Mysteries and Thrillers – Her Saving Grace
The Big Thrill Interviews Jess Lourey
Jess Lourey is having quite the time. At Bouchercon in San Diego, she won an Anthony for The Quarry Girls, something she can add to the list of other awards she’s either won or been nominated for, including an Edgar.
Jess, who recently retired from being a professor of both creative writing and sociology so she could concentrate on writing, now lives in Minneapolis “because it’s familiar, and I have good friends here. It also has a wonderful writing community. However, I love mountains, and the ocean, and deep wild forests, and so I’m considering a move. Suggestions welcome.”
Here, she talks with The Big Thrill about her writing journey and her newest book, THE TAKEN ONES.
Tell us a little about your background, Jess.
I was born in Washington state on an army base near Tacoma. My dad was stationed overseas in Vietnam. After he was honorably discharged, my dad and the rest of us—I have one sister—moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota, which is where I was living when the true crimes that inspired The Quarry Girls took place. Right before I started second grade, we moved up the road to Paynesville, Minnesota, which is where the true crimes that inspired Unspeakable Things and Bloodline took place.
My father was disabled in the war, so he wasn’t employed often when I was growing up. My mom supported us all, first by being a seamstress and then teaching high school English. She worked harder than anyone I know.
My home life was actually pretty terrifying growing up. I lived in an unsafe house, and as soon as I was able, I did everything I could to be out of it, including playing sports. I was a terrible gymnast, a mediocre basketball player, and an excellent runner (a psychologist could have a field day with the symbolism there). But I also loved books and made a fort inside my closet where I’d hide so I could read. I particularly loved horror and fantasy novels in my middle and high school years.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I first started college at the University of Minnesota in 1988, I naively thought I wanted to be a lawyer so I could win arguments. Next, I wanted to be a psychologist so I could heal myself. Neither worked, so I dropped out, traveled the US, and did lots of drugs. Ironically, that gets boring fairly quick, so I went back to school, this time at St. Cloud State. By then, I’d lived enough that I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I began working on my first novel. It ended up being my Master’s thesis and is a truly terrible piece of writing—20-pounds of dialogue tags and a wandering plot, embarrassingly autobiographical though disguised as fiction—but it taught me the importance of perseverance.
When did you first know you were a writer?
When I finished my first novel. It’s so bad that I stole it from the college library where they keep all theses, so it wasn’t that I’d written something great, or that it landed me an agent, or even that I made a single penny off it. It’s that I finished it. I discovered if I kept doing that—finishing writing books—and I read voraciously, and I listened to other writers talk about the craft, and I kept looking for ways to improve, that eventually I could go from writer to paid writer.
Tell us a little about those early books and short stories.
While I collected Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books from garage sales as a kid (five for a quarter), and I read every one of them, by the time I’d decided to write my first full-length novel, I’d been taught that genre fiction was bad. So, I started out wanting to be a literary writer. I didn’t know at the time that all good genre fiction—but especially good crime fiction, in my opinion—has resonance, complex characters, cultural value. I thought if the book had a cracking plot (i.e., was genre fiction), that it was somehow lesser.
I may have stayed in that ignorant spot if not for tragedy. My husband committed suicide in 2001; I was three months pregnant and desperately needed to distract myself for the health of the fetus. The only thing that held my attention was mysteries (specifically, Sue Grafton, William Kent Krueger, and Janet Evanovich’s mysteries). Once I was reminded how powerful crime fiction is, I wanted to write it myself. That’s when I started in on May Day, which became my first published novel.
And the fetus is now my beautiful son, Xander.
Recently, you quit your day job and became a full-time writer. What went into that decision and how long did it take you to make it?
I’d been a college professor for 22 years, writing two books a year while raising two kids on my own, when the incredible Jessica Tribble Wells at Thomas & Mercer bought Unspeakable Things, my first domestic thriller. Everyone else turned it down. It was neither fish nor fowl, a darkly adult book with a 12-year-old protagonist set in a flyover state. I remember her telling me the first time we met that she didn’t care if the book only sold 45 copies. She loved it and was happy to publish it. It has gone on to sell over 300,000 copies, thereby allowing me to step away from teaching to become a full-time novelist.
