Episode 78: Jennifer J. Chow: Cozy Mysteries and a Talking Cat

I looked over at the white cat, who had finally opened his eyes, and mulled over possible names. His coat was so poofy, it made him shapeless, like a giant marshmallow. Hmm, that wasn’t too bad of a name.

I cocked my head at Marshmallow, and he stared back at me with piercing sapphire eyes. We maintained eye contact for so long, it felt like a staring contest. I would show him who was boss.

Okay, I blinked first.

In the midst of the surreal times we’re going through, it was beyond wonderful to sit down and chat with Jennifer J. Chow. I was already a fan of her Winston Wong cozy mysteries and I’d had the pleasure of meeting her at the California Crime Writers Conference last year. Her latest book, Mimi Lee Gets A Clue, is the first in a new cozy series and is out this month — just in time for the comfort read we all need.

A deserving victim. An adorable heroine. A talking cat. What more could you ask for?

Whatever it is, Jennifer hits it with the Sassy Cat Mysteries. Mimi Lee is a terrific heroine with strong family ties and a growing relationship with her telepathic cat — as well as with the cute attorney she met doing laundry. For warmth and humor, this new series hits it out of the park.

Jennifer is also the author of the Winston Wong cozy series, starting with Seniors Sleuth, and featuring a male detective steeped in video games, as well as award-winning books for Young Adults and a host of short stories.

I particularly want to mention her short story “Moon Girl,” which is in the anthology, Brave New Girls: Tales of Heroines Who Hack. Proceeds from this book are donated to a scholarship fund through the Society of Women Engineers, so definitely worth checking out.

Jennifer gives a shout out to a thriller she’s currently loving, Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel, as well as to mystery writers Dale Furutani and Naomi Hirahara. And to learn more about Jennifer herself, check out her website.

And if you have already devoured Mimi Lee Gets A Clue, you can pre-order Book Two in the Sassy Cat mysteries, Mimi Lee Reads Between the Lines, right here.

Enjoy our conversation. As always, there is a transcript below if you prefer to read rather than listen.

I also want to wish you all well. During these crazy times, I hope you and yours are staying safe and finding comfort in each other and a good book. Take care!


Transcript of Interview with Jennifer J. Chow

Laura Brennan: Jennifer J. Chow writes multicultural mysteries and fantastical YA. Her Asian American novels include Dragonfly Dreams (a Teen Vogue pick), The 228 Legacy, the Winston Wong cozy mystery series, and a brand-new series called The Sassy Cat Mysteries. The brand-new first book in that series, Mimi Lee Gets A Clue, is just out now. Jennifer, thank you for joining me.

Jennifer J. Chow: Thanks for having me, Laura.

LB: So how did you get started writing?

JC: I think I always liked writing, even as a kid I would make up stories in my head. When I got older and started reading a lot of books, I also thought it was really cool that anyone could be a writer. I remember borrowing my dad’s typewriter and typing out my actual first story and then he took it to work with him and showed all his colleagues. So, that’s really sweet.

LB: Was it a mystery?

JC: It wasn’t a mystery, but it was one of those “twins switching identities,” right? So I guess sort of a mystery in the way that they tried to pretend to be one another. But it was kind of one of those fun romps of mistaken identity.

LB: So then when did you decide to turn your eye to mysteries?

JC: I guess there are two points. One actually was when I was in elementary school. We had a teacher, I think it was in sixth grade, and she was really into all sorts of creative writing, poetry and short stories. And I do remember that she assigned us a short story. In that short story, I decided to make it a mystery and she really had some positive comments about it. So I think that was a little bit of what sparked some interest.

Later on, when I actually started writing more, I didn’t really think about mystery only because I thought I couldn’t pull it off. I really thought that it was hard to surprise readers and I wasn’t sure if I could do it.

But I really enjoyed reading mysteries. I’d grown up on mysteries. My mom and I read a lot of Agatha Christie together, so I liked the genre. I just tried to challenge myself.

LB: You’ve mentioned both your parents now. Obviously they’ve been very supportive of you. Tell me a little bit about your background.

