I’m delighted to welcome to Murderati the talented Jaden Terrell, author of the Tennessee PI Jared McKean books. Her debut was RACING THE DEVIL, published in January this year. Book two in the series, A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT, is hot off the press now!
Zoë Sharp: For people not yet familiar with Jared, how would you describe him?
Jaden Terrell: At 36, Jared is divorced from a woman he’s still in love with and coming to terms with his unjust termination from Nashville’s Murder Squad. He’s loyal and stubborn, an animal lover and horse whisperer with a soft spot for kids and for women in jeopardy. He’s the guy who will move your furniture three years after you break up. And did I mention that he’s hot?
ZS: What made you want to write crime, and what was your path to publication?
JT: When I started writing, I thought I’d write epic fantasy trilogies like J.R.R. Tolkien. Then I saw an ad for the St. Martin’s Press First Private Detective Novel Contest and thought, “I’ve always wanted to write a mystery. I think I’ll try it.” I received the submission guidelines six weeks before the deadline and turned it in right under the wire. Of course, it didn’t win, but the judge sent me an encouraging note saying my work was publishable but that she’d gone with something more cleverly wordsmithed. By which I’m sure she meant “edited.” In the process, I fell in love with Jared and knew I wanted to write more about him. I took the looooooong path to publication. The short version is, a friend of mine published the first book, which later came to be RACING THE DEVIL, through iUniverse for me as a gift. After a long learning curve and an extensive edit, it was eventually picked up by a micro-press called Night Shadows Press. Shortly after that, I met my agent, Jill Marr, at the Killer Nashville conference and signed A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT, the second book in the series, with her. Within a few months, she sold that book to Martin and Judith Shepard of The Permanent Press. They asked to see RACING THE DEVIL, and after reading it in one weekend, asked if I could get the rights back from Night Shadows. I could, and The Permanent Press contracted for that one as well. Basically, my path to publication was writing the same book over and over until I finally got it right!
One of the things that draws me to crime fiction is that, in real life, justice isn’t always served, and often we’re left with questions that will never be answered. When I was 18, my father was killed, supposedly by his own hand. The more we learned, the more likely it seemed that his new wife was the one who pulled the trigger. We’ll never know for sure, and if it’s true, we’ll never know why. But in a mystery, the killer is always revealed and punished, and you always find out the “why.”
ZS: Wow, that makes my own catalyst for writing crime seem very mild by comparison! You have said that when Jared McKean first introduced himself to you inside your head, you immediately abandoned the feisty female detective you were writing at the time to give him a series of his own. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing across gender for you?
JT: Well, it wasn’t exactly immediate. I argued with him about it at first, but he waited me out. One of the advantages of writing a male character is that, even though we have some things in common, he’s clearly separate from me. One of the problems I had with the feisty female detective was that she was either so different from me that I couldn’t identify with her, or so much like me that I couldn’t make her plunge into dangerous situations (“What? Are you crazy? You go in the basement, and I’m just going to lock all the doors in this car and dial 911.”). But I’ve always had a lot of male friends, and I immediately understood Jared and his need to be a hero, even if he couldn’t articulate it to himself. There’s only one disadvantage I can think of, which is that some people, once they know I’m a woman, can’t stop looking for all the ways I got him wrong. One woman gave me a list of things that men don’t do, say, feel, or understand. The very next book I read was by John Sandford—a man’s man if there ever was one—and he did every single one of the things on the list. Once I was told, “Men don’t know what a doily is. They’d call it a coaster.”
I said, “Men call things what they are—and every southern man knows what a doily is!” But the next time I was out with my husband, I happened to see one, and I said, “Honey, what would you call that?”
He looked puzzled and said, “It’s a doily. Well, I guess you could call it a . . . what is it? . . . A coaster, but that’s not exactly right.”
As my husband says, “Men are not monolithic.”
ZS: I know my name has caused me problems in the past—nobody has any idea how to cope with the umlaut over the ‘ë’—but you have also been through a name change. What’s the story behind that?
JT: When my friend published the first book for me, we used my real name, Elizabeth—a very feminine name. Booksellers would try to hand-sell it to readers they knew would like it, and the readers would point to the name and say, “No, look, it says Elizabeth. I don’t read cosies.” Nothing anyone could say would convince the reader that it was a gritty detective novel. On the other hand, people who picked it up because it said Elizabeth were looking for a cosy and were disappointed that it wasn’t one. I was completely missing my market. It doesn’t help that I look like a kindergarten teacher. My real name and a typical head shot would completely misrepresent the book. I found Jaden in the unisex section of a baby name book. [I didn’t even know there were such things! I must get one—ZS] Loved it. My agent loved it. We found an ambiguous but dramatic-looking photo to complete the image. And the funny thing is, people like this book much better by Jaden than they did by Elizabeth.
ZS: Did Jared McKean arrive fully formed, with his Down syndrome son, horse-riding abilities, and complicated relationship with his ex-wife, or did you discover his backstory slowly?
