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Devil in the Dirt Basement

I made the front page of my hometown newspaper! As Ann said on Facebook, "I love that your story topped the new funeral home!" Here's the good news, the official 12.17.18 announcement from Publishers Marketplace:


"Jess Lourey's THE DEVIL IN THE DIRT BASEMENT, a fictionalized account of the Jacob Wetterling abduction pitched as Megan Abbott meets THE LOVELY BONES, sold to Jessica Tribble at Thomas & Mercer, in a two-book deal, by Jill Marsal at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency (world)."

Paynesville Press interview Q & A below.

Why are you so excited to write about the Jacob Wetterling mystery?

For those of us who lived in Paynesville in the 80s, there is no escaping this story and its effects on our collective psyche. It ruptured what we--and I think what the nation--believed about the safety of rural communities and the protected status of children. For me, there's still stored grief there, and the only way I know to reliably heal myself is through crafting a coherent story around the emotions and the experiences. The magic of novel writing is that it pulls darkness into the light and has the power to transform it.

How did you decide to tackle the story from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl?

Jacob's story, and the story of the other boys--now men--who were harmed in those years is not mine to tell. What I could tell, and found I needed to tell, was the story of a girl growing up with that fear as a backdrop to her life. I hope I told it in a way that honors those who paid a far higher price than me and that bears witness to their pain, but ultimately, this is a coming of age story about a 13-year-old girl, Cassie McDowell, who struggles to survive in a world that is not as it seems. She knows there is a monster out in the world, and she lives with a monster at home, and no one will listen to her about either.

What lessons do you draw from “the tragedy of discounting the wisdom of children?"

As a culture, we're getting much better at listening to children, at allowing them their feelings and experiences. We're also doing a better job of talking about sexual abuse and assigning the shame where it belongs: on the abusers rather than the victims. That was not the case in the 80s, and it created an environment that favored the predators. In The Devil in the Dirt Basement, I didn't want to shy away from that truth, but I did want to write it in a way that allowed hope for something better.

Besides addressing the cultural forces in play in the 80s, I also wanted to explore the deeply personal experience of being silenced as a child. It comes down to a primal emotion, that terror that we will be abandoned and that no one will hear us scream. I know I had a recurring childhood nightmare that I would cry out for my mom, but I couldn't find my voice or couldn't get her to hear me. The nightmare would grow deeper and darker until I woke up with my heart hammering, pinned to my bed. Good storytelling goes toward those uncomfortable themes rather than away from them, so we can all connect or at least empathize through shared experience.

What did it mean to you to sign with a powerhouse publisher like Amazon?

It means that 14 years and 17 books into my writing career...I might actually have a writing career. :) Because of their distribution model, Amazon has the power to get a story out there like no other. They are fast-tracking The Devil in the Dirt Basement, setting a publishing date less than a year after acquisition (12-18 months after acquisition is the industry norm). It will be published as a hardcover, mass market, trade paperback, ebook, and audiobook all on the same day. I am both thrilled and--like any good Minnesotan--waiting for the rug to get pulled out from under me. It seems too good to be true, frankly.

What other book ideas do you have for the series? How far along are you in writing?

The Devil in the Dirt Basement was completed and sent out on submission in September. At the time, I was working on April Fools, the last in the Mira James mysteries, and beginning research for an epic Greek adventure novel I wanted to write. I was hoping someone would buy DDB, but publishing is a fickle field. When my agent told me three weeks ago that Thomas & Mercer, Amazon's crime fiction imprint, not only wanted DDB but also a second suspense novel, I scrambled to polish off a twisty turny domestic suspense begun I'd begun to outline and then dropped five years ago. It's tentatively titled Catch Her in the Lie, and right now, the only good thing about it is the title. I have 7 months to write it.

You are planning to take a year-long sabbatical to write; after juggling your writing with motherhood and your day job for more than a decade, what would writing full-time enable you to do?

The dream of writing full-time always seems just around the corner, and when I envision it, I feel the warmth of being able to sink into a sentence, honing my words and building stories from the inside out. As it is, to balance writing with parenting and full-time teaching, I often have to come at writing in a very blue collar, almost forced way. Unless editing or promoting, I write 2000 words a day, five days a week, which doesn't allow for much else. Since I can't not write, if I no longer had a full-time teaching job, I'd get to read more, travel more, play more, live more. Which would give me more stories to write. :)

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