Newcomer Kellye Garrett had the kind of debut most authors can only dream of. Her first novel in the Detective by Day series, “Hollywood Homicide,” not only garnered gobs of great reviews but also won a handful of prestigious awards and earned nominations for several more. We sat down with her recently to talk about the series, the landscape for women of color who write in the mystery genre and her views on chasing literary trends.
Open Mic: First, let’s talk about the books. Your debut, Hollywood Homicide, received many awards and accolades. The follow-up comes out in August. Tell me a little bit about how this has changed your world.
Garrett: I’ve been wanting to be a novelist since I was five years old, but it took me a long time to actually be brave enough to actually write a book. So just the fact that I finished a book is a big thing. And then to have an agent who loved it just as much as I did and then later an editor who loved it just as much as I did, and then to have it out. I love the awards and I appreciate them, but I am always just super excited when a stranger will send me a message or tell me that they read the book. I’m always surprised, too. I guess there’s always that writer doubt. You know, ‘I wrote this and I like it but will anyone else like it?’ So I think that’s been something that I enjoyed the most. I was finally able to do it, and then people liking it, the award nominations, that’s kind of like the icing on the cake if you will.
Open Mic: You’ve worked in newspapers, magazines and television. You said you always wanted to write a novel, did you always want to write mysteries?
Garrett: I’m a mystery lover, and I always say I’m a reader before I’m even a writer. I used to read Encyclopedia Brown when I was younger, then I transitioned to Nancy Drew and then when I was a pre-teen I found cozy mysteries. A couple of years later I found writers like Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and Valerie Wilson Wesley. So I’ve always been a mystery reader and lover, and so I knew I always wanted to write a mystery. I just didn’t feel like I had a good enough idea. Mysteries, or at least cozies, are a series, and I didn’t really have a good idea of a character or a hook that I felt could sustain more than one book. So once I got the idea, which I actually got driving down the street when I saw a billboard offering a reward for information on a murder, that’s when I finally decided to actually write it.
Open Mic: I’ve seen your work described as both traditional mystery and as a cozy. For the record, how do you categorize your work?
Garrett: What’s so funny is that when I was writing it, I thought I had written a cozy. Again, as a long time mystery reader I have seen cozies evolve and change so even though I don’t necessarily get all the tropes of what current cozies are, I felt like I was writing a cozy. It was only after I queried agents and then got published that I realized I did not write a cozy, I wrote a traditional mystery and a detective novel. If you go to Barnes and Noble, my book actually isn’t in the cozy section so I stopped calling my book a cozy. My editor still calls it a cozy, and I think people who like cozies will like it, but I think that if you come in expecting it to have all the cozy tropes – a woman goes back to her small hometown in shame and she has some kind of trade like baking cookies or cupcakes – that’s not what you’re going to get with my book. Not saying you won’t enjoy it. Hopefully you still will because it still has other elements, like at least the first one is an amateur detective and there’s no gore and there’s no cursing.
Open Mic: Most writers will probably admit they build some of themselves into their protagonists. How much is Dayna Anderson like you?
Garrett: More than I care to admit. At the time I wrote the book, I had been working in television writing. I had some success and then I hadn’t had success, and I was at that time I called a period of transition. And I felt kind of lost a bit. Well this TV thing is not going to work out, so what will I do next. So all that kind of angst I felt at that time, you see that in Dayna in book one. That angst she feels, I was feeling at that time. And of course you don’t want it to seem too much, so I didn’t make her an writer. I made her an actress just so we’re kind of different, but there’s definitely a lot of elements. The only difference is I curse all the time and Dana never curses. But that’s the main difference. And it’s funny because with book two, I’m in a completely different place in my life. I think I had this idea originally in 2011 or 2012, and now I ended up moving from L.A. back home to the Jersey area and I work in Manhattan and I’m almost forty years, old so I’m in a very different place now than Dayna is in book two. It was interesting to figure out how to have it not be based on what I was feeling at that time, which was trickier than I thought.
Open Mic: Most stories set in Hollywood are either very gritty or they portray everyone as being inherently evil or cutthroat. You’re of course gentler in your approach, using a lot of humor and poking some fun at the celebrity lifestyles and unreal cost of living while also keeping it an appealing place to be. What was your own Hollywood experience like? How did it effect the work you do now as a writer?
