Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Conversation with Mystery Novelist Kelly Oliver

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Kelly Oliver

We are delighted to welcome author Kelly Oliver to Omnimystery News today.

Kelly begins a new mystery series featuring former Montana cowgirl in Wolf (Kaos Press; June 2016 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to spend some time with her talking about it.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to your new series character.

Kelly Oliver
Photo provided courtesy of
Kelly Oliver

Kelly Oliver: Jessica James is a former barrel racing champion getting a PhD in philosophy "back east" at a posh Ivy League school where she's one of the few women in the program. With more wit than grace, the cowgirl philosopher stumbles into murder mysteries, human trafficking, rape drugs, art scams, and corporate corruption. She's funny and witty, the queen of one-line come backs, and she can quote Nietzsche. Her best friend, Lolita Durchenko, may be a Russian beauty running a high stake poker game that earned her the knick-name "the poker Tsarina," but she's also a black-belt in karate and doesn't take shit from anybody. Then there's a whole host of fun and funny secondary characters like Amber Bush, the rescue-remedy dropping hippy hacker from Wolf, or Coyote's Madge Blackthorn, the Blackfoot tribal police chief who keeps a big bag of candy in her squad car, which she doles out liberally, along with slugs from her Beretta Storm shotgun. These badass girls give as good as they get. I like a good feminist revenge strong on plot and even stronger on character. In my novels, I want to create strong women characters who can take care of themselves and each other. As an added bonus, some of them are quirky and funny.

OMN: How do you expect her to develop over the course of the three books in the series?

KO: Your question operates on at least two levels. First, do I keep the same characters from novel to novel? Second, do those characters develop over time? Since my main character, Jessica James, is a former cowgirl from Whitefish Montana who is now in graduate school in Chicago, the novels move from Chicago to Montana. So, in a way the place is a central character in the stories. The setting shapes the plot and the characters and they ways they interact. The first novel, Wolf, is set in Chicago and has an urban feel, with gangsters, art dealers, and professors. The characters develop in the context of the novel, especially Dmitry Durchenko, the Russian janitor, who comes to terms with his father's death and his relationship to his childhood.

Since the second novel takes place in Montana, there are some new characters, the locals. Jessica, of course, is the same. And her best friend, Lolita, comes out to visit on her Harley. And, they keep many of the same character traits they had in the first novel. But, we learn a lot more about Jessica's childhood and get to know her better. As the series develops, we will get to know all of these characters better and understand their actions in more depth.

Since the third novel will take place back on campus outside Chicago, along with our central characters, Jessica and Lolita, we will have some of the same secondary characters from Wolf back again. We may even have a visitor from Coyote make an appearance. But the plan is to move the novels back and forth between Chicago and Montana, keeping the central characters the same — and hopefully keeping the personality traits that readers love — while developing them and giving them an arc that keeps them interesting. All of the novels will have some new secondary characters to keep them funny, fun, and fresh.

OMN: Tell us something about Wolf that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.

KO: One of the main characters, Dmitry Durchenko, a janitor in the philosophy department and Lolita's dad, escaped from Moscow at the age of 19 with two Russian expressionist paintings stolen from a mob boss. One of the paintings is Wassily Kandinsky's Fragment Number Two, a beautiful abstract work that captivates Dmitry to the point of obsession. The other painting is by a lessor known Russian modernist, Natalia Goncharova, one of the few women involved in the Blue Rider's group. Although a favorite of his mother's, Dmitry finds her work too simple for his tastes. It was fun to research this art subplot. I was lucky enough to visit a Kandinsky exhibit at the Frist museum in Nashville several times while I was writing the novel. Standing just a foot away from those masterpieces was inspirational.

OMN: Your novels take on serious issues from headline news and yet they're funny and full of humor. How do you deal with serious issues with humor?

KO: A couple of years ago, I was pitching Wolf in New York City, and when I told a group of young women authors about the subplot and themes of date rape, party rape, and rape drugs, and I said it was a humorous mystery, some of them were appalled. They didn't see how rape could ever be funny. Obviously, I agree. Rape can never be funny. Books, on the other hand (even books that take on serious topics like rape), can be funny. In fact, humor often helps us deal with difficult subjects that might be too hard to face without it. I'm of two minds about graphic descriptions of situations where women are harmed, included rape, human trafficking, murder, and domestic abuse. I suppose realistic descriptions of these horrible crimes may bring awareness to women's issues. On the other hand, in my opinion, graphic descriptions also risk pandering to prurient interests at best and giving folks terrible ideas at worst. I prefer to read and to write novels that leave more to your imagination when it comes to the gory details of women's abusive experiences and focus on ways women can be strong and fight back, at least in the world of fiction — not always so easy in the real world. This is not to say that my novels take rape or abuse lightly. To the contrary. But, who doesn't like a feminist revenge story where the fraternity boy would-be rapists get their butts kicked and our heroines prevent another campus rape?

