WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Kristen! As a relatively new fan to your protagonist Roxane, as well as your series, I wanted to thank you for being willing to let me interview you. I guess my first question would begin with the origins of Roxane. How did you decide you wanted to write a series featuring this woman, and what lengths did you go to in order to make Roxane accessible to every reader, including myself?
Kristen Lepionka: Thanks for having me! Roxane came about because I wanted to write the woman private investigator character I always wanted to read about but never quite found. Not that there isn’t lots of great female PI fiction out there, but I specifically wanted to write a bi woman, and a woman who’s just an absolute mess. There are about a zillion books with hard-drinking, bad-at-relationships male detectives in the genre, but not a ton of women. And on top of those things, I wanted to write her as a tough but vulnerable type, as often in popular fiction, female characters get to be one or the other, but not both. So that was the task I set for myself, and the first glimpse of Roxane I got was her lying on the carpet in her office, crazy-hungover and wishing the phone would stop ringing. Then I just kind of had to follow her around to see what she did.
MT: I really love that Roxane falls into the spectrum of LGBTQIA. Not only does this mean she is a more interesting, accessible character for many, but she (and you as her creator) is making headway in the crime fiction world as an LGBTQIA woman. Do you think that queerness is more acceptable now in crime fiction, or do you feel as if you’re one of the first people to really head down this road of writing incredibly diverse and intersectionally feminist characters?
KL: Queer characters have a bit of a hard go in the history of crime fiction. I think that’s changing as our world changes, which is a good thing, but there’s still a lot more to be done. Bisexuality is especially mistreated in popular fiction. If bi characters are included at all, they’re often characterized to be “deviant” or “untrustworthy” (something I wrote about here; read the comment section at your own peril…), which is a harmful stereotype, and often as a plot device too. So while I wouldn’t say that I’m blazing a trail here or anything, readers often tell me how much they like the fact that Roxane’s bisexuality is organic, it’s just part of her character, not a defining element of the story or a gimmick—that’s just what she is. Hearing readers respond to that in such a positive way is the absolute best.
MT: Speaking of queer writers, who are your favorite authors who fall into the LGBTQIA spectrum? I—as I’m sure my readers would, as well—would love to receive some fantastic recommendations for other books like your own.
KL: I adore the Dave Brandstetter series by Joseph Hansen, which was a total trailblazer when it was first published, nearly 50 years ago. I also enjoy Michael Nava, Ellen Hart, Katherine V. Forrest, Nikki Baker. Those are all mystery authors. As far as non-mystery, I adore Carol Anshaw and Stacey D’Erasmo, and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties blew me away this year.
MT: The tense, racially charge narrative of the first book (which I zoomed right through) is also very relevant today. What sources did you draw from in order to write such an incredibly layered novel? How did you decide this is what I want my first Roxane novel to be about?
KL: Well, the storyline in The Last Place You Look is inherently Midwestern, I think. The series is set in Columbus, Ohio (where I live), which is a pretty big city that is surrounded on all sides by rural nothingness. You can be in the middle of nowhere within fifteen minutes outside of the city, which makes it a very different place than the setting of a lot of mystery novels. And it creates complicated dynamics—liberal, blue city nestled in deep-red country. I grew up in a mostly-white suburb of the city and saw firsthand the casual racism that can occur in a place like this, so that’s the backdrop to the story that I wrote.
MT: Where do you think your novels stand politically? To be more specific: who do these novels speak directly to, or do you think—given the amazing voice of Roxane, and her endless accessibility—could the Roxane books be open for all readers? I’m sure that’s what you hope for.
KL: Ooh, good question. Yes, the Roxane series could be open to all readers—but she’s a liberal, queer feminist, as am I, so her voice, and the stories I choose to write, will always have that angle. So readers who take umbrage to liberal queer feminist mysteries probably won’t find much to like here. There’s a hope that one’s novels will be sort of “timeless,” e.g. capable of bringing enjoyment and relevance in ten or twenty years from now, not just at this precise political moment, which, of course, is scary as hell. But in the new book, I did manage one low-key Trump burn (and I’m so glad no one made me take it out).