Garrett: I think people who don’t live in L.A. just see someone like Tom Cruise and see that he’s a success. But for every Tom Cruise type there’s literally like a thousand people who come to L.A. and don’t make it. That was what I wanted to channel in the book, because I was there for grad school and then I stayed for about three or four years after that. At that time my friends and I were all still trying to make it. I wasn’t going to super fancy parties and getting offered million dollar deals or things like that. It was a struggle and I had some success but still overall it was a struggle. So I think that’s why my book is kind of like that, because it’s about the people who are trying to make it versus the people who actually are making it, at least in the first one. The second one is more about the successful people but that’s where the idea kind of came from.
Open Mic: Your books have a wealth of very strong, intelligent, resourceful and vibrant female characters. We hear so often that women can’t open a movie or what have you, which is clearly wrong. What was the initial reaction to your stories being female-centric?
Garrett: My book is not just a book with a female lead, it’s a book with a black female lead. Having read mysteries for years I know better than anyone that we’re getting better, but we’re not the most diverse genre when it comes to having non-white characters actually solve the murder. So the responses I get are more about that. Other black women who read mysteries are just super excited to see a black women lead. And then other people just want to see more diversity in their books, who respond to a black chick who’s the main character in the book instead of being that stereotypical best friend that you see in a lot of other books.
Open Mic: For a long time authors of color, and especially women of color, struggled to get their work out into the mainstream. How is the environment now on that front?
Garrett: I will say it’s getting better, but I will also say we have a very long way to go. I got my agent in 2014, and at that time there were very few current books still in print with black women leads. Very few. And if you factored in ones actually written by black women, they were pretty much nonexistent. I sold my book in 2016, and since I got my deal I know a good handful of black women who have sold mystery novels to traditional publishers. I’ve also seen a lot of other great writers of color as well. So I think that mystery is finally coming around and breaking the idea that we need diverse books. If you think about back in the 90’s, that was the last renaissance of black writers, black mystery writers, black women writers. Unfortunately, it was kind of a trend that was really popular but then went away. I think out of that time period of black mystery writers, Walter Mosley is the only writer still traditionally publishing his mystery books. A lot of other ones either don’t publish or they’ve moved on to other genres or something like that. So I’m super excited that we’re finally back and embracing diversity in mysteries, and publishers – especially Big Five publishers – are realizing that not just black people will read these books. Other people will read these books as well. But I’m still afraid it’s going to be just another trend. I’m afraid of that but I’ve been talking to a bunch of other writers of color and we’re going to try and do our best to make sure it’s not a trend, and to also help that next generation of writers coming up who hopefully want to write mysteries. Now that publishers want us, we want to make sure we take advantage of it and that other writers of color take advantage of it too because we’re “hot” right now.
Open Mic: Has the #metoo movement impacted the publishing industry?
Garrett: It seems like they’re finally addressing it now and trying to be proactive about it. I know that Boucheron just made a point to release their anti-harassment policy and I don’t think they’ve done that before. I think what’s going on is that now a lot of organizations and conferences and publishers are having a good conversation and being more proactive about it. It’s always been going on and I’m sure it still goes on, but now we women have a voice and people are saying ‘I’m listening to you, I hear you.’ So I think that’s the big difference.
Open Mic: there’s been a lot of issue in the last couple years of white writers male or female writing characters, multicultural characters or ethnic characters, cultural characters that are not theirs and whether or not it’s appropriate you know or if a white writer can actually write a black character or a Hispanic character or a female character and ever get that right. What’s your perspective on that particular conversation?
Garrett: I think it’s tricky. I’m never going to tell another writer what to write or that they can’t write something. Being a black woman, I’ve had this conversation with a lot of writers and my attitude is always write your truth. Write what you feel you need to write. The tricky thing is when a publisher only has one slot for a diverse book and that one slot goes to that white writer, then there’s a bunch of writers of color who are now shut out. I think that’s why we’re embracing “own voices,” which is where you’re writing about your own culture and kind of putting emphasis on those stories over another culture writing about a culture that’s not their own. So I think it’s very tricky. For me as a black woman who writes black women, does that mean I’m not going to read a book written by a white person about a black character? Of course not. If it’s a good book, it’s a good book. I think the other thing that a lot of white writers have to realize is that when you’re writing another culture, if you’re brave enough to do that, then you also have to be brave enough to not get defensive if me, as a black woman, I say ‘Rich, you wrote this character about a black women and you got this part wrong.’ I think that’s where the other drama happens where they might get something wrong and then instead of saying, ‘I’m listening to you and I’m learning,’ they just get really defensive about it. People of color in America have been ignored for such a long time and told we’re not as important as others. So if I come to you with a problem and you dismiss it, you’re doing the same thing as saying our opinion does not matter, that we don’t matter.
