Thursday, June 28, 2012

ROSEMARY HARRIS: Today Jungle Red welcomes one of the terrific writers and teachers from MWA University and she claims that despite the calm, efficient, brilliant demeanor she displays at those events - she's really a little crazy.

I am a catastrophic thinker. I'm not saying I'm a worrier, or that I have an overactive imagination. I’m saying I’m crazy. Here’s an example:

My kids and I attend Tae Kwon Do classes every Tuesday and Thursday, and every Tuesday and Thursday, we return to our little house in small-town Minnesota at 8:30 pm. This particular Thursday in early April, we’d arrived home to find a potted begonia on our back step. The temperature was hovering around 12 degrees above zero, but that begonia was green and fresh in its brown paper bag. Somebody knew exactly when we were returning home and had timed their flower-leaving accordingly. Five more minutes, and it would have been frozen solid.

My kids thought it was a nice gesture, and I encouraged that. In my head, though, I was thinking: We've recently moved to town. We don't know anyone here. All my friends and family live at least 30 minutes away. No one I know would leave a flower on my back step without a note. Clearly, a serial killer has been tracking me and my babies for weeks, he has learned when we come and go, and he's leaving his calling card--the orange begonia--right before he murders us in our sleep.

That night, I slept on the couch with a knife. It was my chef's knife without the tip, which I had broken off a couple years earlier in a pound of frozen ground turkey that wasn't thawing fast enough. It was the sharpest one I had, but that's hardly the point, is it? SOMEBODY LEFT ME A FLOWER AND IT MADE ME SLEEP WITH A KNIFE.

And there's something about having kids that super-revs the powers of catastrophic thinking. I have to travel to conferences and out-of-state signings about seven times a year, and I leave my kids, ages 10 and 13, with my parents. Every time I go, I say the same thing to my mom: "Don't forget you're watching them."

And she always says the same thing back. "Don't worry. I raised you, remember?"

I might not be her best reference. I remember how many times she let me walk to the store alone when I was five, or how she encouraged me to miss two weeks of 5th grade because we didn't like the politics of the long-term sub. But I get her point. I survived, and my kids will too.

Still, when my plane leaves the ground or my wheels cross the state line, my catastrophic thinking kicks in. What if one of my children was kidnapped? Would I be able to find them? Could I go on living if I didn't find them? Or if they were in the hospital, how long would it take me to get back to them? What do you even think about when you're waiting to catch a flight back to your children in a hospital? Should I call and make sure they're okay? Or should I wait until I've been gone five minutes?

Ack. And don't even get me started on public speaking. You know how people say, "It was an honor just to be nominated?" I mean it. I like staying in the audience. I'm pretty sure that if I ever had to stand and speak in front of a crowd of people I respected in any capacity other than teaching, I'd start bleating like a sheep right before my bowels relaxed. (Ro's hard to believe as Jess is a wonderful speaker!)

So there you have it. The true confessions of a catastrophic thinker. I imagine there’s a medication for it, but I think the same part of my brain that takes these wicked spirals is the part that loves reading and spinning stories. All it takes is a spark, and I can run with it. Also, the superstitious part of me is sure that thinking about all the bad stuff that could happen is protection AGAINST it happening. Sorry, author of the The Secret.

p.s. An old college friend who lived 35 miles away and had heard I'd moved back to town was the one who left the begonia. She was dropping it off on a whim and didn't leave a note because she didn't have a pen. See? All my worrying scared off the serial killer.

Jess Lourey writes the Lefty-nominated Murder-by-Month Mysteries.

In a starred review of November Hunt, her latest, Booklist writes, "It's not easy to make people laugh while they're on the edge of their seats, but Lourey pulls it off!"

Jess’ first in a young adult fantasy series, The Toadhouse Trilogy, Book One, hits bookshelves in early July. The Toadhouse aims to do for classic literature what Rick Riordan did for Greek mythology. You can visit her at (mysteries) or (YA).

Read an excerpt of The Toadhouse Trilogy here


  1. Jess, I was one of your students in the Boston MWA U, and I can attest to how calm you seemed. I can also attest to your fabulous "month" series - I'm up to August, plus I already read November. They make me want to do nothing but read until I catch up.

    But I'm also a catastrophic thinker. My kids are now 23 and 26 and I still worry about them constantly. I just don't let them know I do.

