Would you trade Hawai’i for Nebraska?

Kelly Brackenhoff

Kelly Brakenhoff’s amateur sleuth, Cassandra Sato, is ambitious: she wants to be a university president one day. So leaving Hawai’i and landing in Nebraska makes sense to her because it will further her career.

Kelly reads to us from the first book in the Cassandra Sato series, Death by Dissertation, and we talk about how creating a character who is a fish out of water can lend itself to interesting plot points and situations.

In the interview, I ask Kelly about her picture book for children called Never Mind. She shares what motivated her to write that book and the important issue the next book in the series addresses. (Hint: it has to do with farts.) :-) Below is the video she mentions where she reads Never Mind and Amy Willman does the signs for it.

This week’s mystery author

Kelly Brackenhoff

Kelly Brakenhoff writes the Cassandra Sato Mystery series including Death by Dissertation, a 2020 RONE Award Mystery Finalist, and Dead Week, “a diverting whodunit,” (Publishers Weekly).

Kelly is an American Sign Language Interpreter whose motivation for learning ASL began in high school when she wanted to converse with her deaf friends. She also writes a popular children’s picture book series featuring Duke the Deaf Dog.

To learn more about Kelly and all her books visit KellyBrackenhoff.com

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 StitcherAndroidGoogle PodcastsTuneIn, and Spotify.

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Excerpt from Death by Dissertation

Death by Dissertation

Cassandra Sato cradled her palms around her warm Morton College travel mug, hoping the coffee inside would calm the churning in her stomach. Half anticipation, half impatience at wasting her time, uncertainty was the last thing she needed her boss to see at the start of their probationary coaching meeting. She fixed a serene expression on her face, pretending to admire the view from his picture window, while reviewing her mental list of the issues he might raise.

As the youngest person to earn a doctorate in education from the University of Hawai’i at age 28, she had years of practice appearing more mature and confident than she felt. Still, feeling confident in the tropical sunshine of Manoa was much easier than squirming on an antique wooden armchair in Carson, Nebraska—population 8,300—in an office that best resembled a British men’s club.

After two months as Student Affairs administrator, the honeymoon period was wearing off. Ten more probation meetings to go until her contract became permanent. She blew out a sigh. No big deal. She’d only relocated thousands of miles for this job.

The office door swung open and her boss eased in, a large ceramic platter in his arms. Cassandra stood respectfully. “Good afternoon, Dr. Nielson.” She made to help him with the dish, but he waved her off, placing it on his desk.

A moist, yeasty smell of freshly baked bread tinged with something sour drew her eyes to the pile of baked golden-brown dough rounds. Nielson raised his bushy gray eyebrows and nodded, his eager expression one she would call pride. “My wife home-baked some bierocks. Please, help yourself.”

Nebraskans enjoyed sharing homemade food and excess produce just like her co-workers back home, although sampling new dishes at work was often dicey. The snacks resembled manapua, but she doubted his wife made them from scratch.

Although he graciously offered her a napkin, his toothy smile hinted at a dare. “Do Hawaiians eat bierocks, too?”

She swallowed the automatic I’m-not-Hawaiian reply that popped into her head. It was too complicated to correct him—again. Native Hawaiian meant a Polynesian descendant, not simply any Hawai’i state resident. Anyone familiar with the islands would never confuse the two. Grinding her back teeth together, she pasted a smile onto her face. “Thank you, Dr. Nielson, I’ll try one.”

She chose a small piece and bit into the soft, warm crust. Looking away, she tasted hamburger, Swiss cheese, salt, pepper and . . . and . . . Was he seriously trying to gross her out about food? Her regular diet included dried seaweed, octopus and taro root. She’d grown up believing Spam was its own food group.

Lightly tanned crow’s feet framed his twinkling blue eyes. “Becky’s secret ingredient is to mix in a little sauerkraut with the cabbage.”

Cassandra’s main experience with cabbage was fermented in kimchi, and this was quite different. Not disgusting, but probably an acquired taste. She politely said, “Your wife is an excellent cook, sir.”

Hanging his suit jacket on a wooden coat rack, he opened the top button on his blue shirt and tugged his tie an inch looser while seating himself behind the desk. He referred to their meeting agenda. “Are you up to speed on Morton’s upcoming capital campaign?”

