The Show on KJZZ

Listen live weekdays at 9 a.m.

This Phoenix author has multiple books coming out in just one year

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, March 28, 2024 - 11:14am
Updated: Thursday, March 28, 2024 - 3:55pm

Audio icon Download mp3 (13.69 MB)

Usually we have authors on The Show to talk about their latest book. But, our next guest writes so much that she has several coming out just this year.

Jenn McKinlay is a prolific author of both mysteries and romantic comedies. She’s written a cupcake bakery and a library lover’s mystery series, as well as romances like "Paris Is Always a Good Idea" and "Wait For It." And she does it all from her home, right here in Phoenix. In fact, McKinlay used to be a librarian at the Phoenix Public Library before she finally broke through into the publishing world.

McKinlay spoke more about her work, her voice and why she no longer reads reviews.

Woman in blue shirt talks into microphone
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Author Jenn McKinlay in the KJZZ studio in March 2024.

Full interview

JENN MCKINLAY: I think my writing career began when I found an old portable typewriter in the attic and my parents would go out and then I would write up a newspaper of everything that happened while they were gone. And then because I'm a candy freak, I would charge them 25 cents for a full report on all the shenanigans. So I think that's where it started. But also I'm a reader and my mother is a librarian, I became a librarian. I married a librarian. Books have always just been my escape, you know, because that, you know, life is hard and I'm 6 feet tall. So I'm already like, when, as I was growing up, I was always on the outside looking in and books just gave me that safe space.

LAUREN GILGER: That's really interesting. So, since you were a kid, you've been into this, you were a librarian here in Phoenix right before you started writing. How did you write your first book, for example?

MCKINLAY: So I was working in libraries, you know, writing on the side, you know, writing was my side hustle that made me absolutely no money for about 10 years. And then finally I did break into rom coms. So my first published books were actually romantic comedy.

GILGER: Interesting.

MCKINLAY: Yeah, but that, I didn't, didn't do well there. So then my, my husband, who's also an avid reader, said, why don't you pick one of your other genres? Why don't you write a mystery? And I thought, oh, I can't do that. They're super hard. You have to have red herrings and suspects. You have to be like, smart to write those. And, I didn't think I had it in me. And he was so funny. He was just like, well, you know, like write it backwards.

GILGER: That makes sense with the mystery, actually. Yeah, it does.

MCKINLAY: And it's basically saying have a plot. So I did, and then weirdly that just kind of took off for me. And then I did those for a while. And then mysteries got weird because every genre goes through their renaissance and then they, you know, fall from grace. And so then I went to my editor and I said, well, you know, what else can I do? And ironically, she handed me a bunch of rom coms and said you can do that. And I was like, oh, the irony.

GILGER: So now you're back where you started. But you're writing both. You have mysteries and romantic comedies now coming out. I want to talk a little bit about finding your voice as a writer. You've spoken about this for TED. Like, you think about this in a really interesting way. So tell us a little bit about your theory here and how you found your own voice.

MCKINLAY: Oh, it's such a journey. And I think, you know, if you really want to break it down for people who want to be writers, when you hear yourself speaking, that's your voice. When you write an email, when I correspond with other authors, I can hear their books in their emails. I mean, it's just so purely who they are. You know, if you're a storyteller, it's you. You're like, you can't escape it. And I think a lot of starting writers are trying to write to market, they're trying to write what they think people want to read instead of really deep diving into their own voice and it's like, right, like you would tell the story to your mom or your best friend, you know. And I had to work through a lot of stuff. Like I had that, that editor, you know, that self-editor and I used to call her Ruth, for ruthless.

GILGER: In your head?

MCKINLAY: Yes. And she would just say everything was stupid and bad and horrible. And I, you know, and then finally you just have to flick her off the shoulder and just go for it and really know that, you know, you trust your voice, just trust it.

GILGER: You talked about having to make yourself vulnerable in order to be a good writer and vulnerable in the sense that you're sharing, which is, I thought really interesting, because it sounds like to me if you're writing fiction or especially like romantic comedy or mystery, you're really writing characters more than you're writing of yourself. But it sounds like you might think of it differently.

MCKINLAY: Yeah. No, you do have to be vulnerable. I didn't share forever like I was writing as a side hustle but didn't tell anybody, I didn't go to conferences, would submit, get the rejections, curl up into a ball, rinse, repeat. But I think the vulnerability is, if you really want to have real characters, you actually have to tap into all the things that were painful for you and then you're putting it out there for other people to consume. It's terrifying, you know.

So vulnerability is key and you have to get comfortable with it and then you have to let your skin get thicker and thicker so that those one star reviews are just like, whatever, you know. But it's hard and especially in the beginning.

