Book Club Fiction with Jessica Strawser

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Show Notes

Author and Writer’s Digest editor-at-large Jessica Strawser answers publishing questions from Page Count listeners, defines “book club fiction,” shares insights gleaned from her career as a six-time novelist, and discusses her latest novel, The Last Caretaker.

Strawser is the author of the book club favorites Almost Missed You, Not That I Could Tell, Forget You Know Me, A Million Reasons Why, and The Next Thing You Know. Her sixth novel, the instant USA Today bestseller The Last Caretaker, surrounds a resident caretaker on a nature reserve who discovers her new home hides a safe house aiding domestic violence victims. In addition to her career as a novelist, Strawser is the editor-at-large and columnist at Writer’s Digest, where she served as editorial director for nearly a decade. Photo credit: Corrie Schaffeld.

In this episode:



Jessica Strawser (00:00):
The longer I publish, the more I realize every book is a gift. You're never guaranteed that there will be another one. You really have very little choice but to take your career one book at a time.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:13):
Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Today we're joined by Jessica Strawser, the author of six novels, most recently THE LAST CARETAKER, which was published last month in December. She's also an editor at large and columnist for Writer's Digest. In addition to talking about THE LAST CARETAKER, we'll also answer some writing and publishing questions from Page Count listeners. Jessica, welcome to the podcast. Thanks so much for being here today.

Jessica Strawser (01:01):
Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure.

Laura Maylene Walter (01:04):
Well, I'd love to hear first of all about your Ohio connection. So can you tell us where you are now and where you're from?

Jessica Strawser (01:12):
Sure, I live in Cincinnati now. I'm originally from Pittsburgh, but I went to Ohio University for college to the Scripps School of Journalism. So I was a magazine journalism major, which I'm quite sure is not a major anymore.

Laura Maylene Walter (01:29):
That's so bleak.

Jessica Strawser (01:30):
It became bleak shortly after I graduated, Laura. So yeah, I feel a bit archaic saying that, you know, at the time Scripps was one of the top journalism schools in the country and they only had, I think it was three or four concentrations and magazine journalism was mine. I got hired Writer's Digest Magazine, out of college. A lot of people don't know that it is based here in Cincinnati. For over a hundred years it's been the number one writing publication in all of North America and it being founded back in 1920, that was before publishing was so New York centric and big city centric in general. So it's changed ownership a bunch of times, but it's still headquartered here in Cincinnati. So I came here for a job there, worked my way up to editor-in-chief, then editorial director and now I'm editor-at-large. So I'm at large and contributing from the outside now.

Laura Maylene Walter (02:28):
I always love the editor-at-large titles. It just makes it sound like you're lurking anywhere, ready to, I don't know, give people helpful writing advice, maybe.

Jessica Strawser (02:37):
Yeah, it sounds like I'm on the loose, you know, manhunt going on. <laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (02:43):
Writer's Digest definitely is an institution in the writing world, and so listeners, just a heads up that it's also based in Ohio, so there's another benefit of the Ohio literary world for sure. We have some questions from Page Count listeners before we get to them just to help our listeners get to know what kind of writer you are. We'll be talking about your novel THE LAST CARETAKER in a few minutes. But I would love to talk about the genre you typically write in. So you are an author of what we call "book club fiction," and I'm often getting questions from students that I'm teaching and other writers about genre in general, but they do ask sometimes what does book club fiction mean? So can you tell everyone what is book club fiction and why are you drawn to writing it?

Jessica Strawser (03:33):
Yes! So early on, you know, my first novel published in 2017 and I've been publishing about a book a year and at the beginning, I think back in 2017, book club fiction was a thing, but it wasn't a label that people were using as much. My books were kind of cross categorized as either domestic suspense or women's fiction and a lot of people, especially writers and I think women didn't really like the term women's fiction, which is still used, but it was just in a sort of uneven way. It was like if your novel has anything to do with marriage or parenthood or friendship or things that involve 50% men to accomplish, they were women's fiction for some reason. Like those are things that appeal more to women than men. And it wasn't true. You know, maybe the books were marketed that way, but I know that I have a lot of male readers as well.

Jessica Strawser (04:32):
And so things would get labeled contemporary fiction, which isn't really a genre, it's just kind of something that has broad appeal that is maybe not highbrow enough to be considered literary fiction but doesn't fit neatly into any other genre. So I personally like the phrase book club fiction. I think it encompasses titles that lend themselves well to discussions and mine do tend to verge into suspense. In THE LAST CARETAKER there is an actual mystery in the book as well, but you know, there's also going to be some real meaty themes in there, lots of character development and the books will lend themselves well to discussion. A lot of my books involve moral dilemmas in the way that some of Jodi Picoult do, for example. And I think Jodi Picoult is another good example of someone who is now firmly being categorized as book club fiction. And for me as a reader, if I love a book, I'm not necessarily in a book club at any given time, but if I love a book, I want to hand it to a friend and tell them to read it so that we can talk about it. So to me it's a compliment.

Laura Maylene Walter (05:40):
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And I think that is the best way to organically find readers is when people just start recommending books to each other. So it's a huge compliment and any listeners out there writing their own fiction that they think might be categorized as book club fiction, it seems to me that agents and editors love it because it tends to sell well and people who want to read it and talk about it because as you said, some of the weightier themes. And yes, your book has those themes which we'll get to soon. And a mystery, a little dash of romance I would say. So it's, you're covering a lot of categories that keep people turning pages, which is really great. Okay, well speaking of people looking for agents and people curious about publishing everyone, we're really lucky that Jessica's here to answer some of these questions.

