Jess Lourey Interview

Kate and Dan: Ms Lourey, Kate has been a fan of your Murder by Month series since MAY DAY. The eighth book in the series, DECEMBER DREAD, will be released in October. What kinds of adventures await Mira James and her gang from Battle Lake, MN? Will dead bodies continue to find Mira through April to complete the 12-month series?

Jess Lourey: That’s exactly how long I’ve been a fan of Kate! Good news. OK, DECEMBER DREAD is the darkest in the series. It features a return to the protagonist’s hometown of Paynesville to dig up her ghosts and hide from a serial killer. It was challenging to balance humor with all that psychic pain and raw fear. You’ll have to let me know how I did. Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on JANUARY THAW, the ninth in the series. I’ll write three more after that, if I can think of legitimate ideas that allow for character growth.

One of the great things about your series is simply this: it is easy to relate to your heroine, Mira. She tends to be a little awkward, lusts for 23-foot tall fiberglass statues of Indian chiefs, and like any good Minnesota woman, she is addicted to Nut Goodie Bars. But most importantly, she exhibits a “never say die” attitude that carries her through to the end of each adventure, and makes her a very engaging lead to the series. How much of you is in Mira?

You are very kind. I’m protective of Mira, so it’s always nice to hear when people like her. In some ways she is my Jessie puppet, and I get to put her in situations that I would never find myself in and live vicariously through her. I’d much rather be like Mrs. Berns, though. She speaks her mind, and she chooses happiness every day.

I know what you’re really asking, though, and the answers are: yes, the Chief Wenonga statue really is that sexy and no, I wouldn’t kick him out of my bed; yes, I used to live in Battle Lake and drive an old Toyota Corolla whose radio worked only spordaically; and no, Nut Goodies are not my favorite candy.

The Murder by Month series is set in Battle Lake, a city in rural Minnesota. The city is populated by its flamboyant mayor, stoic sheriff, quirky retirees, and lesbian café owners. These are characters that readers love to follow and look forward to catching up with from book to book. Since you were living in rural Minnesota when you started the series, did some of the people in your town try to see themselves in your characters? What kind of reaction did you get from the locals? How have the books been received outside of Minnesota?

I still wait for the villagers with pitchforks to show up at my Battle Lake signings, but because it’s Minnesota, people have been consistently nice to my face and wait until I’m gone to say bad things about me, a practice I wholeheartedly endorse. Whenever I’m signing within a 30 mile radius of Battle Lake, I definitely get the behind-the-hand whispered question along the lines of, “You know Torvald, that character on page XX, he’s really…?” None of the characters in my books are based on people from Battle Lake, though they are conglomerates of people who’ve crossed my path. Readers are always disappointed in that answer, though, so I might start lying when asked.

I am grateful to receive fan emails from readers all over the U.S., and always a little surprised. Some of them are Minnesota ex-pats, others relate to the small-town politics, but most are just people who like mysteries and are writing to thank me for the laugh. Best part of the job, if you ask me.

People seem to love putting things into categories. We think it must make folks feel better to put things into boxes. For example, the mystery genre can be broken down into a number of sub-genres: capers, noir, historical, procedural. Some could say that the Murder by Month books fall into the “cozy” sub-genre: Mira is an amateur sleuth in small town Minnesota, and she has both a cat and a dog (but they don’t talk to her or help her solve the crimes). However, the books don’t gloss over the nastiness that keeps happening, as is common with the cozy format. What category would you file the series under?

You’re right about the human need to categorize, and those of us in the mystery community are the worst offenders. I’ve made it even harder on myself by having Mira begin private investigator training in DECEMBER DREAD. Hmmm. Can we make a new category? Giggle Noir? Raunchzy?

As a “working author,” you put on the blazer with the elbow patches and teach at the local college. Have you found that your class enrollment has gone up as your readership has increased? Has Mira helped you gain credibility with your students? How has being a successful published author affected day-to-day life at the college?

Heehee. It’s hard to type through the tears of laughter. Credibility with my students. Successful published author. Heehee. Good stuff. You know what, though? I *do* think being a writer makes me a better teacher, every second of the day, because I am always in the trenches. I live the rejection they feel when a paper they worked hard on doesn’t get the grade they’d hoped for, I understand struggling to learn new skills, and I get what it’s like to always feel like you’re searching for something. Those are the realities of being a writer and a student, I think.

In the spirit of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and the Bernard Pivot questions asked of every guest, we have our own set of questions we ask of every interviewee.

When did you finally say, “Yeah… I’m gonna write stuff for a living. And it will be AWESOME.”

When I was five years old, cross my heart and hope to die. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Well, before I was five I wanted to be a cat, but since then, a writer, for sure.

What was your favorite moment in mystery writing? The moment that when you read it on the page, you smiled and said, “That was so cool!”

I hope it’s yet to come, but looking back, writing the second-to-last chapter of each novel gets my heart pounding. That’s the chapter where everything comes to a head, where lives are lost or changed, where everything I’ve been working for as a writer blazes on the page before I soothe my reader in the final chapter. Second to those moments, definitely the Neil Diamond concert scene in SEPTEMBER FAIR. I still giggle thinking about that one.

What was the moment that made you say, “Writing books is amazing”?

I know I’m supposed to say that the process of writing is amazing, and it’s the journey, and blah blah, but honestly? There’s nothing like walking into a bookstore I’ve never visited and seeing my books on the shelves for people to BUY AND THEN READ!!!

Our standard Beatles or Rolling Stones question: Nancy Drew or Agatha Christie?

Agatha Christie at a Rolling Stones concert with a knife.

Parting thoughts?

I wish I had cake right now. And thank you for interviewing me! I always like hanging with you, Red.