The armchair creaked as she adjusted her wool pencil skirt and reached for her Moleskine journal on the edge of his desk. “I received the donor analysis and architectural renderings you emailed.” She flipped to a blank page and headed it “Probation meeting” with the date.

Reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, he laid a finger on his desk calendar and sighed. “Unfortunately, our Chinese contacts rescheduled my team’s cultural exchange trip to conflict with Homecoming next week. I need you to pinch hit for me at the finance committee meeting on Tuesday. One key player is Board President Dr. Schneider. You’ll replace me in the Homecoming Parade with Schneider, the grand marshal. Do your homework and get to know him.”

Nodding, she noted the meeting, retrieved her travel mug from the floor and sipped fragrant Kona coffee. Homecoming parades were not her forte, but she welcomed the extra duties. His absence would be an opportunity to practice her management skills at the highest level.

His voice became stern. “In addition, you need to leave the office more. Get out on campus and talk to the constituents. I should invite you to the next dinner reception I host at my house. There are key people you need to talk to and find out their agenda. I need to know you are on my team working to advance Morton College into the future.” He wrote a reminder on his agenda about the dinner invitation.

Constituents? What was wrong with calling them students? Disciplining undergrads and mentoring thesis candidates comprised a good chunk of Cassandra’s daily schedule. Turning a few pages in her journal, she said, “I attended the faculty welcome orientation and luncheon several weeks after I started work in August.” His dinner invitation fell in line with the carefully choreographed steps she’d taken since she was twenty years old to get this far.

Finally, she was breaking into the old boys’ club, meeting decision makers and gaining valuable leadership experience towards her goal of becoming a university president.

“Yes, that’s a start, but you need to do more to dispel the stereotype that you’re a shy, quiet Oriental.” His sudden smile promised a great idea. “Hey, while I’m thinking about it . . . maybe you can give me language tips for how to greet the welcoming group when I arrive in China next week.”

Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, she said, “Dr. Nielson, I’ve never been to China either. I don’t speak any Chinese.” It wasn’t the first time she’d tried to set him straight on her ethnicity and background, but correcting her boss required delicacy. He had a reputation for ping-ponging between creative problem solver and theatrically moody despot with no patience for weakness or indecisiveness. “I was born and raised in Waipahu, Hawai’i where my family has lived for

generations—110 years. They originally came from Japan, and most people nowadays call people who look like me Asian.” Her grandmother would jump out of her sickbed and slap his ruddy face if she heard him mistake Cassandra for a Chinese girl.

The crease between his brows furrowed for a few seconds, then he shrugged it off. She wanted to believe he meant well, but his ignorance set her on edge sometimes.

He thumbed through a folder, handing her the homecoming event flyer. “This is a bad time for me to leave town. You’ll need to coordinate with the other administrators to cover events.”

Relieved he was on track with the meeting’s purpose again, she skimmed the schedule: game night, a carnival, the parade, and Saturday’s football game. A sidebar advertised lunch and tours for visiting alumni.

Nielson cleared his throat and puffed out his chest. “Obviously, the staff will take care of logistics, but I expect you to come out of the office and handle your share of hospitality duties.”

Welcoming guests with “aloha spirit” was much more Cassandra’s comfort zone than parades. She pulled up her phone’s calendar app. “Shall I ask Julie to put my name down for the events that remain unfilled?”

He said, “I’m concerned, Dr. Sato, about student and public perceptions when you represent this office. My personal support can’t completely overcome negative episodes like the photo of you and that preacher woman . . .” Shaking his gray-haired head, his lips pursed together in disapproval.

A warning quiver tiptoed down her spine. Last week Dr. Nielson had called her into his office, scolding her like a teenager out past curfew over one photo taken out of context. His bringing it up again was a bad omen. 

“I hired you because of your impressive credentials and journal articles. The search committee’s support of your hiring was divided because of your limited administrative experience. I convinced them we needed to bring some diversity to our campus here in the middle of white America.”

Well, he was right about that part. More than 83% of Morton College’s students were Caucasian. 

