Episode 15: Jessie Chandler

BloodI’ve been a fan of Jessie Chandler’s capers since I picked up Pickle in the Middle Murder on a whim. C’mon, murder in the privies at a Renaissance Faire? This wench was all over that!

Her latest retains the fun and furious pace of her earlier novels, but her storytelling continues to mature. She has a new publisher and a new editor as well, and gives a shout-out to both Bella Books and writer/editor Katherine V. Forrest.

She started writing after devouring the Mickey Knight series by J.M. Redmann. She took classes from Lori Lake and Ellen Hart, both of whom she cites as major champions and influences on her work. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) gets a nod as well.

Jessie ended her four-book run with publisher Midnight Ink, but remains on good terms with them and in fact gives them credit for coming up with the term ‘caper’ to describe the series. (Heads up to cozy fans: although these books are very funny, Jessie is quick to point out that they are *not* cozies. Give the interview a listen or a read to see if they’re right for you.)

Jessie also discusses the inspiration for the character Rocky. If you want to learn more about Prader-Willi Syndrome, Jessie provided this link.

Here are the books in the Shay O’Hanlon Caper series in order:

  1. Bingo Barge Murder
  2. Hide and Snake Murder
  3. Pickle in the Middle Murder
  4. Chip Off the Ice Block Murder
  5. Blood Money Murder

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, a transcript is below. Enjoy!

Transcript for the Interview with Jessie Chandler

Laura Brennan: Jessie Chandler is the award-winning author of the Shay O’Hanlon Caper series, with her first four books racking up nominations and wins for Golden Crown Goldie and Ann Bannon Popular Choice awards, IPPY awards, USA Book Awards and Rainbow Book Awards. The fifth book in the series, Blood Money Murder, has just been released.

Jessie, thank you so much for joining me.

Jessie Chandler: I am so happy to be here, Laura. Thank you so much.

LB: For someone who didn’t plan to become a writer, you’ve kind of taken the world by storm here.

JC: Kinda. I’m still not sure what happened.

LB: Well, before we get to your books, let’s talk a little bit about you. You’ve had a lot of interesting jobs.

JC: I have, yes.

LB: Am I right that one of them was as a police officer?

JC: That is correct. I initially, I dispatched for the state patrol for three years. And I got very bored doing that, mostly because you’re sitting on your butt and nothing happens and then suddenly everything blows up and the world is crazy. So, I thought, well, I’d like to be a trooper.

At the time, there were not a lot of law enforcement jobs available. The budgets had been cut for a lot of agencies and there were no rookie schools coming up for the state patrol. And when I finished the secondary – third-ary – type schooling that I had to do, I don’t know how many interviews I wound up out of that, but it was a lot, and then suddenly I wound up with job offers from three agencies. And I chose a smaller one, kind of near an inner-ring suburb. And when I began, there were some younger folks on the police force, and some older folks. There was a little bit of consternation among the older folks about women cops. And it just turned into a big mess. And I wound up quitting a few months into it. I’m actually glad I did, I’m glad I had the experience. I’m very happy where I am now, working on writing books, doing all kinds of other creative things. Ultimately, I’m in the right place at the right time and I don’t regret a single thing that I had experienced. But, I’m just really glad, where I am right now.

LB: Well, you bring in the cop camaraderie and all of that with JT

JC: Yes.

LB: So it’s being used there, but you didn’t have any desire to write a procedural?

JC: Not really. I wanted to — it’s kind of weird — ever since 9/11, you know when 9/11 happened, things got really dark. And it was a long time before I could even watch a movie that was really violent. Initially, I tried to write a funny story, two funny stories, and they wound up being more police procedural. And I thought I’d be, oh, all funny and light. And I wasn’t. So the third time, the third book I wrote, was Bingo Barge Murder. And that hit all of the notes I wanted it to hit. And really what I want to do is make people laugh. And just put them in a different place, where they can laugh at things, be bemused, interested, sucked in, and take them out of their world for a bit. And then they can go back to doing whatever they’re doing, maybe with a little bit of a lighter attitude.

