Minnesota Mysteries and Writing as a Form of Healing with Jessica Lourey

Jessica Lourey is my first guest who is a writer and a full-time writing teacher.

54 Jessica loureyIn this episode of the podcast we talk about her Murder by Month mysteries, and also about her non-fiction book, Rewrite Your Life, an amazing book, which I am currently pouring through.

I use writing every day to keep myself sane. I journal each morning, which helps me to work though some of my garbage, and it also sometimes helps me to know what I’m thinking. I wrote a memoir about ten years I spent in a cult in the 1990s, and writing that book was incredibly healing. And, of course, I also write fiction, which makes me happy, keeps me sane, and hopefully brings a little more light into the world.

If you have any interest in writing at all, I encourage you to listen to my chat with Jessica. We have a lovely time discussing writing, reading, healing and more.

You can find out more about today’s guest, Jessica Lourey, and all her books on her website JessicaLourey.com. You can also find her on Twitter @JessLourey.

Links and resources mentioned in this episode

  • Click on any of the book covers to go to Jessica’s books on Amazon

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher.

You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.

Transcription of Interview with Jessica Lourey

Alexandra: Hi, everyone. I’m Alexandra Amor. This is It’s a Mystery Podcast. And I’m here today with Jessica Lourey. Hi, Jessica.

Jessica: Hi, Alexandra. Thanks for having me.

Alexandra: Oh, you’re so welcome. It’s great to have you here. I’m excited to talk about your books. So let me introduce you to our listeners.

Jessica Lourey is best known for her critically-acclaimed “Murder-by-Month Mysteries”, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist. The latter writing her books are a splendid mix of humor and suspense. Jessica also writes Sword and Sorcery fantasy as Albert Lea…is that how I pronounce Lea, L-E-A?

Jessica: That’s right. Yup.

Alexandra: And edge-of-your-seat YA adventure as J.H. Lourey. And she’s also branching out into literary fiction under her given name. So welcome, Jessica. It’s great to have you here today.

Jessica: I’m excited to be here.

Alexandra: We’re going to talk mostly about your “Murder-by-Month Mysteries”. And the main character is…now, I’m pronouncing her name in my head because I’m reading the first one right now, Mira James. Is that how you pronounce it?

Jessica: That is how I pronounce it but so many readers pronounce it Myra James. I will say Mira.

Alexandra: Yeah. Okay. Good. I was saying Mira too.

Jessica: Okay. Good, good.

Alexandra: Yeah. Yes. I has a woman I used to get pedicures from and her name was Mira. And that’s how she spelled it so.

Jessica: Okay, good. Perfect.

Alexandra: There you go. So Mira is an urban woman and I would sort of describe her as complicated if I was being generous and also maybe trying to get her shit together sort of.

Jessica: I like this already.

Alexandra: Okay. Good. But she’s moving at the very beginning of “May Day”, the first book, she’s moving to rural Minnesota.

Why don’t you tell us a little bit about more about her?

Lourey May DayJessica: “May Day” was my very first book that I got published and so it’s a little rough around the edges. But when I was writing it, my vision at the time was to deal with what I was dealing with as a woman who moved from Minneapolis to a super small town. And everybody knew each other and it was sort of this overwhelming cultural block that I just couldn’t get inside.

And so in many ways, it was helpful because I decided to write about it instead. But so, Mira is a woman who grew up with an alcoholic father who died in a car accident and moved away from home and got an English degree which…and somebody famously told me you can only open an English store with that. There’s no money in an English degree. And so she got her English degree and then she was kinda lost. And she got an opportunity to house sit in Battle Lake. So she took over her friend’s life and she starts finding murders and she starts solving them.

Alexandra: And she’s working as a part time librarian and journalist in Battle Lake, correct?

Jessica: Yeah. And so I did journalist because I needed her to be able to get into situations and find out what was going on behind the scenes. I made her a library because every writer loves libraries. It was just a way for me to pretend I was a librarian to imagine that.

Alexandra: I love at the very beginning of “May Day”, you described something that’s happening to her–I won’t give it away–and you talk about the stacks. And you specifically say that she’s in the row between, you know, PAW and SLO or whatever. And I mean, that’s just such a library thing. It just cracked me up right at the beginning.

Jessica: Yeah. Thank you. I did a lot of research to find out of what is required from a librarian because I have a very innocent understanding that, you know, you put books away, you order books, you help people. It’s a science, it’s actually a science.

Alexandra: Yes, yeah. And I remember I worked at the library when I was in my early 20s. And so reading the scenes at the beginning of “May Day” were so evocative for me. I could smell the books and smell the carpet. And although I was in a big city.