Laura Maylene Walter (06:29):
We have three questions that came in from listeners, so we'll just get to it. The first question is from an anonymous listener who is thinking about some big questions. She writes: "I've been thinking not so much about writing a novel or getting it published, but about the in-between state. So say you have a novel that's fairly well crafted and has already been revised a few times, what should happen between that point and querying? Is it beta readers, more revisions, hiring a professional editor, or just infinitely more revisions?"

Laura Maylene Walter (07:04):
I feel like that's my life, infinite revisions. And then she adds, "Another way to express this is how to know when you should get your project out of your head and off your computer and into the world," which I think is a good way of phrasing it. So I know that's a big question, but from your experience of being a six-time novelist, what advice would you offer this listener?

Jessica Strawser (07:24):
That is the age old question, and I think the answer is different for everybody, which might not sound helpful, but I think it's also a little bit reassuring because sometimes we try not to compare ourselves to each other. My agent always says, keep your eyes on your own paper, which I think is a good reminder. But at the same time you do wanna be aware of what other people are doing and sometimes it's helpful to share ideas with other writers, especially if you're in a writing group or in an online community for your genre or something, it can be dizzying seeing what other people are doing to prepare to submit. I mean you could do nothing but prepare to submit. Like you said, you could infinitely revise, I could revise books that I've already published.

Laura Maylene Walter (08:06):
Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I could too. Yep.

Jessica Strawser (08:09):
Yeah, and so I'm curious to hear what your answer is to this question. I think for everyone, you know, you kind of have to find your own rather than driving yourself crazy, exhausting every avenue you have to kind of find your own litmus test, whether it's one beta reader who you trust, or if it is, once you do have an agent, this question will not go away.

Jessica Strawser (08:28):
Because you'll have to decide when you are ready to show it to them. And for me it's, it's changed for me throughout my career. Earlier I used beta readers more than I do now because I don't always have the time in my schedule before a deadline to give it to a beta reader. I'm very often writing all the way up until the deadline, whereas early on that was not the case. For me it's this feeling where I start to wonder if I am improving it or if I'm messing it up.

Jessica Strawser (08:58):
You reach that stage where you're like, I'm kind of scared to touch it. I can think of a few more things to do, but I do like it the way it is and I'm not sure. Sometimes you really do have to just start putting it out there and see what kind of feedback you get. That's why I, when you do make that call, I always recommend submitting in smaller batches to, you know, pick a magic number, maybe seven agents at a time, something like that. You don't want to decide that you think you're ready and then send it to 30 and then find out in your feedback that you very much not ready. And you can always adjust just because you've started submit. I mean you always want it to be your best before you start submitting, but if someone brings up a good point and you would change your mind, you can always pause, revise more before you submit again. You know, it's not an irreversible decision. Do you have anything Laura?

Laura Maylene Walter (09:49):
Yeah, well I think that answer was really wonderful. I mean, as you said, it can be different for every person and I think it depends on the writer's goals and what they hope to accomplish. This is just based on my own experience and my subjective opinion, but I do think if you're trying to get an agent and get published by like a major publisher, your novel, I feel that maybe a lot of people don't revise enough. And I think it's just because it's so hard. It's so hard isn't it? It's just so hard to get all the pieces to come together and it's easy to just want to be done when it might not really be done. And so I often advise people to take more time, give yourself a break, come back to it. If you can use a beta reader, that would be great.

Laura Maylene Walter (10:29):
And I also think, as you say though, sometimes putting it out in the world helps as well. Even if you don't get the result that you want, sometimes you don't know until you hit send all of a sudden you can see the problems a little more clearly. And so sometimes I feel like you can't get there unless you are starting to send it out. So yeah, I don't know how much help we're offering this person except that we've all been there and I'm there currently just sticking with it. And I do think it always helps to find a beta reader or have a friend who can read the whole thing, who's a good reader. So that never hurts. I would say.

Jessica Strawser (11:02):
And I don't want to gloss over the fact that this person also asked about hiring professional help. I never want to say that everybody has to do that because first of all, it can be very expensive to hire a developmental editor, but there are writers who need that and who have made that investment and who have been so glad that they did because that was what they needed to get them over the hump. I think some people don't need to. I was actually on my second agent before I sold my first novel and I had never hired, you know, I am a professional editor, but you can't always see your own,

Laura Maylene Walter (11:36):
Right, oh absolutely not. Yeah.

Jessica Strawser (11:38):
I know plenty of people who've done it without hiring help and I know plenty of people who swear by hiring help. And there's also different aspects of what kind of editorial help you really need. Like I don't do developmental editing on fiction manuscripts, but I do from time to time assist clients with like their query letter and getting their submission package ready and they'll send me like the first five pages when I'm helping them. Because sometimes people, the manuscript is great and they're having a really hard time writing it.

Laura Maylene Walter (12:08):

Jessica Strawser (12:08):
And that is much more affordable to hire an editor to help you with your query or your submission package. But sometimes when I'm doing that I can identify, hmmm, I think your manuscript might need a little bit more work. Sometimes even just going through the exercise of reading someone's synopsis, you can poke holes in it like these are the boxes and editor's gonna look for a story in this genre to be checking. And I think that you're maybe not checking one or two. You know, sometimes I'll say, can you explain this more on the query? And it turns out then they realize, hmm, actually I think I need to go back to the manuscript and work this out. So there are ways to bring in an editor without necessarily dropping a few thousand dollars to bring someone in the whole process. But that's entirely gonna be different for everybody as well.

