Friday, August 25, 2006

Jess Lourey on Making the Most of Life and Writing Murder Month by Month

Among your many other non-writer jobs, you list "Waiting tables for Mafioso." Are they generous tippers?
Excellent question. When Mafioso remember to tip, they are very generous. However, their illegal activities are often distracting them, and it isn’t unheard of for a don or his henchmen to walk out of the restaurant without leaving anything. Interestingly, the restaurant that I learned this in was called Memories, it was on the West Bank in Minneapolis, and it was purportedly built atop an intricate maze of catacombs. A perfect first job for a fresh-scrubbed, recent high school graduate from high school in Small Town, Minnesota.

Kirkus Reviews said that May Day has “a likeable heroine and a surfeit of sass.” Are you sassy, too, or is it just your character?
My goal in life is to be sassier, but I often settle for crabbier, the ugly stepsister of sassy. However, I do share a very similar sense of humor with Mira James, the protagonist of the Murder by Month series.

Speaking of the Murder By the Month series: You started in May and are already on August. Do you write quickly?
It took me two years to write May Day. When I started, my husband had recently died, and I desperately needed to distract and focus my mind while I worked through the grief. In retrospect, I find it ironic that I chose a humorous mystery series as my vehicle, but it made great sense at the time. I could create a world where people were happy and there was justice at the end, two things I was lacking. When I got around to June Bug (due out March 2007), I had a rhythm going and finished that in a year. Knee High by July (due out September 2007) took me six months, and I think that is my benchmark for future mysteries. Two a year. :)

You are the mother of little children, but you teach and write and do book signings. How do you do all of this? (And I’m actually looking for advice here.)
I don’t wear make-up or style my hair. Seriously. I figure that saves me about a half an hour a day. Otherwise, I have myself on a strict schedule during the school year—-in the mornings, I play and read with my children and get us all ready to go. At work, I eat at my desk and try to keep socializing to a minimum, though that’s difficult because I work with some great people. But my goal is to not take any work home, so I work hard when I’m at my desk. Once home, I play and read with my children (or watch Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel), get their help to pick up the house, and send them off to bed at 8:00. From 8:30 (because they never go right to sleep) until 10:30, or until I get seven pages written (whichever comes first), I write. Weekends are for my kids and visiting friends and family. It took me a while to create a schedule that worked for me. My breakthrough moment was when I realized that the two things I’d most regret not doing in my life were spending as much time with my kids as I could when they were young, and not writing. After I decided that, the rest fell into place, though I won’t say it isn’t hard, and I do slip up and watch some trash TV or read US magazine every now and again when I should be writing.

Jess's cute children, above.

There's one lesson I can learn. I watch tons of T.V. :)

You teach Creative Writing and Critical Thinking at Alexandria Technical College. What sorts of things do they need to learn in the Critical Thinking class?

Describing what they need to learn—-how to find credible research, to always question their own beliefs and ideas, to seek out and fairly evaluate information that disagrees with their own beliefs and ideas—is much easier than actually teaching it. My focus is on teaching them to self-assess, so much of the class involves small group work, large class discussion, and scavenger hunts for information. It’s a class I enjoy teaching because it’s so important.

What are some fun writing prompts that you use for the creative writers?
I use Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing textbook, and it’s got great prompts, such as, “Describe what is in your protagonist’s trash can.” Burroway is fantastic at getting writers to look at the small stuff, which is what gives writing dimension. I keep the prompts to a minimum, though, because in my experience, all writers, even student writers, have an idea of what is important to them and what they want to write about. I tailor my feedback and guidance to their individual work.

What are your current writing projects?
I just finished a short story called, “The Locked Fish-Cleaning-House Mystery,” and I’m submitting that to the Minnesota Crime Wave ( for possible publication in their next anthology. I have a thumbnail sketch of the plot for August Moon, the fourth book in the Murder by Month series, but I also have a thumbnail sketch for a book I’m currently calling Witch. That one is going to have an Anne Rice feel. My goal is to write them both this year, and Labor Day is my deadline to decide which one to go with first.