I can only imagine that in a small town like Battle Lake that Mira is really required to do everything basically.

Jessica: Yeah, right? Because the librarian, a small time becomes a community center, it becomes a, you know, a window to the world, it becomes where the computers are housed. So yeah, absolutely. She does a little bit of everything.

Alexandra: Yes. Yeah, exactly.

Is Battle Lake real or have you made it up?

Jessica: It is a real town. Sometimes I wish I had made up a town but Battle Lake is actually the town I was living in at the time. And I was so green that I figured I would just call it Battle Lake. And yes, so that’s a real town. Its population is about 800, it’s a white spot on the map in northern Minnesota.

Alexandra: I read in one of your reviews, somebody said they went there and they looked for the library but they couldn’t find it.

Jessica: There is no library in Battle Lake. So I made that up.

There is a police station at Battle Lake though and I’ve had a couple of the readers of my books tell me that they’ve gone there. And then they send pictures of them with the Battle Lake police officers who I’m sure are trying to do a very difficult job and are so tired of asking if this stuff is…getting asked if this is real because it’s all made up. So there is a police station, there is not a library.

There is a Chief Wenonga Statue. So you can Google that, that’s a real thing.

Alexandra: Okay. That was my next question, you anticipated me. So that’s awesome.

I’ll put a link in the show notes or an image maybe from the web if the Chief Wenonga Statue because Mira oddly has a bit of a crush on the statue.

Jessica: Yeah. Well, there’s not a lot of dating options out there. So you take what you can get.

Alexandra: That’s right. Yes, yeah. Exactly. So…well as we mentioned, the books are called “Murder-by-Month”.

By my tally, you’ve got all the months done except for March, which is coming out this autumn 2017. And only April left, correct?

Jessica: Yeah. Only April left.

I have no idea for April because it’s gonna be the last in the series and so it has to tie everything together and be spectacular. And so, I don’t know what I’m gonna do with that one yet.

Alexandra: That was my question. Will that be a completion for Mira?

Jessica: I think that right now my plan is for…so March like you said, thank you for bringing that up, “March of Crime” comes out September 9th. And then my publisher wants April but I haven’t signed the contract yet because I don’t know what to do with it.

But my plan is for that one to be the end of it and then to write novellas based on the series characters. Because I frankly love them so much that I wanna hang out with them still but I don’t wanna be tied to a book every year for them.

Alexandra: Right. Yes, yeah. And so I have only read the first book and I’m about half way through.

Tell us a little bit about what the journey for Mira has been during this year of the murder mysteries.

Jessica: Yes. So the series starts out in May because I was such a novice writer. I did not start in January. First of all because I didn’t anticipate people reading the book so I just never even thought they would say, “Why it didn’t start in January?” But also I could not figure out where to hide a dead body in Minnesota in January that it would not be immediately discovered.

Because we’re all inside, there’s no outdoors in January in Minnesota. And so I started in May and Mira just gets dropped into Battle Lake and she’s trying to get her feet under her. And then the next few mysteries deal with her learning how the town works, sort of embedding herself in the culture of Battle Lake.

But then I deal with larger themes and my goal in all the books is for them to be humorous, for them to be escapist. But she starts to deal with her difficulty in dating, she starts to deal with about whether or not she wants to go to Minneapolis, return to Minneapolis, whether or not she wants to take up drinking again because that was one of the reasons she left Minneapolis.

And then in October she finally gets a private eye license or begins to because it was stretching even my believability to have her come across all these bodies without any other way in. So she starts to get a private eye license and that’s about where it leaves off.

Alexandra: Wow. Okay. Well, yeah, I’m really interested to see what happens once you eventually write April and see what happens.

Jessica: Yeah. Me too.

Alexandra: I mentioned in our emails when we were going back and forth, I’d love to touch on your book, “Rewrite Your Life”. And for the our listeners who don’t know, it’s a nonfiction book that Jessica has written about using writing as a tool for healing and that kind of thing.

And you’ve got a great TEDx Talk. I’ll to link to that in the show notes as well. I started reading that book as well too, I haven’t finished quite yet.

One of the things I love that you said in that book is that we read books to figure out who we are. Could you talk about that a little bit?

lourey RewriteJessica: Yeah. Well, I think that so much of reading fiction, in particular, is about identifying our emotions, identifying our values, and connecting with other people through fictional characters.

In researching “Rewrite Your Life”, I found that there’s a whole field of therapy called bibliotherapy. And that’s where people hook you up with a book that you need to get through what you’re going through.

