Time’s up, wolves.

Kelly OliverPhilosopher and award-winning author Kelly Oliver discusses how writing fiction helps her to deal with issues she’s faced without getting her arrested for murder.

We touch on the evolving locations of Kelly’s Jessica James series; the four books so far touch down in such different locations as Chicago academia, the wilds of Montana and Las Vegas. Kelly is keen to bring some of her research as a philosophy professor into her work while at the same time making her books fun and funny with rich characters who evolve.

Thank you to everyone last week who entered to win a copy of It’s a Mystery podcast guest Matty Dalrymple’s new audiobook, Rock Paper Scissors. Matty has been in touch with the winners and sent them their promo codes. Congratulations to the winners!

Love and Death at the InnThis episode of It’s a Mystery Podcast is sponsored by the cozy romantic mystery, Love and Death at the Inn.

Born and raised on Juliet Island, Maggie Archer’s whole life is dedicated to the rustic inn her parents built. When a guest is found dead, the inn’s already precarious financial situation teeters on the brink. Maggie begins to wonder if the growing number of accidents at the inn are really just that, or if something more sinister is at play.

Elliott Simon’s life has recently gone off the rails. His stop on Juliet Island is meant to be temporary but when he finds a body floating in the ocean his plans are put on hold by the RCMP. Complicating matters is his growing attraction to the owner of the Cormorant Inn, the beautiful and headstrong Maggie Archer.

When a fire strikes at the inn, and it looks as though it could have been deliberately set, Maggie and Elliott are in a race to find the perpetrator before more tragedy strikes.

If you like character-based stories where friendship and love form the foundation, beautiful locations, and a little bit of romantic entanglement, then you’ll love Alexandra Amor’s heartwarming Juliet Island Romantic Mystery.

You can find out more about today’s guest, Kelly Oliver, and all her books on her website KellyOliverBooks.com. You can also find her on Twitter @KellyOliverBook.

Links and resources mentioned in this episode

  • Click on any of the book covers to go to Kelly’s books on Amazon
  • Kelly mentions the ‘ripped from the headlines’ subjects in her books. Click here to learn more about the Time’s Up initiative to end sexual assault, harassment, inequality in the workplace for women.

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 Kelly Oliver

Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers, I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s a Mystery Podcast,” and I’m here today with Kelly Oliver. Hi, Kelly.

Kelly: Hi, Alexandra.

Alexandra: How are you today?

Kelly: I’m good. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Alexandra: Oh, you’re so welcome. It’s great to have you here. I’m excited to talk to you about your books, because they have a kickass Western heroine which is close to my heart. So, let me introduce our listeners to you.

Kelly OliverKelly Oliver’s “Jessica James, Cowgirl Philosopher, Mystery Series,” moves between the Chicago area and Western Montana. Wolf, which is the first book in the series, won the 2016 Independently Published Book Award gold medal for best mystery e-book, and also was a Forward Award finalist for best mystery.

When she’s not writing “Jessica James” mystery novels, Kelly Oliver is a distinguished professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Kelly lives in Nashville with her husband and her furry family, Hurricane, Yukiyu, and Mayhem.

Did I pronounce that second animal right?

Kelly: Yes, there are three cats, although we recently lost Hurricane, and now I have little Mischief. I just got a kitten. So, it’s Mayhem, Mischief, and Yukiyu.

Alexandra: What does that Yukiyu mean?

Kelly: Yukiyu is Taino-Indian god. It’s the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. My friend is from Puerto Rico, and Hurricane or Huracan is also one of their gods. And you can guess that Hurricane is the god of the Hurricane, and Yukiyu is the god of the mountain that stops the hurricane. Only, actually, we named them wrong because Hurricane was totally mellow and Yukiyu was really more of the force of nature, but yes, that’s it, Huracan and Yukiyu.

Alexandra: Oh, they’re lovely names. That’s great. Thanks for that.

