Jo Perry is the highly rated author of the Dead series of books, which follow Charlie and his dog, Rose. They’re both dead, but they’re not done – they have a mystery to solve. Monty Python’s Eric Idle said of it: “Starts with a bang and goes on surprising. Highly enjoyable and unique…”
Now Jo has a novella coming out and she’s popped into Messy Business to talk all about it.
Hi Jo, you have a new novella coming out, Everything Happens, published by Fahrenheit Press, which is one side of a double story shared with Derek Farrell. What’s your story all about?
My novella, Everything Happens is Vegas Noir – a departure from my Los Angeles-based mystery series about a dead man and a dead dog. Everything Happens intertwines the stories of a woman going to Vegas to get a quickie divorce and of her soon to be ex-husband who goes to Vegas to celebrate a big score and a new girlfriend. I hadn’t planned on writing the novella until Fahrenheit Press’s imprint, 69 Crime, published the first of cool, tete beche pulp crime editions with a novella by Aidan Thorn and one by Nick Quantrill. I loved both novellas and the format. When Chris McVeigh and Chris Black asked if Derek Farrell and I would be interested in writing novellas for the second one, I was in.
The only problem being that I had not been thinking of writing a novella at all. I used the opportunity to write about a woman and about Las Vegas, which Derek Farrell also employs in his novella. I have been visiting Las Vegas for most of my life and love its clarity, vividness, and strangeness. It felt good to write about a woman who––excuse the expression––discovers her power. And the alien landscape seemed like the perfect place for a woman to shed layers of herself until she finds out who she really is.
I’m wondering what you mean about Las Vegas’ clarity – it’s moral clarity? Immoral clarity?
I just wrote a guest post about Las Vegas for the Murder Is Everywhere blog that will appear shortly, so I don’t want to rehash stuff I say there. Here’s the link.
But I will say that Las Vegas has geographical clarity – it is the jewel-like glittery “there” glowing in the middle of the desert nowhere.
Las Vegas is also clear about its purpose, the fulfilment of desire on the cheap or for as much as one is willing to pay.
Also Las Vegas is clearly the opposite of where everyone who goes there comes from:
Different rules apply.
Where does your female protagonist come from. How had her power been repressed, become dormant?
I don’t know where Jennifer comes from exactly. Maybe from inside me and from outside, too. I’ve been a woman for a long time now.
Jennifer is a young woman who has done her best to do what women are supposed to do––love and nurture. Loving and nurturing, however, require self-effacement, deferring pleasure, tongue-biting and stoic silence. The messages Jennifer has received from the world––and which most women receive––have also kept her down and dormant, i.e. that everything happens for a reason, that buying stuff and makeovers result in beauty and power and authenticity, that women are especially imperfect and require massive improvement, and that sisterhood is powerful except when it’s a sisterhood of consumption, credulity and cruelty.
It sounds like her soon-to-be-ex is the type who can only have it all his own way or he’ll take his ball home. What’s his story?
You’re going to have to read the novella to find out his story, but like everyone, even the assholes among us, Jake is the hero of his own narrative, the center around which his world revolves. Yet Jake collides with others who have their own agendas, who have scores to settle and scores to make and their own needs. Jake’s narrative conflicts with Jennifer’s and with those of his, um, business partners and colleagues.
You say you didn’t have a novella in mind – did you find it difficult to contain the story you wanted to tell in a smaller space?
I’d written novels and short stories, but never a novella. I think I fit the story to the novella’s shape and length, or that maybe the novella’s length shaped the story. And yes, it was very difficult.
I had trouble locating crucial places in the narrative, i.e. it was difficult to intuit where the beginning ended and the middle began and where the end began. Does that make sense? I just didn’t have a feel for it.
A novella requires a novel’s depth, but without a novel’s sprawl. Writing a novella is like doing a high dive into a well, rather than swimming into an open sea. You can drown doing both, but it’s safer and less claustrophobic to write a novel. A novella is an unforgiving form. But there’s room for discovery, unlike the short story which is usually built on one idea, one twist.
A novella is deep enough to contain various characters and their complexity of feeling and motive.
I think that each form – short story, novella, novel – tells a different kind of story.
You’ve been to Las Vegas many times, but was it hard to get the city into your headspace after your Dead series’ Los Angeles location?
It was strange to write about the living instead of writing about the dead.
I enjoyed imagining taste, touch the smell of the air, the sensation thirst, hunger, pain, etc.
I realized that I’d been in dead mode for a long time now. It felt good to be alive. I also enjoyed contemplating a place other than Los Angeles. And Las Vegas has everything.
