Episode 50: Kellye Garrett

The copy was straight to the point. Wanted: Information on the hit-and-run murder of Haley Joseph. Tuesday, August 18th, 11:30 p.m., Vermont Ave near Hillside St. And across the bottom, right over her press-on French manicure, $15,000 reward.

I peered closer at the billboard, looking for a hint that this was a brilliant marketing scheme for some new movie. I was tempted to call the number, sure I’d hear some prerecorded message letting me know what time and day it would be airing on Lifetime. But I realized this was real. The address was right up the block. They wouldn’t put the cross streets on there if it was for some silly movie. Haley Joseph had died.

— Kellye Garrett, Hollywood Homicide

Such a delight to chat with Kellye Garrett, whose marvelous debut, Hollywood Homicide, launches the investigative career of Dayna Anderson, a semi-famous, mega-broke black actress. A cozy sensibility combines with a fresh voice and an insider’s look at Hollywood to create a terrific new series.

Kellye will, in the near future, be giving away an annotated copy of the novel — and in the meantime, she’s posting the annotations online. So if you needed another reason to visit her website, well, that’s a fun one. 😉

We talk about a lot of authors we like, including Alexia Gordon, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing. You can find our chat right here. Kellye gives a shout out to her fellow Chicks on the Case, where she blogs, including Ellen Byron (whose Destination Mystery interview you can listen to here), Cynthia Kuhn, Vickie Fee, Lisa Q. Mathews, and Marla Cooper. She also admires Sue Grafton and Janet Evanovich, and one she terms “an old-school favorite,” the beloved Joan Hess. Me, I give a shout out to Steph Cha, who also has a series about a woman who grows into being a private eye, and set in Los Angeles, although her series has a far more Noir sensibility, as does Danny Gardner’s debut novel. Kellye also mentions V.M. Burns, whose book is not yet out (though you can pre-order) and I am thrilled to say that I have an interview scheduled with her for her launch day in November, so stay tuned!

So many books! So little time!

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below.


— Laura

Transcript of Interview with Kellye Garrett

Laura Brennan: My guest today is Kellye Garrett, whose debut mystery, Hollywood Homicide, is the first in a cozy series featuring Dayna Anderson, a former actress hot on the trail of a hit-and-run driver. Library Journal’s August Debut of the Month, and full of warm friendships and quirky characters, Hollywood Homicide is a lighthearted mystery that delivers surprises, twists, and an insider’s view of Hollywood.

Kellye, thank you for joining me.

Kellye Garrett: Thank you for having me.

LB: Hollywood Homicide is your first novel, but being a novelist is not your first writing career.

KG: Right. I’ve been writing professionally my whole career. I started off as a magazine editor for a publication called Vibe Magazine. And then I wasn’t really happy just writing about people doing cool stuff, I wanted to do cool stuff myself. So I went to film school at USC, and then I spent eight years in Hollywood working in television, I did some developing, and I also was staff for the TV show Cold Case for a year. After that, you know, Hollywood is not the most secure place, for job security —

LB: No, I tell people that if they want job security, Hollywood is not the place to be because your contract in television, your contract is actually in weeks.

KG: Yes, it’s one of those things where you could, your show could be canceled tomorrow and you could not work again for years. And so when I turned 30, I wanted more job security so I came back home to New Jersey and I started over into more corporate writing. And so now I’m a communications writer for a media company in New York.

LB: I remember Cold Case. I loved Cold Case.

KG: People, my sister loved Cold Case, too. It has the biggest following.

LB: Did you have to do a lot of research into cold cases in order to write for the show?

KG: What happened is, the beginning of the season, all the writers would get together and we would say kind of what big moment in history, or some kind of historical moment we’d want to write about. So my episode was actually about the Japanese internment camps. So I definitely did a lot of research for that.

LB: That is really neat.

KG: Yes, they created a whole internment camp for the episode. It was kind of amazing.

LB: How do you feel that working on that show helped you when it came time to write Hollywood Homicide?

