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Interview: February 12, 2015

Jessica (Jess) Lourey is the author of the critically acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, written with "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." In FEBRUARY FEVER, the latest addition to the series, airplane-averse heroine Mira James decides to take a train to visit an old friend. When a passenger is found murdered, it’s up to Mira to track down the killer --- or end up derailed...permanently. In this interview with’s Amie Taylor, Lourey talks about how Mira has grown throughout the series, the art of naming a character, and why she’ll never get too old for bathroom humor. She also shares fellow mystery authors who have inspired her and a hilarious story about how Amtrak was a little less than enthusiastic about accommodating her research. Mira James, the heroine of FEBRUARY FEVER, is a down-to-earth character to whom most readers can probably relate. When you first thought of her, did you have a vision of where she would be going for the series?

Jess Lourey: When I wrote MAY DAY, the first in the series, I was really just trying to occupy my brain. I was living in Battle Lake, the town where the series is set, and I had bad TV reception and some serious cabin fever. I had read all the Janet Evanovich and Sue Grafton I could get my hands on, and when that ran out, I thought maybe I should write my own. Mira initially started out as a version of me --- a small town girl with historically bad taste in men who moved to the big city and then found herself squished back in a small town. She has since grown into her own.

BRC: The characters here are a quirky bunch. Mrs. Berns, Jed and Kennie Rogers add such fun to the novel. What inspired you to create characters who are such unique individuals?

JL: Mrs. Berns is based on a close friend of mine, whose first name is Berns. Berns and I met at an import store on the West Bank of Minneapolis, and on our first day on the job, I was complaining about the smell of orange peels in the garbage. She said, "You know what'd take care of that orange smell? A bag of crap." I couldn't stop laughing. I condensed that self-assuredness and deliciously skewed outlook on the world into the character of Mrs. Berns, whom I love. Kennie was her own piece of work. She was inspired by a student of mine named Kenny Rogers, who was male. When I spotted his name on the student roster --- Kenny, not Ken or Kenneth, Rogers --- I thought, "Who would do that to their kid? And what are the repercussions of growing up with that name?" From that kernel, Kennie was born.

BRC: FEBRUARY FEVER takes place almost exclusively on a passenger train traveling from Battle Lake, Minnesota, to Portland, Oregon. What made you decide to set the story in such a confined space, and how did it affect the storyline?

JL: I'm a huge fan of Agatha Christie, and particularly of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. I also love the deduction required in locked room mysteries, and a train is a moving locked room. And finally, Battle Lake is a small town, and I'd already set eight murders there. I figured it was time to give the good people a break.

BRC: Have you ever traveled by train the way Mira did in the novel? If so, what did you enjoy the most and what did you like least? 

JL: I've never taken a train to Portland but would love to someday. I actually proposed to Amtrak that they give me a free ride for research purposes, and they wrote me an actual paper letter essentially saying, "We don't promote the planning of murder on our trains." I'm saving that letter forever. I have ridden several trains from St. Cloud (central Minnesota) to Chicago, and when I can afford it, I get a roomette and pretend I'm in “The Wild Wild West” and that Artemus and James West could show up at any time. There's nothing like train travel. It slows the world down while still getting you somewhere. I do my best writing on trains.

BRC: Since the train trip revolved around Valentine's Day functions for singles, did you ever consider having Mira meet a love interest who would become a rival for her boyfriend, Johnny?

JL: Johnny already has a burgeoning rival back in Battle Lake in the form of police chief Gary Wohnt. I decided to give him a break on the train. 

BRC: There were several scenes that made me burst into laughter, particularly those involving bodily functions. Is this kind of humor common in your personal life, or is it limited to Mira and her crew?

JL: Yay! I'm glad the book made you laugh. And if you're asking if I enjoy bathroom humor, I'm afraid the answer is yes. I like all funny things, and sometimes, that includes unplanned noises and movements.

BRC: Some authors pluck ideas for their novels from the headlines. Have any of your ideas for books featuring Mira come from a story you saw in the news?

JL: OCTOBER FEST deals with two politicians who campaign in Battle Lake. One of them is murdered, and the other has an extramarital affair exposed. I wrote that during the lead-up to the 2012 elections, and it's based less on a specific story and more the sense of national political races devolving into a circus. NOVEMBER HUNT is based around a suspicious hunting accident, similar to one that happened in Battle Lake in the late 1980s, though the mystery I build around it is pure fiction. Other than that, the Murder-by-Month mysteries are pure imagination.

BRC: What made you decide to write a mystery set during each month of the year as you have in the Mira James series? Why did you kick off the series with May instead of January?

JL: I was inspired by Evanovich's number mysteries (ONE FOR THE MONEY, etc.) and Grafton's alphabet mysteries. It's such a great organizing tactic. Since numbers and letters were taken, and I couldn't conceive of a murder a day, I went with the months. Because May is the best month (it has my birthday, lilacs and the advent of summer), and because when I was a newbie writer I couldn't figure out how I'd hide a body in the dead of winter, and because I loved the wordplay of “May Day” (first day of the month and a cry for help), I chose May to start the series.

BRC: Mira isn't exactly a common name. What made you choose it for your main character?

JL: I've always liked the name Miranda. That said, I'm terrible at naming characters. NOVEMBER HUNT has a character named Sharpie Trevino because I was typing at my computer, desperate for a name, and I spotted a Sharpie marker. It was that or Printer Trevino, Book Trevino, Plant Trevino...

BRC: Do you have a personal connection to Minnesota where these stories are set, particularly its small towns?

JL: I grew up in the tiny town of Paynesville, Minnesota, a place where if your car went in the ditch, you'd have someone there within five minutes to help you out. Within 10 minutes, the whole town would know you'd gone in the ditch, how messy your car was, and whether or not you were still single. I have a love-hate relationship with small towns. I love the sense of community and the familiarity but struggle with the stifling nature, and I explore that inherent conflict within the series.

BRC: Who were some of the authors who inspired you to become a writer? 

JL: Evanovich, Grafton, Krueger and Hillerman for mysteries. I also have a magical realism novel that just came out. It's called THE CATALAIN BOOK OF SECRETS, and it was inspired by Isabel Allende, Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen's beautiful writing. My YA novel, THE TOADHOUSE TRILOGY, was very much inspired by the writing of Cornelia Funke and every piece of classic literature that I've loved. There are so many amazing books out there!

BRC: Do you have a favorite genre that you enjoy reading when you're not busy creating stories of your own? 

JL: I love every genre, and so I go by my mood when selecting a book. A good book is a good book, you know? Doesn't matter if it's a romance or literary fiction or a mystery as long as it takes you away to a new place.

BRC: Can you share with us anything about Mira's adventures that are going to happen in your “March” installment? And is there a title yet? While we are talking titles, do you usually have one before you start writing, or does it evolve as time goes on?

JL: I do have a title before I write, usually. The exception is SEPTEMBER FAIR, which was conceptualized as "September Mourn," but by the time my publisher released it, there was another new mystery with that title. The next Murder-by-Month Mystery, tentatively titled MARCH MADNESS, is on hold as I write my first thriller, WITCH HUNT. Here's the synopsis of that one: Salem and Izzy must uncover the connection between the witch hunt of the 1600s and the modern disappearance of single mothers all over the globe in order to stop the assassination of Senator Gina Hayes, the first viable female presidential candidate in the history of the United States.