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January 9, 2019

Unspeakable Things

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I've been working with Thomas & Mercer, Amazon's crime fiction imprint, for only a few weeks, but the experience has been whirlwind fabulous. My two editors, Jessica and Charlotte, are insightful, hilarious, helpful, and quick. We're already on the second round of edits for The Devil in the Dirt Basement, which is where my latest news comes in. Turns out T & M's marketing department thought my title was too much of a mouthful.

Ack.

After a private, brief but spectacular temper tantrum (I'm terrible at titles normally, but The Devil in the Dirt Basement came to me whole and perfect), I reached out to some mystery-writing friends for alternate title ideas. They generated a great list, which I sent to Jessica at T & M, and she and the marketing department selected my favorite: UNSPEAKABLE THINGS.

That's the name of my upcoming book! Thank you to Lori Rader-Day (her novels are great--wish she'd write faster) for the title, and to T & M for wanting this book to soar. And honestly, the title is growing on me. It hits all the right notes. It's sticky, scary, suspenseful, just like the book.

In celebration of the new and official title of my first suspense novel with Thomas & Mercer (release date 11.1.2019), I'm posting below an early version of the author's note that will appear in the book's front matter.

Author’s Note for UNSPEAKABLE THINGS

I was one of a few hundred kids to come of age in Paynesville, Minnesota, in the 1980s. I grew up thinking every small town had a curfew siren that warned the children indoors each night at 9:00 pm, that Chester the Molester was a common nickname for the bogey man, that Peeping Toms were not unusual. I had my own problems at home, some childish and others much more serious, and the rumors of a bad man hunting children became a backbeat of my preteen and teen years.

I graduated high school in 1988 and moved to Minneapolis.

When Jacob Wetterling was abducted on October 22, 1989, from St. Joseph, Minnesota, thirty miles up the road from Paynesville, I was preparing to drop out of my second year of college. Some of those rumors from my early years (don’t go out at night or Chester will get you) came into focus.

Pictures of Jacob were everywhere. People joined together to search for that sweet-faced 11-year-old who’d been abducted by a masked man with a gun. Days passed into weeks into years, and Jacob was never found. Not until a local blogger began writing about the potential connection between Jacob’s disappearance and the abduction and release of eight local boys in and around Paynesville in the 80s was Jacob’s abductor arrested, twenty-seven years later. He led authorities to Jacob’s remains.

The experience has haunted me. It’s haunted many of us in the Midwest, upending what we thought we know about rural communities and the safety of children. The true version of events has been told very well in other places, most notably in Season One of the “In the Dark” podcast. It was the emotional reverberations of those events that I wanted to give voice to. I needed to create coherence out of my memories of growing up under a constant, unnamed fear. When Cassie McDowell, the fictional heroine of this story, came to me and begged for her story to be told, I saw my chance.

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While Unspeakable Things is inspired by real people and events, it is entirely fictional. However, it’s my hope that in the character of Gabriel, I was able to capture and honor the sweetness stolen from all nine of those boys.

Thank you for reading.

--Jessie

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December 28, 2018

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:

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"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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September 11, 2018

Luck: A Bird's-eye View

(Every word of this April 2017 Easter story is true.)

Something bizarre happened to me yesterday. It was so strange that I haven't been able to fully process it even 24 hours later. It involved an impossible feat of physics, coincidence, and a brutal exercise in perspective. See this picture of my car's grill, noting the 2" x 4" openings in it? Hang onto that image because it is pivotal to this story.

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But first, I need to tell you that it's been a difficult few weeks. The end of March, my sister announced that she and her partner of 17+ years are divorcing. He's a good guy. We love him, and of course we love her. My nieces are grown, but this still affects them. These sorts of lifequakes stir up unresolved family issues and arguments, too, at least they do in mine.

On top of that, my writing retreat business folded before it even got started. After five months of working like mad dogs with only a handful of sign-ups, in early April my partner Allison and I decided this is not the business for us. It was good to step away, but the whole experience is failure-scented.