KG: As a writer, I think I’m very strong with plot, and I think that’s because I have a television background where, for us, it was a four-act structure. You had certain beats you had to hit, like at this point you had to reveal, have a new motive and a new suspect. And so that helped me with my plot, which I think is very fast-moving plot because of my background in television.

And the other thing it helped me with is what in television we call Act Outs, which is like right before the commercial, you always have to have a big moment so people will sit through the commercial, like sit through the toothpaste commercials, I say, so they’ll come back. And so for me, I don’t have act outs obviously, but I do have, I try to end my chapters on a high point so you want to, “Oh, I’m just going to read one more chapter.” That, to me, is a good book, when you be the end of a chapter and you’re like, “Oh, I’m just going to stay up a little longer and read one more.”

LB: It worked because I stayed up way past my bedtime reading it.

KG: I’m glad to hear that.

LB: Actually, let’s talk a little bit about the book. If someone hasn’t picked it up yet, what would they need to know so they can follow our conversation?

KG: So it is a lightweight mystery novel, and it’s about a — I describe her as “a semi-famous mega broke black actress.” Imagine the lady, you know the Popeye’s chicken commercials? Imagine that she’s had a spokesperson gig like that, and unfortunately the company decided to go in a different direction and so she’s kind of been floundering ever since then. When we meet her, she doesn’t — she’s very broke. She found out her family’s about to lose her house, their house. She really wants to help her family save their house. And she drives by a billboard and sees that they are asking, they’re offering $15,000 for information on a hit-and-run. And she realizes that she actually drove by that hit-and-run. So when it starts off, her only goal is to just remember anything about the car that hit the poor victim to get the $15,000. And then of course she kind of gets deeper and deeper into it and the next thing you know she’s chasing after bad guys and she’s just going all out with her investigation.

LB: I love the character, Dayna, and her friends call her Day. But in addition to being, you’re right, a very well-plotted mystery, it also feels a little bit like a coming-of-age story for her.

KG: It’s funny because, when I wrote it, I was very floundering. I had just left LA, and so I took my, you know, the whole idea of “what now?” My original goal didn’t work out so what now? And I definitely put that into Dayna. So, yes, she’s definitely trying to figure out what to do with her life, which I also think is why she grasps onto this investigation so much. Because she is good at it in her own kind of way.

LB: Yes, she’s discovering she’s good at something that she never thought she — she never thought about before.

KG: Someone described it like, she’s not Veronica Mars, but I think it’s more of a realistic, kind of like if you and I try to investigate something, I think it would be similar, where you’re floundering around but you still somehow find information.

LB: You have terrific characters in it, and there was a great line on your website about how you met, when you lived in Hollywood, you met people, everybody seemed to be going after fame. Sometimes it was a sprint and sometimes it was a marathon, and that that’s one of the themes in your book. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KG: For me or for the characters?

LB: You know what? For both.

KG: Well, the four main characters, they’re all related, they were all famous in some way and I showed different aspects of it. Dayna was famous at one point and now she’s not famous anymore. And that her love interest, Omari, just got booked on a new hit TV show, so he’s at the beginning of fame. And then her best friend, Sienna, is one of those people who has always wanted to be famous but has not made it and it’s been like 10 years. And so she’s trying to always figure out some kind of crazy way to get famous, and she does figure out something in the book. And then the fourth main character is her other best friend, Emme, who I based on the idea of the Olsen twins. Imagine if, after Full House, Mary Kate didn’t want to act anymore and Ashley did. And Ashley becomes like the biggest star in the world. And the last thing Mary Kate wants to do is to be famous, but she can’t leave her house without people thinking she’s her sister and being like, “Oh, she’s way prettier on TV.” So that’s Emme’s relationship to fame.

I wanted to show different aspects of fame because I think for the rest of the country you just see the Tom Cruises, and we just see the Julia Roberts. You just see the people who made it. And for every Tom Cruise, you have literally like thousands of people who came to Hollywood and tried to make it and they did not. And some stay and still try really hard, and some go back home.