LB: I love that you call the Shay O’Hanlon books ‘capers.’ They’re not really ‘cozies,’ even though there’s not a lot of blood and guts in them —

JC: Right. They are not cozies at all. There’s plenty of swearing, there’s no sex, but the topics and some of the things that happen within them are somewhat dark. And it does, I have a new publisher, and with the new publisher came a new editor. The new editor’s name is Katherine B. Forrest. And she’s very well-known in the lesbian fiction circles, and she’s fantastic. And she called the series — she’s the one who edited the new book — she called it a dramedy. Which really is what it is, there’s a lot of drama but there’s also some comedy. And I think, as the series has progressed, I have grown enough to be able to not only have the humor, but also bring in a lot of the drama and some of the serious stuff that goes on, and put it in the blender and mix it up well enough that it still works.

LB: I know I’m kind of harping, but I do like the term ‘caper.’ Because it captures that sense of fun, really rollicking fun that goes — well, the first book I read of yours was Pickle in the Middle Murder.

JC: Yes.

LB: And for rollicking fun, it’s very hard to top a corpse with a pickle up its mouth at a Ren Faire in the privies.

JC: It’s true.

LB: And no spoilers, because that’s actually how it starts, basically.

JC: There’s no spoilers in that whatsoever. It’s fun writing the capers, and in fact I like to describe the books as a combination between Janet Evanovitch, Clive Cussler, and Scooby Doo.

LB: Do you know, I absolutely see that.

JC: I have to credit Midnight Ink, there the ones who came up with the caper term. I was so new at the time that I didn’t even, I had no concept of where it fell within the mystery realm other than the fact that it wasn’t a cozy and it wasn’t a procedural.

LB: On your website, you talk about your journey as a writer and you make it sound very fun and easy. But in fact, when you look at what you actually did, you took class after class and you wrote page after page, you wrote book after book.

JC: I did.

LB: What drove you to keep writing?

JC: The reason I started writing initially was because I had read a series by J.M. Redmann, a mystery series, and at the time there were only four books. And it’s rare that you really catch a series that you like well enough that you fall head over heels for the characters and they become your best friends. But she did that. And when I finished that fourth book, and as an aside, the fourth book was out of print at the time and I searched for six months on the Internet to find it. When I did, I coughed up 75 bucks for an old, battered, paperback copy. But it was well-worth it. And the ending was fabulous, but then, you’re totally empty, like, “What is happening with my favorite characters? They’re my friends, what’s going on?” And you don’t know. So I got mad, and I thought well, I’m going to write my own series and it doesn’t have to end until I want it to end. So it was then I found National Novel Writing Month, where you try to write 50,000 words in the month of November. And that’s how I began writing. There’s forums that you can go on, and they give you suggestions and ideas, and it really fires you up. They talk about a lot about putting your muse — not your muse, but your internal editor — on the shelf, and you just go for it. And that is what allowed me, that and the fact there was a start date and an end date, is what made me sit down and be able to write a book.

And then, when my mom, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2008. And I was at that point into my third book, I was working on what became Bingo Barge Murder, and it became an escape. You know, I could be in the fun, take myself out of my dire circumstances for a while. And that is, I think, what really powered me through that span that was really, really hard. And a lot of times, people won’t wind up going back to something like this. But I had a lot of encouragement from Lori Lake and Ellen Hart, and they both believed in my writing way more than I believed in my own writing. So, between escaping and encouragement, that’s what got me through that rather horrific stretch.

LB: Bingo Barge Murder: so that is one of the most novel ways of killing somebody off. I really want to know, how in the world did you come up with that?