Finally, my first and probably only nonfiction book releases in two short weeks. In it, I step out from behind the cloak of fiction to share how I turn my life into stories. I LIKE THE CLOAK OF FICTION. That's why I write novels and not memoirs, for the love of Pete. But the fact-to-fiction process has been so transformative for me, so healing and so much the seeds of great writing, that I can't keep it to myself. Sharing it is the right thing to do, just like the TEDx Talk was the right thing to do, but I've still felt like a naked freeway turtle for weeks now, that sensation growing stronger as my May 1 release date approaches.

So yeah. I've been on edge lately, pessimistic, overwhelmed, looking forward to something just around the corner that'll make me happy, promising myself life'll get better soon. (That's what's referred to as Minnesota optimism. You can put up with really cold winters if you spend your time thinking about summer.)

That's a recap of my recent life up until yesterday, which is where the weirdness begins. I was traveling the 3.5 hours south from my in-laws to my parents. I was driving fast, but not too fast. My mind wandered as I drove. I unraveled the guilt I felt for not spending the previous day with my kids, with Z only home from college for three days and X stressed from all the family changes. I worked through plot holes in Mercy's Chase, the next thriller in my Salem's Cipher series. I daydreamed about the honeymoon Tony and I would finally take when we saved enough money and carved out enough time.

I was mostly feeling relaxed when I crested that hill and discovered...a flock of pheasants sitting on the road, in my path. I gasped. A car was coming toward me and the ditch to my right was steep. I had to stay in my lane. I slammed on my brakes, but it was too late.

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THUNK.

Have you ever hit an animal with your car? It's one of the top five worst sounds in the world. It's visceral. It's hollow and solid and feathers and bone. It's pain and you created it. I sucked in my breath and my eyes shot to my rearview mirror. I grew up in the country and knew the rules: you didn't leave an animal to suffer. Please be dead please be dead please be dead. Except...I didn't see a carcass in the rearview mirror. My stomach dropped. The pheasant must be hung up somewhere on my vehicle. I drove a few hundred feet and parked on the shoulder, scanning the ditch for sticks. I was almost in tears because if I had to remove that poor creature from my car and then put it out of its misery with my bare hands...well, I couldn't think about that.

And for one sweet minute, I didn't have to. When I stepped out of my car and walked on trembly legs around to the front, I saw no bird. No feathers. No sign of an accident. I dropped to all fours. The pheasant wasn't under my car, either. I stood, glancing all around. I felt a little dizzy. No way way had I imagined this. I leaned against my car to catch my balance.

That's when the flapping began. The pheasant was trapped behind my grill.

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Like some rural David Copperfield, that bird had squeezed his chicken-sized body through one of my grill's 4" x 2" openings while the car was traveling at 60 mph. Not possible. (Let me share the photo again here so you can see how impossible this was.) There was no way a pheasant was trapped inside of my car looking at me through my grill like my own personal zoo creature. Except that it was happening. I popped my hood, felt the seams along every inch of that grill, scoured the tire wheels and underbody, looked for any other possible explanation, but there wasn't one. The speed and angle must have been freakishly perfect.

Here's something they don't cover in driver's ed: what do you do when you find yourself on a lonely country road with a huge wild bird magically trapped in an inaccessible part of your vehicle? You get in the car and start driving, that's what. And then you call your husband who is 40 miles behind and to the east of you and has no suggestions off the top of his head but to be fair this was new territory for both of us. We agreed to meet 25 miles south where his road and mine converged. It seemed like a solid plan until I'd driven all of two miles and started crying. That poor bird. It must have been terrified. I couldn't drive slower because then he'd be there longer, but I couldn't drive faster because the radiator would heat up faster. I was torturing this creature.

When I smelled burning feathers, I thought, That is the unluckiest bird in the world.

I couldn't keep driving for another 23 miles, not with that poor animal suffering. There was a closer town straight east. Going there meant I'd miss Easter dinner for sure, but I couldn't keep this up. Ten minutes later, I found myself pulling into a gas station, wondering if I should park with my pheasant facing or away from the store. I decided on facing. He flapped when I walked by.