JT: I knew a few things about him—that he had horses and that he had a leather bomber jacket that had belonged to his father in the Vietnam War. I worked the rest of it out over a couple of days. It started out as a methodical process of discovery—what did I know, love, or do that he might also know, love, or do? I had a red belt in Tae Kwan Do, so he has a black belt. I gave him my 12-year-old Akita and my elderly quarter horse (he’s 32 now). I gave him a son with Down syndrome because I taught special ed. for twelve years, and I knew that having a child with a disability would give him depth and make him more than just a typical tough guy. I had recently lost a close friend to AIDS, so I gave him a friend with the disease. I thought it would be interesting to have a tough guy from the Bible Belt torn between what he’s always been taught about homosexuality and the fact that his best friend is gay. It quickly became clear that Jared’s defining characteristic is he never, ever lets go of what he loves. Once I knew that about him, everything else fell into place. There’s a lot I don’t know about him though. Early on, when I was asking all these questions, trying to figure out who he was, I asked if he had any siblings other than his older brother Randall. I got the sudden sense that he didn’t know, but that there was something unresolved in that area. When I started to write book three, there it was.
(ZS: and just in case you were wondering, Jaden has sent me a pic of Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Wadau, who she swears IS Jared McKean. And having seen him and read the book, I could second that …)
ZS: A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT is full of nice dialogue between McKean and the other characters. I particularly liked a snippet of this conversation between McKean and his former police partner, Frank Campanella:
I leaned forward, put my hands flat on his desk, and said, “Frank, I need to see that file.”
His eyebrows bunched together, wild silver bristles that made him look like a disgruntled badger. “I just told you, I don’t have it.”
“But you could get it.”
“Sure, if I wanted to spend my golden years saying, ‘Welcome to Walmart.’ ”
Do you have a file called ‘Nice Lines’ which you add stuff like this to?
JT: I wish I did. Sometimes I get ambitious and decide I’ll carry a notebook around and write down all those fantastic lines that pop into my head at odd times. It usually lasts about two days, and then I lose the notebook.
ZS: I lost a notebook like that while I was in NYC a few years ago. I’ve no idea what anybody might make of it if they found it! How did the storyline form for A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT, with its black magic overtones and which delves into the Goth subculture? Is this a subject that’s always interested you?
JT: In 1996, a group of teenagers inspired by a vampire role-playing game murdered the parents of one member of the group. Their leader claimed to be a 500-year-old vampire and had crossed the line from playing the game to living it. There were several other “vampire” murders around that time, and I was both appalled by the violence and intrigued by how someone so clearly evil and disturbed could exert so much control over others. I’ve been a role player since college, (Dungeons & Dragons, Rolemaster, Call of Cthulhu, and yes, VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE), and so I wanted to explore the line between gamers—people playing a game about vampires—and people who are playing at being vampires. I’ve also always been interested in magic and the occult, not in practicing it, but in what draws people to it, what they expect from it. There’s a line between dark and light, and it’s the line that I wanted to explore.
ZS: What’s next for Jared McKean?
JT: In the third book, his former partner on the Murder Squad asks him to come and identify the body of a young Asian woman found in the dumpster behind Jared’s office. In her hand, she was holding a picture of Jared’s father taken during the war in Vietnam. There’s a Vietnamese woman and two small children in the picture, and Jared’s office phone number is scrawled on the back. The book will take him into the world of human trafficking, and secrets from his father’s past will come back to haunt him.
ZS: And what’s next for Jaden Terrell? You are one of the contributors to NOW WRITE! MYSTERIES and also have an online writing course on your website. More how-to books? Teaching? Or do you fancy going with a standalone novel?
JT: Everything! I love to teach and hope to start teaching workshops soon, and I have a how-to book in the works. The third Jared McKean book is in the revision stage, and the fourth is in the research and planning stage. There’s also a standalone thriller that I hope to finish sometime in 2013.
ZS: What question do you always hope to be asked in these interviews, but never are?
JT: What does it feel like to be so ravishingly beautiful and obscenely wealthy?
ZS: LOL. Good answer! Jaden, thank you so much for stopping by. Lastly, what’s your favourite word or phrase? And your least-favourite word or phrase?
JT: My favorite word is skulduggery. My least favorite word is one I can’t say in public. It starts with a “c.”
Intrigued by Jaden’s work? Here’s the skinny on A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT:
At thirty-six, private detective Jared McKean is coming to terms with his unjust dismissal from the Nashville murder squad and an unwanted divorce from a woman he still loves. Jared is a natural horseman and horse rescuer whose son has Down syndrome, whose best friend has AIDS, and whose teenaged nephew, Josh, has fallen under the influence of a dangerous fringe of the Goth subculture.
When the fringe group’s leader—a mind-manipulating sociopath who considers himself a vampire—is found butchered and posed across a pentagram, Josh is the number one suspect. Jared will need all his skills as a private investigator and former homicide detective to match wits with the most terrifying killer he has ever seen. When he learns that his nephew is next on the killer’s list, Jared will risk his reputation, his family, and his life in a desperate attempt to save the boy he loves like a son.
ZS: So, over to you Murderatos. Questions for Jaden? And what are your favourite and least-favourite words?