Episode 23: Jane Kelly

MissingMissingI’m so pleased to chat with Jane Kelly, a wonderful writer and delightful human being — one who just happens to thrive on mystery.

Jane’s Meg Daniels Mysteries have always had a lot of heart, but as they’ve evolved, the series has grown richer. It has also begun to include an element of delving into the past. Missing You in Atlantic City looks into a death linked to the 1964 Democratic National Convention and the next one in the works will involve the 1968 Miss America Pageant. Jane has launched two other series, both with an element of the Kennedy era: Widow Lady, set in 1960, and Swoon ’64, a Writing in Time mystery, set in the present but investigating a crime of the past.

Check out her Pinterest page for gorgeous 1960s images to set the scene.

Jane gives a shout-out to historical mystery writer Annamaria Alfieri and also to the wonderful M.Phil program she did in Dublin, Ireland, at Trinity College, which I have to link to because it sounds so awesome. I live vicariously through these interviews!

Here are the Meg Daniels Mysteries in order:

1. Killing Time in Ocean City

2. Cape Mayhem

3. Wrong Beach Island

4. Missing You in Atlantic City

Also, the bonus book, A Fear of Seaside Heights, could be considered 3A — it falls in between Wrong Beach Island and Missing You in Atlantic City in Meg’s timeline.

You can also find Jane on Facebook at her Author Page and her Meg Daniels Page. As always, if you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below. Enjoy!

Transcript of Interview with Jane Kelly

Laura Brennan: My guest today is Jane Kelly, author of the Meg Daniels, Writing in Time, and Widow Lady mysteries. Her mysteries focus on personal stories: missing mothers, murders that haunt from childhood. But whether historical or contemporary, they all offer a terrific ride.

Jane, thank you for joining me.

Jane Kelly: Thank you for the invitation.

LB: Before we talk about your writing, I’d like to talk a little bit about you. You have a Masters in Library and Information Science and an Master of Philosophy in Popular Literature from Trinity College, Dublin — you are the queen of books!

JK: Well, it does dovetail nicely, the two masters, even though they might seem very dissimilar, they do fit together very nicely. I didn’t get the literature degree until later in life, so I couldn’t use it in conjunction really with the library degree, but the library degree helps me immensely in terms of doing research for the books.

LB: I’m not going to fib, I am crazy jealous that you studied at Trinity College in Dublin. What took you to Dublin?

JK: The idea came to me — well, not specifically Dublin — one day I was on a panel at a conference and we were going down the row, we were asked to introduce ourselves. And the first person said, I’m so-and-so and I just got back from the writing program at the University of Iowa. And somebody else said, I’m so-and-so and I have an MFA from Columbia. And the next person said something similar, and I said, hello, I’m Jane Kelly. So it occurred to me that perhaps I should look into getting some real credentials for what I was doing because I had already published a couple of books. And I went online, and I found a program in Dublin which was popular literature. It was the first in Europe and it was one of the first in the world, if not the first. So it was very different.

And I went over, I interviewed, and I went back. And I think it’s been a tremendous help in terms of writing. We started in the early days with chapbooks, I think I recall they are called, and went through all the modern genres and just learned what people have been liking in literature for hundreds of years. It was really a great experience.

LB: I would imagine genre literature appeared in that list.

JK: It did, yes. We read mysteries, westerns, speculative, any genre. We even read romance — I like the way I said “even romance” because I don’t read romance but I know many many people do. So it was great. I really enjoyed it. And it was wonderful both academically and socially. Going over, I kind of thought that being older I would be sitting alone in my room crying most nights alone. But because of the pub culture over there and the fact that it isn’t differentiated by age, I had a wonderful time. I loved my classmates and am still in touch with a lot of them, largely thanks to Facebook. But we keep in touch.

When I went to Dublin, it was for an English degree. And I came back with a love of history. I had written my thesis on, I think I called it “Seeing Danger in the Familiar,” and I talked about what is really political science fiction, not just science fiction, but where you take things like Failsafe and On the Beach and Seven Days in May, and make people fearful because of what can really happen in real settings, in real situations, in real life. And I just came back with a love of the Cold War, Cold War history. It really changed how I wanted to write, because I wanted to bring that all into the writing.

LB: I can absolutely see that in your books. The last three books you’ve written have all had a sense of history, and particularly, the 1960s, to them.

JK: Right. I was wanted to write about those, to say what it was like specifically to be a woman in that era. Because it was so restrictive. And I really wanted to write about it, but when I started writing, people said no, you can’t write about that era. At that point it was only maybe 30 years before and people would say, you’ll never get published, no one will want it. But I loved it, so I pursued it and put it in those books. I really love being able to say how life was back then.

LB: I want to come back to those books but let’s start with your first. The first book in your first series, we met Meg Daniels.

JK: Right.

LB: They’re called the Meg Daniels mysteries, but they could almost be called the Shore Mysteries, because each one is set at a different Jersey shore area.