Open Mic: Aspiring writers are often told to write their own story and to not chase trends. And then we see about 500 books pop up on the shelf with “Girl” in the title: Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, Gone Girl On the Train, whatever. Are you ever tempted to chase a trend like that?
Garrett: I personally am super stubborn. I literally wrote the book I wanted to write and I did not write to market. I don’t have a problem if someone else writes to market and they love it. I’m happy for them, but I don’t write the market. I write the books that I want to write. It’s hard to sell a book, period, whether you’re writing on trend or not. I want to write the book that I want to write because if I write a book to trend and it doesn’t even sell then I’ll feel like I sold out a bit and I didn’t even write the book I wanted. So I personally don’t follow trends, but hey if you do and you get that money, it worked out.
Open Mic: Do darker or grittier storylines have any interest for you in the future?
Garrett: I think so. I would love to write a black women PI novel, kind of like a Kinsey Millhone type novel. I would love to do that because I love cozies and amateur detectives, but I love a sarcastic PI novel just as much. So I would love to do that one day.
Open Mic: I like to focus on process. How do you develop your stories: do you create a plotline and then build characters, or do you have a character you build plotlines around?
Garrett: I come from a television background so I’m big on outlining and figuring that out first. With the first book, it was developing those main characters. I did start with the idea of a woman who comes across a hit-and-run and then decides to solve it for the reward. But then I needed to develop the characters, because you have to have certain things: the character who’s good with tech and I wanted to have a character who is more of an expert detective.
Open Mic: Like many authors, you still have a 9-5 job. How do you fit writing into your daily schedule? Do you have set hours you work before or after your day job?
Garrett: I commute on the train, so I do a lot of pre-thought on the train. Or when I’m not at work or just jotting down thought and notes in a journal, and then I usually start writing after work. I wish I could write in the morning but my brain is not right. I’m not at that level yet. So I tend to write in the evening. I’ll come home and I have to sit, eat and watch TV for an hour, and then I’ll go and write for a few hours in the evening.
What’s your preferred writing space? Do you need music or a TV on in the background? Or just silence?
Garrett: I’m a writer who hates to write. So if I had music I would not be writing, I’d be singing along to Beyonce or Janet Jackson. I get distracted really easy so I have to have silence. I have a desk but I don’t think I’ve ever written there. I just write wherever I feel comfortable. Like yesterday I was literally laying on the floor in my living room and just writing there. So it’s wherever I randomly am.
Open Mic: What is the biggest mistake you see struggling writers make?
Garrett: I wouldn’t call it a mistake but I think a lot of writers who, I’m not going to call them aspiring but writers who aren’t agented yet or who aren’t published yet, I think they think that one big deal is going to solve everything. Publishing is a very hard industry. You get your feelings hurt pretty much on a weekly basis in different ways. And so I always say that if you feel anxious, that same feeling is going to be there when you get your publishing deal. It just sort of transfers. So instead of stressing about ‘will I get an agent’ or ‘will I sell my book,’ its ‘will my book be a success or will I sell another?’ All of that angst and stuff is going to still be there so I think it’s about trying to figure out the best way to handle it. When you’re looking for an agent or when you’re about to get your book published is the time to be developing ways to handle it. That is going to help you if you want a long term career in publishing. So having a support system, having a way to handle the rejection and things like that.
Open Mic: I like to end with what I hope is a fun question. Imagine I have the power to put you together in a room with any one of the following three people. Which one would you choose and why? Your options are: writer Toni Morrison, the legendary suspense director Alfred Hitchcock or the multi-talented director/producer/writer Ava DuVernay?
Garrett: What’s interesting is that I used to work as the editor at Vibe magazine in like 2001, and Ava DuVernay used to be a film publicist. I don’t know her at all but that’s how I met her is because she was trying to pitch her clients to be covered in Vibe. I only had a couple conversations with her 20 years ago at work, but I remember her being nice. Just the fact that I remember her she must have been really nice. So I think out of those three people I would like to have a conversation with her. I think she’s doing such amazing things right now, breaking so many barriers and I think we would have a really good conversation about film and stories because she’s a storyteller as well as a writer and a director.