Inside the gas station, I spotted a couple farmers talking. "Hey," I said, "I've got an odd situation and I'm hoping you can help?"

They gamely followed me outside, and in true Midwestern fashion, did not lose one ounce of their cool. "Well I'll be damned. That's a full-grown rooster you've got in there." They chuckled. They told me maybe I'd have pheasant for dinner. They looked every which on my car and came to the same conclusion as me: the only way in was through the grill, and the only way out was by dismantling the front bumper. I didn't have the tools. They didn't either. They pointed me toward the police department. The situation could've only grown more surreal if one of them had taken to the air himself.

At the police station, Officer Jeff didn't bat an eye when I told him I had something weird to show him--you guys, you really do need to visit Minnesota--and as soon as he laid eyes on the pheasant, he jogged back inside to grab a pair of gloves, some tools, and spent the next 20 minutes wordlessly removing my bumper. The longest sentence he strung together came after I asked him what we'd do when we got that poor bird out. I was not looking forward to seeing the shape he'd be in. He was surely broken every which way but Wednesday.

I wanted the officer to tell me that he'd take care of the bird. Instead he said, "Hopefully, it'll fly away."

Officer Jeff, for all of his quiet capability, was clearly a dreamer.

The top seal of the bumper was finally off. Jeff directed me to pull the lip of it forward and down, keeping out of sight because if that pheasant had one ounce of sanity left, he was going to hide from humans. I was still 99% sure that bird was never coming out and that I'd have to sell my car when a big pile of pheasant poop dropped near my feet, I heard a glorious mad fluttering, and that bird took off. Like, IT FLEW, low and wide, that graceful path that only a male pheasant can fly, most of his gorgeous tail feathers still intact. He disappeared over a hill into the nearby woods. I let the bumper slam back, ignoring the deep indents its left in my fingers. Jeff and I were standing side by side, watching the pheasant fly.

"It's an Easter miracle," I finally said. We both laughed.

He reassembled my bumper. Just another day at work for him. I thanked him profusely. Tony pulled up four minutes later and hugged me. There were a couple of those soft poofy underfeathers up by my engine, but no other evidence. We slid into our cars and drove to my mom and dad's, where everyone had waited to eat until we arrived. The food was cold, the company good, and I couldn't stop thinking about that bird. He'd survived a collision with a car at 60 mph, had broken no bones as he slid through the tiniest of holes, and avoided being cooked alive on the radiator as we'd driven another 13 miles.

He was the luckiest bird in the world.

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I'd thought the exact opposite when I'd hit him. I know life is about perspective, but it's a hard truth to remember. Thanks to the pheasant, though, there was no missing it yesterday, and I began to realign my own perspectives accordingly. My family shake-up sucks right now. It really does, but it's an opportunity for my family to clean out some calcified garbage. I lost $5000 and hundreds of hours trying to start that retreat business, but in the process, I remembered that I'm on this earth to be writing, not travel-agenting and marketing.

More importantly? I realized that I've been living my life in the future for years now, waiting for the money and the time to finally enjoy myself. The time is now, always, and it was worth $5000 and hundreds of hours to learn that (I hope it's cheaper next time I have to re-learn that, which'll probably be in a few weeks). Also, thanks to that damn pheasant, I booked two trips yesterday, one of them my honeymoon, a year after my wedding. Yay! And finally, my book, Rewrite Your Life, my super-personal how-to guide that comes out May 1? Well, as my friend Aimee wisely said, for good or bad it's no longer my book. It now belongs to whoever reads it. I hope it brings them what they're looking for.

I'm smiling as I type this. I'm the luckiest bird in the world.

p.s. If you ever have a ridiculously weird crisis that need judgment-free help with, I can't recommend the Pelican Rapids police station highly enough. Ask for Officer Jeff.

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Jess Lourey is the critically-acclaimed author of over 20 novels, articles, and short stories.

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Latest Release

Inspired by a terrifying true story from the author’s hometown, a heart-pounding novel of suspense about a small Minnesota community where nothing is as quiet—or as safe—as it seems.

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