Laura Maylene Walter (12:51):
I think that's great advice. Okay, let's move on to the next question. This is from another listener who is wondering: "Is it ever a good idea to query two books at once?" So she says, for instance, "I have a novel and a linked story collection that are both ready to query. Is it better to query the novel by itself and then if an agent ends up interested mention the collection? Or would it be more effective to mention the story collection in the same query letter for the novel?" What do you think about this one?

Jessica Strawser (13:22):
I don't know if my answer is too specific to this person, but given the two very specific things this person wants to query, I would be trying to find homes for those short stories. Not as a collection, which maybe this person already has, they didn't mention. But I think it's hard to sell a short story collection if you don't already have a lot of credits in literary journals. So if you don't already have those, I would be trying to drum up some bylines in some reputable literary journals. It's not going to disqualify you from including them in a collection in the future. And if you can build up your bio a little bit, that's gonna add some meat to your query for the novel and for the short story collection. So if I had both of those things, I would probably query the novel while trying to submit the short stories to literary journals. If it were two novels, I don't know, I would bow down to anyone who has two novels ready to query.

Laura Maylene Walter (14:17):
At the same time!

Jessica Strawser (14:18):
Yeah, I don't know.

Laura Maylene Walter (14:19):
I think I would say if they had two novels both equally ready to go, I would still say pick the one you think is stronger or your favorite. If you think they're both equally brilliant, still just stick with one. And then if your querying process doesn't go well, then you have a another one that you can start querying right away. But yeah, I think with the stories, the harsh reality is if you're looking for an agent, listeners, the agent is going to be more interested in the novel. Like even agents I think who love story collections and who sell story collections. I can't speak for all agents out there and I'm not an agent, but what I know of the business is novels sell much much more easily and make more money. And so even if they love your collection, the novel might be the entry point for you. I would also say, I would think it might be fine to mention the story collection in one sentence in the bio paragraph, but not necessarily pitching it at the same time, but just mentioning I also have a completed story collection. And then of course mentioning any of those credits that you have, if you've been appearing in really good journals, that can only help you I think.

Jessica Strawser (15:24):
Yeah, and I think if somebody sees that you've been appearing in a lot of journals and they're the sort of agent that's interested in representing story collection, their mind's probably going to go there, whether you say it or not.

Laura Maylene Walter (15:35):
Yeah, exactly.

Jessica Strawser (15:36):
You know?

Laura Maylene Walter (15:36):
Exactly. Alright, one more question before we move on. This question is from Dan Adiletta: "If an agent responds to a query letter and requests to see the whole manuscript, should I offer exclusive access to that agent for a time? What's the most typical approach?" So for anyone who's not familiar with this, "exclusive" would mean you've sent it to this one agent, you've sent the manuscript, and you're not quote unquote allowed to send it anywhere else until the agent responds. So I'm really curious what you think about this and agent exclusives.

Jessica Strawser (16:09):
If the agent asks for an exclusive, I should first say, I would not offer an exclusive if they did not ask for.

Laura Maylene Walter (16:15):
Yeah, never.

Jessica Strawser (16:17):
And I do think that this is a scenario that authors prepare for more often than actually happens. I don't know that many agents who are really asking for exclusives, most of them just assume that submissions are non-exclusive unless they specifically request otherwise. And they're used to that. And if it comes down to them duking it out with another agent for a representation, that's a good problem for all of you to have. And it's fine. I think if someone asks for an exclusive and that's an agent that you would be happy signing with, if they decided to offer to represent you at the end of that exclusive period, that it would be fine to grant it. I would never grant it without a time period attached, and I would make the time period relatively short. So you know, like two weeks or something like that.

Jessica Strawser (17:09):
Because there are a lot of agents who will request fulls and then once you submit your initial proposal package, however many pages they ask to see, or a partial once they request a full a lot of authors think, and I think rightly assume that they are going to then be getting some kind of real response one way or the other. And that doesn't always happen.

Laura Maylene Walter (17:31):

Jessica Strawser (17:32):
I know authors who've thought they were really cooking on their submissions and they send out, they like, I got three or four requests for fools and I sent them all out and they never heard back. Which is just, I think is actually not good that that is acceptable in our industry industry. I think it's disrespectful to writers. I understand how overworked agents and everybody has become at this phase of the world in 2023, but I don't think that that practice is right at all. But the reality is that it does happen. So I would absolutely never do it without having a window of time attached to it and also don't do it. If that was the bottom, if you have a wish list of, you know, 10 agents above the agent that requested the exclusive, then I would not.

Laura Maylene Walter (18:16):
Yeah, I agree with all of that and it is somewhat rare, as I think it should be, because I do think asking a writer for an exclusive at this stage when you're querying agents, I do think that's a bit selfish and it's...I know agents have a ton on their plate. Like I definitely know it makes perfect sense to me that they could take eight to 12 months on a full manuscript to respond that actually I understand they have so much, but I just think to ask for an exclusive, you're right. Without that short timeframe. I do know though, there are a handful of agents out there, reputable agents that that is their practice. I actually have just spoken with someone who went through this where the exclusive was requested with no timeframe and they did not get back to the writer in a timely fashion. And I just think that's wrong, and I always tell writers, if you feel like you're maybe not being treated very professionally by the agent, even if they're a good agent and sell things, do you really want to work with someone who doesn't respect you as the author? Right? Because once you work with them, it is a partnership and you have to trust them.

Jessica Strawser (19:16):
If they are so hot and excited to read your manuscript that they need an exclusive amount of time to do that, then that should be a priority on their list.

Laura Maylene Walter (19:24):
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Jessica Strawser (19:26):
Otherwise there's no reason to leave you dangling...

Laura Maylene Walter (19:28):

Jessica Strawser (19:28):
...for all that time. Time is one of the most valuable things that we have as writers and so I would not give that away lightly.

Laura Maylene Walter (19:35):
Right. And the thought of agents requesting exclusives from every single person they request a manuscript from, just so they could sit on it and not be in competition with other agents. I don't think that's right either, so. So yeah, so hopefully that helped with Dan's question. All right, well let's move we can move on to your sixth published novel where you have gone through the agent process and you are a pro at this point. And I noticed in your acknowledgements for THE LAST CARETAKER that you said, putting out your sixth novel feels a bit surreal. You said you've been publishing roughly a novel a year since 2017, which by the way is so impressive, I can't imagine turning them out so quickly. That's really great. Tell us what's it like having your six novel come out and then give us your elevator pitch for THE LAST CARETAKER?

Jessica Strawser (20:25):
It has been about about a book a year, little brief pause in there during Covid when, I think everybody kind of paused and things got delayed, quote unquote until it was over and then they realized wasn't going to be over. So I think the longer that you publish, the more you realize that you can never really take for granted that there's going to be another book. The longer I publish, the more I realize every book is a gift. You're never guaranteed that there will be another one. You always want to have a long game in mind, but you really have very little choice. But to take your career one book at a time, and I think the Author's Guild is about to start playing out some of the same battles we just saw with the writers strike in Hollywood and with the actor strike in terms of AI and things like that. So the industry is changing so rapidly, it's tough to keep up with. And so I'm just happy to still be publishing and you can still have firsts, even six books in. So THE LAST CARETAKER actually debuted as an instant USA Today bestseller and that was a first for me. I've never hit that list before.

Laura Maylene Walter (21:29):
That's amazing. Congrats.

Jessica Strawser (21:30):
Thank you. So yeah, that was super exciting and we got to take the little wins when we can get them, right Laura?

Laura Maylene Walter (21:36):

Jessica Strawser (21:36):
So my elevator pitch: THE LAST CARETAKER is about a woman looking for a fresh start after her divorce and she accepts a job as resident caretaker on a nature reserve and quickly discovers that her new home is hiding a safe house that's been used by this underground network that helps domestic violence victims escape and assume new identities. So obviously caretaking involves way more than she bargained for as well as a bit of a mystery because she can't help but wonder why this job was open in the first place and no one seems to know what happened to the last caretaker.

Laura Maylene Walter (22:19):
Right. There's this mystery of where is Grace, the previous caretaker, she seems to have just up and left and has left her personal belongings in the house and it's very mysterious. So yes, there's a lot of really fascinating things to talk about with this novel. First of all, just this setting. So a resident caretaker who lives on a fairly remote nature reserve that is members only. So it's a gated facility that only people with memberships can come in and go hiking. Can you tell us where you found your inspiration to write about this kind of setting?

Jessica Strawser (22:56):
This is actually based on a real property here outside of Cincinnati that's owned by the Cincinnati Nature Center. And I left the Cincinnati Nature Center, mentioned the same in the book, but I did fictionalize the property because there is a real caretaker who lives there and I didn't want anyone to go out there and give her or him or them a hard time. But yeah, so the actual Cincinnati Nature Center is this very high trafficked, vibrant, very active property with like lots of staff and a visitor center and they do ecological research and they have a Montessori preschool and they do all kinds of programming for all ages. So a lot of people sign up, it's a really small nominal membership fee either for the whole year or you can pay at the gate to go in. But because that is so, you know, I don't wanna say crowded, but it can actually get quite crowded there even on off-peak days.

Jessica Strawser (23:54):
And if you really just want to go hike in the woods, they have the second property that's much more remote. Used to be a farm, there's no staff, there's no facilities, there's an unmanned gate where you have to scan a membership card and there's a caretaker who lives there. And that is where I like to do my brainstorming. I like to walk and better if I'm not doing it in my neighborhood where people are calling out to you, you're trying, you know, think and come up with a new idea. And I was thinking about the reasons that I like to go to that property. Scanning my card at that gate makes me feel just a little bit safer as a woman going by myself, especially at off peak hours or you know, different seasons of the year that aren't too common. I think especially here in Cincinnati, we have a huge problem with people breaking into cars in public parks if you have your laptop along or anything like that and you want to leave it behind.

Jessica Strawser (24:50):
So I just feel like, you know, anyone could walk in there, there's nothing other than inconvenience to stop you. But I feel like if someone's gonna mess with a hiker or with a parked car, they're probably gonna do it in a public park where no one's even attempting to keep track of who's coming in and out. And so I, yeah, you know, all the things that you think about the calculations that you do, especially as a woman or as a person by yourself, but the risk calculations, like even if I'm tired of hiking the same nature trail, I'm gonna keep going there because that's where I feel safe. And that all kind of actually ended up inspiring kind of the idea of the book. So I was out there one day, I'm very used to seeing only a small handful of cars in the lot, but one day I was literally the only person there.

Jessica Strawser (25:32):
It wasn't a very nice day. I just needed out of the house. And you know, I'm thinking what would it be like to be the caretaker who's living out here alone all the time. And I don't know if you remember, there was this piece that went viral among writers a few years ago. I remembered it as an essay, but I went back and looked it up and it was actually an advice column, an outside magazine where a writer had written in and said, "I set myself up in this remote cabin for an extended writing retreat to be like Walden and I hate it." She was like, "Well what do I do? Yeah, because I'm stuck here now and I hate it. This is not how I thought it was going to be." And it went totally viral and I think people found it relatable. Some things you don't really know what it's going to be like for you or if you're cut out for it until you try it.