Let’s talk about Jessica James. She is a philosophy major, somewhat like yourself, she’s 21. And one of the things that I found interesting about the series is that it goes back and forth, sort of, between city and country. So, the first book Wolf, is set in Chicago.

Tell us a little bit about Jessica and about the origins of the series.

Kelly Oliver WolfKelly: Yeah, Jessica is from Montana. She grew up in Montana and she goes to graduate school in Northwestern where all the people there are very posh and the other people in the department are all these guys that came from Ivy League schools, and she’s totally out of her element.

So, it’s a fish-out-of-water situation and she’s constantly messing up. She’s trying to do the right thing, but she constantly messes up and gets in trouble, which is what makes it fun.

And then she goes back to Montana in the second book from Chicago, from Northwestern. And again, she’s out of her element because everyone thinks she’s really strange and almost like an alien coming back. She dresses in vintage dresses with red cowboy boots, and she doesn’t fit in either back in Montana or in graduate school. She’s kind of in between these worlds.

And she’s in her 20s, so a lot of it is Jessica trying to figure out who she is, where she belongs, and also coming to terms with really very male-dominated worlds.

In Montana she was involved in the rodeo world, she was a barrel racer. But again, very male-dominated rodeo. And then she goes to philosophy graduate school, where it’s all men. All the teachers are men, the professors, her peers are all these guys. And so she’s really gotta be tough just to get by. And is confused, too, by some of the things that happen. Doesn’t know how to interpret some of the things that are happening to her there because she is one of the only women there.

Alexandra: I imagine that you must draw on your experience in a philosophy department.

Kelly: Yes, yes, yes. The first book; a lot of it is autobiographical, only I have to say I did not murder my dissertation director, although maybe I wanted to, which is I think what inspired me to start writing. I went to therapy after graduate school, and writing fiction is…maybe it’s cheaper than therapy, but I think it’s a lot more effective.

I got to kill him off in the book even if I couldn’t kill him in real life. So, yeah, a lot of it is based on my own experiences being a woman in a very male-dominated discipline and trying to find your way, and also the funny world of philosophy.

I guess for me, it has become a form of therapy by making it funny. Turning some of these experiences that really when I was going through them were very hard and not funny. And it was hard to figure out what was going on, what I could do, and being told I was stupid, and not really wanting to buy that explanation of what was going on.

In creating Jessica, I mean, she is way more kickass than I was. She gives as good as she gets, and it’s fun to take a sort of revenge through fiction, and through Jessica who gets the better of these guys. And is better at figuring out what’s going on than I ever was, and doing it.

Humor is a really important part of the novels. I love reading funny mysteries too, and my mysteries are kind of edgy cozy. So there’s not a lot of graphic violence and there’s no sex. There’s some swearing and a little bit of drug use, but otherwise, there are quirky characters and they are funny, which is the kind of thing that I like to read myself.

And it also has helped me deal with some of these hard experiences by finding the humor in these situations.

Alexandra: Yeah, it does sound like fantastic therapy to me. Yeah, so well done you. And you mentioned the quirky character.

Jessica has a little bit of a posse. She has Jack and Lolita. Tell us a little bit about them.

Kelly: Yeah, Jack is kind of a nerdy, but kinda cool nerdy character. He’s studying to be a psychiatrist. He’s doing forensic psychiatry in medical school. He’s a med student, but he’s especially studying criminal forensic psychology.

He’s also interested in philosophy, but he is really fascinated by the criminal mind. Not so much because he wants to bust the bad guy or the criminal, but he almost is sort of edging that way himself. He’s on the edge of sympathizing with the abnormal psychology, I guess. And he’s kind of a stoner character. That’s where the drugs come in.

Kelly Oliver FoxAnd he’s super smart, but also knows that he’s smart, and so he can be quite annoying that way. And we find out in the third book, Fox, you see it in, Wolf, developing, but it really becomes explicit in Fox, that he’s got a crush on Jessica. He’s a bit of a womanizer, but he’s got a total crush on Jessica and she’s clueless. She has no idea that her best friend has a crush on her.

