It was a lively and large group of MAF members who met on Thursday, May 16th to discuss The Good Byline with its author, Jill Orr. Jill joined us by Skype and delineated how running across a particular obituary led to the creation of this story and series.
[This obituary] “was so lovely and funny, charming and sweet … not a dry recounting, it really gave you a sense of who this guy was. [I] started clicking around on different obits and started to notice that there were a large number of them that had the same names commenting on the obit. I thought “that’s weird,” there was no way they could all be friends or family of the deceased … and then [I] realized: they were fans of obituaries.” Jill was so intrigued by that, she started to research this situation, and found that there really are whole groups of people who are fans of obituaries. “They even have their own conferences, and email groups!”
Jill even coaxed a few MAF members into admitting they at least occasionally, are obituary readers! One member shared that her mom was an obit reader, but it was because she didn’t want to miss one that she should go to. One member told us about a friend who reads them to make sure she wasn’t dead! We all agreed that Jill’s Riley makes a wonderful point that she’s not reading them because of the death, but to know the life.
She’s always been a mystery reader, so when she was exploring this aspect of obituary buffs, she thought “what a great concept to use the obituary angle with an amateur sleuth – you’d have a ready-made dead body – make that a murder and [then come up with a story around this].”
The spontaneous obituary was the first idea Jill had for the story. She thought how funny it would be for the character to think of her own obituary based on what was happening to her at different points in the story. The scene where Riley’s on a date on a roller coaster mentally writing her own obit, was originally the starting point of the book.
Jill also had a great time finding obituaries online that she could use to start each chapter – but almost ran into a legal kerfuffle over not knowing that it is up to the author to make sure they have copyright permission from the sources to use the quotes. She speed-contacted them two months before the book was published. Amazingly, none of the obit authors were the least bit curious about how she was going to use them!
Jill also confirmed that the setting is in fact near Norfolk, Virginia – a place that is dear to her because she happened to be there when she started the book, and her in-laws live there. She also loves the way the people there talk. She finds the way they stretch out words “is just charming”. She also likes to play with colloquialisms, “and there’s a lot of that in Virginia”. But she created her own town because she claims to be “terrible at geography. And didn’t want to be caught up by pesky facts”.
We asked her if she had had full creative control over the final edition of her story, or did the editors make any tweaks? If they did, what changed – and if not, what major adjustments did she make? She said yes, and no. A literary agent who used to work on mysteries for St. Martin’s did tell her that she knew the story’s killer too soon, and pinpointed the page where she knew. As a first-time author, she had thought that the editor would know what was wrong, and fix it. What really happens, is that the editor tells the author what is wrong –and it’s up to the author to fix it.
She also talked about how her audience has a lot of millennial readers – possibly due to the [great!] artwork on the cover, as well as the fact that her heroine, Riley, is a millennial and into all the social media that Jill brilliantly –and hilariously – uses as an on-going comedic part of the story. We followed that up with expressing our deep appreciation for Regina from Click.com and her ever-expanding list of hashtags intended to help Riley on the dating scene. Jill mentioned that in the next book, there’s a sister-company that offers life coaching and will have many email interludes with a new “helpful” life coach for Riley.
Another key topic for the group was asking Jill about Riley’s grandfather’s questionable suicide. We felt it was an unresolved question in this story, so we asked if it really was a questionable death, or if Riley is just having a hard time accepting the suicide verdict. Jill confirmed that there is indeed more to this in the next book, and those that follow. Each book reveals a bit more about what happened to him, and “in the fourth book, Riley takes on the solving of [his death].” We covered a lot of other ground with Jill and shared a plot idea the group came up with: making Carl a dirty cop. Jill seemed to like it, so who knows what may happen with this character in the future…
Our group expressed high interest in following Riley’s development over the next books, so book 2, The Bad Break, will definitely be brought up in our Planning Meeting in July for next year’s books – and Jill would definitely be interested in talking – or even meeting with us, on it! We thanked Jill for sharing this time with us at the time – and now thank her again!