Laura Maylene Walter (26:23):
That was actually one of my questions. So your character Katie, this is all very new for her and when she first moves in she does feel some apprehension. She's, you know, kind of wondering who's coming in. She sees a man who ends up being a maintenance person outside and she's a little tense. It's unusual for her to be out there in the nature, in the quiet all by herself like this. And one of the discussion questions in the back of the book is, you know, would you want to be a caretaker in this situation? And so I was curious if you think you would enjoy it. Because I think as writers it's so tempting to think, yes, I wanna be alone in nature, I could just write all day. But as you say, the reality might be different. So what do you think?

Jessica Strawser (27:01):
I don't know, I think I experienced a lot of it through Katie because I don't, I really don't know...with me, I do think I enjoy being in nature. I think I would like it as maybe for a month or something. Yeah. Probably not permanently.

Laura Maylene Walter (27:15):
No, not with no end date in sight I suppose.

Jessica Strawser (27:18):
But you know, yeah, I think I can do it for a finite amount of time and embrace it for what it was, but yeah. Yeah, and I don't even think in the book when Katie goes into it, I don't think she necessarily even has this attitude like, well I love nature. It's more like her friend who is a naturalist at the nature center is trying to help her out. Not only did Katie's marriage not work out, but she owned a business with her ex-husband. So she gave that up in the divorce and she really kind of needs like just a whole fresh start. Which is another thing I think there are so many novels and movies and TV shows that start with a character trying to get a completely new fresh start, which I also think is really interesting. Like, is that a thing that people are?

Laura Maylene Walter (28:00):
Well I think it's perfect for fiction that Katie, her marriage did dissolve in what seemed like a somewhat humiliating way with how her husband's treating her. And her job is tied up into that. And you know, fortunately she has this friend who's able to offer her something so different. So we're reading about a character who is thrown into a new life and a new world and one that she's not always entirely comfortable with. So I think it's perfect and I hope listeners who are also writers are maybe taking notes where, you know, if you open your book where you're a character is living there, perfectly mundane, happy life and nothing has changed, that's not as exciting as throwing them into a nature reserve and seeing what happens.

Jessica Strawser (28:43):
Exactly. I mean she's very like, she wants a fresh start, but it's also not entirely by choice.

Laura Maylene Walter (28:49):

Jessica Strawser (28:50):
This is like the position that she opines herself in and then she's like, does it matter that I'm not really a nature person?

Laura Maylene Walter (28:57):

Jessica Strawser (28:58):
Her friend is like, well do you want the fully furnished farmhouse that comes with it or not? You know?

Laura Maylene Walter (29:03):
Right. And not have to decide where you're gonna move or how you're gonna do it. Yeah. Yeah. I wish we all had a friend like Bess who could just set us up with furnished houses when we're going through hard times. That would be great.

Jessica Strawser (29:16):
Yeah, I think, I mean it ends up being this is not a spoiler, it happens very early on. Literally Katie's first day on the job, someone is knocking on her door in the middle of the night, which makes no sense to her because she's behind this gate and she thinks maybe there's been like a car accident way down on the road or something. She can't imagine what's happening. And there's a woman in distress and she's holding this little safe haven card that says if you need help to go to the caretaker's house and ring the doorbell three times and the caretaker will know what to do

Laura Maylene Walter (29:45):
Katie does not know what to do.

Jessica Strawser (29:47):
Yeah. So the first thing she does is go to Bess. And I think that immediately becomes kind of an interesting catalyst for Bess's character as well because Bess knew that Katie was going to be way out of her element here, but Bess is very in her element. She is in charge of this nature center, this is where she feels at home. And she had no idea that the previous caretaker was assisting this network or whatever was going on at this remote location. So it becomes very quickly Katie's like, well how did you not know this was part of the job? And Bess is like, I have no idea. I didn't know. You know, so I think it flips a bit of a switch challenges both of the characters.

Laura Maylene Walter (30:28):
Absolutely. And yes, there's that moment early on in the novel when a woman comes and knocks on the door. I love the ring three times a certain code that the previous caretaker definitely knew, even if Katie does not know. And she has to figure out what to do. This woman has a cut on her forehead, she had been bleeding, she's distressed, she's afraid, she is secretive, she can't let anyone know where she's been because the women who come here for refuge are all victims of domestic violence. They've been abused in some way. And so I would really like to talk about that. I know this is not your first novel writing about this issue. Can you talk a bit about what compelled you to write about this topic in this way through Katie's story? And what kind of research or preparation did you do for this book.

Jessica Strawser (31:19):
In 2018, my second novel called, NOT THAT I COULD TELL, that was a domestic suspense where a woman goes missing with her two young kids in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which is one of my favorite Ohio towns. And her husband immediately falls under suspicion because that's what always happens. And that book is told from the point of view of her neighbors who were the last people to see her, they all had a bonfire the night before she disappeared. But they're not very reliable witnesses because they all had a little too much wine around the fire that night and their memories are a bit foggy. So then they end up going back and grappling with not just their memories of that night, but of living next to this woman for years. You know, was everything okay behind closed doors and should we have paid more attention to what was going on and what responsibility do we all have to our neighbors to look out for each other?

Jessica Strawser (32:12):
And even if we had suspected something wasn't right, is there anything that we could have done or should have done? And those were questions that I had been grappling with for 10 years before I wrote that novel because way back in 2008 I lost a really close friend in a domestic violence incident. And after that happened, my kind of journalist brain went to, you know, learning more about the issue and research and just trying to make some sense of over something that's really senseless. You really can't make sense of it. But through that I ended up doing some volunteer work with my local YWCA and a lot of research. And I worked on a public awareness campaign for the greater Cincinnati YWCA one year for Domestic Violence Awareness Month is every October, which we all think of as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. They have a pretty strong lock on the month with pink ribbons.