“I expected you to handle committee assignments, teach leadership classes, and deal with student affairs cases as well as supervise the team of directors who report to you.” Pulling out a copy of the photo that had gotten her new job off to a shaky start, he laid it on the desk between them. Leaning forward and lowering his voice, he counseled, “Use more discretion about your public appearances. We need this woman to move on. We don’t want you or Morton seen as a laughingstock.”

That bierock now sat more like a rock in her stomach than a cozy welcome. Cassandra was no expert on social media, but the photo seemed harmless overall. Ok, probably she shouldn’t have stopped to chat with such a memorable figure in the open but calling her a laughingstock went too far. She’d written off the inappropriate anonymous emails she’d received as cranks, but Nielson’s disapproval was more serious.

Perfectly timed, a brisk knock sounded on the door. His assistant, Julie, stepped halfway into the office. “Dr. Nielson, uh . . . excuse me. Campus s-security is on the phone. A body was found at the Edgerton Science building. A d-dead body. What do you want me to t-tell them?”

Cassandra’s head jerked around to look into Julie’s somber, pale face. Returning her gaze to Dr. Nielson, they stared at each other in momentary disbelief. 

He said, “We are on our way over.”

Interview with Kelly Brakenhoff

Alexandra: Nice. Thank you.

Kelly: That was fun. It’s been a while since I’ve done that.

Alexandra: I have to say, I don’t post the video, but I think you’re the author with the most theatrical movements and acting out the voices, of everyone that I’ve interviewed, it was great.

Kelly: That comes from being an interpreter. I’m just a big ham.

Alexandra: Okay. Oh, I love it. I want to go right back to the very beginning, because I read on your website that you began writing these books, or this book, for NaNoWriMo in 2014.

For our listeners who don’t know what that is, why don’t you explain what NaNo is and then tell us what prompted you to do that?

Kelly: I’m a huge fan of NaNoWriMo, which stands for national novel writing month. It happens every year in November, people from all over the world, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world make a promise that they will write 50,000 words in one month.

I had always had a bucket list item to write a novel, and I came across NaNoWriMo and I love a challenge. And I thought, okay, I can do anything for 30 days. 50,000 words divides out to 1,667 words a day. So I kind of thought, well, if I’m ever going to write a novel, you have to actually sit down and write it.

And so that seemed like a good chunk to do every single day. And sure enough, I was able to finish my 50,000 words in that first month in 2014. Of course it took me another four years to edit it and re edit it and send it out for help from readers and editors and kind of get it all to the point where it was actually able to be published.

But that was the thing that got me over the hump. Definitely.

Alexandra: Had you had Cassandra in mind before you started, or did she appear as you were writing or how did that work?

Kelly: Yeah, like I said, I’ve had writing a novel on my bucket list for ever, and I just have life, family, children, things kind of postponed that dream for a really long time.

So I had plenty of time to think about it. When I was first married, my husband and I moved from Nebraska to Hawaii for five years. In fact, our first two kids were born there. And so I know what it feels like to go there and have everything be different and be a fish out of water and try to fit in and make new friends.

And so I just reversed it for this, I thought. Okay. Can you imagine, well, first of all, who would leave? Well, I mean, obviously she has a pretty big goal to be, become a university president. Otherwise there’s no way anybody would leave Hawaii and moved to Nebraska, but I thought, Oh, how fun? Wouldn’t that be fun?

And then how completely different the culture and everything is. So I thought that would just be a great, fun way to put my character into the situation.

The second thing that probably the influenced it is my job as a sign language interpreter. Most of my time I spend in college classrooms. And so I actually, if I’m with a student, I stand in front of the class by the teacher and sign everything that’s going on in class.

So over the 20 plus years that I’ve been doing that I’ve been in 15 different majors, every kind of class you can imagine. So I have heard and seen just about, I mean, some of the things that you can’t make up stuff, right? Like that’s something that writers always say, the truth is stranger than fiction.

So it’s been fun to take all of those experiences and put them all into my fictional college campus with a funny strong-willed character.

Alexandra: I think on your website you even mentioned that in your books, you just like to weave in all the things in your life that you’re interested in.

Kelly: Yeah. I have a few friends who know everything about me and they like to pick through the books and go, Oh yeah. Like anybody who knows, I used to live in Hawaii, understands all the Hawaii references. And I’m trying to think, well, my sign language stuff, and there’s deaf characters in all my books and there’s actually sign language in all my books too.