GILGER: Especially in the beginning, you've been doing this for some time now though. Let's talk about the genres that you write in because mysteries, murder mysteries and like romantic comedies don't really seem to have a lot of crossover, but I'm sure they do in your mind in some way. So, talk a little bit about how do you approach one versus the other?

MCKINLAY: Interestingly, I think, you know, romances get slammed. Everybody says, oh, you know, those are formula. But what I've found is that, and this goes back to the vulnerability. If you want a really good romance, it can't be based on a miscommunication. It can't be something that one conversation would fix. These have to be broken people. They have to be, not so much a romance between a woman and a man or a man and a man or a woman and whatever your, you know, preferred couple is, it has to be the character falling in love with themselves.

And that's the journey in a romance. And it has to be authentic. And in a, a mystery, thankfully, there's a dead body that really moves the plot along. And while you're gonna have characters that are fully realized and vulnerable, that's not the primary. The primary is making good defeat evil is your primary in a mystery. But in a romance it's really, you know, digging deep. So I've always found that a really well-written romance is harder than a mystery.

GILGER: I like that. That, that makes me feel better about the books I like. Do you have, like a favorite part of writing each of these? Like, you have a favorite moment, when you get to a favorite moment in your rom coms or in a mystery when you're like, oh, I can't wait to write this part.

MCKINLAY: I think my favorite part is when my characters surprise me because I am a plotter. You know, I, I, before I start writing I usually have a 10-page synopsis, but in that it's just, you know, like for a mystery, it'll say, this character is murdered. But I don't know how and I don't know, you know, I haven't really figured that out til I'm writing it. And then suddenly there's a blunt trauma.

GILGER: It just comes out.

MCKINLAY: I think I'll poison somebody today, you know. So to me that keeps it interesting because I don't, I know, I know where I have to go. I have a map, but I'm not really sure what the terrain looks like and that's true in both of them. And then I think the highlight in both for me is when the character takes the wheel and says, nope. It's also maddening, but it's full of surprises. You know, like you think you have everything's, you know, planned out and then when you've made them, you've breathed so much life into them, they take over.

GILGER: That's so interesting. So you feel like at some point you lose control to your characters?

MCKINLAY: Completely.

GILGER: What do you mean, like give us an example of a character where you're sort of like, I wanted them to do this, but then it was very clear they were going to do this.

MCKINLAY: Oh, I have the, I can't give too much because it would be a spoiler. I won't give the title, but people who have read the series probably know, it's in the Library Lovers Mysteries. There was a character who was supposed to die. The whole outline was written, he died on page 70, then we figure it out, straight up wouldn't die. And I was just like, I had to kill somebody else. I mean, I like, threw the whole thing off and I thought, and then he's become a recurring character in the series forever and he just was not leaving.

GILGER: Do you think that made the book better?

MCKINLAY: Absolutely.

GILGER: I love that. So we talked about how you had to kind of learn to share your work and put yourself out there and be vulnerable in that way. What have you learned from that after, you know, a pretty substantial career in this and, and from putting it out there and probably receiving a lot of feedback from your audience?

MCKINLAY: Oh, yes. There's a lot of feedback. What I've learned is the book invariably when I talked to other authors, the book that always sold for them was the book that they wrote for themselves. They wrote the book they wanted to read. And that was the one that sold. And in my case, it was true. I think it was like my sixth book that I finished completely. And it was the one I wrote just for me, I was home on maternity leave. And then when your books go out there, it's you that is out there. And people are more than generous with how they feel about you and your work.

And I think what I've realized is that you're going to find people who absolutely get you, they read everything you write, they trust you, they're wonderful, they're supportive, they're amazing. And then you're going to meet people that don't get you at all. And the ones that don't, it's not, it's OK. It's absolutely OK. Early on in my career, my agent said, you should read your reviews, that way you can see what your readers really like and you can see what they really don't like. And then you can, you know, use that as a launch pad, you know, inform your process. And I did all that in the beginning and I thought, well, wait, am I going to rewrite the book? No. Am I really getting anything into this? Because what I found was it put a voice in my head that made me doubt myself. It made me rethink, you know, like that character who I was determined you should die. And he said, no, I'm not. If I'd let all those other voices in my head, you know, maybe it would have had a different outcome and the book wouldn't have been what it was supposed to be. So, I don't read any reviews now and, and I'd like to think that was a learning moment for me.

More stories from KJZZ

Woman with light hair speaks into microphone
Amber Victoria Singer/KJZZ
Author Jenn McKinlay in the KJZZ studio in March 2024.
The Show Arts + EntertainmentBooks