JK: I think there were books that were already called the Jersey Shore Mysteries. And I think they’ve gone out of print, and now there’s a new series that are called the Jersey Shore Mysteries. So in between, we named them after Meg.

LB: So how did you come up with the idea of setting them at the shore?

JK: Actually, it was my publisher’s idea. I had written a book which did not get published, though I always tell people my agent said I had the best rejection letters he had ever seen. And he would call me and read them to me and we’d discuss them, so I wanted to do another book. The publisher that I’m with, Plexus, has a publishing arm which does professional publishing. And I knew the owner through that. And he had heard that I had written a book, and he suggested to me, why don’t you try setting them at the Jersey shore. Because he felt it was underrepresented as a site for mysteries. And so I did and I sent it to him and he liked it and he decided that he would publish it. He was already publishing books under that imprint it had to do with New Jersey, like hiking guides and history books, all sorts of things that had to do with New Jersey. And now he publishes other mysteries, but this was the first one he had ever done.

LB: I love that, I love the regional tie-in was actually your way into print.

JK: Right.

LB: I really want to talk about your heroine because I’m a big Meg Daniels fan. She has such a distinct, strong voice right from the very first moment. This is not a spoiler, this is how the first book opens, A Killing Time in Ocean City, basically she is standing over the body of her dead boss. And her personality just drips through; I mean. she’s wonderful. Where did you find that voice?

JK: Well, I hated a boss I had. So I guess I was channeling a lot of my own feelings into her. She’s much more audacious than I am. She’s not pushy, she’s not brassy, but she does, at least to the reader, say what she thinks. She may not always say it out loud to the other characters. But the reader always knows what she’s thinking. And she has kind of a skeptical viewpoint. She hits any type of pomposity or phoniness, and she will comment on that.

And I think she was feeling a bit put upon with everything that was happening to her on that vacation where she runs into trouble. So I think it just came out of the situation of feeling the frustration of someone who, I guess at that point just feels she can’t catch a break. But is not going to give into it, is somehow going to make lemonade out of lemons.

LB: It’s really neat how you also develop her over the course of the books. She starts off an extremely reluctant sleuth, she doesn’t want to get out of bed that day, she is as reluctant sleuth as one can get. And by the fourth book, she’s taking on a case. She has stepped into the role, she’s really almost a PI.

JK: Well, she really cares now. I think she’s learned a lot. This came out of my own personal life, where I had a murder close to me, and Meg matured because I matured in that respect. And she doesn’t see murder in the way she did when it was someone she didn’t like who was murdered, or someone she didn’t know it all but was a bad individual from everything she could hear. Now she has a victim that is more sympathetic and she sees the effect that death has on the family. And she’s motivated, she wants to, she really wants to do what she can do to resolve the issue for those who love the victim.

LB: She’s smart and she’s tenacious, without being foolhardy. I do like that about her.

JK: I never want her to be silly. I do want her to take chances but I don’t want her to take ridiculous chances. As I said before, she’s audacious and she’s not afraid to ask questions. But I never want her to just go over the line to silly.

LB: Can I also mention how much I like Andy?

JK: Oh good, I’m glad you like him. I like him. Some people got mad at him in the Atlantic City book, but I like him. And he always comes through in the end. I like him, too.

LB: So your last three books included a period of history that you always wanted to write about and you finally got a chance to. In fact one of those books is actually set in that time, it’s called Widow Lady, and I believe it’s the first of a series.

JK: It is. I don’t have the second book complete yet, I have some of it plotted out, not a full set of notes even. But it is the first, because I want her to respond to the world she’s living in and change also.

LB: So can you tell me, for someone who hasn’t read Widow Lady, can you give a little set up of what the world is?

JK: It’s set in 1960, and she’s a 30-year-old widow. Her husband was killed in the Korean War, which means she’s been a widow for eight years now. She hasn’t moved out of the house they bought together, she’s in a rut. She’s not an outcast exactly but she’s certainly a fish out of water in her neighborhood. It’s mostly families, I think as I say, families who appear happy, or at least want to appear happy. So when she gets involved with this mystery, it changes her life, which consisted of getting up in the morning, taking the bus to work, working for a very charming attorney but coming home on the bus and really spending evenings alone. It was an era when she didn’t have a large number of girlfriends at the age of 30 to go out with. They were married, and they would include her if their husbands were out of town but they didn’t include her in couple activities. The neighbors don’t include her in parties because she’s a single woman. So she’s feeling very, very isolated.

She blossoms a bit by the mystery she investigates. It’s a neighbor, so it puts her in touch with other neighbors. I really like the relationship — not romantic — that she develops with her boss. She’s just opening up in a lot of different ways. And at the end of the book you get the feeling that she, she’s going to make changes. She hasn’t made drastic changes yet, but she’s going to start living some of the dreams she’s had and not only look back to the husband that she lost.