JC: Well, they were supportive, I think, when I was younger. And then I think it was a little bit of a difference when I got older because writing is not necessarily the most stable of careers. But I would say that they’re generally supportive.

So my dad, he is Malaysian Chinese which is what my protagonist, Mimi Lee’s mom is in the novel. And then my own mom, she grew up in Hong Kong. She was born in China and she grew up in Hong Kong. They both immigrated to the States. My dad immigrated for college and my mom was here for the later years of her high school.

LB: Did you feel that your upbringing was more international than that of most American kids?

JC: I guess I didn’t think of it that way when I was growing up. But I definitely noticed cultural differences. The way, the values that my family had, and then even I think some of the — just even the little things that you do at school. The food you bring or how you work with injuries. So there’s this medicine that my parents used to use. I don’t even know what’s in it, it’s iodine or something. But it’s like Neosporin-equivalent. But they put it on and it’s like blood-red. [Laughter.] So I’d go to school when I had a scratch and I’d have this blood-red color on my finger, and they would just freak out. I didn’t realize that it was such an odd thing until I came to school using it.

LB: Actually, my mom was an iodine fan so I feel your pain. [Laughter.] But there is — you’re much younger than I am, but certainly when I was growing up, the landscape of books for kids was virtually all Caucasian. I remember reading a few books here and there set in other countries or I remember — and I remember it vividly because they just weren’t that many of them — books about Native Americans, teenagers growing up in the US. But the landscape was vastly white. And so we didn’t get, we never really got a sense of other people’s cultures and how rich and varied in our own country the cultures were. Do you think that’s changing?

JC: Oh, definitely. I remember growing up the same way, having not really that many role models. For a long time, I actually wished, “Oh, I wish I had blue eyes and blond hair.” It just felt, it felt awkward, I think. So I was glad when I did find some representation later on when I was growing up.

And kids nowadays, I’m so grateful for the variety of books that are out there. There was the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement which I think is really great just to show diversity and to show different perspectives. And I’m glad for my, I have two children, so I’m glad that they’re getting different books that kind of reflect their heritage as well. That’s really, I think, a forward movement.

LB: You also write for a younger crowd. Your story, “Moon Girl,” was in an anthology for young adults, Brave New Girls: Tales of Heroines Who Hack. Do you think about offering them a view into a culture they might or might not share?

JC: Definitely. For “Moon Girl” specifically, it’s based on this Chinese mythology about this woman who takes an elixir of life and floats to the moon. And there’s a parallel in the story because the young girl is flying to the moon in this futuristic story. I try to weave it in just as reflection and kind of as an educational piece. But I would say, the thing I liked about that anthology is it’s tied in with giving profits to a scholarship fund for women engineers. So just to have that next generation of female people interested in the STEM field.

LB: Oh, that’s awesome. I did not know that. That is great. I will link to that book in the show notes. That’s fantastic. So, there’s a couple of things I want to talk to about. One is you actually self-published your first mystery series.

JC: That’s right. That’s right.

LB: And then you developed Mimi Lee and that’s being traditionally published.

JC: Mm-hmm.

LB: Tell me a little bit about the self-publishing world. How did you decide to do that?

JC: So, like I said before, I really enjoy mysteries and I actually thought it was just going to be that short challenge so I would self-publish. And then it solidified as well because around the same time my mom was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and so I decided to push the self-publishing route just because of the time pressure.

So I think it’s an interesting world, to do the self-publishing. It’s basically wearing a lot of different hats. You have to be in control of all the different pieces and you’re working with, consulting with, a lot of different people, the editor and the cover designer and all these different parts of it. And the marketing hat as well. I think it’s great for people who love being in control and it’s definitely where you get to make your own deadlines and things like that but it’s a lot of learning as well.

LB: But did you develop the Winston Wong series — it seems to me that it was developed to be a complete series. Was it only supposed to be the first book?

JC: Well, you know what, it’s because after I wrote the first book I was like, hey, Winston is a really fun character. I think I have at least two more Winston stories in my head. So that’s why I sort of developed it more. Plus I also wanted to write through a series because I didn’t really have that experience with the other books which were standalones.