    In the book I'm just finishing up (comes out next June), the protag also gets anonymous flowers delivered. She's not so paranoid as you, although she should be - there's a listening device attached to the vase...

  2. Love the essay Jess and thanks for visiting us here at JRW! Will you tell us how you came to write the YA series?

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  4. That's my Jess. Yes, she's crazy but we love her all the same.

    (reposted due to early morning stupidity)

  5. Is that what you call that. I'm always thinking of the worst scenarios and coming up with positive solutions to something that never happens.

    But if that thinking help you write your wonderful stories...then I love your crazy self.

  6. See, Edith? It pays to be paranoid! Now I'll have to watch for listening devices, as well...

    Thank you for attending Boston MWA-U, and for reading my books, and for reading this post! I can't wait for *your* books to come out. How interesting does this sound?

    "I write the Local Foods Mysteries, in which organic farmer Cam Flaherty has to deal not only with eager locavores but also murder on the farm. As Tace Baker, I write the Speaking of Mystery series featuring Quaker Linguistics professor, Lauren Rousseau, who solves murders in small-town Ashford, Massachusetts."

  7. Thanks, Lucy! The short answer on the YA series is that I have YA kids (ages 10 and 13), and so I was reading what they were reading and I LOVED it. YA fiction is some of best stuff going, in my opinion, and I wanted to try my hand at writing it.

    You're known for your mysteries. Do you write or read any YA?

  8. Aimee Hix, don't you dare try to pretend you're not as crazy as me! :p

  9. See, Dru Ann, you do it right. I need to start focusing on the potential positives. I read a post on Facebook recently that said, "Worrying is praying for something bad to happen." I've been thinking that it might be time for me to be less of a worrier.

  10. Great post, Jess! I also am a catastrophe thinker. I've learned to deflect it into my writing. I remember what Stephen King said about nightmares. He used them in his books and now they're very rare and he wishes he had more of them as fiction fodder.

  11. Linda, I think that's the only healthy thing us catastrophic thinkers can do, right? Channel it into our writing. We're lucky we found that option.


  12. Thanks so much for visiting Jess. I really got a lot mout of your MWAU presentation ( and stole part of it for one I did months later!)

    That quote from booklist is the DO you keep the humor and suspense running neck and neck?

  13. Ro, you're the queen of humor and suspense, so I might ask you the same question. For me, when I pull it off, I think it's just because my natural reaction to extreme situations (you know--murder, sex, etc.) is to make jokes. Sigh. Another defense mechanism, yes?

    Thanks for inviting me to this fabulous blog!

  14. In my last job, I'd been there about a month when I came in one morning and found someone had left a brownie on my desk, in cellophane, tied with a little bow. I wasn't sure who had left it, but I figured it was one of a few of my new colleagues who were particularly thoughtful. Not so my assistant, who seemed very alarmed that I might try the brownie. "You don't know who left it there," she said. "It could be poisoned." She wasn't kidding either. So being doubtful but a little neurotic, I set the brownie aside until later that morning when I heard from my friend Kay, who worked in a different department, wanting to know if I'd enjoyed her homemade brownie.

    Between my brownie and your potted begonia, we could scare the world, Jess.

  15. Haha, Barb! We need our own personal flower and food testers. :)

  16. Hallelujah! I'm NOT the craziest, most neurotic person in the world! I need to forward today's post to all my friends and relatives so they can see that I do not deserve that title!

    In my opinion,it is not catastrophic thinking;I am merely formulating a Plan B. You worried about someone stalking your family or breaking into your home so of COURSE you had to sleep with a knife. Makes sense to ME: your Plan B.

    Some years ago,someone I know who is crazier than I am kept telling me that she discovered that her boss (she worked in the accounting office of a small company)was keeping a separate set of books and that she wanted to quit her job there because she didn't want to work for a crook and she wanted to change jobs before the Feds shut him down. She was very dramatic. I laughed. Seemed to me that a crook would have hidden any signs of anything like that. She got another job. A year and a half later,he was arrested -and it wasn't for running a red light. All her former coworkers had no jobs. Whenever I am tempted to think she's crazy, I remind myself about that incident.

    I worry about getting struck by lightning. Whenever anyone laughs and asks me if I even KNOW someone that it happened to,I pull out my mental list. Most of them survived, but still...One of them was my great-grandmother.