MT: I’ve talked with you on twitter, and I’ve compared you to the works of Alex Segura, Sara Gran, Laura Lippman, and Attica Locke—all of these authors I’m sure you’re honored to be compared to. I used to think Laura Lippman was one of the few writers not of color to be able to write from the perspective of people of color. After reading The Last Place You Look, it seems like I might have to make an exception for you. How do you feel about that?
KL: I think that writing from a marginalized point of view that you have not lived through is so easy to get dead wrong. I do write about characters of color, but through Roxane’s point of view. The mystery genre isn’t known for being wildly diverse, unfortunately, but we need to give writers of color the space to tell their stories, rather than attempting to tell those stories for them. But I think it’s incredibly important for ALL writers to fill their fictional worlds with diverse casts that mirror the actual world we live in—not to get “credit” for including a bunch of minority characters, but because it’s necessary for creating a believable, realistic setting, and because good representation matters.
Attica Locke, Rachel Howzell Hall, Kellye Garrett, and V.M. Burns are all women of color writing mysteries that rock, by the way.
MT: Your second book in the Roxane series, What You Want to See, starts off like a typical private investigator novel, but rapidly becomes incredibly layered and human. How are you able to separate yourself from the typical private investigator series that don’t necessarily delve into the depths of human emotions? What about Roxane is able to help you be more empathetic and release an emotional catharsis for readers?
KL: There’s some scientific evidence that women have higher “emotional intelligence” than men do, e.g. more perceptive, sensitive, intuitive, etc. Therefore I think a female private investigator should automatically approach her cases differently than a male character would. But beyond that, Roxane herself is an emotional person, and she really internalizes the emotions of people around her, too. Solving her cases isn’t just a job to her—she is fighting for her clients just as hard as they’re fighting for themselves. Women are constantly being told to “calm down,” or “don’t cry at work” or “don’t get so emotional,” which is total garbage. I think I tapped into some of my own rage about that when I created Roxane’s character. Being stoic and emotionless doesn’t equal strong.
MT: How many books do you think you’ll write featuring Roxane? Is there a set number in your mind, or do you think there are endless possibilities for Roxane? Also, where or what do you think Roxane is heading into next?
KL: Oh, I’d love to write a million Roxane mysteries—she’s so much fun. I love listening for her voice. We’re similar in a lot of ways, but she does and says things I’d never do, so I’m sort of living vicariously through her. The third book in the series, which I’m writing right now, finds her brother Andrew in a bit of trouble that, of course, turns out to be way more complicated than it first appears.
MT: What was the hardest thing to write about when dealing with Roxane and her stories? How do you decide when a certain story belongs to Roxane, and what order to tell them in?
KL: Ironic for a mystery writer, but: plots don’t come naturally to me. I always joke that I’d write an entire novel of backstory if I could. (This is not a joke. This is my truest wish!) So Roxane’s character and the people in her life come very naturally to me, but I have to work a bit harder at the plot. Something that’s unexpectedly tricky in writing a series is that I have to reintroduce the supporting characters in each book in case a reader is jumping in mid-series, but in a way that isn’t annoying and repetitive to someone who has read the previous books. As far as deciding whether a certain story belongs to Roxane: I don’t feel like it’s my decision, so much as it is hers.
MT: I find it hard to write from the position of many queer characters because I often feel I need to defend and inform people instead of just telling a story. Have you ever felt the need to defend yourself and other people like you? Has this ever gotten in the way of genuinely good storytelling?