JC: Well, first of all, I hate to admit it, but I worked in bingo for 17 years. And I worked in a bingo hall called Carousel Bingo, and it, at its peak, sat 575 people. So I was quite enmeshed in the entire bingo-gambling world. And when I was trying to think of something, you know, I want it to be funny, and I thought, bingo is funny. And I didn’t want to put it in a bingo hall; that, I mean, boring. So I thought, put it on a floating barge, that’s interesting. In Iowa they have some casinos on paddle boats, so that was kind of my idea for that.

And then when it was time to kill the bad guy, who’s just a doofus, I thought, what would be a super-funny way for him to die? And I thought, well, man, what if you bonked him over the head with a dauber? And a dauber is a bingo marker, it’s kind of ink-based, it’s got a sponge head, but it’s not heavy enough, it’s not going to do anything. So then I thought, well if he went down to a fictional casino south of the cities and won a huge bingo thing, and he would have this bingo dauber bronzed, that would give it some weight. So that would give it enough heft to whack somebody over the head and kill him.

LB: Shay herself, I wouldn’t say that she’s an amateur detective, because in fact she has no interest whatsoever, really, in detecting, she only —

JC: Right.

LB: She’s just constantly trying to get herself and her friends out of some tough jams.

JC: Yeah, and that’s what I like about Shay. She’s not a detective, there’s nothing there for that, but she is so loyal to the people she loves and cares about that she’ll do whatever she can to help them out when they’re in a jam. And her friends are always in jams. It’s been interesting, because each book has kind of encompassed one or two of the characters. Like in Bingo Barge Murder, her best friend Coop, who’s a six-foot-four, chain-smoking vegetarian, being accused of murder by bonking his boss over the head with a big, bronzed bingo dauber. So Shay hops in to help prove he didn’t do it.

In the second book, Hide and Snake Murder, it’s a little bit, a little bit about Eddy, a little bit about one of my favorite characters, named Rocky, and trying to pull them out of a big pickle that they’re in. And in the third book, Pickle in the Middle Murder, it’s about JT, Shay’s girlfriend, who winds up jailed, under suspicion for having murdered the guy who was found in the privy, dead with a pickle stuffed in his mouth. And then in the fourth book, Chip Off the Ice Block, it’s all about Shay’s dad. We learn a lot more about Shay’s dad and what trouble he may or may not have caused. And then in the new book, it’s all about Eddy and secrets Eddy has that no one would ever, ever expect. And it’s been really fun delving into each different character as each different book has come along.

LB: And you have that great line in Blood Money Murder, that someone was “absorbed into the family.” That is exactly the feel. Every book, they kind of pick someone up on the road.

JC: Kind of like strays, they gather in the strays, sort of.

LB: But that is a really interesting way to consider family. Because they all become family to Shay.

JC: They do.

LB: You have the family she was born with, but then you also have the family that she has created for herself. And I think that’s a very modern way of looking at family.

JC: I think it is, too. And I think a lot of times in the LGBT world it becomes that. Well, maybe, hopefully it’s not a lot of times, but I know there are a lot of stories where somebody will come out and their family turns them away. And that’s a really tough place to be in, and then people do wind up creating their own family. But I think also, it could be anybody. Family isn’t always blood. It is the people that care about you and you care about the most that make that connection.

LB: Well, you have that, too. In Blood Money Murder in particular, Shay is coming to terms with her family of origin and how they handled her coming out.

JC: Yes.

LB: Versus how her dad handles her sister coming out.

JC: Right. Right.

LB: Was that one of the reasons you — because that’s a very central theme in this book — was that something you always wanted to tackle?