And then Lolita is just a total badass. Her dad escaped Russia. He’s now the janitor at the Philosophy Department, but because he escaped Russia, getting away from the family business which was very dangerous for him, and he’s in hiding. So he’s laying low and Lolita is paying her way through this posh school by running, kind of, semi-legal, semi-illegal poker games. Very high stakes poker games in Chicago.

She knows how to work men and how to get money out of them, and she really can take care of herself. She also practices karate, and she’s totally no-nonsense. A lot of times she ends up getting Jessica out of trouble. They’re really a dynamic duo, Jessica and Lolita.

Alexandra: I love hearing that. And one of the things as a writer that I wanted to ask you was the first book is set in Chicago, Jack and Lolita are there with Jessica at the university. And then the second book, Coyote, is set in Whitefish, Montana, where Jessica grew up. Jack and Lolita aren’t there essentially with her in the second book. What was that like for you?

Did you have to create another cast of characters or other sidekick-type characters for her there?

Kelly: Yeah. Lolita ends up being a very important part of Coyote, too. She makes a road trip on her Harley out to Montana to visit Jessica. But I introduce new characters.

Kimi RedFox who is from the Blackfeet Reservation is one of the main characters. And a lot of the mystery and the crime situation revolve around Kimi trying to find her younger sisters who have been lured into drugs and human trafficking around the fracking on the Blackfeet Reservation.

A lot of it takes place on the Blackfeet Reservation and the edge of Glacier Park. Jessica’s gone home, she’s gone out to work at Glacier Park to earn enough money to buy whiskey and books, basically. And her bunkmate is Kimi RedFox. So, she gets drawn into Kimi’s drama, and then Lolita comes out and there’s the posse again.

I mean, for me, in all of the books, I have strong women. Lolita and Jessica work as a team in every single book. So Lolita had to be there. And one of the things that is important to me is to have a group of women friends, of female friends. Not to just have one lone kickass girl who is out there fighting the bad guys.

But for me, these women need each other. They compliment each other, they have strengths and weaknesses, and they have to work together. And it’s by working together, and female friendship, and relying on each other, and having each other’s backs that they get through these difficult situations and they overcome the bad guys in the end. So, that’s a feminist undertone that is important to me.

Kelly Oliver CoyoteEach of the novels takes up a ripped from the headline social issue that involves women. So, in the first novel you get the sexual harassment. Which, oh my gosh, is all over the news now, and campus rape is a sub-theme in there because it’s set on campus. And, of course, Lolita and Jessica totally kick the frat boy rapist’s asses, which is very satisfying.

And then Coyote, takes up the issue of human trafficking. And in Fox, you get into issues of reproductive technologies and ,kind of, this very hidden world, which it’s true, it’s a really hidden world of some of the new reproductive technologies, especially involving egg donation. You hear more about sperm donation, but women who use egg donation usually keep it very secret.

So, you enter there a different kind of world. These high society women who are using in vitro fertilization and egg donation. But again, women’s issues and these strong women characters taking on.

Each novel has Lolita. Jack is back in Fox, and becomes a main character. He’s kind of a side character in Wolf, and he becomes a main character with his own voice and a point of view in Fox.

And that’s when we learn that he has this crush on Jessica and there’s this kind of unrequited romance. And it becomes actually more of a romantic suspense. The first one is…well, actually all of them have romance, have the element of romance in them, but I think that probably Fox, has the most satisfying balance of romance and suspense.

Alexandra: And then there’s a fourth book Jackal, which is coming out in the spring of 2018, and that was set in Las Vegas. So, another new location.

Can you tell us a little bit about that one?

Kelly Oliver JackalKelly: Jessica ends up going to Las Vegas based on a photograph. Her mother has had an accident, it’s unclear whether she’ll be paralyzed for life, if she’s even gonna survive. And she sends Jessica on this mission that Jessica is very resistant to go on, claiming that some guy in the photograph is her father.