LB: It feels very coherent. The whole series feels very coherent. And there are a couple of definitely different choices than your normal, run-of-the-mill cozy in the Winston Wong series. And the first is Winston, right? You chose to have a man as your protagonist. What made that choice?

JC: Well, I was playing around with characters and I really wanted to write someone in the video gaming field. Which is, both my husband and my brother have experience in that arena. I knew I wanted to set someone in that field and truth be told is the majority of people who work there are male, especially on the programming and testing side, not the art side as much. I wanted to have that male perspective too and, I don’t know, he just kind of came into my head already formed and so it kind of took off from there.

LB: Like Harry Potter. He just appeared.

JC: Yeah! [Laughter.]

LB: So did your mom get a chance to read the book?

JC: She saw the draft of it. But she didn’t see the final, complete product.

LB: Well, I’m glad that she saw the draft. Well done.

JC: Thank you. And the first one’s dedicated to her, so that’s kind of a bittersweet thing for me.

LB: That’s lovely. It’s lovely. I completely understand. So now you’ve got a whole series, three-book series, under your belt and you’re thinking about a new series, but this time you decide to go the more traditional route. So I want to talk about two different things. One, I think it’s super interesting for people to hear about how someone goes from self-publishing to be traditionally published, so I’d like to hear just a little bit about that. But first, I really want to talk about how you developed that series. Because it hits a lot of the cozy notes like, beautifully. So let’s talk a little bit about cozies. First of all, because some people may not really know, what is a cozy?

JC: Well, the way I like to define it is, I like to define a cozy as a lighthearted mystery. There’s not too much gore, there’s not too much sex in it. It’s like a book that you want to cozy up to. And it’s a nice whodunit.

LB: Yes! The mystery part is important. But I also think that cozies often have that little thread of romance.

JC: Mm-hmm.

LB: And yours certainly does. So what were the elements that you really wanted to have in this new series?

JC: Well, I think there was a discussion between me and the editor about what things to hit. So it definitely has that checkmark list of — a lot of cozies have like a hook, right? Like a theme to them, whether it’s quilting or ice cream or whatever it is. So the pets was what we came up with. I absolutely love the sidekick… I shouldn’t call them a sidekick!

LB: No, he would be very upset —

JC: Yes, he would be upset with that!

LB: Marshmallow would be very upset if you called him a sidekick.

JC: Partner! Equal partner.

LB: That’s right. As far as Marshmallow’s concerned — it is the Sassy Cat Mysteries, so he is the hero.

JC: Right! So, the talking cat. And then, the love interest. I wanted to make an Asian, in fact a specifically Asian American love interest for Mimi because I wanted that kind of relationship there. I actually remember having a lot of friends who, male friends, who were feeling like they weren’t represented a lot, whether it’s in TV, movies, or books. And in a positive way.

LB: Right.

JC: And then Mimi Lee herself, I wanted to make sure I had the nod to Malaysian Chinese heritage so she’s half-white on her dad’s side and then Malaysian Chinese on her mom’s. I wanted to incorporate those Asian threads as well.

LB: Right. So, okay, so great: we have love interest, we have the character of Mimi who is Asian American, white on her dad side, and then we have the cat, we need to give Marshmallow his due. How did you come up with Marshmallow?

JC: To be honest, the way I actually jumped into the traditional publishing contract was that they read Seniors Sleuth, which was the first in my Winston Wong cozy mysteries. And then what happened was the editor contacted me and asked me if I wanted to do a new series with an Asian American female lead. So I think part of it was just like a brainstorming process within the publishing house and myself. Pets were in, talking cat was definitely intriguing, and then I kind of put a spin on things by, I wanted to make Marshmallow telepathic. I wanted to put that pet/owner connection and really bring that out and bring it out where he’s been able to connect with Mimi. I also thought it would be funnier if he spoke into her head but then sometimes she reacts to him and then other people don’t know what’s going on, so it kind of puts her in really awkward situations sometimes.

LB: Yeah, I liked that. I also felt that it was something of a love story between the two of them.

JC: That’s true.

