Interview with Jess Lourey

Jess Lourey writes about secrets. She's the Amazon Charts bestselling Edgar, Agatha, and Lefty-nominated, Anthony-winning author of crime fiction, nonfiction, YA adventure, and magical realism. She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a Psychology Today blogger, a TEDx presenter (check out her TEDx Talk for the surprising inspiration behind her first published novel), and the inventor of the Book in a Bag kit. When not leading women's writing retreats, reading, or fostering kittens, you can find her drafting her next story.

Thank you so much for joining us in this conversation. We would love to know your back story. What are some of your earliest and fondest childhood memories of reading and writing?  

I received four hundred and twenty-three rejections before I signed my first book contract. Not very good odds, but I'm running with them. It 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 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 a rural technical college.

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.

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, published one or two a year. 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'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.

How did you find your way to hosting retreats?

Other than friends and family, I have four great loves: writing, teaching, reading, and travel. I got together with a friend with a similar life focus, and we created the writing retreats. 

What happens during your retreats?

I bookend the retreats with community and celebration, because one of the wonderful gifts of gathering to write is finding out you’re not alone. Between, I break the workshopping down into key writing elements, tailoring them to the genres (self-help, memoir, mystery, romance, etc.) of the women attending: character, structure, setting, publishing, etc. I also offer brief one-on-ones to make sure everyone gets their questions answered.

Where do you host retreats? What do you find special about these destinations?

My retreats move: the French countryside, Rome, Tuscany, the Costa Rican jungle and then coast, Lake Tahoe, St. Paul. I choose based on what area I most want to explore balanced with where I can most pamper others at in a safe, nurturing environment.

Are there any special stories that you can share about a person that was impacted by attending your retreats?

Without getting into the personal details of the incredible women who’ve attended past retreats, I can say that they all leave feeling empowered in a way that’s meaningful to them, including landing an agent, self-publishing or traditional publishing, increasing the sales of their books, feeling heard and validated, finally figuring out the perfect structure of the book they’ve been working on for years. Writing is such a personal experience, and what success looks like is very unique to where we are at in the process.

What do you find satisfying about the work you do now?

I get to travel the world with incredible women who feel like friends and share my two decades of hard-won knowledge to make them feel empowered, heard, and talented. Is there anything better?

How do you want people to remember their experience at the retreats you offer? 

I’m a very practical teacher. The women who attend retreats leave with not just information, but the tools to apply it to their writing and their goals. That’s why it’s surprising to me that what I want them most to remember is the sense of community fostered in the retreats, the sense that they are part of a group that believes in them and that is there to provide feedback and support as needed moving forward.

What is your favorite life quote and how do you apply it to your life?

 "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." -Eleanor Roosevelt

Writing requires belief in the value of your voice and your vision, and I didn’t have either growing up. I build both with each book I write and each workshop I teach; this quote reminds me that the work has value.

Thank you for this meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success.

Thank you!

You can learn more about Jess Lourey's Creative Writing Retreats on her website at: Creative Writing Retreats

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