And so if you’re going through a divorce or you’ve recently lost a child or if you are moving to a country you’ve never visited before, all of these are dealt with in fiction. And so if you can take on the experience in a really safe vehicle of fiction, it makes life much more enjoyable. It’s like a roadmap for how to deal with it.

And I found personally that reading works really well but writing about your life works even better for working through stuff. And so the whole premise of “Rewrite Your Life” is that I and I think most fiction writers I know transform our personal experiences into fiction. So that we can hide, right?

We don’t have to say, “This happened to me and this is how I felt about it.” You could make it a fictional character. And so that’s tremendously healing as a writer but I also think it’s the juice of really good fiction. Because it’s true, it’s something people can identify with it and resonates different that pure fiction, I think.

Alexandra: Yes, yeah. And as a writer myself then my question was because you’ve consciously been using writing as a way for healing–and I imagine there’s a lot of you in Mira.

Have you noticed your relationship with her change over the course of the books as you’ve changed? Or how has that worked?

Lourey September FairJessica: Yeah, I have. And it’s such a great question because I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. What I’ve actually discovered is…because I’ve written 11 books in that series and Mira did start out as very much mirroring me.

I find now that she is much more fictional, that I’ve evolved and I’ve grown past a lot of the stuff I was dealing with because that’s how life works but also because I was writing about it. And so I much more separated from her than I used to be, which means I can put in a lot more danger and I can give her more sex scenes which are hard to write for other people if you’re thinking about your own life.

Alexandra: Yes, yes.

Jessica: So I can have more fun with her and now I’m taking on other projects that are more personal but still fiction. Because that’s the next challenge is what’s my next thing to work through.

Alexandra: Okay. And so when you approach new fiction now, I guess you’re consciously approaching it in a way where you’re working through some of your stuff, as you just said.

Is that true?

Jessica: I absolutely am. The project that I’m working on right now is the second in my thriller series. And the first in that thriller series is called “Salem’s Cipher”. And I wrote that one before this last presidential election. And I was working through a lot of feeling powerless.

I was working through a lot of, you know, what’s women’s role in society, where’s our voice, where’s our history. And I was just passionate about those topics to the point that I could not sleep very well. And so writing about those helped me to put them in place, helped me to feel like I had some power and some voice. And I just found out yesterday that the project might be optioned for TV, which is super exciting.

I honestly think so much of the success in writing is tied to writing about the things that matter to you. I really believe that.

Alexandra: I interviewed someone a few episodes ago, a woman named Cindy Brown. And she took a class, a writing class once from Michael Arndt. I don’t know if I’m pronouncing his name correctly. He was the screenwriter for “Little Miss Sunshine” and some other things.

Jessica: Oh, I love that.

Alexandra: He said to her, “Write about what pisses you off.”

Jessica: I love that. Yeah.

Alexandra: Right? I thought that was such amazing advice.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since and because when something makes us angry, it really comes through in the writing and it really does resonate I think with readers.

Jessica: Absolutely. I think anger is a great vehicle. Frustration, shame, these are all great vehicles for accessing kind of the archetypal stories that we need to be telling. And yeah, write what pisses you off. I love that. It empowers you but it also helps other people. And it creates great books, honestly.

Alexandra: Exactly. Yeah, it accomplishes so much all at once. And, you know, just as a bit of a segue in what has been a challenging time especially in the United States but worldwide too, it feels like things are difficult right now.

I’m in Canada, things are a little calmer here but often I notice it comes up that people almost want to devalue art at this time because politics matter more and there’s all these serious things going on in the world. And what I’ve been feeling lately is that art actually matters more than ever.

I’ve seen quotes by other writers as well about this and other artists. And then, you know, I’ll kind of segue into a personal story, I’m going through a challenging time now. My mom is in hospice at the moment and it’s a really challenging time.

Jessica: Oh, sorry.

Alexandra: Thank you. And I noticed that having different forms of art in my life, like listening to music is the example, is so important and it brings me so much comfort and going for a long walk and listening to music that I love.

I love that you in your book “Rewrite Your Life” you encourage people to write work that resonates with them and so that it will resonate with readers as well. So I just wanted to say that and how important I think it is.

Jessica: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. And I agree, I think that art is the map but also is the bulb. It is the thing we need to get through but it’s also a map of how we get through. And I do agree with you that writers are being so passionate and so spot on about speaking out and taking stands right now. But also I think, I think this time next year we’re gonna have some phenomenal books out there because when the world is in this much turmoil, it creates really good fiction.

Alexandra: Yes.

