Today I interview Jen Blood, the best-selling and award-winning author of the Erin Solomon mysteries. We talk about the Erin Solomon books, cult suicides, our obsession with religion and the supernatural as well was walking the line between belief and respect for people’s faith, plus how Jen does research and her love for Maine.
You can watch the video below or here on YouTube, and the full transcription is below the video.
Interview Transcription with Jen Blood, mystery writer
Joanna: Hi, everyone, I’m thriller author J.F.Penn, and today I’m here with Jen Blood. Welcome, Jen!
Jen: Hi there! I’m very happy to be here.
Joanna: It’s great to have you on the show. Just as a little introduction, Jen is the best-selling and award-winning author of the Erin Solomon mysteries, which we’re going to talk about today.
Jen, tell us a bit more about you and how you got started with your writing.
Jen: Sure. Basically, I started writing when I was four or five, really! Basically, that’s pretty much been what I’ve wanted to do from the time I was a kid, and I pursued it through high school and then did my undergraduate work in creative writing, and then got a graduate degree in writing, specifically focused on popular fiction. And I’ve done other things along the way: a lot of side jobs, working in an animal rescue and traveled a little bit. But really, writing has been kind of the lifelong goal and passion from the time I was a kid. That’s me!
Joanna: That sounds fantastic: you’re a very determined lady.
So, tell us a bit more about Erin Solomon.
Jen: Erin Solomon is the main character in my books, and she’s basically an investigative journalist, and she is sort of the driving force, as she co-stars in the series with Daniel Diggins, who is also known as Diggs, and he is the other side of the series. There’s a kind of romantic leaning that starts with a romantic triangle, but basically Erin was raised in a religious community for the first nine years of her life, on an island on the coast of Maine, and then her mom took her away from the island when she was nine, and a year later, there was what appeared to be a cult suicide, and so her father was the only survivor of that cult suicide. All of this happens by the time she’s ten years old, and that really kind of defines the character. For the rest of her life, she’s really kind of, everything goes back for her to that event, and to trying to figure out exactly what happened.
So when she’s fifteen, she starts working for a newspaper that this Daniel Diggins, Diggs, is already a reporter at, and he’s kind of her mentor for a few years there, so they get to know each other. Those two things sort of coalesce, so she has the cult suicide and then she has the reporting thing, and so the two of them merge, and that’s really what the series revolves around.
Joanna: So they kind of solve different things along the way, don’t they.
What are some of the big things that happen, or some of the mysteries in the books?
Jen: Basically, it starts out, the first one goes back to that cult suicide. The first one revolves around that, and trying to figure out what happened, and it kind of peels back some layers revolving around other things having to do with the cult suicide, and specifically Erin’s father. So for the second novel, they travel up to northern Maine, where there’s been a serial killer, who’s been killing young girls for 40 years. So they kind of go back to that and try to figure out, obviously, who did it, there’s someone who is imprisoned at that point who claims that he didn’t do what he’s been charged with, so that’s one of them, and they end up in the woods of northern Maine.
The third one follows an apocalyptic scenario with a Pentecostal church in Kentucky, so, in the South. A lot of them definitely have religious themes or religious overtones of some kind, which kind of goes along with the stuff that you write!
Jen: I’m fascinated with that stuff, and so a lot of times, I’ll come back to that and really kind of focus on that aspect of things, and because it defines so much of Erin’s character, then that really makes sense for the whole series.
Joanna: That’s why I wanted to talk to you, because I have this fascination with religion and things as well.
So, what is it for you that fascinates you about cults and Pentecostal churches and stuff like that? Is it something in your background?
Jen: Well, actually it started out when I was young: my mom went to the Assembly of God church, which is a Pentecostal church around here. It’s a really physical church, it’s very much that, and so as a kid, sort of being in the midst of this, where people are speaking in tongues and they’re rolling on the floor in the aisles and all of that, it’s scary and it’s fascinating, and it’s like because grown-ups are usually in control, it’s like a setting where they just aren’t. It’s a really unusual thing to watch when you’re a kid and you don’t really know how to process it.
And so I think that that really sort of started me thinking about that stuff, and then I think I just always have been drawn to kind of darker things. I’ve always had a strong fascination for the paranormal and things that we don’t really understand, just because there’s so much about the world that we do understand, that I find it refreshing that there are still mysteries out there. And so I’ve always been kind of drawn to that.
Yes, so I think a combination of the two is really where it kind of took off, for me.
Joanna: And (it’s fine if you don’t feel comfortable talking about it) in terms of a personal faith, I feel that in my books, a lot of my quest with Morgan is finding out what I believe, and I don’t necessarily know what I believe. But I’m not a Christian, and I write a lot of stuff.
So, how do your personal beliefs weave into your books, and how do you walk the line between respect of other people’s faiths and writing?
