Jess Lourey writes thrillers, a career she embarked on under doctor's orders.
Here's the Minneapolis author's quick description: "In the late '90s, I was teaching full time. Teaching English. I had a super-young daughter. I met a wonderful man and we got married. I have a Ted X talk about this but — trigger warning — he committed suicide on 9/11 and I was newly pregnant with our son, who's a wonderful 21-year-old boy. The doctor said, 'You're on bed rest. You have to journal.' It seemed so self-indulgent, a grown-up diary, so I thought, 'I'm just going to try to write a book again.'" (It became her first published book, "Mayday.")
Lourey's "again" refers to her first novel, which also was her master's thesis. According to her, it was so bad that she swiped it off the shelves of the library at St. Cloud State.
"I knew how to sneak things out, but then I was overcome by Midwestern guilt," said Lourey, chuckling at her folly. "I emailed the library and said, 'Here's what I did but you won't mind if I keep it, right? Who's going to read it?' And she [the librarian] said, 'No. Bring it back. It's completely inappropriate.' But she also said, 'It's a good teaching device. People will see where you came from and that you can rise from the ashes of that terrible first novel.'"
Which Lourey, 53, did. She has written 28 books, including "Quarry Girls," which won this year's Minnesota Book Award for genre fiction and a national Anthony Award for paperback mysteries. The new "The Taken Ones" is a cold-case mystery about the disappearance of two girls while playing outside.
"Taken Ones" is suspenseful but, like its author, very funny (one character is described as looking "like he'd been plucked straight out of a casting call for an Old West gold prospector"). Combining humor with suspense is a combo Lourey embraces:
Q: The subject matter of "Taken Ones" gets fairly grim. Why incorporate humor?
A: I got away from it for a while — humorous writing — because I just wanted to be taken seriously. But then I told myself, "I like books that are seasoned with some humor. It makes the rest easier to swallow." I think I'm the funniest person I know and nobody agrees with me. Nobody buys it, especially my kids. But the hard stuff is always going to come at you. So I surround myself with humorous people.
Q: Your last four books drew inspiration from true crimes, but "Taken Ones" doesn't. Did you need a break from real-life awfulness?
A: Yes. I wanted it to be more fun.
Q: Where did the idea come from?
A: My editor said, "We want you to write a police procedural." I worried it would be boring because it's not a genre I usually read. But I love "The X-Files," so I asked if it could be in that vein.
Q: Do your editors usually give you that much direction?
A: I'm writing a YA [young adult] series now and they are being very steer-y, but before that experience, they usually took what I gave. With [publisher] Thomas and Mercer, her exact words were, "We want to create a Jess Lourey catalog. Would you write a police procedural?"
Q: Given that your books cover dark subjects, do people assume you'll have a tortured personality?
A: I would love that to be true. It would keep people away, but I don't think anyone thinks that. I go to mystery conferences all the time and it's people who are writing about the worst of the worst behavior, but they are the funniest, warmest people.
Q: Speaking of keeping people away, are you dating?
A: I am divorced and I have dipped my toes into the online dating pool, but I do not recommend it. It's a shallow, wide pool that somebody has peed in.
Q: You grew up in Paynesville [Minn.] and have primarily set your books in Minnesota. Will all your books take place here?
A: If you'd asked me a year ago, I would have said no. I love traveling and there are so many beautiful places in the world. But last October I signed with a Macmillan imprint, a three-book contract for a young adult series. I was given free rein to set it anywhere. I was going to try all these things but I ended up setting it west of Rochester — 120 years in the future. So. ...
Q: Does having taught writing at community colleges for 20 years help you write?
A: I think good writing has nothing to do with structure. It has nothing to do with grammar. Those help. It has to have — I don't want to use the word magic, but a spark. When you get that spark, I don't worry so much about anything else.
Q: Do you have sort of an inner teacher?
A: She's always there. Interestingly, at least to me, I've worked with the same freelance editor since "Mayday." She is in the back of my head. Everything I write, I think, "Oh, too many prepositions in this sentence," or "This character development is not on the page." And she's completely humorless, so I have to sharpen the humor to the point where she's not calling it out.
Q: You mentioned that you have four places in your home to write, including a standing desk and a laptop with a cushion. Do you write differently in different places?
A: I think I do! You know how baseball players will only wear the socks that they won the series with? If I'm editing, I have to use the upstairs station and light a specific editing candle. When I'm outlining, I'm at the regular table because I need a lot of space. But when I'm really writing, I like my laptop and the couch.
Q: After all those books, with a sequel to "The Taken Ones" coming next year, is writing still fun?
A: It's hard. Not digging-a-ditch hard, but still hard. But I love writing. It's two years ago that I quit teaching to write full-time and there's not a day when I'm not thinking how lucky I am.
Where to find help
Families can find mental health information and resources for crisis care on NAMI Minnesota's website, namimn.org. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You also can text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.
The Taken Ones
By: Jess Lourey.
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer, 304 pages, $16.99.
Event: Joint book launch, 6:30 p.m. Oct. 10, Once Upon a Crime, 604 W. 26th St., Mpls.