But Jessica is like, “That is definitely not my father.” And so Jessica, kind of like her mother’s dying wish, her mother is not gonna die, but her mother is quite a character. Throughout all the novels, especially in the second one, you get to know her a lot better. But anyway, she ends up going to Las Vegas in search of this guy.

She meets some new characters, and of course, Lolita is gonna come and be an important part of that.

But there’s some new, again, quirky, fun characters involved in the Las Vegas scene. And that’s gonna take up, again, some women’s issues of prostitution and strip clubs, exotic dancers and their world, and some of the issues that they face.

There’s a fun character that was one of her high school friends that now she thought was dancing for Cirque du Soleil. Everyone is like, “Oh, she made it big in Las Vegas,” and it turns out she’s dancing at a strip club.

Alexandra: Oh, no.

Kelly: When Jessica goes to visit her, she finds out that really she’s not what she seems. She’s…yeah.

Alexandra: And so, you’ve mentioned that each book has a contemporary issue involved in the plot.

Did that idea come first, that you wanted to explore these issues, or was it the characters that came first for you?

Kelly: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I think that I was committed to exploring women’s issues and just issues that are important to me so that the books would have some kind of a social impact. And I think that comes from so many years being a nonfiction writer.

I’ve written a lot of nonfiction books that have taken up some of these same issues, actually, only, you know, in nonfiction. And so, because of my research there, I thought, “Well, first of all, I could use the research. I’ve already done the research, so I’ve got the background. But also, because I’ve done that research, those issues are really important to me.” So, I wanted to be able to engage with them in a totally new way that would be also entertaining, and fun, and funny, and maybe reach new audience and new readers.

Alexandra: It does sound like your passion for those issues maybe came first and then you moved in to find the characters.

Kelly: Yes. Yeah, because I’ve been doing the research in the nonfiction books. Jessica is based on a lot of my own experiences.

It was a combination, because I’d wanted to write fiction for a long time. I just was afraid to try it. And I had this story to tell from my graduate school days. There was that autobiographical element, but then also these issues that I’ve been working on for a long time now, different women’s issues were important to me.

I definitely wanted to bring those in too. And as I said, I wanted to do it in a way that was entertaining, and fun, and page-turning. So, not a heavy-handed way. Because in the nonfiction, you just get right to the point. And it’s not as boring, or it turns people off, or they don’t wanna hear about those issues.

But when you do it in fun way, in fiction, then they may start thinking about things or realize things they hadn’t realized before, but not feel like they’re reading something heavy.

Alexandra: I saw in the description of Wolf and you’ve mentioned it already on the interview, that the book is for everyone who’s ever wanted to murder the wolf in their life. And it reminded me of Sue Grafton and ‘A’ for Alibi, and she wrote that because she was in a terrible marriage.

Sue Grafton A is for AlibiI think this is how the story goes. A terrible marriage at the time, and she actually found herself one day wondering, it had something to do with plants in her garden; if there would be a plant in her garden that she could use to murder her spouse. Instead, she wrote “‘A’ Is for Alibi,” and then has taken it from there and is almost at zed, as we say in Canada, or zee by now. So, I love hearing that you’ve taken, you know, these things in your life that were important to you and turned them into art, you know, into fiction.

Kelly: Right. Which is better than going to prison.

Alexandra: That’s right.

Kelly: It’s a legal way to murder people.

Alexandra: Exactly. And you’ve created something and you’re giving other people pleasure. Yeah, as you say, rather than going to prison for the rest of your life. So, that’s awesome, yeah.

Kelly: Yeah, I think it really helps to deal with these thing…for me, using humor, and also fiction, and writing. Writing has just always been really important to me. I live to write. It gives my life a lot of meaning.

And now fiction writing is so much more fun than nonfiction writing, too. Just the characters, the way that the characters come alive and speak to you. And also, for me, a challenge of trying to get into the head of people that I might disagree with and really see from their perspective an issue, even though it’s not my perspective.