Jen: I think that for me, it really is, I have a fairly good idea of what I believe at this point, and it’s certainly not a traditional Christian model by any means. So, for me, it really has been something where my characters, I try to think of my characters as organically as possible, so just as I’m a person who’s shaped by my experiences, they’re people – even if they’re fictional people- who are shaped by their experiences. So, for example, Diggs is a hardcore atheist, he’s just that. And Erin is an agnostic, and she’s trying to figure out exactly how her early experiences gel with where she is now.
So, I kind of feel like at this point, it really is separate. Because I do believe that religion is such a personal thing for people: I feel very strongly that people need to sort out their own spirituality, and figure out where they come from and how that informs their life, basically. So I want readers to be able to do the same thing, where they don’t feel like my beliefs are being forced on them, and Erin and Diggs at the same time have their beliefs, and there’s no judgment or forcing of their views on other people. If that makes sense!
Joanna: It is a difficult line to walk, and I struggle all the time with it, and also wanting to respect everyone’s beliefs. But of course, it’s very difficult, because everyone has different things. But you have it doubly worse, I think, because you’re in America, and my one-star reviews are generally from religious Americans! Do you get any kind of nasty emails or reviews? How does that work?
Jen: You know, I’ve been really surprised, and I think that, I have actually consistently been surprised, because I consider myself a fairly liberal kind of person: I’m liberal, I’m definitely very liberal. So I’m often surprised that people who have – not a ton, but I definitely have conservative Christians who really enjoy the books, and I’m very grateful, and I love that they find something in there, and I’m really very pleased that I’ve been able to do this to the point where my views, apparently, haven’t colored things to the point where they’re like, “Well, I’m not reading that!” But, yes, I do occasionally get feedback from people, and it’s usually language.
Joanna: It’s amazing, I think I ritually slaughtered a child and then had a sex scene in a tomb surrounded by dead bodies, and then I get an email that says, “She said the f-word”!
Jen: I know: I’m always amazed by that, and we live in a different world, apparently, because I’m always stunned that people even notice that that’s used, and from the time that I wrote the first book, I’ve really kind of, that’s one of the final things that I do when I’m editing, is I go through and I search for the number of times that I’ve used the f-word, and I limit myself to like four!
Joanna: I limit myself to one!
Jen: Oh, OK! Well, I feel like Diggs would not be happy with just one, he wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Joanna: I even found myself censoring “Damn” – damn really isn’t a swearword, but I get comments about Damn. There’s an interesting thing there: self-censorship. My last book, Desecration, was very dark, and I wrote a lot of really kind of dark things, from my dark self. I did have to come up against: Should I really write this?
Do you ever feel like self-censoring?
Jen: Absolutely yes, definitely. The one that I’m working on right now, because a lot of my stuff – as you do – I often will go back to real events and different things that have actually happened in history. Right now, one of the things that I’m writing about is Joseph Kony and the LRA, and everything, especially in the late 80s and the 90s, and the first part of the 2000s, that was a really big thing: the kidnappings and ritual killings, and the things that were happening in Africa with him.
So definitely, working on that right now, that’s really, the things that they did with children, especially, is pretty dark, and so trying to figure out, number one, whether I can bring to that and write it credibly, in a way that does justice to the victims and everything, while at the same time fictionalizing it, because it is a fictional story, that I want to be interesting and well-paced for my readers. And I also, you know, question how dark I can go with all of this.
Yes, and especially I think as independent authors, we don’t have a publisher sort of Big Brother standing over us saying, “OK, there is a line, and you’ve crossed it” – we have to make that decision and decide, OK, where exactly is that line?
Joanna: I think it really is the writer’s responsibility to think about and process things that other people won’t go anywhere near, and then try and almost repackage it into a story that makes people think, I guess. So my question off the back of that is:
What are the themes that you’re hiding behind your story that you want people to think about?
Jen: That’s a really good question. And I think, for me, it always comes back to – and I’m really surprised by this, because I never really realized how, I’ve always thought that in terms of violence and stuff like that, I didn’t really think about it, it was just something that, especially when you were telling a story, it’s just part of it. I write action and mystery, and there’s violence in there. But I really try to create characters who are – I’ve mentioned it before – organic: they’re not static characters, they’re impacted by the things that happen around them. And so, basically, I think that I always come back to the fact that this violence that happens and the events that happen don’t happen in a vacuum, even when they’re on this thing [?16.35].
I definitely don’t think I preach that sort of thing, but as an example, in the second book, Diggs and Erin are taken captive, and it’s a really dark, terrifying scenario for the better half of it: I think the second half of the book is basically them running from this person, and it’s really dark, and it’s violent, and physical harm happens. So, I got a lot of flak when I was finished and people were reading it, about how abrasive they thought Erin was, and how she was just really pushy and wanted her way in the whole thing, and she kind of bullied Diggs around and all of this stuff. For me, that’s her character. But, in the third book, all of the events that happened in that second book really kind of come to light, and I mean, I think that just basically, to me, all of these different things that happen to the characters dramatically come back to evolution and finding ourselves, and figuring out exactly where we’ve been in a world there is violence and questions about religion and questions about who we are and where we are going.
I mean, I think for me, it’s always more about the organics of the character.