So I like to put all of those different things in there.

Alexandra: You mentioned being a fish out of water and the cultural differences. I had never heard of a bierock before.

Kelly: You’re from Canada, right?

Alexandra: Yeah.

Kelly: So I think they’re called a lot of different things. It’s kind of like a pierogi. It’s definitely a German / Eastern European thing. And so a lot of people who settled in the Midwest. There’s an actual restaurant whose entire menu is based off of bierock. Anyone who’s ever lived in Nebraska or the Midwest has heard of Runza. And when I used to live away from Nebraska, the first place that we would drive through when we would come home was Runza’s.

It’s basically sauted burger and cabbage, and then you can add spices. You can add cheese, you can add flavorings and then it’s got a yeasty bread pocket thing. It was kind of like a hot pocket that’s thinner, but way better and really addictive.

Alexandra: Well, I learned something new every time I host this show.

Kelly: If you’re ever in the Midwest, especially in Nebraska, you have to drive through Runza’s.

Alexandra: Okay. I will. I promise I will do that.

One of the things I wanted to ask about too was, the book is described as an academic cozy and I didn’t realize that was a sub genre of cozies.

And are there tropes then? Beause there are in mystery novels in general, but are there narrower tropes that you have to make sure you hit when you’re writing an academic cozy.

Kelly: That’s a great question. In my research about setting my book in a college campus, I started looking for other authors who had similar types of books.

And if you go on Amazon and type in academic mystery, there is no category for that. I’m on a campaign, a personal campaign, I think there should be because there’s really quite a few mysteries that are based on college campuses or even the schools. So there’s some really, really good authors and mysteries out there with the same thing.

I think a lot of it has to do in common with cozy mysteries where it’s usually a small town or a campus community as a small community. So you have that same parallel of the small town or the neighborhood or the community. That’s definitely in the cozy mystery. College campuses have a crazy cast of characters because in an office you’ve assembled this team who are going to have all the same goal of making money for your company, but on a college campus, you have people who their specialty is biochemistry or art. I mean, they’re so different.

And then the people, the personalities, and they encourage that diversity and they foster that but of course there’s plenty of room for conflict, mayhem, murder.

It’s a great place to have a mystery.

Alexandra: Well, that’s what occurred to me is that a campus is almost like a little city of its own or a little town. And I just thought that was brilliant.

Kelly: Yeah. I love hearing that. Very much so. And like I said, there’s quite a few, a good series out there that are based on college campuses.

And a lot of them that I’ve seen are based on the viewpoint of a professor or most of them, I think I’ve seen are based from a professor’s viewpoint or a student or a grad student. So I think having this administrative viewpoint is really different because. Most people don’t see that part of the college.

Most people you attended college or you teach at a college. So this she’s really got a whole different level of stuff going on there, which I think makes it interesting.

Alexandra: You did talk about the journey after NaNoWriMo between 2014 and when the book was published in 2019.

How much did the book change? Not so much specific details, butdid Cassandra’s personality change? The big moments: did those change at all?

Kelly: I think it’s funny that you asked that beause this book I had the basic, I think I had so long to think about it, that I had the basic thing down and it was just figuring out for me as a new writer, figuring out the clues and the red herrings and getting all of that in the right order.

And the story structure. That was difficult for me. But the actual elements of the story pretty much were the same as they were in 2014. It’s just how I did it changed quite a bit throughout the right.

Alexandra: And then I imagine the second one as, as ever is always so much easier.

Kelly: Oh, no, not at all. The second one was harder.

First of all, I think most people’s first book is under their bed somewhere and it doesn’t ever see the light of day. But since I had been writing through most of my life, but not really seriously, and this was the first thing that I really, really worked hard to complete, and I went ahead and published it.

I was so surprised that strangers bought it and liked it, that I kind of felt this pressure on the second one. And I had this really good idea, but my editor had to reign me in and say like, okay, you can’t have any more subplots. And she really kind of taught me a lot about story structure.

Like I said, I’m still new at this. I have so much to learn. It’s been great, but I feel like I took a graduate level writing class just from my editor, because she would have me switch things and start things in a different place and make sure that the high points and the low points hit at where they were supposed to hit.