Jessica Strawser (33:06):
But if you look once in a while you'll see purple ribbons and those are for domestic violence awareness as well. So, you know, after years of getting involved as much as I could and doing some research and just paying a lot of attention to how it's portrayed in pop culture, whether it's in movies or books or other forms of entertainment. It bothered me that there were still so many questions that I didn't know the answer to. And so I wrote that first novel from the point of view of the neighbors, because that is in real life the experience that most of us will have. Statistically, everyone listening to this right now, somebody in their life either has dealt with this issue or is dealing with it right now, whether they know it or not. So statistically, if we have a brush with it, it's going to be if not ourselves, firsthand through somebody we know.

Jessica Strawser (33:54):
So I talked a lot about all of that, all my inspiration and research when I went on tour for NOT THAT I COULD TELL in 2018. And that book was actually commercially, it was really successful. It was a Book of the Month selection and it was a Target pick. You know, in all my conversations about that book when I was touring and speaking at libraries and bookstores about it, were just the carefully worded, there's a big twist at the end of that book and I don't want to give it away. And you couldn't, you couldn't really even talk about what actually happened in the book. You're just kind of teasing why you wrote the book. But what happened after I published it was that book clubs, as we were just talking about...would read the book and they would invite me to join their discussions or readers would email me and message me.

Jessica Strawser (34:37):
And I was absolutely flooded with messages and discussion from women sharing their own stories, whether it was them firsthand or someone that they love, someone that they care about being in a dangerous relationship and things they wish they'd known and things that not that I could tell really made them think about. And I was blown away by in all these stories, this collective sense of the things people had done and would do to help each other. There was one book club that I spoke to where in a very affluent neighborhood in Cincinnati where they detailed for me how they had hidden one of their own members from her ex-husband in the house that we were meeting in for like an entire month. She was there and she was years out of this relationship and everyone's kind of crying about it, but also laughing about it and we're talking like old friends.

Jessica Strawser (35:29):
And it was amazing to me the things that people would do to help each other if they knew they needed help. And that's a big if, right? Because there's a huge stigma around this issue where it gets swept under the rug and people don't feel comfortable talking about it. And people don't always know that someone they care about needs help. So I started thinking again about writing another story that would honor more that sense of, I don't want to say sisterhood because it's not just women, I don't want to talk about it in a gender specific way, but for lack of a better term, that feeling of sisterhood or camaraderie. When I tell people the premise of this book that there's this underground, you know, whisper network helping domestic violence victims escape, nobody ever says, well why would there need to be a whisper network? I mean, we know, we know the traditional system doesn't do a very good job of protecting these women.

Jessica Strawser (36:22):
We know these whisper networks really exist even if we don't know that much about them. And even if you volunteer through traditional channels, there's a kind of covert aspect to it. I've volunteered at women's shelter and you're not going to get an address with, you know, directions on Google Maps, you know. You're putting a lot of trust in anyone who you're allowing to help. They're going to be discreet about the location and about you know, who's following them and who's talking about who's there and things like that. So it gives you a lot of creative license but also an authenticity. I think it's not that big of a leap to have it crossing paths with this nature reserve. For me, the setting was absolutely key to this book. And I wanted to have this sense at the nature reserve where if somebody was on the run from an abusive husband or boyfriend and the women who are entering this network and the novel are completely out of options.

Jessica Strawser (37:22):
They've tried restraining orders and they've tried filing for divorce and all the regular thing and they're still afraid for their safety. These are women who are really feel they have no choice. They're running for their lives, they're starting over, they're leaving everything behind. And it's scary. And I think Katie having come into this caretaker position with her own version of starting over can relate to them on a level and also understanding of what they're going through is much more drastic and much more high stakes than what she is. But they can kind of relate to each other a little bit in that way. And I like the idea that somewhere else they might be hiding in a spare room or a basement or an attic here at the nature reserve that's like the perfect place because when the gates closed for the day, they can go sit by the water, the creek or the pond, they can go for a hike through the woods.

Jessica Strawser (38:13):
And there's this sense that it was originally set up as this peaceful refuge and I think kind of an underlying sense that these women deserve better. And this is just meant to be kind of this little zen, beautiful stopping point on their journey. But it does involve a little bit of ingenuity and sacrifice on the caretaker's part. And it definitely involves the caretaker needing to know what she's supposed to do and what's going on, which Katie does not. And even as she pieces together how this all works, she has a decision to make about whether she wants to be involved or not. But she really has the sense of she was never really comfortable going to this place in the first place. Even when she thought it was just, you know, woods and woodland creatures. And now she doesn't know if she's safe. She doesn't know if she should be suspicious of anyone who comes in. It's a whole new level of anxiety for her work. Everything is into question. So is that something that she's really gonna be willing to do?

Laura Maylene Walter (39:17):
I do want to say, I'm so sorry about your friend, which is just such a tragedy. And I know you wrote a really beautiful modern love piece about your friend. And so I can link to that in the show notes. But it also makes me think about a line I marked in your novel. The character Dottie who is involved in this network says, my husband says, I see tragic stories about women everywhere I look, I tell him it's not my fault. They are everywhere I look. And it really made me think about writing about darker topics like this because my novel BODY OF STARS also has some darker themes that I hadn't set out to write about, but they're inescapable in a lot of ways in our world. And so I think we feel compelled to write about them and it can be a form of help I think to read fiction about other ways we could be, other ways we could try to help a really struggling system that isn't standing up for people as as it should.

