Monday, August 8, 2011

Sister Act: An Interview with P.J. Parrish's Kristy Montee

P.J. Parrish has done well for someone who doesn't actually exist. Published ten Louis Kincaid and Joe Frye thrillers; won the Anthony, the Shamus, and the International Thriller award, appeared on the New York Time and USA Today bestseller lists. Parrish is, of course, the nom de plume for sisters Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols. They have a fascinating new thriller out - their first non-series book! - and we got Kristy Montee to sit down and talk inspiration, communication and dedication with us.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Tell us a bit about your latest, THE KILLING SONG. A bit about the book, and something perhaps we DON'T know!
KRISTY MONTEE: It was inspired by kir royales and Mick Jagger. While sitting in a Paris cafe with my husband Daniel seven years ago (that's the kirs part) I was bemoaning the fact I couldn't think of a good plot to set in Paris (hey, it would have been a tax write-off!). Daniel, a big Rolling Stones fan, started reciting the lyrics to their song "Too Much Blood." (Much to the horror of two aghast matrons at a nearby table). The song is about a real killer who murdered and cannibalized a Sorbonne student in 1981. We used none of the song's details, but one of it's lines "I buried her bones in the Bois du Boulogne" became the musical clue that catapulted the whole plot. Our serial killer is pretty unique -- he's a world-class cellist. As one reviewer noted, "you will never look at classical music the same way again." Something you DON'T know? Well, I'm very familiar with Paris and have visited all the locations we write about -- including the catacombs and the sewers.
JULIA: P.J. Parrish is a sister act. How did that come to be, and exactly does that work? So that you are able to produce such fine fiction while still speaking to each other, I mean....

KRISTY: It is surprisingly easy. We have written many short stories (and some unpublished books) separately wherein you can see our different solo voices. But a strange alchemy takes place when we collaborate that results in a third voice. We don't outline but we believe in E.L. Doctorow's philosophy that writing a novel is like driving a car in the fog at night. You can only see as far as your head lights, but you can make the whole trip that way. Kelly lives in Michigan and I am in Fort Lauderdale so we get on Skype every day, decide who's going to tackle what based on who has the best feel for the action or character at that moment in the plot. In the early days, we did this all by phone or email, but Skype has made everything so easy now. Kris will call up the chapter in progress and screen-share with Kelly, so we can actually write "together" though we are 1600 miles apart. And no, we never argue. We have some pretty heated discussions but the book always wins.

JULIA: What's next for P.J. Parrish, and what can your readers look forward to? Either in the pipeline already, or further out.

KRISTY: We are working on two projects at once this time (never tried that before but when the muse calls and brings a girlfriend, you don't tell her to go away!) One is another series book featuring Louis and his daughter Lily. The second is another stand-alone thriller set in San Francisco.

JULIA: Why did you elect to go with a standalone novel this time around? Rather than a spin-off or a series book.

KRISTY: Because Louis Kincaid is just not a Paris kid of guy. Also, the theme we wanted to explore in this book -- what happens to your life when you look away for just one moment? -- didn't fit his character arc. Our hero in THE KILLING SONG is investigative reporter Matt Owens, a bit of a Peter Pan type who is at sea as he watches the one thing that gives his life shape slowly die -- the newspaper business. And then the one person in his life he loves is murdered, his beloved younger sister, and he is driven to find her killer. In a way, it's a classic amateur sleuth "fish out of water" story because once he gets to Paris, he has no help in solving the murder. Until he meets a French inspector who's chasing the same killer and trying to quell her own demons.

JULIA: You write such wonderfully disparate characters. For example, your best-selling, award-winning Louis Kincaid series features a black man. Your newest lead is white, female and goes by "Joe". How do you write such disparate voices so convincingly?

KRISTY: Thank you! We do a lot of writing workshops and we always tell students that if you can't walk convincingly in another person's skin then you have no chance of creating characters that readers will care about. You must be able to write a broad range of human emotion. Louis, because we have known him for twelve years now, is easy; it's like a long marriage. It was harder with Matt because we didn't know him and harder still to create the French detective, who is of Algerian descent and a bit of an outcast in her department. Not too get too high-brow here, but when Flaubert wrote, "Emma Bovary, c'est moi," he didn't mean he was an ambitious provincial French woman. He meant he knew his character inside and out, her every emotion and motivation.

JULIA: Who were your literary influences growing up? Now?

KRISTY: My favorite book of all time is "Charlotte's Web," which taught me a valuable lesson as a writer -- that you can kill off a sympathetic character and, in fact, sometimes you must! And as a child of the Fifties of course I read every Nancy Drew. Kelly has been a reader of true crime since high school so she has always had a dark heart (just kidding!). She was really influenced by "In Cold Blood," because Capote's attention to his characters was so compelling.

JULIA: Who are some new voices in crime fiction you enjoy?

KRISTY: We love discovering writers in the crime genre -- famous and not-so. There are so many great ones. Kelly is a longtime John Sanford fan and has read everything Steve Hamilton and Julia (yes the Jungle Red Julia!) has written. She loves Russ and Clare and the rural setting, especially since she just returned to living in our native Michigan in a cabin by Lake Michigan. I am working my way through the John D. MacDonald books, one color at a time. (I know, he's not a "new" voice but he is to me). Best book I have read lately was Stuart Neville's "Ghosts of Belfast." A stunning debut. And I'd read the LA phone book if it had T. Jefferson's Parker name on the cover. Every book he writes is different; I really admire his range.

JULIA: These days everyone seems to write "thrillers". What's your definition of that term, and to which of your books does it apply?

KRISTY: The easy answer is that with a thriller you know who did it and the suspense rises from how the hero will catch the bad guy. With a mystery, of course, the reader is in the dark along with the hero. David Morrell speaks eloquently about how the satisfaction for each is different. A mystery is a puzzle and its payoff more intellectual. A thriller is a roller coaster ride and the payoff is more emotional and visceral. We have written both kinds, but I think our books are a hybrid of both. We try to provide deep character development but with a plot that keeps you awake at night.


  1. Fascinating process. Where is my sister?! I love the Doctorow quote and I subscribe to it naturally. It makes me short of breath in that good way to see only a few feet ahead.

  2. I now have a new author in my TBR pile. I love finding new blogs and new authors. Thanks for the interview post.

  3. Thanks, Kristy! I've always been curious about collaboration, but I suspect each one is different. The Killing Song sound fabulous. On my list now, too . . .

  4. One can't go wrong with anything inspired by kir royales and Mick Jagger.

  5. Dear oh dear oh dear...kir royales AND Mick Jagger??

  6. Hi guys!
    Thanks to Julia for inviting us to your spot and thanks to all who've said we've made it into their TBR piles.

    As for Kirs and's a good visual. We can all fill in our own punchlines.