LB: Especially in terms of getting to know each other. It was really charming, I thought it was very charming.

JC: Good.

LB: So, what are your plans for Mimi. I believe she gets into more trouble later this year?

JC: She does. Well, I mean, tentatively now! The second book is called Mimi Lee Reads Between the Lines. It’s out on preorder, it’s tentatively scheduled for a November release. It’s her sister who’s actually in trouble with the law, so course being the good big sis that Mimi is, she’s got to go and help her sister out and clear her sister’s name.

LB: Now, do you have sisters?

JC: I don’t. I have cousins, female cousins, but no sisters. So I have two daughters, so I mine from their relationship a little bit for the sister quirks and things in the books as well.

LB: Oh, that’s lovely, and hey, you are a veteran of writing twin sisters who, you know —

JC: That’s right! [Laughter.]

LB: Do we have more down the line? What are we thinking?

JC: Next down the line? So you mean like for book 3?

LB: Yeah. Is there book 3? Are you planning this to be a nice long series?

JC: Well, it’s a three book contract, so there is a book 3.

LB: Oh, excellent!

JC: We’ll see. If it extends beyond that, obviously it’s based on the readers and their input and, you know, what they think.

LB: So tell me what you really enjoy about playing in Mimi’s world.

JC: Oh, well, honestly it is Marshmallow! Having that sassy cat and giving him a voice. He is probably, I would probably say the most fun to write of all the characters in the Mimi series. It’s kind’ve been fun to do all the different research into like the dog grooming/pet grooming world. And also I kind’ve like it as an homage to L.A. which is where I live. I just like to pull things out, sometimes poke fun at — I don’t know, it’s just kind of a fun place to set a mystery.

LB: And a very enjoyable mystery, too. So, any shout outs to any of the people that you are reading, that you love?

JC: Oh, wow, so many things that I’m reading! Let’s see. I was just reading — so, when I’m writing cozies I can’t read them at the same time. So I was reading instead a thriller, it just came out, Darling Rose Gold, and it’s been a really good read. Like a compulsive, the whole mother-daughter relationship but like twisted and I really enjoyed it. And I have this big stack of To Read list I want to work my way through. There’s a bunch books out I really want to read.

LB: Other than Agatha Christie, has anybody really influenced you?

JC: Oh, I think for mystery writing specifically, two that I can think of. One is Dale Furutani. He was sort of the first Asian writer that I read that wrote mysteries. He’s Japanese-American and he did a lot of short mysteries, whether it’s — he did contemporary and then historical, with some samurai stuff, themes also. And then Naomi Hirahara, she did the Mas Arai series, she’s actually doing a Shaved Ice mystery series now set in Hawaii. And she’s definitely been a mentor to me because I talked to her early on when I started the Winston Wong cozy series. She really took me under her wing and helped me really to plug into the mystery community and to encourage me as I was writing mysteries. I do remember that, we talked a lot about having a male protagonist because her Mas Arai series is also male and I do remember getting a rejection letter, actually, when I was first thinking about the idea and they basically, the person replied saying there wasn’t room really for a cozy with a male lead at the time.

LB: I find that fascinating because cozy readers, one of the things they do is read a lot of cozies. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that there isn’t room in the market for more than one Asian male cozy lead.

JC: Yeah.

LB: But you proved them wrong.

JC: Yes. And you know what, I thought it would resonate with female readers who would read all sorts of cozies, but honestly I’ve had quite a few notes from male readers who appreciate having a male lead. Or are writing their own cozy and were just encouraged to see my book as well.

LB: Oh, that’s wonderful!

JC: You know, I just really think that cozy mysteries are kind of nice books to cuddle with especially during times of upheaval. I really enjoy having that cozy world and having things get solved. My hope is that readers would find that in my book. That they’ll be able to have a laugh and be able to find at least a little more joy and positivity just from reading it.

LB: I love that. So what is next for you?

JC: Well, besides revising book 2, it’s going to be working on book 3 in the Mimi series.

LB: Well, excellent. We will look forward to many more stories from you. Thank you so much, Jennifer, for joining me today.

JC: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.