Jessica Strawser (40:08):
So many studies, you know, studies have shown people who read fiction are more empathetic. And I think it does just put you in other people's shoes. I also think for me, I never set out to write like an issue book. Like, this is a book about domestic violence. You should read this novel. I mean nobody would want to read that. But I think if you write a story, you know, hopefully that's just got a compelling premise and storyline and it just happens to leave you with some things to think about. And again, we talked about that book club fiction label just makes you think about what would I do? You know, Katie very quickly figures out as she's piecing together this network, she starts to realize she's the only one who doesn't have some kind of personal reason for being involved in helping. Most of the people who are involved in helping these women escape have some kind of reason. They're either trying to atone for something or they have a soft spot for it because of something that's happened to them or someone that they love. And Katie, she just took this caretaker job not knowing what she was getting into. That's literally her only reason. But it immediately begs the question, you know, should you need a reason.

Laura Maylene Walter (41:19):
Yeah, to help someone. Absolutely. It also made me think just from my writer's perspective, how even if we're writing novels, this is fiction, we're making up people, we're making things up, we're using our imaginations. But when a book comes out, sometimes people, they really want to connect it to your personal life, you know? And it can almost feel like a pressure that if you're writing something that has a certain theme as if you need to disclose some personal connection to it. So I don't know if you have any thoughts about that. I always find that frustrating as a writer, again, not to gender it, it seems sometimes women though are on the receiving end of that question a little more. So I don't know, do you have any thoughts about that or how you plan to move forward when you're promoting this book?

Jessica Strawser (42:02):
I always say like if I actually just wrote about myself and my own life, it would be really boring.

Laura Maylene Walter (42:09):
Oh, same. Same. No one would want to read that.

Jessica Strawser (42:12):
Yeah. People are like, who did you base these characters on? And they want to hear, you know, some old story and it's like I was trying to dream up something more interesting.

Laura Maylene Walter (42:22):
Are you saying people don't want my groundbreaking novel about me sitting on the couch for 12 hours on Saturday watching TV because I didn't feel well? Because I'm working on it!

Jessica Strawser (42:31):
My kids are at the age right now where mine would be about me driving my kids to their activities, which I feel like is all I do. You know, it's like I'm a chauffeur with a laptop.

Laura Maylene Walter (42:43):
So breaking news, we're both boring. And this is why we turn to fiction. But yeah, I like that if we were basing it on our lives, it might not be quite as compelling as what you've crafted.

Jessica Strawser (42:54):
A MILLION REASONS WHY was the first book I wrote that was not getting all domestic suspense. It had a blurb from Jodi Picoult on the cover and it was very much in the book club fiction up market fiction vein. It's about two half sisters who get linked by a mail-in DNA test. And they're grown women living very different lives in different states, but now they've found out that they're half sisters. And so what does that mean to them? And one of them, the reason she took the test is because she's in kidney failure and is looking for a kidney donor. She kind of let herself be pressured into taking the DNA test. She knew she had more family out there, she knew she never knew her father. And she actually kind of just took the DNA test to get her friends off her back thinking no one would turn up. Only this half sister did turn up and then she has to decide what she's going to do about that. And even with that book, it was, you know, such a big heavy topic, but people wanted to know, even when I made it clear that I'm not grappling with these health concerns or anything, interviewers would always say like, but have you taken a mail-in DNA test? And it's like, no, after writing this, I'm definitely not going to take one.

Laura Maylene Walter (44:02):
Yeah, exactly. With my novel, which involved a speculative world where people could predict the future in women's bodies, people would ask me, would you want to be able to do this? Would you want to know the future by looking at your skin? And it'd be like, no, because I wrote my book, it would be horrible. No, absolutely not. Yeah, it's funny.

Jessica Strawser (44:19):
But also, you've lived it on the page. Right?

Laura Maylene Walter (44:21):
Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.

Jessica Strawser (44:23):
I do like writing about those questions that are hard to answer. Those like moral dilemmas. And even after I've written the book, sometimes I still don't know the answer.

Laura Maylene Walter (44:32):

Jessica Strawser (44:32):
Like I just figured out what this one character decided to do, but I can't tell anybody else what they should do or...

Laura Maylene Walter (44:40):
Absolutely. Well, we're starting to run short on time, so I'll just ask a few more questions. I'm curious about the publication process for THE LAST CARETAKER, because your previous novels had a different publisher and you're with Lake Union now, which is an Amazon imprint. Would you like to tell us a bit about switching, what it's like, I don't know if a lot of listeners know that writers often don't have one publisher throughout their careers. It's quite common to have different books out with different publishers depending on what they're writing. So what would you like to share about that part of the process?

Jessica Strawser (45:12):
I do think it's pretty common to move around and also for anyone out there, I know you have a lot of aspiring writers listening based on the questions earlier too. I should also say some people switch agents.

Laura Maylene Walter (45:24):
Oh, a lot of people switch agents. Yep.

Jessica Strawser (45:26):
Yeah. I've been very fortunate that I just turned in my seventh novel, which I think will be out in 2024. And that one's also with Lake Union. I'm fortunate to have been with the same agent for all seven novels, but I did have an agent before that who shopped a novel that never sold. So I actually think the more publishing changes, the more rare it is for anybody to stay at one house, even if you're staying at the same house. Especially, gosh, with all the staffing changes that came around Covid...even if you're at the same house, it would be very rare to be with the same editor. So I think even if people see that you're with the same imprint for 10 books or whatever, it would be increasingly rare to be with the same editor. While I was at St. Martin's for five novels, I worked with a number of different editors there. One who acquired the first two book, my third book ended up having I think three different editors in the course of just that one.