LB: That is such a different time from what we live in today. And it’s a time that really nobody talks about.

JK: And I wanted to make sure it was all real. Because she would be older than I am, but this was a generation of women I observed growing up. And I almost feel like I dodged a bullet not having to deal with what they had to deal with. But they really were expected to fit a certain mold. She got married. When her husband got out of college, all men had to go into the service then. He went in the service, they were separated, she was a dutiful wife at home. And when he didn’t come back, she was an isolated single woman on the street with all married couples.

LB: Yeah, it’s fascinating. What brought you to this era? Why the 1960s?

JK: It probably has something to do with, I was a little kid when John F. Kennedy was elected and I loved him. Largely because he was cute. I was only little, so you can excuse this from me I hope. But he did have a lot of charisma, he got people interested in politics and in the world in general, and it was sort of a Camelot period, for me anyway. I was at an age where I was observing everything. I remember things better from that era than I do from eras when I was much older and should’ve been observing more, but I think it’s because I wasn’t so much a participant. I was an observer. And I would look at how things had changed, and how drastically things had changed. Because in 1963, after that assassination, came 1964 and the Beatles and after that nothing was the same. So I’ve always like that era and things that are written about or set in that era, where you know that this way of life is going to get obliterated fairly shortly because of all the social change that was coming down the path. And I like the idea of recording what it was before it was changed.

LB: Your Writing in Time Mysteries kind of straddle the line between being set firmly in the past and being lived in the present.

JK: That serves a purpose in terms of humor. Because my first few books were always viewed as humorous, I hope, I heard they were, I hope they were. And it’s very hard then to, especially after the experience, personal experience I had, to think of murder and humor in the same sentence. But by keeping the PI in the current era — and she’s another amateur sleuth — it’s easier to have humor in the current day and then to go back and view the history with a little more empathy and sympathy. She has a lot of empathy because she has kind of a back story with a shadow, it’s not well defined, why she feels for people who have lost relatives. And I put a lot of the humor in her roommate’s mouth instead of hers. So it’s a little different, but that was the main motivation there.

LB: I think it’s a way to comment on both things, to comment on the difference in the era but also to comment on the difference between — the life you lead will involve humor and craziness, I mean we live in crazy times. But when you’re looking into someone’s past, there’s a respect there.

JK: That’s a good word for it, respect is a perfect word for it. And it does respect the victim and the victim’s family and yet doesn’t become heavy and weighted down with sadness. That’s a really good word, Laura, I love that.

LB: Thank you.

JK: I wish I’d been using it all along. I will from here on in.

LB: Well, you know I love your writing. I have told you that privately and I’ll shout it to the winds, I really do. I think that they are beautifully written. Did you always want to be a writer?

JK: Well, it’s interesting. I don’t know if you know Annamarie Alfieri, who writes historical mysteries. But the other night she asked a table of people, what age were you when you realized you were a storyteller? And everybody said like nine, 12, 10. And I said, 41. And I’ve been thinking it ever since, and I realized that’s not when I decided to be a storyteller, that’s when I decided I could try to write it down. But my entire life I’ve been making up stories in my head. I just never really thought of being a writer.

LB: What is next for you? What do we have to look forward to?

JK: Because I took a hiatus from writing — no, from publishing — I have a lot of books that are very close to being finished. Because even when I was sort of on hiatus from my publisher — because I wrote a fourth book, which is only available on Kindle, it’s a Meg Daniels mystery, it’s called A Fear of Seaside Heights. It really was the first time I had Meg operate in a way that what she wanted was the truth for the mother. My editor didn’t think it was, she was heroic enough. So we agreed to disagree on that. All this goes to the point of, I took a hiatus from publishing. But I kept writing, having no idea what I was good to do with these books. So I have several them to finish up, I want people to think I’m writing four or five a year, but I have some that are very close to being finished that I want to work on.

I have a book that I’ve been working on, just an idea that I have, it’s always had a 15-year-old heroine. And I realize now that she’s a young adult and this is probably a young adult book with young adult themes. So I’m going to try to finish that up, and I have the next Meg Daniels in the works. So when I put one aside, I like to go to the other one because I think you need distance from anything you’re working on. So I have a lot of irons in the fire. But I don’t want to appear scattered because so many of them were really written previously.

LB: Well, I am delighted that they’re going to be more on the shelf soon, and especially another Meg Daniels one. Missing You in Atlantic City felt so complete, I was little concerned that it was our last outing with Meg.

JK: Actually, the next book starts the next day. I have that in the works and I really, I like it, I don’t know — I’m really enthusiastic about it. It’s funny, my editor was the one who suggested I go to Atlantic City and I resisted, but because I went to the past in Atlantic City, I liked that. So I’m determined now to look at the 1968 Miss America pageant. That’s what the next one has as a backdrop, so I’m really having fun with that one.

LB: Oh, that is awesome, I can’t wait. Jane, thank you so much for joining me today.

JK: Thank you, Laura.