If you are a fan of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series (e.g. The Da Vinci Code) or the National Treasure movie franchise, you will definitely want to read this interview with Jess Lourey.
Jess is the author of more than a dozen novels including the Murder by Month series and most recently the thriller Salem’s Cipher.
Dharma: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into writing.
Jess: Thanks for having me, Dharma! Writing is my life, my passion, but I came at it through a decidedly ugly door. My recent TEDx Talk does a better job explaining it.
Dharma: You recently released Salem’s Cipher. What’s it about?
Jess: Salem’s Cipher is the story of Salem Wiley, a genius cryptanalyst courted by the world’s top security agencies. She’s also an agoraphobe, shackled to a narrow routine by her fear of public places. When her mother’s disappearance is linked to a plot to assassinate the country’s first viable female presidential candidate, Salem finds herself both target and detective in a modern-day witch hunt.
Dharma: Salem’s Cipher is similar in a lot of ways to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and the movie National Treasure. What makes Salem’s Cipher different?
Jess: I enjoyed that book and that movie. I love their pacing, the clever weaving of real history with heart-pacing thriller. I hope that Salem’s Cipher has all that, plus a distinct feminist thread. At the heart of Salem’s Cipher is the question, “Why is a woman with power so terrifying to some?”
Dharma: The main characters are Salem and Bel. Tell us about them and why you wanted to tell their story.
Jess: Salem is brilliant, flawed, half Persian and half Minnesotan, a genius scared to leave her home. Bel is J Crew beautiful, strong, confident, gay. They’re best friends and have been since they were children. What they don’t know is that their mothers have been training them for a life on the run almost since they met. I wanted to tell their story because both women are complex, messy, flawed, and interesting as hell, at least to me.
Dharma: One of the antagonists, Jason, has the ability to manipulate the bones in his face in order to change his appearance. Are there really people that can do this? What inspired you to give Jason this ability?
Jess: As far as I know, I made up that ability. In my mind, Jason was always larger than life, an assassin to end all assassins. I needed him to have a leg up, so to speak, on his competition, but one that could be explained by science.
Jess: I have zero experience with ciphers, but I was that kid with the decoder ring, glued to mysteries and drawn to secret codes. Writing Salem’s Cipher required deep research into the history of cryptanalysis and the mind-boggling lengths to which humans have gone to hide their secrets. I loved every second of it.
Dharma: Were there some personal experiences or elements you included in the story?
Jess: The main personal experience I included was making Salem the child of suicide, a reality I want to better understand as my own husband committed suicide while I was pregnant with our son.
Dharma: The story takes place in numerous locations across the country, starting in Minneapolis, them moving to Massachusetts, and finally ending up in San Francisco. Have you spent time in each of these places?
Jess: I live in Minneapolis and flew to Salem, Massachusetts, and San Francisco to research those locations for the book. I turned to friends and Facebook to get details on the other locations I couldn’t visit, including Amherst, Virginia, and southern Iowa.
Dharma: You’ve written women’s fiction, young adult, fantasy, and crime fiction. Have you found it challenging to market yourself in multiple genres? How do you juggle the various pseudonyms?
Jess: Oof! Such a good question. I’m still working my day job as a writing professor, so the short answer is—I’m shit at juggling various pseudonyms and marketing myself across genres. J But I gotta follow the story, and the story doesn’t recognize genres.
Dharma: What are you working on currently?
Jess: I’m editing the 11th book in my Murder by Month series as well as editing my first nonfiction book, Rewrite Your Life. It’s based on my TEDx Talk and shows people how to transform their life experiences into compelling fiction.
After I finish up those two projects, I am planning to dive into something both darker and more beautiful than I’ve ever written before. I grew up in Paynesville, Minnesota, a town recently in the news as it was the home of the man who abducted Jacob Wetterling, whose body was found earlier this month.
That man, Danny Heinrich, terrorized many kids in my town when I was growing up, though we didn’t know it was him. His poison infected the whole town, and I find myself being called to explore not the pain and terror of the time, but the unique and beautiful ways people and communities choose to heal from tragedy.
Dharma: What authors or genres do you like to read?
Jess: Right now, I’m on a YA kick. I find myself drawn to YA and high fantasy between projects because it is so escapist, and there’s so much amazing writing out there in both genres.
When I’m writing a new project, I usually read in that genre to internalize the rhythm of it. I’m also always reading nonfiction, usually on the craft of writing, to improve my own writing as well as my writing instruction.
My all-time favorite writers, though, are Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, William Kent Krueger, and Sarah Addison Allen.
Dharma: What are you reading currently?
A Torch against the Night, by Sabaa Tahir. It’s the second in an awesome YA/fantasy series.
Dharma: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you or your work?
Nope. I appreciate you inviting me over, and all these great questions, Dharma!
Dharma: My pleasure! Where can people find you on the web?
I’ve got a magical (truly) website at www.jessicalourey.com, and I’m on Facebook and Twitter as Jess Lourey.