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A Local Newscaster Finds Her New Story Hits Too Close to Home

A Spotlight on Author Christina Estes

By Neil Nyren

Book Cover: OFF THE AIR“When most people think of Larry Lemmon, they remember the guy who called for a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border long before Donald Trump did. When I think of Larry Lemmon, I remember a guy who cut my lunch—and nearly my life—short.”

In Christina Estes’ OFF THE AIR, Jolene Garcia, a 29-year-old local reporter for a television station in Phoenix, Arizona, is having a bit of a crisis. She splits her time between general assignments and special projects, and she knows she should be delighted about her job, but it can also be pretty frustrating. She has no personal life, the competition is cutthroat, an airhead from a rival station keeps one-upping her, and her general manager has just decided to start incorporating viewers’ Facebook comments into her broadcasts.

“No one cares about covering issues that impact the community,” laments a veteran reporter. “It’s just a memory for us old-timers to cherish. Now, it’s all about posting cat videos or whatever the hell the digital department thinks will generate clicks.”

And then, the highly controversial radio host Larry Lemmon is found murdered at his station, and everything changes. She has the last interview he ever gave! That should give her a jump on everyone else. But she has no idea what she’s getting into. Lemmon had a whole slew of enemies—personal, professional, political, you name it—and none of them appreciate her nosing around. The more she pushes, the more they all push back, and soon, she’s not only chasing a story but chasing the actual murderer.

“If I were you, I’d be careful,” a source warns.

Too late. She’s about to come face to face with a killer.

Crackling, inventive, full of instantly recognizable characters and a wealth of insider stories, OFF THE AIR is not only a totally satisfying mystery but an eye-opening peek into what really goes on behind the scenes of your local newscasts. You may never watch them the same way again.

Author Photo: Christina Estes

Christina Estes

Christina Estes knows what she’s talking about. She’s an Emmy Award-winning reporter who has spent 20 years covering crime, business, and public policy in Phoenix, both for television and radio.

“I always knew my main character would be a local TV reporter,” she says, “because that’s what I’m most comfortable writing. At some point, when I was between TV jobs and working in radio, the idea of combining both came to me.”

However, Jolene, as such, took a while longer. For the nudge, she thanks Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen bookstore: “After reading a draft, Barbara said she didn’t really connect with Jolene. I originally wrote Jolene with a different name and different background. She was more like the 29-year-old I wish I had been. I needed an imperfect character to root for. Going deeper was uncomfortable because I created Jolene’s backstory based on my experience as a former foster parent. I worried about whether I was exploiting or would cause pain. That’s a big reason I added an author’s note at the beginning of the book. I truly care about Jolene. Is that weird? Or wrong? I’ve heard some authors emphasize that their characters are characters, not people. While I understand Jolene is a character, she also feels real to me.

“Like Jolene, I grew up in the Midwest and arrived in Phoenix as an outsider. I’d spent my whole life surrounded by grass and green trees. Seeing the desert landscape and mountains felt like I’d been transported to another world.

“I can remember the first time I drove to work and saw a sign for Interstate 10 to Los Angeles. This was before reality TV and social media when stars only appeared on the big screen or in magazines. Seeing that sign for the land of sun, surf and glamour made me feel a little like a Beverly Hillbilly—minus the oil money. At that time, the Phoenix market was full of reporters who were more sophisticated than me, and the people from southern California there seemed classy even in their jeans and t-shirts.”

Estes settled in, though, and got to work, and some of the stories that popped up are reflected in the book. A community-inspired restaurant demolition; a dubious celebration of bubble wrap at the local ballpark; a defendant who, hearing his guilty verdict, swallowed cyanide in the courtroom; an expose of manicure parlors that got reported because the station general manager’s wife got an infection in one—most of these have counterparts in real life.

“I love that you mentioned the demolition because it was inspired by a story I covered in Phoenix. Some details are different, but residents really did gather to celebrate the demolition of an abandoned restaurant that had become an eyesore and attracted criminal activity.

“The bubble wrap is also based on personal experience. Years ago, I was nominated for an Emmy in the soft feature category for a story about a blowfish going to the dentist. I ‘lost’ to a story about bubble wrap. Bubble wrap! As a younger reporter, it stung—especially because I also ‘lost’ in two other categories the same night. I use quotes because, as I explain in the book, you technically don’t win or lose an Emmy. It’s been interesting to hear reactions to that vignette. One person told me they related to my character’s disappointment, while another reader laughed. I can now do both.

“The cyanide in the courtroom actually happened in a Phoenix case, but not the nail infection story suffered by the general manager’s spouse. However, it’s not uncommon for a manager to pitch a story idea, just like any other person in or outside a station. I covered many stories assigned by managers, including a dry-cleaning investigation mentioned in the book.

