Interview: Kellye Garrett

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Crime fiction author Kellye Garrett

Kellye Garrett began as a crime fiction author with the Detective by Day cosy mysteries about a broke black actress who becomes an amateur detective. Her debut, Hollywood Homicide, won multiple awards for best first novel including the Agatha, Anthony, Lefty and IPPY. It was also named one of BookBub’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time. The second in the series, Hollywood Ending, was nominated for both Anthony and Lefty awards.

More recently, Kellye has written two standalone suspense novels and Like a Sister won the Lefty for Best Mystery. This summer, she has released Missing White Woman, a story that explores missing white woman syndrome, with a twist. It is from the perspective of her main character – a young black woman called Brianna Wright, who is visiting New Jersey.

We met during the Capital Crime Festival in London to ask Kellye about Missing White Woman and her journey as a crime author.

Missing White Woman by Kellye Garrett front cover

Tell us about missing white woman syndrome and how it influenced your new novel.
It is based on an observation by Gwen Ifill, who was a black journalist and author. The idea is that a missing person, especially if she is an attractive White woman, will get a lot more attention in the media and social media than a Black or Brown missing woman. The title of the book Missing White Woman is a play on the missing white woman syndrome. You see it with Janelle Beckett’s absence going viral and people doing TikTok investigations.

I also wanted to talk about the idea of people’s crime as entertainment. Our entertainment is a real person’s tragedy and I think we forget that sometimes.

It’s interesting that you mention TikTok, which is used in the book to provide information about the characters and to move the plot along.
I had the initial idea for Missing White Woman, but I didn’t have any idea about the TikTok vignettes. The original idea came to me when I was staying in someone’s house by myself, scared out of my mind. I thought I could go downstairs tomorrow and find a dead body and have no idea how it got there. The neighbours would be asking, “Who are you? Why did you kill someone?” 

At the time when Gabby Petito went missing, I spent a lot of time on TikTok watching videos of someone sharing details of the case. On the one hand, it was multiple up-to-the-minute videos but someone thought they had seen the boyfriend somewhere and they posted a video of him. It was not him. I wanted to show the dangers of bad information too, not just in Bree’s perception of it as the first person there. The character on TikTok does a lot of good work in getting Janelle’s story out and makes sure that she stays relevant. At the same time, TikTokers don’t think twice about sharing information and possible consequences.

Readers are rooting for your lead characters whatever the situation. What do you do as a writer to engage readers?
I like to think that I have created circumstances of the characters that are relatable. With Bree, people can relate to fractured friendships. I always think about people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes things happen to you not because you are a bad person but because you just had bad luck that day. Bree happens to be in the same place where they find a dead body.

When I read Missing White Woman, I could visualise it in my mind as a movie or TV series.
Because of my background and my Masters Degree in Film, my writing tends to be very cinematic.

And you were a screenwriter – can you tell us more about that?
Yes. I wanted to write a book since was five but I was scared so I kept doing other writing. I got my undergrad degree in Magazine Journalism and I spent three years as a journalist. Then I went to film school at the University of Southern California and I have a Masters in Writing for Screen and Television from there. I worked in Hollywood for a few years, including a year on a TV series called Cold Case.

Do you think that your previous experience screen writing influences your writing now?
With TV, in a 60-minute show, you only get 42 minutes of TV time to write, so every scene needs to move the story forward. You have to introduce a character or a plot point. I have my chapters end with a climactic moment. The ultimate compliment for me is that you are up later than you should be because you are reading the book. You have to find out what happens next. 

Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett front cover

What was the pivotal moment when you thought, I’m going for it?
It was a low point in my life. I had finished with Cold Case and I had an idea for writing a book. I’ll never forget. I was driving down the street. I was dead broke and I saw a billboard in Los Angeles offering a $10,000 reward for information on a murder.

Just like Dayna, the character in your first book.
Exactly. That was the idea that became Hollywood Homicide. I had nothing left to lose. I was going to write a funny book about a black actress.

When Hollywood Homicide came out it received all kinds of awards and recognition. What was your journey to getting your first book published? 
I think that I had the idea in the beginning of 2011. It took me until 2014 to finish it, so three years.

Through a program called Pitch Wars, I got an agent. It took us a year to sell Hollywood Homicide. It was sold in 2015 to a mid-size publisher. All the big publishers said no. I say that because a lot of the time when you talk about diversity and lack of inclusion in publishing, people will want to say that it is not about racism, sexism or homophobia. It is because your work just wasn’t good enough. Right. It can’t be anything other than the fact that you’re just not as good. We had very few edits in Hollywood Homicide. The same book that was rejected by all the big publishers ended up winning all the awards. I share this story just to say that sometimes you just need a chance. 

Another great example is Shawn Cosby. He is a really good friend of mine. I think that people think that Blacktop Wasteland was his first book. It was not. His first book was with a really small publisher. He was given a chance by that publisher and now he is one of the biggest crime fiction authors in the United States, if not all over. Again, his talent was there. His drive was there. He just needed a chance.

What was behind starting Crime Writers of Color
When I got my book deal for Hollywood Homicide, I was surprised that there was not already a group for crime writers of colour. Gigi Pandian and I were talking about it and someone else told me that Walter Mosley wanted to start a group. I thought I would never run into Walter Mosley. Fate happened. I got invited to do a panel with him the very next week.

I met him and said something about starting a group. To his credit, he called me the next day and we talked about it. So we started a group with 30 people. Now it is over 400. Just that idea of community and networking. Our goal is to support you and to support each other through the struggles to publish a book in general but also the unique issues of being an author of colour trying to publish crime fiction.

The Crime Writers of Color won the Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
That was such a surprise. We’ve only been around for five years, so that was not on our radar. It was amazing that Mystery Writers of America recognised us. Gigi and I got to go to New York.

My mom was there too. She is always there for the big moments. I thought I cannot go up in front of the most powerful people in publishing and not say something and point out things that need to be addressed.

When I watched the video, I thought you were fierce.
I am lucky on both sides of my family. My dad and grandmother on my dad’s side were civil rights activists. My maternal grandmother died in 1978. They have a mural of her in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They still do articles and have a scholarship based on her civil rights work. It is in my blood. If they can talk about important issues, like civil rights, integration and education, I can definitely talk about some issues in books.

Can you tell us about your project with Amazon?
Amazon does original stories for their prime subscribers in the form of a collection. I am in the amateur detective collection with four other authors. The idea behind my story is a character like Mr Beast, the YouTube influencer who has made their fame off of insane ridiculous challenges. They decide to do an extreme Hide and Seek in the American Dream Mall which is the second biggest mall in the United States. If they don’t catch you by six in the morning, you win $50,000. Before it can begin, someone tries to kill the influencer.

Read our review of Missing White Woman.

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