    As for my worst nightmares,I turn them into funny stories to entertain the same friends and relatives who think I worry too much. (See,friends and relatives?I can laugh at myself!)

    Now,I must see about buying some of your books,Jess. Thank you for making me feel so good about myself!

  17. Deb, you're so funny. I'm happy to be your cautionary tale. :) Thanks for visiting the blog and considering my series.

  18. Welcome, Jess!

    I'll be looking for your YA when it comes out next month. I have a voracious YA reader and it sounds like something she'd like.

  19. Thank you *so* much, Darlene! I love your website, too. Very engaging and clean.

  20. Hi Jess,

    I love YA books and am grateful to discover you here. Thank you, Jungle Reds for introducing me to another new-to-me writer.

    I, as a matter of course in my daily life, embrace your statement, "... the superstitious part of me is sure that thinking about all the bad stuff that could happen is protection AGAINST it happening." I don't see it as superstitious, though. It helps keep me careful, and I believe it has saved my life.

    I have told the story too many times, but the boiled-down facts are that - despite the downplaying and hidden snickers of my family - I was being stalked by a serial killer. He did keep knocking the outdoor thermometer to the ground. That was his boot print on the patio door. He did destroy the rose trellis. He did stand in my back yard in the light of day and watch me through the patio door. Those were his fingerprints on the window. Those were his muddy tracks around the house. He did follow me. He did watch me. Then John Nitzke did rape and kill my friend Betty.

    To everyone I knew and trusted I sounded like a catastrophic thinker.

  21. Oh, Reine honey, I'm so glad you took care of yourself and so sorry about your friend.

  22. Oh no, Reine! That is such a sad story. I'm glad you're okay, but I'm so, so sorry for the loss of your friend.

  23. I find that writing murder mysteries is not always conducive to peaceful thoughts. Even though I don't do graphic scenes or dwell on it, it can taint things! Love the image of you sleeping with a knife after getting a flower! You gotta use that some time...

  24. Linda, thank you. I don't know how much part my awareness played in my survival. I don't want to imply in any way that Betty was not aware. It may have been awful luck. Betty was keenly intelligent and aware.

    I didn't know that John Nitzke was a serial killer, a fact that hasn't yet been proven, but is thought to be so by many. I thought he was a burglar until I looked out the living room door and saw him staring back at me. His stare was chilling. I called my son and husband to come look. Nitzke stayed there until they joined me. We all stared at him, and he stared back. Then he jumped over the wall and ran off.

    That may have been what kept him from killing me. I'll never know. I wasn't brave, or smart, or anything but afraid of him.

  25. Dear Reine, that is terrifying. Hard to come back from that. YOu are so brave.

  26. Oh, Jessie, thank you for making it all okay! Here's an exchange between me and Jonathan:

    J: Bye, honey. I'm running to the drug store.
    Hank: Okay, be careful!
    J: Of what?

    I just see the world as full of lurking dangers, and part of me can't figure out how Jonathan even survived all this time without me making sure he was okay.

    Getting ToadHouse RIGHT NOW! SO enthusiastic about inspire me to ALL CAPS!


  27. Jess, it is sad. It colors one's memories of a good person, implanting horrid images over beauty.

    In one of Louise Penny's books she mentions that people often find it surprising when a good person is killed, as if being good somehow protects us.

    Louise's thoughts prompt me to separate the two - Betty's life from her death. It is too difficult, because Betty Carras is an example of that good person Louise spoke of... a retired RN who, as a volunteer, taught children and people with disabilities how to swim, because she enjoyed it... a lay minister, counselor, and wildlife park docent until her awful death at the age of 81.

  28. Thanks, Kathleen. I think you're right. As mystery writers, we need to make an effort to look for the sunny side of things instead of always seeing deviance. :)

  29. It's good we're here to take care of our guys, Hank! :) They didn't know what to worry about until we came along.

    Toadhouse will be out in two weeks--would love if you'd check it out then!

  30. Reine, that is the definition of senseless, isn't it? She sounds like an absolutely amazing person, one you were lucky to have had in your life. I'm sorry she's gone from it. I think you're right--focusing on all the positive contributions she made is a healing exercise.

  31. LOL!! Love you, Ms. Jess!!! And no, I'm not a stalker, I'm your pal Dana. :-)