I first encountered Kay Kendall at last year’s Thrillerfest Conference but it was only a smile down a long hallway. It was my first time attending and needless to say, I was quite shy. A year has passed and I look forward to finally meeting Kay in person at this year’s upcoming Thillerfest. I Loved reading her debut novel, DESOLATION ROW, published by Stairway Press.
CL: Tell me a little about your Russian and Canadian experiences. These cultures are highly referenced in your novel and I loved learning as I went along.
KK: I’m an American who lived in Canada with my Canadian husband for two decades and have Canadian friends and in-laws. I went fresh into that country and lived some of the experiences I describe for Austin Starr. Not the murders of course but the culture shocks. The book takes place in Toronto in 1968, a place I lived two decades later. Getting the details right was fun and easy for me.
As an author it is rewarding to write about slightly exotic things one knows. For me that includes Russia AKA the former Soviet Union. By a fluke I ended up studying Russian in college, spent a summer in the USSR learning the language, came back to the States and changed my major to Russian history. That culture and its horrific history fascinate me. The character of Professor Klimenko in Desolation Row is based on and looks like my first Russian teacher who always wore a black glove on his right hand. I used to sit in class and wonder how his hand got damaged. I never found out. In the sequel, Rainy Day Women, however, Austin will find out how this character’s hand was crushed in a World War II battle. His daughter Larissa Klimenko is based on a dear friend of mine, Irina, who now lives in Houston and has dual US-Russian citizenship.
CL: You set the scene very well: 1960s. What sort of research did you do to prepare for your novel?
KK: I have degrees in history and love historical detail. That said, I had no desire to do exhaustive research for a work of fiction. Because I could draw on my own experiences of that time period, I didn’t start from scratch and purposely ensured that my mystery was a personal journey set in a dramatic time-gone-by.
Using sources easily available on the internet, I could fact-check when necessary, just to make sure I got period details correct. In addition, two people who had lived in Toronto in 1968 and were active in the worlds that I describe read my book in manuscript format. One had been a student at the University of Toronto, just like my protagonist Austin Starr and her husband David. The other is an Ontario provincial judge who looked for errors in how I described procedures in the criminal justice system. He had been a crown prosecutor in Toronto at the time when David was arrested.
Now I look back and realize how much more difficult the process of writing this historical mystery would’ve been had I needed to visit a library every time I needed to dig up a fact.
CL: Your main character refers to Nancy Drew on occasion and as a fan of Nancy Drew when I was young, I could relate. Your novel takes on an almost Adult Nancy Drew tale… Plummeting a female non-detective right into the middle of the crime drama. What books influenced you in terms of creating your character, Austin?
KK: I love solving small mysteries and don’t rest until I find answers. Probably that’s what drew me to the tales of Nancy Drew. In marked contrast, I read one book about Cherry Ames and never read another one. Nursing didn’t fascinate me as sleuthing does.
Jane Eyre is my favorite novel of all time—aside from the masterful Cold War spy thrillers penned by John le Carré—and Jane’s exploits involve some mysterious circumstances. Just think of the mad women in the attic. Jane is very curious.
The only modern-day female crime solver who is relevant to my writing is Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. That character, however, is much more hard-boiled than my Austin Starr. Also, my heroine gets married and may end up having a family—you’ll have to read more and see—so her wings are clipped compared to Paretsky’s sleuth.
CL: I didn’t see the end coming at all and I loved this. What made you want to become a Thriller writer?
KK: I’m gratified you didn’t see the end coming. Mystery authors love hearing that! Within the mystery genre, historical fiction is my personal favorite. Many authors locate their sleuths and their spymasters during the wars of the twentieth century. The two world wars and the Cold War all have hundreds of mysteries set during those times. The only large wars of last century not “taken,” not overrun with mysteries, occurred in Korea and Vietnam. The latter is a comparatively empty niche that I concluded needed to be filled with more mysteries—and I decided I was the one to do the filling.
I wanted to show what life was like for young women of that era—not the type that made headlines, the Hanoi Janes or Angela Davises, but the moderates who nonetheless got swept along by the tides of history during the turbulent sixties. All that turmoil lends itself to drama, intrigue, and murder.
CL: What advice do you have for writers trying to find representation via Indie or Traditional publishing methods?
KK: Once upon a time I read this saying: Politics is the art of the possible. Well, I’ve taken that as my motto for many things. LIFE is the art of the possible.
To me that means that if you want to be read widely and be successful, first you try to go the traditional publishing route. Learn your craft, write the best book you can, and try hard to find an agent. Realize you will most likely receive many rejections. If you don’t land an agent who may be able to get you a book deal with a large publisher, then turn to smaller publishers who will accept un-agented submissions. Many authors—myself included—are quite happy being published by small presses. Mine is Stairway Press of Seattle, and the people who run it are a joy to work with.
If those two methods don’t pan out for you—or if you are in a tremendous hurry—then by all means do self-publish. You will either have to do a huge amount of work for yourself that a publisher usually does—or pay someone else to do those things for you. Editing, cover design, interior book design and so on are things that are best done by professionals. If you want a polished looking product, then you will need outside help.
None of these routes is easy. Each has its own plusses and minuses. Being published today is a hard game to play. If your dream is to become a published author, I wish you the best of luck. It is possible, but it does require lots and lots of hard work. Be sure you know that going in.
CL: Tell me about your second book. What can we expect from it?
KK: Rainy Day Women takes place in the summer of 1969. Austin Starr gets drawn into murder investigations in Vancouver and Seattle when her best friend Larissa Klimenko becomes the prime suspect in the killing of women’s liberation leaders. Whereas the first mystery Desolation Row has an over-arching theme of war and what it does to combatants and non-combatants alike, this second mystery plays out against the consciousness-raising of women. The third book will have an international spy theme to it. The unifying theme of my mystery series is the progress of Austin Starr through this turbulent era, how she is changed by events. There will be the question of whether she gains her heart’s desire—returning home to Texas. David wants to stay in Canada even if he is never drafted to serve in the war in Vietnam, yet she disagrees. How far does wifely duty go, and how does her own involvement in the women’s liberation movement impact the lives of her and her husband David Starr?
In conclusion, I’ll add that Austin Starr is a fan of Bob Dylan, and each mystery about her has a title taken from one of his songs. I do research to ensure that each song had been published by the time the relevant story takes place. I have a great plot point for Dylan’s song “Tangled Up in Blue,” but it came out in 1975 so I will have to wait a while before I can use that song, alas.
Find out more about Kay here:
Desolation Row—An Austin Starr Mystery (2013, Stairway Press, Seattle)
You can purchase DESOLATION ROW here: