MysteryPeople Q&A with Jen Conley

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Jen Conley is one of the hardest working writers in crime fiction. An editor on the famed (or is that infamous) webzine Shotgun Honey, she had been knocking out some of the best short work out there, and has the admiration of both readers and her peers alike. Her work follows working class folks on both (and in-between both) sides of the law, examining morality when lives veer far from plans. This is encapsulated in her widowed patrol officer Andrea Vogel, who she has used in several stories. Last year a collection of her work, Cannibals, was released by Down & Out Books. We caught up with Jen to discuss the art of the short story, character, and her stomping ground.

MysteryPeople Scott: While you have many great twists in your work and the internal logic of your stories is perfect, character is the over riding element that drives them. Do you think the people you write about share something in common?

Jen Conley: Probably survival. All my characters are strapped by finances, whether I point that out or not, and getting through life is difficult for them. The lack of money straps people of choices and when you throw a crime in there, a moment where something might get screwed up, there’s a chance there’s no coming back from that.

MPS: Is there a story in the collection that is particularly close to your heart?

JC: I would say “Debbie the Hero.”

When I first started writing short stories, I was drawn towards male characters. But as I kept writing, I moved closer to female characters and female topics. I wouldn’t say Debbie is a tough character but she’s a woman caught in the changes of society. She came of age in the 1970s, when women were fighting for equality and the right to choose, but at the same time, there was that old school view that women were supposed to yield to their men. After all, when they were first married, Debbie’s husband bought their house without consulting her. This, to me, is completely foreign for my generation but I think it wasn’t foreign at all for many women of the baby boomer generation, even the younger baby boomers, which is what Debbie is. And now she is faced with a choice of whether to help her granddaughter, an eighth grader, get an abortion or not. Debbie’s daughter, Lauren, is suddenly against abortion and this not only surprises Debbie, but confuses her. It’s as if Debbie is confused that her own daughter has sort of acquiesced to the new boyfriend, someone who has probably bought into this new right wing view of a woman’s place in the world. I think Debbie is a woman caught in the confusion of women’s roles and she has to decide to whether she’s in her right to overstep Lauren to save her granddaughter or to let Lauren, whom she thinks isn’t a good mother, make the decision. The other underlining thread is that Debbie realizes her own daughter is actually a terrible parent and I think that in itself is a heartbreaking realization. So it’s not really a crime story in the traditional sense but more a crime story in the ethical and moral sense. And because as a writer I’m completely driven by the question, “What is the moral answer?” I think this story sums up how I feel about not only my characters but my own life, and that makes it close to my heart.

MPS: Officer Andrea Vogel is the lead is several of these stories. What makes her a character worth coming back to?

JC: I actually just roughly outlined a novel about her. It took me a long time to come up with an arc but finally I figured it out and I think I never gave up because I like her so much. I think I keep going back to her because she is stoic and tough, someone who has a lot of compassion but also extremely lidded with her emotions. I’ve always been fascinated with stoic people, people who don’t reveal too much of themselves and I guess I find her almost mysterious.

MPS: As well as a writer you edit for the online crime zine Shotgun Honey. How do both of those sides influence you?

JC: I think reading other people’s stories is always a great way to improve on your writing. Good writing rises to the top and I think because I read so many stories, I’ve come to understand the difference between a great story, a good story, an adequate story, and a bad story. The other thing is that when I see a story with real potential, I can usually figure out quickly what can be done to tweak it to make it better. It’s almost like I’m training myself for what works and what doesn’t.

MPS: You work is often set in your home state of New Jersey. What do you want your readers to know about it?

JC: It’s difficult to write about New Jersey because you are fighting some pretty old stereotypes about the state. We’re rude, we’re loud, we all have mob connections, we all live near a toxic waste dump…Actually, that last part isn’t far off. I write about where I grew up and still live, Ocean County. It’s pretty blue collar and middle class, but also almost rural and backwoods. It’s such an odd mix of second and third generation of former New Yorkers and people from North Jersey but also old timers, Pineys as they are known. New Jersey has become so expensive to live in that Ocean County feels like the last of the blue collar worlds that used to surround Manhattan. I don’t agree at all with the popular right wing political views of this area—I get very frustrated and I’ve gotten into my share of arguments with former classmates online—but I do feel there is a grittiness and authenticity that is fading away in many parts of the state as it gets more and more gentrified.

However, in my opinion, I think “Jersey Shore” definitely hit the nail on the head. Seaside has always been like that in some form or another.

MPS: What do you think the key to a good short crime story is?

