The Last Place You Look: Q&A With Kristen Lepionka

Our February pick for our Mystery Book A Month 2018 is The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka. It’s a twisty mystery featuring Roxane Weary, a PI struggling with the death of her father, a cop killed in the line of duty. Determined to drown her sorrows in whiskey, Roxane begrudgingly takes a case for the sister of a man on death row, hoping to prove his innocence before he’s executed in a few weeks’ time. The investigation turns up more than Roxane bargained for, especially once she discovers a link to a cold case her father had worked on. This week, Kristen was kind enough to answer a few of Bas Bleu’s questions about her writing process, how much of herself she recognizes in the characters she creates, and even gives a demonstration of how to pick a lock!

Bas Bleu: You did a lot of research for The Last Place You Look, including learning how to pick locks and doing police ride-alongs. Did you uncover anything that surprised you? Anything you thought for sure you knew how it worked, only to find out pop culture had gotten it completely wrong?

Kristen Lepionka: The lock-picking thing is a big one. So we’ve all seen movies where someone uses a single bobby pin or something to pick open a lock, but that’s definitely not how it works. The concept of picking a lock requires two tools—one to push up the pins, and one to turn the lock. A key does this simultaneously—the jagged points push the pins, while you turn the key in the lock. So to simulate this, you need two separate tools to exert two different forces. Here’s a quick video of me demonstrating:

BB: What can you tell us about your writing process? Do you plot out your story with an outline before you write anything, or do you fly by the seat of your pants and let the story unfold organically? How long did this novel take to write?

KL: I spent about six months on the first draft of this book. I’ve since adopted a loose outline before I start writing, but I “pantsed” the whole draft for this. I still like to be fast and loose with writing, but because I write fairly fast, I can wind up writing thousands (say, 40,000—it happened) of words in the wrong direction before I realize that I need to stop and think about things. So a little bit of planning is good for me, but not too much.

BB: Roxane is a wonderful character, full of grit and good intentions but also laced with flaws that make her a very realistic and relatable protagonist. How did she develop? What did you know about Roxane before she was on the page?

KL: The main thing I knew about her was that she was a complex heroine—in the mystery genre, male characters get to be messy and complicated, but not always so with women. Specifically, if a female character is a “badass” type, she often doesn’t get to show any vulnerability. She doesn’t get to cry and save the day. But “vulnerable” is not the opposite of “strong”; they’re not mutually exclusive. So that was sort of where she started out. I also wanted to write a bisexual character, since bi representation in crime fiction is virtually nonexistent outside of a male-fantasy version of bisexuality (Lisbeth Salander, for example), and I wanted to write a character whose bi identity was just a natural, organic part of her life, not a plot point.

Kristen Lepionka (Photo credit: Coley & Co)

BB: It’s said that authors always put a bit of themselves in their characters. Is that true for you? If so, what parts of you are in Roxane? Do any of the secondary characters have elements of you in them?

KL: I always say that all of my characters are me, to the same extent that none of them are me. There are definitely bits and pieces of me throughout the book. There is more of me in Roxane than in anyone else I’ve ever written though. I’m nowhere near as reckless or brave as she is—and while I am a whiskey drinker, I don’t drink like she does either—but I think we have a similar worldview and sense of humor. We’re both cynical but, at the same time, still holding out the tiniest bit of hope that people will surprise us. I also identify as bi. And, lastly, we share a tendency to get obsessively interested in something, to “fall down the rabbit hole” on a particular topic.

BB: While the crime in The Last Place You Look is fictional, there are a lot of echoes of reality in it. It’s a crime that, while horrifying, doesn’t seem that far removed from our world…in fact, while reading, it reminded me of several cases I’d heard of over the years. Without spoiling the twist, did you look to any specific real-life cases when plotting this novel? 

KL: I won’t mention the spoiler-ish one that you’re probably thinking of! But as I started writing this, I was listening to the first season of the podcast Serial, which is about the real-life murder of Hae Min Lee in Maryland in the late nineties. Her boyfriend, Adnan Sayed, has been in jail for her death ever since but maintains his innocence. It got me thinking about how, if you were to be incarcerated for a crime you say you didn’t commit, your first reaction would be fight, fight, fight, do everything you can do to get out of there, etc.—but in the case of Adnan (or in my book, Brad), after so many years, it’s probably so hard to keep it up. Because you are just trying to survive day to day. So I started there, with the idea of an innocent man who has been in jail for so long that he kind of had to give up, because otherwise he’d go crazy. As a result, Brad strikes Roxane as not very helpful or interested in proving his own innocence.

BB: The Last Place You Look is getting a sequel! What You Want to See comes out in May. Did you envision writing an entire series when you conceived and wrote The Last Place You Look? How was writing the follow-up easier or more difficult than writing the first book?

KL: I hoped it would be a series, because I’ve always loved reading PI mystery series—it’s just so fun to follow characters you know and love through countless different cases. But nothing in publishing is certain, and at the time I got my book deal, which was for the first two books, I hadn’t started writing any follow-ups (but I did have a general idea of what it would be about). My editor asked for a few sentences describing it—and then I had to write it, which felt very weird, for someone to be expecting me to write something. Before a book deal, writing was just for me, no time constraints or expectations, but that changed all of sudden, and it was definitely a bit of an adjustment. So book #2 comes out in May, and I’m super excited to share that Minotaur will be publishing a 3rd and 4th in the series as well (2019 and 2020, respectively).

BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?

KL: I have to give a shoutout to Sam the Cat Detective, by Linda Stewart. It’s a middle-grade book about a cat private investigator who is hired to track down a missing necklace. It was the first mystery I ever read (I was/am obsessed with cats, so that’s what drew me in initially), and I was just completely in love with the genre right away. So that sort of influenced me to become a mystery reader and writer. Outside of mystery, though, I always loved Many Moons by James Thurber. It’s a lovely, humorous fairy tale about, among other things, being smart enough to rescue yourself.

BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?

KL: Right now, I’m loving James Anderson’s noir-ish truck-driver trilogy that starts with The Never-Open Desert Diner, and Kellye Garrett’s new mystery series starting with Hollywood Homicide. And the best book I read last year, hands down, is Ill Will by Dan Chaon (another Ohio writer)—I read it last summer and I’m still jealous of him/mad I didn’t write that book. Damn.

BB: Beyond What You Want to See, what future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?

KL: At least two more Roxane Weary mysteries! And I’ve got ideas for a few standalone mysteries as well, including one that I like to describe as being about donuts and female rage.

BB: Thanks so much, Kristen, for taking time out from your writing to chat with us. We can’t wait to read what’s next!

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