Joanna: That’s really interesting. You were mentioning there what people were saying about Erin, and my character Morgan Sierra is an ex-Israeli military, kickass, Krav Maga, and I kind of wanted a bit of James Bond, so she does have casual sex in Book Three and then walks away. And she fights and everything, and sometimes she fights instead of the guy, and I’m wondering about the strong female protagonist. Certainly for me, it’s kind of my alter ego: if I was having adventures, I’d be her.
How much is Erin partly you?
Jen: I was talking to somebody the other day about this, and I think that for writers, it always seems to be that the characters are one part who we actually are, and then the other part is who we wish we were! And that, for me, is definitely Erin. When I first started, I didn’t see that: my friends, when they were reading it, were always, “OK, Erin is clearly you”. She’s so much ballsier than I am, and she says this stuff- So that’s the part that I wish I had. I certainly avoid confrontation, and I try to not to make waves, and all that stuff, and Erin doesn’t care about any of that stuff. But I think my sense of humor and certainly I think the way that she sort of relates to people, and she has a strong love of pop culture, which I also have and bring to the table.
So I do, I think that it really is that combination of who we are and then the characteristics that we wish we had. Sort of our idealized – at least for me – self.
Joanna: I agree. I wanted to ask you about Maine – you have a lot about Maine, and you have a magazine called The Trib: Mystery, Mayhem, and Maine.
What is it about Maine that makes it such a great setting for books?
Jen: Well, I was thinking about that, and I think that basically, well, Stephen King is from here, most of the stuff that he writes is set in Maine. I think it’s the combination of it’s really beautiful here, for one thing, it’s a gorgeous setting, but it also is still really rooted in working class. Like I live in a fishing town, and so fishing is still a big part of the commerce and the way that people make a living. It’s a state that’s really kind of a throwback, and people are real characters. Like, I went out to dinner last night with a guy who is just this older guy who grew up around here, and his wife is really into the books, and so we were talking, and he actually grew up in the town that my main town is based on. So he was talking about some of these characters that he grew up with, and all these crazy stories about running around town on a tractor with all of his buddies. Yes, it’s just kind of a throwback, it’s a nice vibe to lend atmosphere, basically.
Joanna: That’s cool. And just off the back of that, Maine is easy for you to research, because you’re there, but in terms of researching your cults and your nasty things.
How do you do your research?
Jen: I don’t do as many trips yet. Basically, it’s certainly an advantage to be writing about Maine, and the last book took place, part of it was in Mexico, but I’ve been there enough so that I could, I think, write that authentically. And then in terms of the cults and all of that stuff, it really is just – I do a lot of interviews. So, I do interviews as often as I can with people, and then I do a lot of reading, so I go to the library, or I’ll look up stuff online. So that’s basically the meat of it.
I do think, I love researching, that’s one of my favorite parts-
Joanna: Me, too!
Jen: Oh, it’s so fun, because I’m so fascinated by all of these horrible things, so I feel like it sort of legitimizes it if I can say, “Well, I’m a writer, I have to research this stuff!” It’s OK.
Joanna: I’m going to have to introduce you to a guy I’ve never met in Canada, who’s a coroner and ex-homicide detective. It’s great having friends who are interested in weird stuff, because he’s always sending me emails, like, “You should check out this article,” and it’s some kind of horrible murder.
Jen: Oh, that’s awesome!
Joanna: Or some kind of new way that bodies decompose!
Jen: Yes, but that’s really helpful. And I love – and because I’m a fairly shy person, this is a great way to- If I can talk about work, then I’m OK with interacting with people, it’s so much easier. So this is a great way to have met really amazing people and to sort of make those connections that I never would in a million years make otherwise.
I’ve got to ask you about your name! Jen Blood!
Jen: OK – it’s real!
Joanna: Amusingly, I get asked all the time, because I’m Penn, and people go “Is that a real name?” and I say, “Yes, it is.” Do you think your name has some kind of weird impact on your life?
Jen: I mean, certainly when I was younger, I got basic stuff when I was a kid. But, yes, I mean, I think basically people always said it would be a great writer’s name, but I had a distant cousin who actually wrote children’s mysteries, but her last name wasn’t Blood, but she was the major influence that sort of convinced me that you could actually be a writer for a living. But yes, I love it now – I hated it when I was a kid!
Joanna: It’s funny, isn’t it, it’s a really funny thing, but it’s kind of claiming the name and going “Yeah!” That’s fantastic. Tell people where they can find you and your books online.
Jen: OK, sure. I have a website, it’s jenblood.com, and that has actually all of the information about the books, and it has the information about the Trib, the magazine that you mentioned, and it has some free short stories featuring Diggs and Solomon, and a whole bunch of stuff on there. And then my books, right now, are available on Amazon, and they’re available on Barnes & Noble. I’m in the process of getting new book covers and that stuff, and at that point, I’ll be expanding to Kobo and everywhere else, basically.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Jen, that was great.
Jen: Excellent, thank you so much.