KL: Oh, it’s tricky for a lot of reasons. One, there is no such thing as “the universal queer experience.” So my portrayal of a bi character isn’t going to automatically resonate with all bi readers. And that’s okay—there’s no one book that will be everything to everyone. I just hope that bi readers understand that, and still can enjoy the character. I try to write about Roxane’s sexual identity as naturally as possible—nothing contrived or splashy or meant to titillate—but I’ve seen a fair number of Goodreads reviews along the lines of “this book is good but I didn’t like the main character being bisexual,” which, given that it’s by no means a focus of the story, is basically like saying “I don’t like bisexual people.” Just representing queer identities on the page is huge. Because eventually, the people who write reviews like that will be used to it and they’ll barely notice the bi characters. That being said, the story is the most important thing. If something isn’t working because of some exposition about Roxane’s bisexuality, I’ll definitely try to rework it until it flows.
MT: What does the future look like for Roxane? Do you know yet what her next case might involve? I love your books, and I for one cannot wait to see what comes next so I can re-read the whole series.
KL: The third book, which is tentatively titled The Stories You Tell, starts with Roxane’s brother Andrew getting a weird, middle-of-the-night visit from a woman he dated briefly, years earlier. She knocks on his door and begs to use his phone, he lets her, and then she leaves just as quickly as she came—and that’s the last anyone hears from her. The phone call she made sends the police straight to Andrew’s door. And when the missing woman is linked to the death of an off-duty cop on the other side of the city, the tensions only increase. For readers who are still feeling wary of Catherine, Roxane’s long-time on-off girlfriend, after the ending of What You Want to See, I can tell you that a bit of wariness is healthy…
MT: How did you get your start in writing? For aspiring writers who look up to you, what advice might you give them as far as writing, publishing, and so on?
KL: I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid. Either that, or a fashion designer. I split the difference and studied graphic design in college, and got a job in corporate marketing…all the while thinking about how much I’d rather be a writer instead. But being a writer means actually WRITING stuff. I used to be terrible at finishing my stories. I had no problem starting them, but I always abandoned them before I got to the end. Then, about ten years ago, I was like, “This is stupid.” I started a novel and made myself finish it. It was terrible, but so what—it was done. I had written a novel. That sort of unlocked something in my brain. I wrote three other not-very-good novels before I finally got to Roxane Weary, but they were learning experiences, and helpful in figuring out what kind of stories I wanted to tell. So my advice to aspiring writers is: (1) drop the ‘aspiring’ part of that description—if you want to be a writer, call yourself a writer (2) then (and this is the harder part) you have to actually write. Finish what you start, even if you think it’s garbage. Everyone’s first drafts are garbage. If anyone tells you they write beautiful drafts, they’re either lying or they’re an android. Give yourself permission to write messy, get to the end, and fix it later. You can fix anything once it’s written, but you can’t fix nothing.
MT: What is your writing habit like? Are you a morning, afternoon, or night person? How many words or pages do you try and put out a day?
KL: When people ask me this I always feel like a fraud. I am a supremely undisciplined writer. I don’t write every day, or have any kind of routine or goals, other than a looming deadline and a vague sense of terror about what would happen if I ever missed it. But I write fast, and even if I’m not at my desk “writing,” I am constantly, obsessively thinking about my work in progress and ironing out the kinks of the story. When I do sit down to write, I usually do it in big chunks.
MT: What is your favorite aspect of writing, whether it be finding yourself caught up in another world or having control over something that isn’t your own life? How much of your own life do you incorporate in these books? Might we see any of you in Roxane?
KL: Writing mysteries is great fun because I get to punish the bad guy, which doesn’t always happen in real life. Another thing I love about writing is being able to explore the darker side of human nature and what makes people tick in situations of emotional intensity, which I think is really interesting. In real life, such exploration is “nosy.” But in writing, it comes with the territory. Roxane and I are similar in that we’re both bi, and she shares my sense of humor and mild cynicism, but she’s much bolder than I am. I do drink whiskey, but not nearly as much.
MT: Thank you so much for letting me interview you, Kristen. It was such a pleasure to read your work and also, I have to admit, I am biting my nails waiting for another addition to the series (hopefully I’ll even get an ARC!). You are an author wiser and more talented than your years, and I am so thankful to get the chance to pick your brain.
KL: Absolutely! You had excellent questions. I really appreciate your enthusiasm for the series (and I’ll definitely hook you up with an ARC next year).