LB: So was fame something you were ever after?

KG: I wouldn’t say, I was not after fame. My plan was just to write television. And I did for a little bit, and I did some developing, and it was hard to find another job. I have other friends in similar situations and they stuck with it. It’s just so crazy, you probably know this, where you start off on the show as what they call a staff writer. And every year you’re on the show, you get promoted. And so if you start off as a staff writer on Grey’s Anatomy and you stay with it, within X amount of years, you’re all of a sudden like a big deal. You’re executive producer on the show. All right. However, if you’re on a show as a staff writer and that gets canceled, the next show you’re on, you’re still going to be a staff writer. You’re not going to be the next level.

So I have friends who have been working in television for 10 years and they’re still, level wise, maybe like one or two above staff writer. And it’s just the luck of the draw, they just happened to not get on a show that was a huge hit.

LB: Yes, there’s a lot of — it comes out in your novel, too, where there seems to be a lot of people going, well, why not me?

KG: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s with a lot of entertainment, I think it’s with publishing, too. I tell people who are aspiring writers, it’s about talent and opportunity, but it’s also about luck.

LB: You’re doing the neatest thing, I’ve never heard of anyone doing this. With Hollywood Homicide, you’re creating an annotated copy.

KG: Yes.

LB: Tell me about that. That is such a neat idea!

KG: It’s funny because I had what they call the Advance Reader Copies, which are the ARCs, and I had an extra one. And I said to my friend, I don’t know what to do with this because the actual book is coming out, so I’m not going to do a giveaway. And she said, “You should do an annotated version of it, and then you can do a special giveaway, annotated with your little tidbits about writing it.” And I was like, oh, that’s a great idea. And I started it, and I have the worst handwriting ever. So I was like, the poor person who is going to get the book and not be able to read what I wrote. So I thought about it, and I said, let me do a blog post with this information in it as well.

LB: When are you giving this away? Can I link to the giveaway page?

KG: I have to finish doing it! I feel so bad because you have these grand plans, like, “Yes! I’m going to do this and this and this.” And then launch happens, and other things happen. And of course I’m only literally on ten chapters. As soon as I get it done, I will definitely figure out when to give it away but at the rate I’m going, it’s probably going to take a while.

LB: Well, I will send people to your website and then they can go from there.

KG: Thank you!

LB: You bet. So you started over. You did a do over, and you moved back to New Jersey and you decided to write a novel. Why a mystery?

KG: That’s just what I love. I’ve always loved mystery novels. I always knew I wanted to write a novel, and so when I really, finally decided not to be scared to do it, I was like, I need to write a mystery. And then I had the great idea of the reward, and so I was like, I’m just going to do it. And the Hollywood stuff actually came afterwards, it came from, okay, write what you know. What do I know? I spent eight years in Hollywood so I’ll write about that. That was not actual intent. The intent was just to do the reward. And it’s funny because now I feel like, now that it’s out, the Hollywood aspect is more of a selling point than the reward aspect. But it started out because of the reward.

LB: You mean that she gets the reward, she’s going for the reward?

KG: Yes, because what happened is that I was literally driving down the street one day and at the time I was dead broke, and I saw a billboard. In LA, they have billboards that offer rewards for like, oh, $15,000 reward for information on this murder. And they’ll have the person’s picture. And I drove by it and I said, I should try to solve that for the money. And of course that’s like the worst idea ever. But it was a great idea for a book. And so I was really excited for the idea of a woman who’s so broke and desperate, she decides to solve a billboard. And of course, obviously, it evolves into Hollywood Homicide, but that was the initial idea.

LB: One of the other things that sets your book apart for me is the relationships between the characters. Did you have like a group of friends that you base them on, or…?

KG: You know what, I did not have a group of friends that I based them on, but… Basically, Dayna is very sarcastic, and I know for some people sarcasm can be a bump. And so one of the things I wanted to do — I said, you know what? One of the ways I want to make her likable is, she’s never sarcastic to her friends. She’s like the most supportive friend, she’s a friend that if someone says something mean about Sienna, she’s mad, you know? So I wanted to have Dayna be a really good friend and I do love the relationship that the three of them have, Dayna, Sienna, and Emme.