In Coyote, which will be published in August, the storyline takes on human trafficking and drug addiction on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana. You can't get much more depressing than that. But, some of my characters are funny, others are witty, and most of them (at least the good ones) are women! And, of course, the bad guys — those arsehole human traffickers — are punished by our vigilante posse of tough, no-nonsense, women protagonists who show them who's boss. But that doesn't mean they don't also have a sense of humor. Most of the time, they take down the baddies with snarky comments and clever one-liners. And, of course, there's a whole host of fun and funny secondary characters.

A lot of my nonfiction work has dealt with some of these same women's issues. And, for my fiction, I've done a lot of research, and much of it has been very depressing. I hate to say it as a self-professed feminist, but I've found the stereotype of the overly serious feminist with no sense of humor is occasionally true. It is important to have a sense of humor about serious issues, not just in order to live with them and live through them, but also to read and write about them — at least for me. Humor and comedy allow us to face and process difficult issues that we might otherwise avoid or deny. A heavy hand is not going to be able to bring these issues to light and reach as many readers as a comic touch. As my grandmother used to say, "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." I guess in my novels, I've taken that advice to heart and I sweeten the pot with humor and wit even as I take on issues of date-rape, human trafficking, and in the next installment … .the hidden world of IVF and egg harvesting.

OMN: How did you go about researching the plot points of your books?

KO: As an academic, I'm used to doing research and "fact checking," using the Internet, scholarly books and articles written by experts, and news media. For the novels, I've added first-hand experience, especially in order to describe places — although the Internet can take you lots of places, too. But there's still nothing like actually being there to take in the smells and sounds along with sights. You can't really get a feel for a place on the Internet.

For the second novel, Coyote, I did a lot of research on Fracking in Montana and North Dakota, especially on the Blackfeet Indian reservations. I couldn't believe what I was reading in major news outlets about corruption. Some of the things I read were so outlandish that they would be unbelievable as fiction. And, there's such a hornet's nest of problems related to Fracking, not just in terms of the environment but also human trafficking, prostitution, drugs, and violent crime. The affect of Fracking on local communities is astounding.

Since Coyote takes place between Glacier Park and Browning, the seat of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Western Montana, on my annual x-country ski trip to Glacier last year, I made it a point to take a side trip to Browning just to go to Nation's Burger for an Indian Taco. Now that was fun research!

OMN: Where do you most often find yourself writing?

KO: I write at home, even my nonfiction. When writing nonfiction, I'm surrounded by books and stacks of articles. Usually, I end up spreading them out on the dining room table for months. It's funny. For years, writing only non-fiction, I was on a pretty set schedule of writing in the mornings, teaching in the afternoons, and watching Star Trek in the evenings. I stood up to write, taking lots of breaks for exercise and healthy food. When I started writing fiction, I slumped in an easy chair with a coke and a cookie, working all hours of the night and day, becoming so obsessed that I forgot to exercise, and even during my relaxing hour of Star Trek, I had to have my notebook nearby in case I had an idea. I started sleeping with a notebook near the bed, and regularly turned on the light and groped around for my pen to write down a stray thought before I could actually go to sleep (much to my husband's consternation).

Whether fiction or nonfiction, I always have my cats nearby — if I'm lucky, depending on their moods — and several cups of delicious Japanese green tea. For the time being, I've managed to give up the coke, and get by on a few cookies, but I'm still slumped in this easy chair, which has meant a lot more trips to the chiropractor!

OMN: What's next for you?

KO: Right now, I'm working on a nonfiction book on The Refugee Today and the current state of the refugee crisis. And, of course, I'm starting to work on the next Jessica James mystery. The third in the series will take Jessica back to Chicago where she'll infiltrate an Ivy League egg harvesting black market ring operating out of the medical school. I hope to finish the nonfiction book over the summer and then turn my full attention back to Jessica and finish the next cowgirl philosopher mystery in the fall.

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Kelly Oliver is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and well-known feminist philosopher. She is the author of fourteen nonfiction books. Her work has been translated into seven languages, and she has been featured in the The New York Times and on ABC television news. Kelly is publishing a new mystery trilogy featuring kickass heroine Jessica James, a Montana "cowgirl" and philosophy grad student taking on ripped-from-the-headlines crimes like date rape drugs on campus, sex trafficking, fracking and more.

For more information about the author, please visit her website at and her author page on Goodreads, or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Wolf by Kelly Oliver

Wolf by Kelly Oliver

A Jessica James Mystery

Publisher: Kaos Press Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)iTunes iBook FormatKobo eBook Format

Former Montana cowgirl Jessica James is homeless, penniless, and sleeping on a desk in the attic at Brentano Hall. She blames her advisor, Professor Wolfgang Schumtzig, "Preeminent Philosopher and World Class Dick-Head." But when she discovers his dead body in a bathtub, her real education begins.

The university janitor, Dmitry Durchenko, holds the keys to the mystery. At eighteen, he escaped Russia with his life, part of his father's fortune, and two priceless paintings.

With the Russian mafia snapping at her heels, the cowgirl philosopher teams up with Lolita, a.k.a "the poker Tsarina," and Amber, a hippy hacker, to solve the murder before they become the next victims. Along the way, the fearless trio learns sometimes virtue is just the flip side of vice.

Wolf by Kelly Oliver. Click here to take a Look Inside the book.


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