Author interview with Jess ~
Tell us a little about yourself and how you started writing.
It all started when I was six. I wrote this Minnesota haiku for my awesome grandpa:
Grandpas are full of love. Grandpas are full of tickles. But grandpas are especially full of pickles.
People loved it. Aunts hugged me, cousins were jealous, uncles asked me to immortalize them next. My poetry skills have not evolved since that day, but the enchantment with words and their power grew inside me like a watermelon seed. I wrote my first novel when I was 26. It was also my Master’s thesis and featured three women traveling across the United States, three women suspiciously like myself and the two best friends I had taken a road trip with a couple years earlier. Like most first novels, it was embarrassingly self-involved, full of overwritten description and twenty-pound dialogue tags:
"Why doesn't my alcoholic father accept me for who I am?" Hannah asked pityingly, rubbing the burning, salty tears from her chocolate brown eyes.
Amazingly, no publisher would take a look at the first three chapters. (The fact that I was submitting directly to publishers shows just how green I was.) I tried some light revising, working under the misconception that my work was great and the world just wasn't ready for it yet. When the adding of more adjectives didn't net me a three-book deal, I took a sabbatical from writing the Great American Novel and got a real job. (By the way, I'm forever thankful it wasn't so easy to self-publish back then, or that stinker would be out there, following me everywhere.) I ended up with two Master's degrees, one in English and one in Sociology, and a teaching job at Alexandria Technical and Community College while living in rural Battle Lake.
But, like most writers, I couldn't stop thinking of book ideas, scribbling down sparks of description or snatches of conversation that I overheard and would love to work into a story, feeling lazy and envious when I read a fantastic novel. When a traumatic life event reminded me of the true power of writing, I started penning MAY DAY, the first in my Murder-by-Month mysteries for adults. Complete story here on that is here, in my TEDx Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5vSLh3oPXI&t=2s
It turned out mystery writing fit me well. I enjoy structure, adventure, humor, justice. My first draft was complete, I thought, at 45,000 words. Confident that I had found my niche, I sent out 50 query letters and received 50 rejections. I researched the field, poring over the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime websites, reading all that Preditors and Editors had to offer me, camping out in Jeff Herman's fantastic reference book as well as the Literary Marketplace and AAR. Out of all those resources, two points stuck with me: no one would read a book shorter than 50,000 words, and if you're writing a mystery, publishers only want series.
I hired a freelance editor and pumped MAY DAY up to 52,000 words. Next, I wrote JUNE BUG. Then I implemented my systematic plan to wear down the publishing behemoth. I sent out 200 query letters. When the rejections started trickling in, I sent out 150 more. Not an agent or small press was spared. If they represented mysteries, they were queried.
If you're keeping score, that was three books written, zero books published. Why did I put so much effort into this? Because when I write, I feel like I'm in the right place at the right time. How did I know MAY DAY and JUNE BUG didn't suck on five different levels like my first novel? Because they were inspired by crucible experiences and I had done the research, including reading nearly forty books in the mystery genre. I had studied what made them great, and I had sought out and adhered to feedback from a reliable and well-recommended editor.
Finally, a bite. I found an agent. We never met -- she lived out west on a commune, where she edited technical manuals and studied the healing power of crystals. After six months and a handful of offers from publish-on-demand companies, we parted ways amicably. I found another agent shortly after that, and after a year of rejections from New York publishing houses, she found my books a home with Midnight Ink, an innovative new imprint of a respected Minnesota publishing house.
MAY DAY was released in March of 2006, happily received critical acclaim, and is available anywhere you can buy books. The rest of the series followed—12 books total, all set in Battle Lake. I love reading and writing mysteries, but in 2008, around the time my kids started reading chapter books, I realized that there is this amazing genre called young adult (YA). I started devouring my kids' books (figuratively speaking, munch munch bwahaaa, crazy mom), and somewhere in there, the kernel for my own YA trilogy sprouted. I called the series THE TOADHOUSE TRILOGY, and the first in the series Book One (Yes. I know). Alas, although my agent loved Book One, she couldn't sell it, and so began my odyssey into the world of self-publishing. I also ended up self-publishing THE CATALAIN BOOK OF SECRETS, which is set in a fictionalized version of Fergus Falls (I call it Faith Falls in the book).
I moved to my current agent in, I believe, 2012. I loved my other agent, and we still hang out when I’m in New York, but business-wise, she and I were not an ideal fit. My current agent and I, though? It’s magic. With her help (as well as an incredible editing team at Thomas & Mercer), I had my breakout book in 2021 with Unspeakable Things, a thriller inspired by my time growing up in Paynesville in the 1980s, when boys were getting abducted and returned. My next three thrillers—Bloodline, Litani, and The Quarry Girls—are also inspired by Minnesota true crimes.
I've written two books a year since 2006, and I write whatever story idea captures my mind at the time, regardless of genre. As of today, I'm at over 400 rejections, twenty-one novels, and one nonfiction book. Most people would have given up a while ago with those odds, and there is a word for those type of people: sensible. The rest of us, we're called writers.
What are some things you enjoy when not writing?
I absolutely love to read and travel. Now that I’m writing full-time, I’ve got more time for both.
Do you have a particular writing routine?
I’m under contract to write two books a year, so I have to be disciplined. Or, I should be disciplined, and mostly I am. J I try to write in the morning because if I meet my goals for the day, it makes everything else more pleasant. I usually spend two-three weeks outlining a book using my Book in a Bag method (https://www.etsy.com/listing/884177250/book-in-a-bag-kityour-bestseller-is-in) and then another two-three months writing it. Once I have my first draft done, I sit on it for a week, edit it, then send it on to a freelance editor I hire and my agent. After I get and make their edits, I send it to my publisher.
Is there anything major that changed in this novel from when you first plotted it out?
When I wrote the first draft of The Quarry Girls, Beth—who turned out to be a central character—was never in the book. She didn’t enter the scene until I was in first round edits and was lucky to catch Mare of Easttown on TV. Watching that show made me realize my story was missing a ticking time clock. That’s when Beth showed up. Surprisingly, it didn’t require a major rewrite to add her. It’s like the story was waiting for her…
Finish this: “I can’t write without…”
An outline. I’ve tried because it seems so very creative and free to be a pantser, but I need my plots before I can write. I never follow them exactly, but they’re my security blanket.
What career did you think you’d have as an adult?
I thought I’d be a psychologist because growing up, I was surrounded by so many people struggling with their mental health. I am forever grateful that I ended up with my dream career of being a full-time writer.
Do you have a ‘day job’ as well?
In August 2021, I retired from 22 years as a college professor to write full-time. I loved so much about teaching, but I don’t miss the grading.
What was the original title of this book?
The Deep Dark Below. I’m terrible at coming up with book titles, and I’m glad my publisher passed on this one.
How do you market your work?
When I first dreamed of becoming an author, I never realized how much marketing it would take. I have a publicist and marketing team who handle the big picture stuff; that leaves me to send out a regular newsletter and post regularly to social media. I also send out about 100 promo boxes when I have a new book. For my indie-pubbed books, I add BookBub feature deals, Facebook ads, and Amazon ads to the marketing to-do list.
What are you working on now?
I just turned in edits on The Taken Ones, a new series I’m writing for Thomas & Mercer. It introduces Agents Reed and Steinbeck of the Minneapolis BCA, and it has a touch of paranormal a la The X Files.
What is a bestselling book you’ve been itching to read?
I just bought Barbara Kingsolver’s latest release, Demon Copperhead, and can’t wait to dive in!
Is there anything you’d like to say to your readers and fans?
Thank you for your time and support! This wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without you.
To connect with Jess ~