JC: That was not an intent at any point until, I have auctioned off character names to help raise money for different things. And a gal named Lisa Vecoli won an auction a couple of years ago to be a character in one of my books. And she — I really wanted to play with her, because she is just a hoot. So I introduced her in Chip Off The Ice Block. So after the fourth book was finished, I realized she’s become a part of the family. And there were some really interesting dynamics I could use her to explore. I myself have a half-brother that I finally met about ten years ago. And just that whole interesting, curious, awkward, all the emotions that kind of went in around that, I thought would fit quite nicely here. And then with Shay and her dad and how Shay really, really tried for a very long time to get him to see things from her point of view as far as her sexuality. And he refused. But yet, because Shay felt that tie of family so strongly, and I think he did, too, that they maintained a relationship, even though it was very surface-level. So then, enter Lisa, and she is also gay, and dad accepts her without blinking his eyes. It really set up a lot of feelings that Shay had to work through and is still working through now, I think, but it’s better. And I think that can happen in real life as well, you know. Trying to deal with the undercurrent that isn’t always spoken isn’t easy, but yet it’s there and it has to be dealt with.

LB: One of the most interesting things about Shay for me is her anger management issues.

JC: (Laughter.)

LB: No, but, the thing is, she actually has no desire whatsoever to work on her anger management issues. Because she sees it — it’s uncontrollable, but she trusts in it to protect her and her family.

JC: That’s true, that’s true. And her reaction is kind of a spin-off of how I felt when I was much younger about my family, especially my grandparents. Very protective. And when somebody would do something to them. Like, let’s say, one night — my grandma was always kind of ill. And some kids came about midnight, pounding on the windows of the house. And it scared her to death. She got my grandpa up and, whatever. But when I heard that, I remember that uncontrollable anger. And if they’d been there right then, boy, those kids would have gotten it. And I remember that feeling. That doesn’t happen to me anymore, but being in the grip of that blinding — and I won’t even call it a rage, but a something where you just need to do something to protect people right now. So I’ve foisted that off on her and she’s dealing with it.

LB: I want to talk about your most recent book, but before that I want to talk about Rocky. So you mention that Rocky is one of your favorite characters?

JC: Yeah.

LB: Rocky is one of my favorite characters!

JC: Oh, excellent.

LB: I love Rocky.

JC: I love Rocky, too.

LB: How did you come up with Rocky?

JC: So back in the mid-2000s, as I was doing my writing, initially on the radio, I heard this ad, and it sounded so strange. It’s this guy saying different words, like ‘motor’ and ‘hamburger’ and ‘hotdog.’ And then as it keeps going, you realize he’s saying these words to a little kid, trying to point them out so they can identify, to begin to learn to read. And on TV, the ad opens with this guy in one of these aviator hats in this big, poufy jacket. And he’s walking along and he’s literally pointing with his hand, arm out, with his finger, at different words, and you don’t know why. He looks like he’s crazy. Then it pans out and you realize he’s pulling a little boy in a wagon. And he’s showing these words to the little boy, to help him learn to read. That just warmed the cockles of my heart. So initially, that’s where Rocky’s looks came from and a little bit of his personality.

And the second part of Rocky, a good friend of mine named Mary Beth worked in a group home for Prader-Willi Syndrome folks. And what that is, is gene deletion, where their stomachs don’t register when they’re full. And there’s also some mild, mental challenges that go along with it. And if they’re left to their own devices, they’ll eat themselves to death. So a lot of times, they’re put in a group home-type situation where the kitchen is kept under lock and key. And we would go, a friend of mine and I would go and visit Mary Beth. And there was this adorable kid, young man, I’m not even sure how old he was, named Randy. And Randy wanted some Diet Cherry 7Up. So one time we went, and my friend April had a convertible, and he wanted to ride in the convertible. We were going to get him some Diet Cherry 7Up. And he started just chit-chattering away like Rocky does. Spewing out a little fact here, a little fact there. And it was just adorable. So I wanted to try and create somebody that could be an everyman for people who have challenges, and give them a warm hug.

LB: There’s so much warmth in how you handle your characters, and how much they care about each other.

JC: Good. I’m glad that comes across.

LB: Your most recent novel is Blood Money Murder. It’s just been launched. You mention that it’s a new publisher and a new editor. As I mentioned, I’ve enjoyed your work for a very long time, but this one is special.

JC: Thank you. I’m glad to hear that.