Jessica: And it’s kind of a mess down here. Yeah. It’s kind of a mess down here right now.

Alexandra: Yes, yeah. Oh, I’m sorry about that.

And the other thing I want to ask you about writing since you’ve written “Rewrite Your Life” is I was talking to the same author, Cindy Brown, the other day about how writing mysteries specifically I feel is like a metaphor for searching for the truth. Would you agree with that?

Jessica: Yeah. First of all, I wanna meet Cindy Brown because she sounds incredibly wise.

Alexandra: She’s amazing.

Lourey October FestJessica: Yeah. You know, when I wrote “May Day” it was almost immediately after my husband’s suicide, which I mentioned in my TEDx Talk. And for me it was…I mean, it wasn’t even a metaphor.

I needed justice, I needed truth, I needed answers. And writing a mystery was the only I was gonna get that at that point in my life. And I absolutely do believe it’s a search for truth.

I think that’s why mysteries are always on the bestseller list. I mean, any time you pick up “The New York Times” bestseller list, you will see mysteries there. And it’s because we need answers and we need closure and life often does not give us those.

Alexandra: Exactly, yeah. And justice.

Jessica: And justice, right?

Alexandra: Yes.

Jessica: Right. Yeah.

Alexandra: Yeah. Exactly. So you were writing “May Day” after, you know, probably what will hopefully be the most difficult and challenging time in your life then.

Jessica: Yeah. That’s to put.

Alexandra: And yet it’s quite…it’s humorous, it’s a funny book.

How did you find the humor while you were writing it?

Lourey NovemberJessica: You know, it was survival. And it’s my defense mechanism. So that’s how I try to see the world but honestly, it was survival. And it was also about writing what I needed. It was really about writing what I needed and I needed more humor.

One of my favorite stories that I heard at a panel one time in a mystery convention, it was a forensic anthropologist. And she was talking about how the darkest times and the darkest jobs create the funniest senses of humor. And her example–it’s always very black humor–but her example was she told us a story and she said when they go into houses after somebody has died, if there’s a dog there, the dog will wait until it’s starving to eat the dead body.

If there’s a cat, it will just start eating its dead owner once it’s bored. She says like 10, 15 minutes and your cat will start eating you. And that’s so dark and it’s so horrible and it’s also hilarious.

Alexandra: Yes.

Jessica: So I think those sort of dark uncomfortable situations are actually…create the funniest, they’re breeding grounds for humor in many ways.

Alexandra: Right. Yes, that’s so true. And yeah, you know, Mira…I feel like Mira’s humor too is a little bit dark.

She’s kind of in a crappy place in her life and it’s just so funny, some of the observations that she makes and the characters that she’s running across in Battle Lake. It’s awesome.

Jessica: Thank you. Yeah. If I could go back and change one thing, I have a character with a southern accent in “May Day” and I overwrote it. So if you have any writers listening and they have an accent in their book, don’t do what I did. Don’t be phonetic with all of the words.

Alexandra: Okay. That’s our writing tip for today.

Jessica: There we go. Yup.

Alexandra: Yes, yes. Well, this has been awesome, Jessica. Thank you so much.

A couple of things I wanted to mention and then I’m gonna ask you if you have anything you want to share is that on your website, there’s a great page with the talks and presentations and courses and trainings that you give. So I’m gonna put a link to that because I loved seeing that and you’re able to share so much with others who are wanting to learn more about writing.

Why don’t you let everybody know where they can find out more about you and your books.

Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. So my website is www.jessicalourey.com. It’s animated. I love my website, I wanna live in my website. It’s a fun place to visit. But it lists all of my books, it list all of my upcoming events.

I also teach writing full-time at a college in Minnesota but I also teach workshops around the country. And so there’s more information on that on my website as well.

Alexandra: Great. And as we mentioned, you’ve got the March title. Sorry, remind me what it is, “March of Death.”

Jessica: “March of Crime”.

Alexandra: “March of Crime.” And that’s coming out this fall. Did you say September 9th?

Jessica: September 9th, September 9th. Yeah. And I’ll be in Bouchercon in Canada on October. Are you are gonna be there?

Alexandra: In Toronto.

Jessica: Yes.

Alexandra: No, I think I’m gonna be back in British Columbia by that time, unfortunately.

Jessica: Oh, okay.

Alexandra: Yeah, yeah. So well, thank you so much. This has been amazing and I really appreciate having you on the show.

Jessica: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed myself.

Alexandra: Oh good. You’re welcome. Take care. Okay. Bye, bye.

Jessica: Bye.

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