Episode 6: Tammy Kaehler


Red FlagsTammy Kaehler’s Kate Reilly Racing Mysteries feature thrills on and off the track. Her fourth book, Red Flags, has just been released. You can learn more about Tammy directly from her website. Plus Tammy has graciously donated an autographed copy of her first Kate Reilly Racing Mystery, Dead Man’s Switch for the May book giveaway. Sign up in the box on the right before May 31, 2016 to be entered to win.

Speaking of Dead Man’s Switch, we talk about how Tammy got the initial spark for the series. She gives a shout-out to Hallie Ephron, and if you want to know the name of the how-to book Hallie wrote, it’s Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel. But if you’re into suspense, you should check out her fiction as well.

We also talked about drivers who have helped her: Patrick Long, Oliver Gavin and Pippa Mann. Pippa’s breast cancer awareness sponsorship for the Indy 500 mirrors a scenario Tammy came up with for Kate, who, in her books, has teamed up with Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Between the time we recorded this and now, Pippa did announce that she will once again be driving the pink car at the Indianapolis 500.

Finally, Tammy talked about writers who have influenced her: Dick Francis, Agatha Christie, and a recent spark from Margaret Maron.

I had a request to put series books in order, which I think is a brilliant idea, so here are Tammy’s Kate Reilly Racing Mysteries, from first to most recent:

1 – Dead Man’s Switch

2 – Braking Points

3 – Avoidable Contact

4 – Red Flags

I will happily add more as Tammy writes ’em!

Meanwhile, if you would rather read than listen to the interview, here is the transcript. Enjoy!

— Laura

Transcript of Interview with Tammy Kaehler

Welcome to Destination Mystery, a podcast for readers who love a good mystery. I’m Laura Brennan.

Laura Brennan: My guest today is Tammy Kaehler, author of the Kate Reilly racing mysteries. Set in the fast-paced world of professional motorsports, the mysteries feature a racecar driver who happens to be a damn good amateur sleuth, as well as a woman proving herself in the male-dominated field of racing. Murder interweaves with the dramas on and off the track. The fourth book in the series, Red Flags, has just been released.

Tammy, thank you for joining me.

Tammy Kaehler: Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.

LB: I want to talk about writing and I want to talk about Kate and Red Flags, but first I want to talk about racing. When did you become a racing fan?

TK: It was 2004, and I can pinpoint that very clearly because I didn’t know a single darn thing about racing before that year. Not a thing. I was working freelance at the time, and I had a contract with a subprime mortgage lending company and if you remember 2004, that was the heyday for such companies. They were making money hand over fist. And the one I was working for decided that the way they wanted to spend their marketing dollars that year, was sponsoring a racing series and racing team and then taking brokers and entertaining them at the races. So they did that, and they needed extra hands, and I went along to the season of races that year to help entertain, do the corporate marketing as such. And I learned about this fascinating sport sort of from the inside out because I was representing a VIP, I was a VIP, so I got VIP treatment and learned everything there was to know. And I walked into this world and just, like, my jaw dropped, it was fascinating and I thought, there are stories here and I want to tell other people about this crazy sport.

LB: Well, your research, is, it must be intense. Because both your second and your third Kate Reilly books won back-to-back awards from the American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Association.

TK: Yes.

LB: Yay! A) congratulations but, B) that must be the hardest nut to crack because they cover this, that’s their world.

TK: Yeah, yeah and really, I was so proud of those awards, and also the third book, Avoidable Contact, also received a gold medallion in The International Automotive Media Competition which is, the levels medallions are awarded on merit so that was the highest possible. You know, I’m so proud of those because, again, those are writers and those are people who know racing. Like you said, the hardest nut to crack for approval.

But you’re right, research is, research is intense. I decided when I started this, and this is partly at the urging of my husband who is a mechanical engineer and, you know, into precision and having things accurate, I decided I couldn’t let the people I knew in the racing world and the friends I had, I couldn’t let them down by doing a shoddy job with the racing. It had to be, if I was going to do this, it had to be right. And, you know, that was a challenge because I’m not racecar driver, I haven’t been in the industry. At the time I had only been around a few months when I came up with this idea but I’ve really made a commitment to that. I went to racing school, I’ve cultivated a lot of friends and resources in the arena, from professional drivers to engineers to team managers, you know, people I can email and ask questions. Okay, does the steering still wheel come off or does this one tilt? What’s the top speed at the end of the straight at the Long Beach track? Or get professional drivers to check my racing scenes to make sure they’re accurate.

So it is scary, in a way, to be tackling that and I’m looking at a new book now and a new racing series and a new kind of car and of course a new track because every book is set at a new track. So that’s mildly terrifying, but it’s also exciting. And, yeah, it is one of the tougher aspects, is making sure that I get that all right.