But actually trying to do that in a sympathetic way has really been eye-opening for me, too, and I think helping me grow as a person and as a writer.

Alexandra: If you’re writing in your academic job, do you find it refreshing then, to write in a different way for these novels?

Kelly: Oh, yeah. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a great break from writing the nonfiction. One thing that was funny though, is that when I would write the nonfiction, I have certain routine with my tea, and I stand up to write, and very disciplined. And when I started writing fiction, I’m in a lounge chair eating cookies and drinking coke.

And I’m like… Okay, there’s something for me very transgressive about writing fiction, and it comes out also in the habits, in a way that wasn’t very good for my health. But, yeah, it was really fun. I sense that I’m trying to wean myself off the cookies and coke and still be able to write, but now I do all my writing in a lounge chair. So, it’s changed.

It’s changed also the way I think about writing nonfiction. Because when you write nonfiction, you just get right to the point. And I wasn’t thinking so much about, “Oh, you’ve got to keep people turning the page. You’ve got to keep people turning the page.”

Whereas when you’re writing fiction, you’ve gotta think, especially mystery or suspense, but I think any fiction, you’ve got to keep people interested either in the character or the story to want to turn the page, or the writing. And now it’s made me think more about that in my nonfiction, how important it is really to keep the audience engaged. Not just, you know, tell them something, but really keep them engaged.

Alexandra: Yes, yeah. Oh, fascinating. We touched on “Jackal,” that’s coming out in the spring of next year.

And are you still working on that? Is it completed and ready to go?

Kelly: I’m still working on it, yeah. I’ve got a bit more to write. So, it’s about a third done. My mother passed away in the spring. I haven’t really gotten back to it since then. But my plan is to, yup, get it finished off. So, hopefully soon.

Alexandra: Yes, yeah, I’m very sorry about the loss of your mother. My mother passed away this year as well. So, I understand. It’s a hard time.

Kelly: It is momentous, really. Life-changing. Condolences to you, too.

Alexandra: Oh, thank you.

Do you have plans to continue the series after that, after the fourth book?

Kelly: I’ll have to see. I want to see if people are enjoying the series, then I would love to continue it. I love spending time with Jessica and Lolita and creating all kinds of other oddball characters. And I have lots of other ideas.

If Jessica ever gets her PhD and becomes a professor, there’s a lot that she could do, and traveling, and having fellowships, and things happening who knows where. So, it could be a lot of fun, but I want to wait and see if people are responding.

I’ve been excited that each of the three books that’s out has been either a finalist or won different awards. So, if I keep getting positive feedback and people like the “Jessica James” series, I would love to keep writing the “Jessica James” series.

What I’d really like to do is retire from my day job so that I could do fiction full-time, and maybe start another series too, or maybe even try a little bit different kind of writing outside of the mystery writing. I’d love to experiment more, or maybe a historical, more of a historical mystery. I would like at some point to do a more historical novel, whether it’s historical mystery, or historical romance. I’m hoping that I can find the time or make the time to continue with Jessica, but start also some other fiction writing projects.

Alexandra: Nice. Oh, that’s great. Well, we’ll have to keep tabs on that. And if you do write a historical mystery, we’ll have you back on the show so you can talk about that.

Kelly: Yeah, I’d love that, Alexandra.

Alexandra: Oh, that would be great. Well, this has been awesome, Kelly. Thank you so much for speaking with me today. Why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books?

Kelly: You can find out more about me and my books at my website which is www.kellyoliverbooks.com. The book should be available wherever books are sold either as e-book or as paperback books.

Alexandra: Great.

Kelly: And also they’re coming out as audio books soon, too. So that’s exciting.

Alexandra: Oh, fantastic. Oh, that’s very exciting. Wow, that’s great. Did you do that through ACX?

Kelly: Yes, yeah.

Alexandra: Good for you. That’s awesome. All right. Well, this has been amazing, Kelly. Thank you so much for chatting with me today.

Kelly: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

Alexandra: Take care. Bye-bye.

Kelly: Bye-bye.