One thing also, if you read the book, they definitely yell at her for putting her life in danger, which I don’t think you see a lot in a lot of amateur detective novels. So I wanted definitely to create a very strong bond and friendship with all three of them.

LB: And there’s a bit of romance.

KG: There’s some romance! At the time, I thought my book was a cozy. And I discovered later, it’s not a cozy, when I tried to pitch it to agents. But in a lot of cozies, the main character always dates a cop. And so, I didn’t want her to date the cop, so I made her love interest play a cop on television. So that’s where the idea of Omari came from.

LB: Well, okay, I’m confused. I would absolutely have pegged this as a cozy. Why is it not a cozy?

KG: I think cozies today have a certain set of tropes. A woman who lived in the big city and had a bad incident goes back to her hometown almost in shame. And when she’s there, she has these quirky characters in her small hometown. And usually she has a trade, like she makes doughnut or she, you know, does something else. And so I think cozies today have certain things, certain ingredients that make them a cozy. And so my book doesn’t have those ingredients. I think my publisher calls it a cozy, but if you go to Barnes & Noble, it’s not in the cozy section. It’s actually with all the other mysteries. I’m calling it amateur detective, but I think people say it’s more of a traditional mystery.

LB: Hmm, well, okay. But having said that, I do think cozy readers will find a lot to love in it.

KG: That was the thing: I’m a cozy reader. And to me it is a cozy, which is why I was really surprised to learn that it wasn’t. But yes, I have a lot of people who are cozy readers who’ve read it and they’re, sometimes they say they’re surprised at how much they liked it, maybe because it doesn’t have the traditional cozy elements to it? But, I mean, it’s amateur detective, there’s no blood and gore on the page, it’s funny, it’s very lightweight, so I definitely see it as a cozy, but it doesn’t have those traditional elements.

LB: Well, who do you like to read?

KG: I love reading Sue Grafton. I love reading Janet Evanovich. I blog with a bunch of ladies on a blog called Chicks on the Case, and I love all of their books. It’s similar where we all are traditional mysteries but we don’t all have the elements of the cozy. Marla Cooper has a great series called Destination Wedding, Vicki Fee has the Liv & Di in Dixie series, Cynthia Kuhn has her academic mysteries, Lisa Mathews has a great series with an older lady protagonist and a younger lady protagonist, and then Ellen Byron has a great series set Louisiana.

So it’s cool to me to be able to read my friends and to admire what they do, but old-school it’s definitely like a Joan Hess and people like that.

LB: I’ve interviewed Ellen, and I love her. I love her books.

KG: Ellen is such a sweetheart and she’s so funny because she’s a sitcom writer, so she totally understands the world of Hollywood Homicide.

LB: So, Detective by Day — Day being Dayna — Detective by Day is a series. What can we look forward to for Dayna?

KG: Well, I just finished book two, and it’s called Hollywood Ending — I think that the official title now. And that one takes place during awards season, which is like a three-month period between the Independent Spirit Awards and the Oscars, where every award show known to man is on. And so a publicist for a popular awards show gets murdered after a cocktail party, and so Dayna looks into it. And at this point she’s actually now an investigator apprentice, a private investigator apprentice for Aubrey, who’s another character in the book.

LB: I love Aubrey.

KG: Yes, I don’t really talk about him a lot, but he’s another quirky character. He’s this former cop who is now very quirky private investigator and he and Dayna have a very love-hate relationship throughout book one, which also continues in book two.

LB: That’s such a neat idea, that she’s an apprentice. Have you read Steph Cha?

KG: I have! I’ve read her first book. So good.

LB: Well, and in her second one, she more formally becomes an apprentice to the PI.