You are an organized woman. Tell us about your panel at Bouchercon.
I love the topic my Bouchercon panelists (Gail Lukaskic, Julie Hyzy, Gammy Singer, and Susan Slater ) and I came up with--"Beyond the Mystery: Secret Stories--the Truth Behind the Fiction." The idea is that every author incorporates truth into their fiction, whether the sex scene you’re writing mirrors an experience you had last June, or whether your character comes from the same hometown and kinda looks like you, etc. In interviews, all us writers deny this and say the books are entirely fictional, but at Bouchercon, the five of us are going to rip the blanket off of that gentle lie and show the truth behind our fiction.

What’s the best thing about living in Minnesota? If I were to visit you in Minnesota, what would I absolutely have to see?
First, you definitely should visit me in Minnesota.


Second, the one absolute don’t-miss characteristic of Minnesota is impossible to see in one visit. It’s the changing seasons. Fall is magnificent reds, golds, and oranges with a nip in the air. Winter is crunchy clean snow, sledding and skating. Spring is messy and full of tulips and lilacs. By the time summer comes, brilliant hot and green, you’ve earned it. For someone as restless as me, it’s perfect.

That is beautiful! I'm convinced.

On your blog you mention that you spent the day canning “like a beaver”: (horseradish dill pickles, regular dill pickles, whole tomatoes, crabapple jelly, salsa, pickled peppers, and jalabeanos). First, what are jalabeanos? Second, do beavers do a lot of canning? Third, do you have an extremely high energy level?

Jalabeanos are spicy (jalapeno peppers), pickled (with dill) green beans. Yum. My mouth is watering thinking about them. And if beavers weren’t so busy building dams, they’d definitely pack a peck of pickled peppers. Like the beaver, I do get a lot done, but it is less about a high energy level and more about the belief that this is the only life I’ve got, and it’d be a crime to spend most of it in front of the TV or a mirror or behind a desk.

Critics have praised your likeable heroine, Mira James. How did you come up with Mira? Is she anything like you?
You’ll have to come to my Bouchercon presentation to find out. Ha! Actually, Mira and I have similar backgrounds (grew up in Paynesville, Minnesota, moved to the Cities to go to college, dropped out and ended up in Battle Lake for a while) and senses of humor, but she’s got much bigger balls than I do. I would never have gone into Lartel’s house in May Day.

You give a lot of good writing advice on your blog (and have given some good advice to me). What, generally, would you tell people who want to write but don’t know how to begin?
That’s a question I hear a lot, and I think it sprouts from the idea that writing is a grand and isolated venture only allowed to a select few. If you really want to write, I’d approach it the same way a hungry person approaches a buffet—-start with what you like, and go at it until you’re full. Jump in. Take the plunge. Grab a pencil and paper and write. There are supporting activities that make it easier to write—read a lot, carry a notebook around with you so you can jot down great lines you hear or plot kernels that seriously drop on your head from nowhere, join a writer’s group or take a class so there is some routine and pressure to your writing, be honest even when it hurts—but there is no trick to it.

That's great advice!

You and I have the same publisher, Midnight Ink, which has its headquarters in Minnesota. Have you been there?

I have. The building is new and glossy and set in the woods. EVERYONE there is friendly and quirky and celebrates Halloween (my favorite holiday) like their lives depend on it.

Will you speak to me at Bouchercon?
Yes. I’ve already told my bodyguards, publicist, and stylist to let you through. Or, if you managed to get a room at the actual conference hotel (I’m two miles away), I’ll sleep on your floor.

Sorry. I too am an outsider. But it's good that your entourage will allow me access.

How can fans of Jess Lourey and Mira James find out more about them both?
My website,, is regularly updated with news on appearances and publications, and my blog,, is embarrassingly personal but is also packed with writing and publishing tips. And if send me an email at, I’ll shoot you a brief email to let you know when my next novel (or short story) is coming out!

Thanks so much, Jess. Your interview has inspired me to stop watching television and looking at myself in the mirror. (The latter has ceased to be a temptation in recent chubby years).

See you soon!


Anonymous said...

Julia, I'm with Jess, you should definitely come to Minnesota.


Julia Buckley said...

I'm mapquesting it now. :)

Jess Lourey said...

But the burning question is, are you still watching TV? :)

Julia Buckley said...

Answer: Yes. But soon I won't have time, so that will solve the problem. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Answer: Yes. But soon I won't have time, so that will solve the problem. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Answer: Yes. But soon I won't have time, so that will solve the problem. :)