LB: It’s not just the racing details you get right, and you do, you do — but the camaraderie of the course. That’s one of things I really love about this particular series is, you really have the feeling that Kate has a team watching her back. And so there’s the pleasure of seeing recurring characters again, but there’s also that, really capturing that feeling. Do you have, have you kind of built that team for yourself on or off the track?

TK: Yeah, I have, and I want to start by saying thank you so much, I’m so pleased to hear that that comes through. Because one of the things that really fascinated me about the racing world when I was introduced to it so long ago, is, you know, you walk in and what’s obvious is that this is an arena of competition and there’s violence and the speed and the crashes and there’s money and power and all of this, and the drivers are rock stars so there’s a glamour to it and all of that. But underneath it all, it’s very much a small town family kind of community. There are literally families there with kids all the way up to grandparents and they also have each other’s back like the way you’re describing. So I’m glad to feel like that comes through for Kate in the books.

And I definitely have developed that community. I think, some of it is the people I’ve met and spent time with and know, and some of it is honestly the value of social media. With social media you can find your tribe regardless of where people are located. And I really have found a lot of people who I’m in contact with mostly around race weekends on Twitter, on Facebook, although mostly on Twitter, a lot this conversation happens about races. And a lot of them are women. And that’s sort of what’s interesting, is finding that community of female race fans and participants and all of that. Who I do feel sort of has my back. They’re bloggers and fans who are out there, who are constantly helping me retweet, or writing a review or just encouraging me and being excited when I’ve got news or when I’m going to do research at a race. So, yeah, I have sort of built that and it’s been virtual a lot of times except occasionally when I get to a race, like I’m planning go to the Indy 500 at the end of May and a lot of people that I might’ve met once or haven’t met at all are going to be there, so that’s going to be sort of the culmination, finding some of this community in person.

LB: I would love to hear how you went from, “Wow! Race track, cool!” to the Kate Reilly mystery series because first of all, mystery — that doesn’t sort of necessarily leap to mind. Adventure stories, I could see; romance, I can see. But to have a mystery series set there seem so interesting and original, and also then to have it be a woman driver.

TK: Mysteries came about because I love them, I mean that’s mostly what I read. I’ve always loved Dick Francis in particular, and he writes about steeple chase racing, so there was sort of that ideal out there.

LB: That’s perfect. I can absolutely see that, yeah.

TK: And at first, the idea of a mystery set in racing came to me. I had just finished a manuscript, my first. I’dnever really written fiction before that. It was only about a year before this whole racing thing happened, so in 2003, that I had a scene in my head, I had an idea, it was the start of the story and it wouldn’t go away and I up writing, finishing a manuscript. You know, it’s the terrible one, it’s under the bed, in the closet, wherever. But it was the learning experience. So I had finished that part way through this 2004 racing season when I going racing and I was just, I was fascinated by two things: one, the contradiction that I explained earlier of sort of the family-friendly and the family-supportive atmosphere and the high-stakes and drama and things on the track. But I was also fascinated by the women that I met in the world. And I had developed some good friends that year who were women, who were professional pace car drivers, they had been racecar drivers, I met women who were engineers, women who were managing the hospitality for teams and I met women who were also the ones who we think of the most often in terms of the racing world, dressed up in Lycra, holding the umbrellas or posing in front of the pearly tires, or whatever it is. But I was fascinated by seeing so many women that I — I never knew much about the world at all, but then when you learn about it, you think about the women are there to look pretty, but there I was meeting women who were valued for their brains and their talents, not just their looks. And I felt like the world was ripe for puzzles and for the drama of a mystery, and that’s what I like, and that’s what I wanted to use as a vehicle to teach people.

Now, I did start with the idea of a woman in marketing for the series. And I had, it was the first weekend I’d had the idea, there was a race weekend in town, but before that happened, Hallie Ephron who is a wonderful author and writes an incredible book on how to write a mystery, happened to be coming through town. This was in Northern California, someone knew her, someone had set up this dinner. Anyway, about 10 of us had dinner with Hallie Ephron, and I got to sit right next to her and I said to her I have this idea. And I explained it to her and she said uh-uh, she’s got to be the driver. And I like clutched, like my breath caught in my throat because immediately, oh my god, that’s so much more I have to understand and write about. But I realized she was right, she was absolutely right. It needed that additional drama and that perspective. So that’s what started me on Kate.