LB: But, did you feel it? First of all, it’s a little bit, in terms of how you build the book, it’s a bit of a departure for you.

JC: It is. I am so excited about this book. It is a little bit different. I do branch out from Shay’s first person into, JT gets a voice and Eddy gets her own voice in third person, and I’ve never done that before. And I’ve never — like you said, the structure is entirely different as well. And I had no idea how it was going to go, if it would fly or not. And I really have to credit Katherine Forrest, who, when she got ahold of it and I explained what I was trying to do, helped me actually reorganize some of the chapters to make things more cohesive and understandable. It was just an amazing experience working with her and I think it’s my best work yet. And of course I think we all hope that each new book we do is better than the one before, but I am just really excited about it and I can’t wait to get more feedback. And I’m thrilled with yours!

LB: Well how did the new — if I can ask — how did the new publisher come about?

JC: Midnight Ink started the series and I had a four-book run with them. And after the fourth book, the numbers, the sales numbers, which, that’s really what it all boils down to, are the sales numbers, weren’t where they wanted them. So they did drop the series. We’re on very fine terms, there’s nothing, no problem there, but I wasn’t ready to let Shay end. And so, Bella was primarily — is — a lesbian publisher, but they did agree to market not only to the lesbian reading contingent, but to the mainstream as well. And that is what I wanted, because Midnight Ink is a mainstream publisher, and they took a chance on Shay with her being a lesbian. And not that that has really anything to do with the books, except for the fact that it is. They were able to get my books into libraries around the country and in fact in Canada and I think Australia as well. If somebody who is in a small town and maybe my books are in that library and they get ahold of it and they’re gay, but either they haven’t acknowledged it to themselves or it’s just a repressive society area wherever they live, and they can read themselves in the pages of a book and make them feel good, that is huge.

The other thing that I really wanted was, if somebody who is homophobic or is neutral gets ahold of my books and see that they can read what a lesbian does in a day. And they can just see that we’re people like everybody else, with good highs and bad lows, with the same kinds of troubles. And kind of get them over that hump of that, you know, the air quotes, it’s a “lesbian” or a “gay thing.” Help them see that it’s nothing to be afraid of and it’s not a bad thing. And that was my other big thing about being published in the mainstream and having people get ahold of the books like that.

LB: What is next for you?

JC: I have a novella coming out from another different publisher, I think in August, called Evolution of an Art Thief. And it’s kind of a prelude to a new series that I’m going to be starting, that I’m calling my Art Thief Series. And the premise of that is that the main character steals art that has either been looted or stolen in the past, and they find the location of where it’s at, and she steals it back and returns it to the rightful owner. There’s so much potential in this series and I’m very excited about it. I’m very excited about the novella that will be coming out as well. It’s entirely different than Shay and entirely different from the Operation Stop Hate book that came out last year. And it’s refreshing, it’s going to be set primarily in New York City and then it’s going to bounce around the country, I think. That’s a little breath of fresh air, too. I love Shay, but it is good, I think, to kind of get out of that and do something else and then be able to come back again.

LB: Operation Stop Hate was actually your first novel, though, that you then rewrote.

JC: Actually it was the second. The first novel I wrote was Operation Rose Seller, which, ho-boy, I don’t know if it’s even possible to revise it, I think I would have to rewrite the whole thing. And I will be doing that at some point because that’s going to be the second book in the Operation Series. Which will be like a, the second book will be like a prequel. When Midnight Ink let me go, I was kind of at a loss, I didn’t know what to do. So I decided I wanted to give self-publishing a try and see if it made me any money. Because as we all know, being a traditionally published author doesn’t really do much monetarily. So I pulled out that second book because I thought it was close enough that I could revise it. Well, it took me a year and a half to rewrite and revise it. Then I did put that out as the first in the series. So that was a really good experience, and I learned that I do not want to be a publisher. I want to write.

LB: Well, thank you so much for joining me today.

JC: Laura, thank you so much. This has been just delightful and I so appreciate it.