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Author Interview: Jess Lea Chats about A Curious Woman

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Get ready to learn more about the book A Curious Woman in this discussion with sapphic author Jess Lea.

Join us for an exclusive peek behind the scenes as we quiz Jess Lea about A Curious Woman, writing, reading, and more.

This book is part of the Cozy Mystery category in the 2024 IHS Reading Challenge.

Why did you write A Curious Woman?

“A Curious Woman” was my first novel. When I started, I had no idea whether I would finish a first draft, let alone be happy with the results. There’s a freedom that comes with that; I could let my imagination roam and write about whatever I found entertaining. I knew I wanted to write about an apparently dark, sinister and rigidly controlled character (Margaret) who melts under the influence of a woman who appears to be her opposite but with whom she actually has lot in common (Bess). From the start, I also looked forward to creating the institutional settings for both leads: Margaret’s highly traditional maritime museum versus Bess’s ultra-contemporary postmodern gallery. Once I had envisaged those two workspaces and the women who thrived in them, the rest of the story followed.

Who is your favorite character in the book?

While I love both my leads, my favourite characters to write were the three teenage cyber-outlaws Zan, Tammy and Squid, solving mysteries and wreaking destruction from their stinky caravan out the back of Zan’s nanna’s house. Writing them into the story lifted my energy. I enjoy their humour and their outlook on life, which is socially unusual but often quite perceptive. None of them have had an easy start to life, but I like to think they are destined for greatness.

What inspired the idea for A Curious Woman?

Visiting Port Fairy, a lovely, windswept (aka freezing) old coastal town in south-western Victoria, Australia. Port Fairy lies on the “shipwreck coast”, built on the site of a 19th century whaling station. Many original Georgian-era cottages are still there. The landscape fascinated me: the wild beaches and volcanic forests have an atmosphere of stark, ominous beauty. The town has a tiny local museum which is informative, quirky, and a bit creepy, because it incorporates the old gaolhouse. Visitors can spend time in the pitch-dark cells alongside old shop dummies dressed up in 19th century costumes – surely the most frightening combination imaginable! The brooding landscape, with its rather sad and violent past, makes a curious setting for a wealthy, bustling tourist town. From that combination, the character of Margaret Gale was born.

What part of A Curious Woman was the most fun to write?

Creating the two museum-galleries where the protagonists work. They were inspired by two places I had visited in Tasmania: MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), an ultra-hip, edgy, avant-garde gallery a short boat ride from Hobart on the banks of the River Derwent, and Maritime Museum Tasmania, a much more traditional, focused, expert institution also based in Hobart. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting both places and was tickled by the idea of a romance between two women who could embody their different qualities.

If you’re planning a sequel, can you share a tiny bit about your plans for it?

The sequel, “A Curious Visit”, is out now! This time, Bess and Margaret take a road trip through wild and beautiful rural Tasmania and make the fatal decision to pull off the highway and visit a mysterious woman from Margaret’s past. Little do they realise they are wandering into a frightening old house, a violent death, and a hunt for the extinct (or is it?) Tasmanian tiger.

How do you celebrate when you finish your book?

It’s actually quite hard for me to feel that a book is truly finished! Editing is a process with many parts, and there are gaps between the release of an e-book, the arrival of the print copies, and (all being well) the creation of audiobooks. So maybe there’s value in celebrating a series of milestones, rather than just the one. But I like to celebrate with a meal out with my partner, and I still have the champagne cork we popped to mark the release of “A Curious Woman”!

Is there a particular genre you would love to write but only under a pseudonym?

One day I would love to try writing a ghost story, which I’ve dabbled in once before, years ago (see my short story in the Ylva collection “Tales of the Grimoire”). I would love the challenge it creates in terms of world-building and visceral, sensory writing – it might be reminiscent of writing erotica, in a way, although of course the end result is different. And I would like to see if I can successfully scare myself, as I’m a deeply wimpy reader! The pseudonym appeals to me as a way of differentiating the final product from my other publications – but also as a form of self-protection in case the end result creates less bone chilling and more eye rolling…

What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing, and by whom?

I can’t recall who said this, but the advice was along the lines of “Do the writing before you do the housework, before you go to the shops, before you work through your daily to-do list. Do the writing first because there is always something else you could be doing.” I haven’t followed this to the letter, but I do write early in the mornings before I do most other things and I do recommend it.

What has helped or hindered you most when writing a book?

Having a day job. It can be very frustrating to have limited time and energy to give to writing, and the day job always provides a ready excuse for not getting the writing done. On the other hand, it also pays for the laptop and coffee! And on the right day, the limited time can actually be a blessing, because it forces me to stop procrastinating and just get on with it.

What type of books do you enjoy reading the most?

I love a murder mystery novel with a vivid setting and a strong streak of humour alongside the darkness. My favourites have changed over time, although my all-time preference remains the Rebus series, with an honourable mention to Steven Saylor’s historical mysteries set in ancient Rome. I love the mix of intricate world-building; the sleuth characters who are connected to all sections of society (high and low) without really belonging to any; and the deep satisfaction of seeing a tangled plot straightened out in the end.

Describe your favorite reading spot.

I have many! But recently I visited Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, where we stayed in a 19th century cottage in the middle of a national park. I read my books while eating chocolate in front of a log fire, with a koala growling in the tree outside the window, and I felt very lucky indeed.

Meet Jess Lea

Jess Lea lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she started out as an academic before working in the community sector. She loves vintage crime fiction, the writings of funny women, and lesbian books of all sorts. Jess can be found writing in cafes, in parks, and in her pyjamas at home when she should be at work.


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Author Interview