For Everything Happens, writing about the living, did you have to control all those descriptive elements about the senses? What was the editing process like?
Each place must be described as the character experiences it. Los Angeles and Las Vegas are vivid, full contrasts, and inhabited by fantasists and dreamers – the ironies are built-in and reveal themselves.
Writing about the living made me feel enlivened. It felt really good.
As for editing, I am a relentless reviser/rewriter. I just keep rewriting until it feels right, sound right, is clear, complete and feels true to character/or my aims.
Did you have any conversations with Derek Farrell about how you would both approach the concept?
Yes. Before we embarked on our novellas, Derek and I had a productive, clarifying conversation about how we could connect our stories, and we agreed on Las Vegas and a few other things.
Derek is brilliant, generous, and lovely to talk to. That conversation helped me dive in.
You wrote episodic television. Which show did you write for, and how has that translated to your books?
My husband and I wrote and produced episodic television as a team. We wrote for Simon & Simon, did a Star Trek: Next Generation script, did three scripts for 21 Jump Street, and wrote for a few other shows no one remembers––Sidekicks, Snoops––and stuff for shows that didn’t make it to air. Also, a few movie scripts that never were produced.
I learned so much from writing for television, especially for Simon & Simon which was a hit show––efficient, with amazingly talented people working in every part of production and writing.
I learned to listen to criticism/notes, i.e. the reader is reacting to something – something off, unclear, missing, redundant, wrong ––and it may not be the thing he/she points out to you. But I learned to pay attention when someone has a problem with something in a book or in a script.
I learned a lot about pacing, about dialogue, about what a scene is, and to me the most important thing––when a scene should end. Too often fiction takes too long to end or ends over and over. I learned from TV writing that every scene should end crisply, should not be overwritten, and should, if possible, end with anxiety or suspense.
Writing under pressure was good experience, too. And seeing what one wrote actually acted out and spoken and filmed was illuminating. The words have to be efficient and true to the way real people talk.
Everything Happens is described as cinematic. Is that because of how it’s structured? The prose? What makes a book cinematic?
I’m not sure. There’s a lot of internal thinking in my novella and that is the opposite of film, but there’s also intense action, a vivid setting, some twists, reversals and surprises. Maybe that’s why.
Do you read your work aloud while editing?
I know that Timothy Hallinan reads all his manuscripts aloud to his wife to test the rhythms, grace, etc. of the language. I think that is a smart thing to do, and his attention to this aspect of writing is evident in his powerful, beautiful writing.
I probably should read my work aloud. I listen to it in my mind’s ear, I guess. I have a habit of writing very long sentences that are meant to be read on the page rather than spoken––but I do pay special attention to the rhythms and diction of what my characters say when they talk. Or think.
What’s next for you?
I am writing a novel right now about a character who appeared as a cameo in Dead Is Beautiful, book 4 in the Charlie and Rose series, but who was too interesting and fun to remain just a cameo.
Now he’s the protagonist – hilarious and brave, sweet and tough, but faced with his one, deep, paralyzing, irrational fear while trying to find out who set him up for murdering a man he didn’t know. It’s another L.A. novel but a different L.A. – and yeah, there’s a very important dog. A living dog.
Also (so far – everything is subject to revision) a millionaire avocado rancher, a Samoan American makeup artist/security/martial arts expert, a punk band, a Mensa member/accountant, a weight-loss group. Oh. And it takes place during Christmas. At least that’s what’s happening so far. Don’t hold me to any of this. I have a long way to go.
And I have an idea that won’t let go of me for the next, about a totally different character and different fictional world––a mystery or thriller about death and Jewish religious practice.
Jo, you’ve been a great guest. Any final words?
Thank you very much for the very interesting questions. You made me think.
Jo Perry earned a Ph.D. in English, taught college literature and writing, produced and wrote episodic television, and has published articles, book reviews, and poetry.
In 2019, Perry was the first female writer invited to speak at the venerable Men of Mystery Event.
Her short story, “The Kick The Bucket Tour” (Retreats from Oblivion, Journal of NoirCon) made the Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2018 list in The Best Mystery Stories 2019, Lethem, Penzler, editors.
Jo lives in Los Angeles with her husband, novelist Thomas Perry. They have two adult children. Their two dogs are rescues.
Read Jo’s story, “The Kick The Bucket Tour” in Retreats from Oblivion, the journal of NoirCon.
Jo Perry’s website: http://www.authorjoperry.com/