The other that happened at the end of that weekend, it was really kind of an incredible weekend for all this inspiration. It was a race weekend in Sonoma at a race track there and the series was there, the series I was used to, and all the people I knew. And a NASCAR star, Dale Earnhardt Junior, who I think everyone in the world probably has heard of, he came as a visitor to race that weekend. And he went out the morning of the race for the little warm-up they do on the track and he wrecked. And he did it himself, but he ran into a wall, something in the fuel line broke, the car caught on fire, he caught on fire, had to be airlifted out. He’s fine, it was dramatic at the time and scary, but I was driving home that day and I thought, wow, that’s an incredible thing, that he goes away from his normal racing, he comes here to this smaller series and does this to himself. And I thought what if, what if someone had actually done that to him? What if someone had hit him and made that happen to him? And then I thought, what if it was a rookie that did that to him? And then I thought, what if it was a female? And what would go on, what was the response be, what would the reaction be, how would that go for her? And so that was really sort of the start, and funny enough that story turned into the second book in the series not the first, because I needed to sort of back up and tell Kate’s story of getting into racing, the racing series in the first place. But that really sort of sparked the idea of some of the problems I could put Kate in the middle of and make her deal with. And later I learned that that’s very much what a mystery writer does, right? You take a spark from real life and you go, hmm, what if and why and how and you go from there.

LB: Well, Kate is really interesting in a lot of ways; one of the ways I think she’s unique, sort of, as an amateur — I hate to call it an amateur sleuth. That is what she is —

TK: Yes, she is.

LB: She also has absolutely no interest in sleuthing! When she gets to a race track, she is not looking for dead bodies whose murders she must solve. She’s all about the race.

TK: She’d much rather just be sitting in the car. That’s what drivers do, they put on the helmet, they put the visor down, they get in the car and the rest of the world goes way. By necessity. Because you’re driving this thing, it’s like flying a fighter jet, a lapse in concentration and you’re dead. So it’s ultimate concentration and you know, that’s her happy place. That’s where she can get away from everything and I’ve tried to include that some in the books, of like, this is her escape, as well as her job. But, yeah, she’d much rather be doing that than dealing with her awful family or murder victims or whatever it is.

LB: She does have an awful family. Yes, she does. But it’s interesting how you interweave what’s going on. It’s almost like there are three themes. There’s the murder and what’s going on with that. That interweaves with her family issues, and also with what is happening on the track, and her driving usually makes her better — like the lessons she gets as a driver make her better able to handle her life. When you’re building your mysteries what part comes first?

TK: Well, I start with the characters, right? I know who the characters are, so I know what they’re trying to do. After that it’s trying to figure out the plot behind the murder. And then I look at, okay where’s the family and how is that thread of the story going to evolve here and be involved with the murder thread, the murder story, and both help that and evolve the bigger arc of the ongoing series story of the family as well. And then it’s, how does the racing fit in? There was an interesting moment in writing the third book, Avoidable Contact, which is set at a 24-hour endurance race. And when I started writing the book I thought, okay, this is going to be, it’s going to start with the green flag and it’s going to end with the checkers. Because I thought — being at that race, by the way, and I’ve been there a couple of times, it is astonishingly long, because the race goes on for a full 24 hours. And I thought, okay, the only way to really convey that is to set the book in the 24-hour period to, to convey the length, how long this thing feels. And then I realized, Kate’s got to sleep. And she can’t be thinking about anything else when she’s in the car, so suddenly I was down to like 16 hours of sleuthing. So I had to add a little time around that, and I put in a red flag and a long yellow so she had time where she could actually be in the car and thinking or talking to someone. So sometimes the racing sort of detracts from it, from the rest of the plot, from the story. Sometimes, I can, I can help it enhance that. Anyway, thank you for saying I managed to reinforce one with the other, I’m glad that’s working. There’s some point, you know you plan and then there’s some point where some of those things happen and you’re not necessarily totally aware of it because I think your subconscious takes over and you’re in a mood and so every scene you’re dealing with whether it’s confronting a suspect or asking questions or in a car, you know, helps contribute to that. There’s some subconscious at work there.

LB: I’ve heard you call it “idea fairies” floating around in your head.

TK: Oh, yeah.

LB: Let me ask you about some writers. Who are some writers who have influenced you over the years?

TK: Certainly Dick Francis. For the first couple of books — and in fact until I misplaced my box of paperbacks — but for the first couple of books, I would chain read, reread and reread Dick Francis while I was writing. And I know a lot of writers say they can’t read mysteries while they are writing, and there are certainly some people, some people’s writing I can’t read while I’m writing. But something about reading Dick Francis, because I’m not going to sound like him, but if reading him does push me in some direction, it’s a better direction, it’s a good direction for my natural voice. So, yeah, I would just chain read his set of 40 mysteries while I was writing those books.

Who else? Agatha Christie, certainly. Currently, I’m trying to think, currently, who, who I read and who I love. I read a lot. I read broadly in mysteries and even in romance. So there a lot of influences. I read a Margaret Maron book recently, I think the second-to-last in her Judge Deborah Knott series. And she did a past and present, an historical component, and that helped a lot because I’m trying to do something similar in the next book, the one set at the Indy 500. But you know, I take influences in a lot of places and sometimes, I remember, I was reading a book while I was on my recumbent exercise bicycle, and something in what I was reading, it was not the exact plot twist, but it was something that made me think, oh, if I do something similar to this, with this character in my book it adds another twist. You get sort of sparks of inspiration all over the place from all kinds of stuff.