What’s your writing routine, and has it changed over the years?
It was interesting and a huge bummer to find that once I could quit my day job and devote all my work hours to writing, that I was unable to write. Before then, the containers of my life were rigid because they had to be: parenting time, work-that-pays-the-bills time, sleep, and writing time. Back in those days, I’d write for a couple hours after my kids went to bed, until exhaustion overcame me. With nothing to work against, I found myself overwhelmed. It took me a year to find my new routine, which is—when I’m not traveling or hitting appointments—working on my writing for four hours or so every morning. Then, the afternoons are spent marketing and all the other small jobs they don’t tell you are a crucial part of being a full-time novelist.
Tell us a little about THE TAKEN ONES.
THE TAKEN ONES was born when Jessica Tribble Wells asked me in 2021 if I wanted to write a short story. Writing short stories is nearly impossible for me; it’s a gift that I don’t have, and if anyone else had asked, I’d have said no. But it was Jessica. If you know her, you know what I mean. So, I said yes. It helped that the short story was for an anthology devoted to travel/vacation, and that I was poolside in Costa Rica when I wrote it. I feel like it was meant to be because for the first time in my life, the story flowed out. The result was Catch Her in a Lie, the first case featuring BCA cold case agent Evangeline “Van” Reed and BCA forensic scientist Harry Steinbeck. I love that short story. I love Van and Harry. But I figured that was our brief fling, and we were all moving on.
Then Jessica came back and asked if I wanted to write a whole series featuring them. I hesitated for exactly one minute—it’s been years since I wrote a series, the police procedural angle is outside my comfort zone—but I wanted to hang with Harry and Van again. He’s fussy, brilliant, and decent; she’s messy, intuitive, and made of steel. And they’re both hiding secrets.
When creating THE TAKEN ONES, I knew I wanted to mix in the things I love—the ’80s, an X Files vibe, Minnesota, cold cases—and so once I had those elements on the table, I dug in.
Any particular challenges in writing THE TAKEN ONES?
When I wrote Catch Her in a Lie, I made them Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents because the BCA is unique to Minnesota. I thought I wouldn’t have to do much research because as long as one of the 300 or so folks who worked at the BCA didn’t read it, I’d be fine making everything up. But when it came time to write a whole book, I knew I’d have to get it right. So, getting the research into this amazing but extensive organization was a challenge. I’m grateful for all the help I got from BCA forensic scientist Ann Marie Gross, who became a friend in the process.
THE TAKEN ONES unfolds very much like a true crime book, in that it seems to be based on a real case. Was it?
This is the first of my recent thrillers that is *not* inspired by a true crime, and frankly, it was a relief. Researching true crimes is grueling if you remember that it’s real people you’re reading about, people with value and with friends and families, people who didn’t deserve whatever horror was inflicted on them. So, while I will return to that because I think it’s important to tell those stories compassionately, I also appreciated getting to make everything up.
The relationship between Van and Harry is a very interesting one. They have a bit of a history and one of them has a pretty deep, dark secret he or she is keeping from the other. How important is this to their “chemistry,” and how difficult was it to accomplish?
When writing those two, I wanted to go for a Felix and Oscar (The Odd Couple) meets Mulder and Scully (The X Files) vibe, and secrets—as well as different styles and personalities—was crucial to that.
Which comes first for you? Story? Characters? Voice?
The characters, the twist, the crime. That’s usually the order my ideas show up.
Are you a better writer now than you were let’s say 10 years ago and, if so, why and how?
I actually think my biggest growth has been in paring down my writing. I used to throw everything at a book, confusing clever with good. Now, I hope I’m better able to let the characters and the story speak for themselves.
Any advice you’d give aspiring (or even those who don’t have to aspire any more) writers?
It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be finished. Get that first draft on paper. That’s how it all has to start.
What’s next for you?
I just turned in The Reaping, the sequel to THE TAKEN ONES, and that should be out in 2024. I’m so excited to bring Van and Harry back! I’m also writing a young adult trilogy for a new publisher. A Whisper of Poison, the first in that series, releases February 2024.
The Big Thrill Interviews Jess Lourey