JC: Character. As a reader, I can’t go forward with a story if I don’t have a connection to the main character. I’m not one who likes too many twists and turns in a story. I like things to stay in reality. I think a good crime story bases itself in the lack of choices the main character is presented with. Where they have to make—and here I return to my go-to—the moral decision. I like to sink into someone’s world, into their mind, and then I like to see their views tested. I like character flaws but I don’t always like the usual. I like when a character is almost broken and when they are either trying to solve a crime or they are committing one, I want to see their soul. I guess even in a crime story I want to be moved somehow. I want to care.

You can find copies of Jen Conley’s Cannibals on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. 

Crime Fiction Friday: “Socket To Me” by Glenn Gray

mysterypeople_city.jpg

  • Selected and Introduced by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Glenn Gray’s short stories are like bloody car wrecks – gross, but we’re compelled to watch. In this piece published in Shotgun Honey, he gets started with an innovative method of drug smuggling and things get darker from there.

“Socket To Me” by Glenn Gray

“Selma dug into her right orbit, using her curved index finger as a tool, and popped her right eyeball out of its socket.”

Read the rest of the story.

Crime Fiction Friday: “Vikings” by Scott Montgomery

MysteryPeople_cityscape_72

  • Introduced by Molly O.
MysteryPeople’s very own Scott Montgomery has a new story up on Shotgun Honey. Below, you’ll find the link to 750 words of pure sleaze, inspired by a chance conversation between Scott and author Laura Lippman at Bouchercon one year, as the two speculated on how a not-so-dynamic duo might form. This story is seriously creepy, y’all – but on this site, and to our fine friends at Shotgun Honey, creepy is a compliment. 

“Vikings” by Scott Montgomery

“The Blonde brought their beers and took their wing orders. Bob wished they had the brunette with the glasses. He eyed the babe with the red hair…

Read the rest of the story.

Crime Fiction Friday: “A Tricky Situation” by Lisa Gray

 

MysteryPeople_cityscape_72

  • Selected and Introduced by Scott Montgomery

Thank you Shotgun Honey for introducing us to another fantastic new author. Lisa Gray is a talented author from across the pond. We’ve decided to link to her story “A Tricky Situation” for this week’s Crime Fiction Friday – it has a well crafted opening sentence, keeps you hooked, and shows you Gray can deliver more than one twist in flash fiction. Here’s hoping we this will be far from the last time we read her.


“A Tricky Situation” by Lisa Gray

“Carol Turner did not know she was claustrophobic until the day she found herself bound at the wrists and ankles, and locked in a box.

Her prison was a cheap, wooden structure that fit snugly around her body. Stretching her bare foot as far as the restraints allowed, her big toe nudged plywood, and rough wood grazed her bare arms on either side…”

Read the rest of the story.

Crime Fiction Friday: “Thoroughly Murdered Millie” by April Kelly

 

MysteryPeople_cityscape_72

  • Introduced by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

With graduation nearing, this Shotgun Honey story of death in a dorm room at an exclusive girl’s school seemed fitting. April Kelly shows a deft voice for her protagonist a biting sense of humor.


“Thoroughly Murdered Millie” by April Kelly

“The girl had been shot, stabbed, poisoned and garroted, so the M.E. was not so much searching for cause of death as placing the wealth of possibilities in chronological order…”

Read the rest of the story.

Crime Fiction Friday: “The Orphan” by Billy Kring

 

MysteryPeople_cityscape_72

  • Introduced by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Billy Kring draws on his his experiences as a former border patrolman for his series featuring Hunter Kincaid, starting with Quick. In this Shotgun Honey story, Kring takes a gritty and moving look at life on the border from the criminal side.


“The Orphan” by Billy Kring

“Felix Olivares, called The Orphan, guided the flat-bottomed boat loaded with men and backpacks of meth across the Rio Grande.

Ramon asked him, “Why they call you the Orphan?”

“My mother abandoned me when I was four.”

“It happens. You did all right, looks like.”

“You call eating garbage from trash cans, stealing food from dogs all right?”

Read the rest of the story.

Crime Fiction Friday: “Heritage” by Eric Arneson

MysteryPeople_cityscape_72

  • Introduced by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Eric Arneson uses two crime fiction tropes for this fun, tight story with a great voice, the ordinary guy who takes a dangerous chance and that mysterious briefcase. Another great piece from Shotgun Honey.


“Heritage” by Eric Arneson

“It was my last night on the job.

Don’t worry, kid. This ain’t some cliche workplace violence violence story. I like it there. Made a lot of friends, did some stuff I’m proud of. I still miss the place, but it was the right time to retire…”

Read the rest of the story.