300 pages?” As I said, with my first attempts, the answer was no. I like to think I got better as I worked at it.
Tell us a bit about your writing day: What’s your process like? Plotter or pantser? Do you have a schedule? Do you write every day?
I am such a pantser. I’ve tried to plot things out in advance but it ends up like every “healthy eating plan” or “six week beach body transformation” I’ve ever attempted—I fall off the plan within days and end up knee-deep in a bag of potato chips. I do try to write every day and sometimes I hit that goal, sometimes I don’t. One day I might log 5,000 words, and the next I struggle to hit 200. I am pretty deadline oriented though, so if I have a deadline I’ll always make it.
Some of my favorite moments writing fiction are the ones when I think I know what’s coming and my characters go “Pppthhhbbbt. Shows how smart YOU are,” do something totally different, and their way works so much better. It’s like witnessing magic. Do you have those moments?
This happens to me all the time and it is absolutely my favorite part of writing fiction! It’s complete magic, as you say. Since I am not a plotter, I rarely know what’s going to happen next when I sit down at the computer. The best days are when it’s like walking into a room full of old friends and saying, “Okay. Go. Don’t mind me, I’ll just be over here transcribing.” It’s spooky how often it feels like the characters are living, breathing, autonomous creatures. And how their ideas are always better than mine!
What surprised you most about publishing as a business? Would you change anything about your experience in the industry so far if you could?
I was surprised at how long everything takes in publishing. But I understand that there are good reasons for that—there is so much that goes on behind the scenes to launch a book. My publisher, Prospect Park Books, has been working for months to create the framework necessary to support THE GOOD BYLINE once it goes out into the world, for which I am deeply grateful. It seems like a simple process, but the reality is much more complicated. I can’t think of anything I’d change about my experience so far.
Maybe I’d like someone to hand me big bags full of cash or have Emma Stone call and say she’d love to play Riley in the movie version. But other than that, I can’t think of anything.
What’s next for you? For Riley?
I’ve signed with Prospect Park to write two more books in the Riley Ellison series, so that’s a huge thrill for me. The second book finds Riley officially working for the Times as a reporter. Tuttle Corner continues to be a hotbed of criminal activity, so she is drawn into new investigations by way of her beloved obituary pages. Riley has to learn to trust her instincts in both journalism and love, something that proves difficult for her…and often dangerous!
Jill Orr is a writer living in Columbia, Missouri, with her husband and two kids. THE GOOD BYLINE is her first novel.
To learn more about Jill, please visit her website.
LynDee Walker is the author of six national bestselling mysteries featuring crime reporter Nichelle Clarke, beginning with the Agatha Award-nominated Front Page Fatality (2013). Before she started writing mysteries, LynDee was an award-winning journalist. Her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the U.S.
To learn more about LynDee, please visit her website.