Laura Maylene Walter (46:27):
That's hard.

Jessica Strawser (46:28):
Yeah, I think there's a lot more turnover at publishing houses even than people realize so. So I did five books at St. Martin's and I am now publishing with Lake Union. It's funny, when I was at Writer's Digest full-time, we always talked about the Big Six as traditional publishing and then it became the Big Five and there's been some talk about it potentially going down to the Big Four, although I think that was averted last year. The government stepped in and stopped that merger from happening and it was always sort of traditional publishing or small press publishing and then Amazon publishing popped up kind of in between and they would sort of put them in their own category. Amazon Publishing has been more and more similar to New York publishing with some differences, but as far as having an agent get you in the door and the editorial process behind the scenes, I mean really the only difference there is that it's on the west coast instead of the east coast. So you have to get used to your editors being on Pacific Time if you're on Eastern Time like we are. But I think they've been doing some really innovative publishing and we've been seeing some of the huge, you know, huge bestsellers. Robert Dugoni, Patricia Cornwall, lots of authors, moving over to Amazon Publishing imprints as things change over time. So I'll be with them for the next few books.

Laura Maylene Walter (47:52):
What is your writing schedule like if you're putting out roughly a book a year, how do you balance the writing and creating a new work with promoting the book that has just come out like you are doing today?

Jessica Strawser (48:04):
I think there is a lot more overlap than the average reader realizes, especially if you are publishing about a book a year. I know some authors who are on more of an every other year schedule and maybe they don't have quite as much overlap. Maybe they can have a little bit more time in between. But generally, yeah, you really can't compartmentalize very well. One thing at a time, you have to kind of learn to switch gears in your day where you're going to figure out whatever your creative time is going to be and then have your promotional time and then anything public facing that you have to do. I have two young kids in school, so I try to keep to school day hours more than workday hours I should say, as far as getting the bulk of my work done when I need to hear myself think that I'm almost never done for the day when the bus pulls in.

Jessica Strawser (48:56):
I'm often also working past dinnertime and evenings and things like that. But I think because there are so many different components to my career, you know, I'm not just writing novels, I still do editing work, I still contribute to magazines. I freelance write, I do some teaching at conferences and retreats and things like that. So it's a constant juggling act of trying not to have as many times where you're cursing yourself for saying yes to too many things.

Laura Maylene Walter (49:21):
Yeah, yeah.

Jessica Strawser (49:21):
But also making sure you have enough going on that you can make a living. Yeah, it's a constant juggle and it varies all the time.

Laura Maylene Walter (49:28):
All right, well just one more question as we wrap up in your acknowledgement section slash author's note. I always love reading the acknowledgements, by the way. You mentioned and thank some of your writing friends and fellow writers that you're in a critique group with and so on. So in the spirit of your novel being about people helping other people, can you conclude by telling us a bit about maybe the other writers in your critique or friend groups and what it means to you as an author having the support and giving support to other writers?

Jessica Strawser (50:02):
Yeah. I feel like for me, being part of the writing community came first since I was working at Writer's Digest magazine. I knew the value of, you know, having kind of a network for yourself in that community. Before I was even trying to write books, it was early on a little bit of a switch to get people to stop thinking of me as the editor of Writer's Digest. Start thinking of me as a novelist, in terms of like peers. So, you know, if writers were sitting around the table at a conference talking shop and talking about their editors and sharing the kind of experiences that could actually be really helpful to share behind the scenes. And I would come over, everyone would quiet it down.

Laura Maylene Walter (50:50):
Oh no.

Jessica Strawser (50:51):
It would be like being at a party, like a high school party and someone's mom walks in, you know, I'm not going to put this in the magazine. Like...

Laura Maylene Walter (51:00):
Yeah, yeah, it's fine.

Jessica Strawser (51:01):
I was there when I published my first two novels. So I was, you know, trying to network and establish myself as a novelist just as much. So there were a few authors really early on who were very kind in recognizing that I was also writing novels and kind of inviting me in to be able to take off my editor's hat and put on my writer's hat and join their conversations. And those early kindnesses meant a ton to me. There's historical novelist named Heather Webb, who is amazing to me. Women's fiction novelist, Amy Sue Nathan, was amazingly kind. And Lisa See, who writes historical novels, interviewed her for cover story and she sent me these lovely little encouraging notes. Adriana Trigiani, Lisa Scottoline...there were a few who were just really warm and welcoming in terms of like inviting me to the party. That the editor was not usually invited to.

Jessica Strawser (51:55):
And just in terms of my like everyday life, I contributed to this website called, which is like an online, almost like a, I don't want to call it a mini Writer's Digest. It's scaled much down than that, but it really is a labor of love. There's five contributing editors and you get a lot of information from the five of us. And what I like about the newsletter that you get if you wanna sign up at, is that you only get it once a month. They don't send you emails any other time ever. And there's really good content on there. And the other authors who contribute to that site have been enormously supportive to me, and I've come to consider them close friends as well.

Laura Maylene Walter (52:37):
That's a good note to end on. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with our listeners who wrote in with questions. And thank you, most of all for talking about THE LAST CARETAKER with us. So listeners, please go out and read THE LAST CARETAKER and Jessica, thank you so much for joining us.

Jessica Strawser (52:54):
Thanks for having me.

Laura Maylene Walter (53:05):
Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at Follow us on Instagram @ohiocenterforthebook, on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Instagram and Twitter @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.

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