LB: What about drivers? Are there drivers who’ve influenced you?

TK: Yes. Certainly watching what Danica Patrick goes through. People sometimes ask if Kate is based on her, and they are physically fairly similar but I did create Kate and her appearance before I ever heard about Danica. I didn’t finish the book until after I’d heard about Danica, but it was all sort of the same kind of time. I don’t identify her a lot with Danica, but I’ve watched what, the kind of pressure and commentary Danica Patrick gets from the media and fans at large and taken some of that to, to put pressure on Kate in some of the same ways because I think it’s indicative of what a female in an unconventional arena goes through. Some of the questioning and the expectations and the critical commentary and things. But there are a number of drivers in the sports car racing world, and that’s mostly what I’ve written about until now, who’ve been very very helpful and I’ve watched how they carry themselves and how they respond to people. And some of those, there’s Patrick Long who was one of those original drivers in the team I worked with in 2004. He’s a Porsche factory driver, one of the only Americans ever to be so. And there’s a guy named Oliver Gavin who is a factory Corvette driver and he’s actually checked some of the racing scenes in some of my books because I have Kate driving a Corvette. And the one most recently is a woman named Pippa Mann who drives, races in the Indy 500 every year and a couple of other races if she can get a chance. And Pippa has been wonderful, it helps that she’s a reader like us, to start with. She also loves sharing what she does and loves racing and she’s been not only very supportive but also an inspiration because she, again, in this sort of — I came up with the idea and then met someone who is also doing it. I built a scenario around Kate where she is partnered with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. And then I met Pippa who was putting together, this was two years ago, putting together her first year in partnership with the Susan G. Koman Foundation to race a pink car with the breast cancer logo on it and all kinds of breast cancer research fund raising around it for the Indy 500 and this, she hasn’t announced yet but this will be her third year with that pink car and all kinds of fundraising efforts at the Indy 500. So, you know, there are a lot of different people. It’s been amazing how willing people are to help me with the details that I need. Everyone I’ve met and talked to has been incredibly supportive and willing to help, you know, again, even professional drivers to team owners and things like that. It’s been very, very gratifying all around.

LB: What do you hope your fans really get, get from your novels?

TK: That’s a good question. I hope, number one, they’re entertained. I read like crazy. And I wrote the kind of book I like to read. And so I hope they’re entertained in the same way with the puzzle, with a woman in an interesting situation, you know, having to sort of be strong and fight through some adversity but making, finding success for herself. And, by the way, that doesn’t always mean winning races. Kate hasn’t won a race in a book yet. I’ve had her win a couple offscreen but, it would be too much sort of the Cinderella story to have her actually win in a book. I mean, she’s wrecked. But I always do have her achieve something for herself. And sometimes, like in Red Flags, that incredible past she pulls off at the end of the race. Still only puts her fourth in the race. But she achieves something incredible for herself in every book. Because that, that’s what I think is important, is each of us defining success for ourselves, not by necessarily an absolute sort of prize. So I hope people appreciate that. I hope the Kate is a role model for some people who, maybe young girls who want to get involved in racing, for parents who want to encourage their daughters to get involved in racing, for anyone who thinks about, well women can’t, or shouldn’t, or don’t usually, you know, to see another example of that. And I hope people learn something about the racing world. I’m mostly sad when people say, well I don’t like racing so, you know I wouldn’t be interested. I wrote these books to teach people, because I like mysteries where I learn something about a world, an industry, a hobby, an environment, a craft, whatever it is that I don’t know about. Books are my vehicle for learning that stuff. And so that’s what I wanted to provide to other people and, you know, give them a glimpse of this arena that I find so, so fascinating.

LB: Okay, so what is next for you?

TK: What is next is, well, at the end of May, I’m physically going to the hundredth running of the Indy 500 in order to finish the research I need. I went there two years ago, but this time, I have started writing the next book and made a lot more contacts in the last couple of years, including some people who have some historical knowledge because there’s that component I mentioned. But it’s really, it’s really digging in and working on getting Kate to Indy, helping her figure out how to drive that track. I mean, that’s where I talked about it gets scary because it’s a big track, there’s a lot of history, it’s a brand-new car. I’ve never driven an oval, I’ve never driven an open-wheel car, I’ve been for a ride in one. So there’s a lot, a lot to work on. So it’s the research and the writing and the planning the plot of the next, the Kate next book. Maybe after that I’ve got an idea for something that could be a standalone mystery but that’s sort of out there after I get Kate squared away.

LB: Well this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for spending the time with me.

TK: Thank you. Great to talk to you.