“I’ve had several funny moments as a reporter. Well, funny now because years have passed. For example, when I was working for a company that owned two TV stations, we reported for both, sometimes doing live shots back-to-back. One day, my photographer and I were running between two cities, conducting interviews for two different stories that would air on two different stations. We set up our live shot in a park, and I should’ve wrapped up by saying where I was reporting from, but I drew a blank. After a beat, I said something like, ‘You know what? We’ve been running around all day, and I don’t know exactly where we are, somewhere in Phoenix.’ The photographer, who was standing next to the camera, started laughing, and the anchor, ever the professional, simply thanked me and moved on to the next story.

“I’ve also had horrifying moments. During my 20-plus-year career in Phoenix, I’ve covered a range of stories, and many have stayed with me. Covering the child abuse scandal involving the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix was gut-wrenching. This past September marked 25 years since Cookie Jacobson, a wife and mother, disappeared. I stay in touch with Cookie’s brother, who traveled to Phoenix when authorities searched a landfill for her body. Cookie has never been found, and her case always makes me think of five-year-old Jhessye Shockley, who also went missing. Like Cookie, Jhessye was never found, despite a massive search at the same landfill.”

Journalism is one thing. Fiction-writing is another. Did the first influence how Estes approached the second in any way?

“Unfortunately, I did not understand the difference right away. Early on, I thought, ‘I’m a reporter and write every day, so I can write a book.’ Uh, no. I had to learn (and still am learning) how to write a novel. As a reporter, I may get three minutes to tell a story. Totally different than writing 300 pages.

“My writing style for broadcast journalism is conversational, which appears on the pages of OFF THE AIR. One thing I struggled with was distance. As a reporter, you’re an observer, not a participant. That training can interfere with novel writing because you don’t just want to tell the reader a story; you want them to see, smell, taste, and feel. A mystery reader is not looking for a news report, although I do add information because I like reading books with interesting tidbits. Tori Eldridge does it really well with her Lily Wong thriller series. She can sift through oodles of research and plop in a phrase or nugget that leaves you feeling informed without taking you out of the action.”

Not just Eldridge but many other writers influenced her work. “My main character is named after one of Dolly Parton’s most famous songs. I admire Dolly as a writer, performer, philanthropist, businessperson, everything. One of my favorite books is Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics. She’s an amazing storyteller.

“I’ve always been drawn to mysteries and series, starting with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. As I got older, I devoured Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovich, J.A. Jance, Robert B. Parker, James Patterson, and John Sandford. My series love has grown to include authors Allison Brennan, Linda Castillo, Tracy Clark, Lee Golberg, Sue Grafton, and Mia P. Manansala, with more on my TBR list.

“Specific influences for OFF THE AIR include J.A. Jance, whose Ali Reynolds series set in Arizona planted the seed, and Hank Phillippi Ryan, whose Jane Ryland series featuring a Boston reporter helped it grow. Through an online mentoring program called Pitch Wars, Kellye Garrett and Mia P. Manansala read a super-early (that means super-bad) draft, and their encouragement kept me writing. For their kindness, I’m eternally grateful.

“People in the crime fiction community are genuinely helpful and kind—that’s not a throwaway line. This year, in Tucson, I attended my first Left Coast Crime and appeared on a panel with J.A. Jance, Anne Hillerman and Ramona Emerson. I was nervous sharing space with such accomplished writers—so nervous that when I tried to explain my nervousness, I started crying. I was mortified because I didn’t want to take away from the authors’ or the audience’s enjoyment. Later, I met Erin E. Adams, who was celebrating her debut, Jackal, and told her what happened. She shared advice Taylor Swift gave during a commencement speech: Embrace cringe. Wise words.”

Estes won’t have to cringe anymore:

“One day I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll write a book,’ and—voila!—15 years later, Minotaur is publishing my debut. In between, there was a lot of writing, stopping, writing, rejection, learning, and repeating the cycle. I went years without writing. Not the most efficient way to get published! When I eventually realized that being a reporter would not automatically make me a novelist, I focused on learning how to write. And, of course, I’m still learning.

“I’m grateful Joe Brosnan (formerly with St. Martin’s/Minotaur and now with Grove Atlantic) saw the potential and selected OFF THE AIR for the Tony Hillerman Prize for first novels. My goal has always been a mystery series. I’m fortunate to have editor Madeline Houpt, marketing manager Sara Beth Haring, publicity director Hector DeJean, and other smart people at Minotaur on my team.

“I’m working on my second, featuring Jolene Garcia, and I’m looking forward to visiting bookstores and libraries. I’m hoping to find my book shelved near one of my idols: Janet Evanovich. For years, I’ve dreamed of my name appearing next to hers, so I’ll be carrying my Kleenex.”


 

Neil Nyren

Neil Nyren is the former EVP, associate publisher, and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons and the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among the writers of crime and suspense he has edited are Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, John Sandford, C. J. Box, Robert Crais, Carl Hiaasen, Daniel Silva, Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, Jonathan Kellerman, Ed McBain, and Ace Atkins. He now writes about crime fiction and publishing for CrimeReads, BookTrib, The Big Thrill, and The Third Degree, among others, and is a contributing writer to the Anthony/Agatha/Macavity-winning How to Write a Mystery.

He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.

This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet.

 

Booktrib Spotlight: Christina Estes

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