And those were all things that I was still learning. And so that second book took me a lot longer to write than I thought it would because I was tweaking it until it fits. Like you said, the genre, the tropes, the things that you’re supposed to do. So I felt like I took a graduate class to just finish it.

Alexandra: That’s great though. Nice to have her guidance. That’s lovely.

Kelly: Oh yeah. Good editors are gold. They’re gold.

Alexandra: They really are. Do you have plans for more? Are you writing the next one?

Kelly: I’m finishing up the last changes on the third one, which is called Dead of Winter Break.

The books follow an academic year. So Death by Dissertation is the beginning of the first semester. Dead Week happens at Thanksgiving time. In Nebraska, in the Midwest, a lot of the colleges, the week before finals week is a time where you can’t give any more assignments and it’s a quiet study time.

And so it’s called dead week here.

Alexandra: Oh, okay. Good title for a mystery novel.

Kelly: So the third book happens during the break between semesters. So winter break. So each book is kind of like follows the school year.

Alexandra: And so you said you’re just putting the finishing touches on it now.

Kelly: Yes. That one should be published later this fall.

Alexandra; We’re just about running out of time, but I wanted to touch on your book about ASL. The picture book for kids. So tell us how that came about.

Kelly: I’m so excited to talk about that because actually the second book of that publishes here in about two weeks.

Once I realized that I could actually write a book and self publish it, I started my own publishing company to do that. And then I checked that off my bucket list.

But I felt like, okay, well now I’ve done that. What more can I give the world?

I love mysteries. I love reading them. I love writing it, but I have this kind of unique view on life with my deaf friends and my knowledge of ASL. And then my knowledge of publishing and writing.

My sister happens to be an illustrator. And don’t ask me how – it was a weak moment on her part – I convinced her to illustrate my first book. It’s called Never Mind. And it’s about Duke and he’s a deaf dog. He’s the only person in his family who’s deaf. Everyone else in his family can hear. And in his life sometimes if he asks people to repeat something, they tell him never mind. He doesn’t like it very much.

So it goes through the little lesson of all the different kinds of times people tell him never mind and how that feels. It’s based on a true story of a friend of mine who had a deaf son and she made a rule in her house, never mind is not allowed. It just comes about because people don’t want to repeat themselves.

Sometimes you think, Oh, it wasn’t really that important to begin with. So never mind. And a lot of times it’s like, okay, I don’t really have time. Just never mind or I’ll tell you later, I’m too busy right now. I’ll tell you later. But I’ve heard from children, adults.

People who have older parents who are starting to lose their hearing. So many people have gotten back to me about how hurtful that is to be on the receiving end of that. And it happens every day to lots of people who have problem, not just hearing, but like anyone who’s maybe shy or has odd or a learning disability and just takes a little bit longer sometimes.

So it’s really resonated with a lot of people, that feeling. And of course we want to teach kids not to do that. The other thing about the books that’s really cool is there’s signs on several of the pages. So my friend who teaches sign language does the sign, and then we have videos that accompany it.

You can learn how to do some of the signs and she even signs the whole story.

Alexandra: Oh, that sounds lovely. Wow. What’s the second book about?

Kelly: The second book is called Farts Make Noise. Because even if you can’t hear, you have to learn that some noises are loud and some noises are quiet and some noises are not polite.

It’s been so much fun to be able to take my writing life and my work life and put them together into something that I just feel really strongly about. And I’ve just had such a great time doing it. It’s really fun.

Alexandra: That’s fantastic. I love hearing that. I’ll put links in the show notes to the children’s books as well in case people are interested.

Kelly: That’d be great. We even have a YouTube video that we made at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic of me reading the story in English and my friend signing it an ASL and lots of people have really enjoyed showing that to their kids or grandkids.

Alexandra: Kelly, this has been awesome. Why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books?

Kelly: Yeah. Great. My website is just my name, KellyBrackenhoff.com. I have everything about me there and all of the links of places that you can follow me.

I have a Facebook group, mostly my favorite social media is Instagram. I post pictures of my dog and my grandkids and my garden and stuff, but the easiest place to find me is probably my website.

Alexandra: Perfect. Okay. Great. Well, thank you again so much for being with me here today.

Kelly: Thank you for having me.