KG: Yeah, I have to check it out for sure. To me just seems like a — the other thing I like about, from television, you have character growth. And so I definitely wanted to have character growth for Dayna with each book. So in the second one, she’s not, she’s a little better at it. She still trying to find her way that she’s officially a PI in the second one.

LB: You know, you’ve written in so many different media: you’ve written for magazines, you’ve written for television, now you’ve written a novel. What was the hardest thing about writing Hollywood Homicide?

KG: I think those other things, you interact with a lot more people. With magazine editing, you have a staff, you have an editor you work with. And with television writing, it’s a bunch of writers in a room. And so with writing the book, it was basically me in a room by myself staring at a blank computer, a blank Word document. So that to me was the hardest thing, was — I had feedback from my writers group, but it was basically me and my vision. Which I don’t, television is not your vision, and even with magazines, it’s articles your editor wants you to write. It’s good and bad where it’s, I was by myself and I couldn’t go to anyone to help me, but on the other side it was truly my vision.

LB: I like that, actually, because I feel that Hollywood Homicide is a very, as you said, it’s missing some of the tropes but it’s a very unique, interesting take on the cozies, setting it in Hollywood with people that we don’t, characters that we don’t often see.

KG: People are surprised at how non-diverse mystery writing is. Sisters in Crime did a report they released in 2016, and at the time there were only 69 black mystery authors who had been published by a traditional press. And that 69 people of all time, in all of the whole entire world of all time, only 69 people have been published with mysteries who are black. And we can’t even complain that much because our numbers are better than Asian Americans, Latinx people, people who are gay. Their numbers are less than our numbers. And I think honestly, probably, if you put in all the marginalized voices together, I think is probably still less than 300 people total.

And I definitely think it’s getting better, but I also think we have a long way to go. I say it’s getting better because my book came out this year, you have Alexia Gordon — and I’m talking now about amateur detective cozies — Alexia Gordon came out last year and she won the Lefty Award.

LB: I will link to her book, because she’s fantastic.

KG: Her second one just came out, I think last, maybe two months ago. And then there’s another woman with Kensington, her name is V. M. Burns, and she actually has three series coming out, one is a Mystery Bookshop series in November, and that she has two more coming out, two more series coming out in 2018. And they also someone like a Danny Gardner who has kind of like a Walter Mosley type of book as well, so it’s definitely getting better.

But we also have a very long way to go. And people are always like, well, why aren’t there more? And I think it’s one of those Catch-22s, where you have to see more black or authors of color in general I think it can be like, oh. Because you know when you see something, it makes you realize you can do it, when you see someone who looks like you doing it. Which is why representation is so, so important. I’m super excited for all the new authors coming out now, but I still think we have a long way to go with it, too.

One thing I do appreciate about Midnight Ink is that they embraced my book as is. And even the fact that they put Dayna on the cover, if you see my cover it’s literally, she’s the focal point and it’s her face looking right out at you. Which is rare for a cozy or a traditional mystery as well.

LB: Yes, it is rare that they give you what the character looks like. But I think it’s very powerful, I absolutely love it. The other thing is, I agree with you, I think representation is very important and I think it’s important for kids and for adults, for people who are readers to see themselves and go, oh, hey, look at that! But I also think it’s important for publishers to look and see, oh, hey, look! It can have an African-American main character. That’s cool.

KG: And that’s the thing, Laura, and so interested to see — I mean, my book got really great reviews, which I’m really happy about, but it just came out a couple of weeks ago so I’m definitely interested to see if people are going to buy it. Because that’s what matters. If my book doesn’t sell, then honestly I feel bad for the next black author because they’re going to look at my sales and be like, oh. Hopefully the sales are good, and if so, that person might have a little easier chance than I had when I was trying to get my book sold. But we’ll see, won’t we? Fingers crossed.

LB: Well, also, the more mysteries that are like Hollywood Homicide in that they are smart and well-written and with characters I really care about, the happier I am.

KG: Oh, thank you so much.

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

KG: Laura, thank you so much for having me.

LB: If you want to keep up with Kellye online, you can find her at KellyeGarrett.com.