My guest today is Jill Orr. I have had her on my ‘To-Ask’ list for some time, but I recently finished her first book, “The Good Byline” and I knew I needed to have her be a guest asap.
“The Good Byline” is a great play on words. This book had many ‘I-had-to-stop-reading-to-laugh’ moments, even though it is basically about writing obituaries!
Let’s ask hear where she got the idea.
I had never thought about the difference between an obituary and a death notice. Would you please explain it for our readers who were also as clueless as I was?
A true obituary is a basically a news article written about a person’s life after they die. Think the obit section of The New York Times. So an obituary is going to present the good, the bad, and the ugly about that person’s life. A death notice on the other hand is usually written by a loved one and presents a more curated version of that person’s life. Sadly, due to dwindling budgets most newspapers only run death notices these days—if they have an obit section at all.
OK, where did the idea of a funny mystery involving (of all things) obits come from?
From an obituary— where else? I was on Facebook and saw a post with the headline, “This is the best obituary ever written.” I clicked on the link and was taken to a website called Legacy.com, which is essentially a clearinghouse for obits submitted by folks from all over. The obit in question, a true gem, was for a man named Harry Stamps, (I highly recommend looking it up) and after I read it, I read another and another and before I knew it I’d fallen down an obituary-rabbit hole. And then I started to notice a funny thing: the same names were popping up in the comments sections for all these different obituaries. The same people were writing comments about a guy who died in Florida and a woman from Seattle and another from New Mexico, etc. I was confused because statistically, there is no way these commenters all know the same people. . . and then it dawned on me that these were not friends or family of the departed—they were fans of obituaries! So I started to do a little research and sure enough there is a whole subset of people who read obituaries as a hobby! I was instantly fascinated and thought that would make a great quirk for an amateur sleuth.
I also learned the word “Obituarist” from your book. You have quotes from famous obituary writers throughout the book. How did you find them?
When I was doing my research on the real life people who reads obits for fun, I found an amazing book called The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of the Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson. It is such a fun and fascinating read. From that book, I was introduced to some of the big names in obituary writing like Margalit Fox, Jim Sheeler, Ann Wroe, etc. I read every interview I could get my hands on with these and other obit writers. It was really fun picking out their best kernels of advice and sprinkling them throughout the book.
The protagonist imagines her own obits when she finds herself in dangerous or humiliating situations, and they are so funny! Do you ever indulge in like flights of fancy? (You have me doing it!)
Haha- yes, it’s kind of addicting! That was actually one of the first things I thought of when I was creating the character of Riley. I thought it would be a funny thing to do—to imagine how you’d be written about after you died of humiliation— and perfect for her personality.
Ellison, (“bless her heart”), has her every movement known or scrutinized by the small townsfolk where she grew up and to which she has now returned. Did you grow up in a small town?
I didn’t; I grew up in a suburb of Chicago called Highland Park. But I moved to Columbia, MO, to attend college at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and still live here today. While Columbia is not quite as small as Tuttle Corner, it does have a small town feel to it— complete with a little bit of that fishbowl feeling and several quirky characters!
Ellison gets involved with an online dating service; (their support personnel and offered added features also made me stop to laugh!) I know that you are married, with children. How did you do your research on dating services?
People often ask me if I joined dating websites to do research on Click.com, the fictional dating company I created in the book. Much to my husband’s relief, the answer is no. In fact, I met my husband in college long before the days of online dating, so I’ve never actually used one. I guess I just imagined what one would be like— and then took it to its most ridiculous end. Regina H, Personal Romance Concierge, is one of my very favorite characters in the series and seems to be a fan favorite too! In fact, she was so popular that I brought her back in book three, The Ugly Truth.
I know that many of our readers and my colleagues would appreciate knowing that although there are adult situations mentioned, the book is a very ‘clean read’; all is left to the imagination of the reader. Was that a priority for you or did the story just develop that way?
I wrote the kind of book I like to read, so I suppose it was a subconscious decision. I have no objection to darker books with explicit violence or sex, it’s just not what I write. I am gratified that the story turned out clean enough for my pre-teen daughter and her friends to read because it’s been fun sharing it with them and hearing from younger readers (even though the book is not YA). In fact, I often hear of the books being passed between three generations in a family, which is really lovely.
I have started “The Bad Break”, the sequel to “The Good Byline”; I sense a theme here! There is a mystery that has continued into the second book. (I don’t know at the point of these questions if it has been resolved in this volume.) Do you foresee a finite number to Ellison’s stories, or are you keeping your options opened for an ongoing series?
As of now, there are four books planned in the series— but that is still open-ended. I have finished writing the third book, The Ugly Truth, which will come out in June 2019. And I’ve been contracted for book four, provisionally titled The Full Scoop, for June 2020. So Riley’s story will go on for a while longer. . . I’m not quite finished with her yet!
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I want to thank you so much for being my guest, Jill Orr, and I want to give you my heartfelt thanks for properly using the phrase “I could NOT care less”! (People leaving that ‘not’ out drives me straight up the wall!)
You’re a woman after my own heart— that drives me nuts too! Thank you for the kind words about the books and for hosting me. It’s been my pleasure!