I’ve been reading Elaine Orr’s Jolie Gentil series from its start with Appraisal for Murder. There are now eight books in the series. As a beach writer, I’m attracted to the setting of Ocean Alley, a coastal resort town in New Jersey. Readers meet Jolie Gentil, a new divorcee, who must dodge her ex’s gambling debts. She owns a cat and lives with her Aunt Madge, as she did for a year in high school. Jolie rekindles friendships with a few of her old classmates and rebounds from the trauma of her marriage while solving murders often as a result of appraising houses, her new profession.
Please welcome Elaine Orr to WWK. E. B. Davis
Since 2011, you’ve written eight books. You make me feel ashamed of myself. How can you write so fast? Do you regiment your writing?
I tend to write fast—when I write. I let myself have non-writing periods because I know the down time pays off in more creative thinking later. That said, there are plenty of times I force myself to write. Once I get into it, I keep pushing. One technique I don't advise is announcing the month of release well in advance. However, it keeps me motivated, and so far I have not missed one—by much. The advantage of self-publishing is you can improve a book at your own pace.
Why did you choose to self-publish?
I was in my late fifties when I finished the first two books of the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series. I strongly considered looking for an agent (I had done that previously), but ebook publishing had just become more feasible. I had put up a couple of stand-alones and figured out the formatting. So, why not? If I sold few, I could start the agent process. I sold a few thousand of the first couple books in the first year, so I just kept going. I joke about being too old to wait for the agent/publisher process, but I'm not twenty-five, so I wanted to see results.
Why give your main character such an exotic name?
I love to speak French. I'm not good at it! Jolie Gentil means 'pretty nice' in French. It sounds exoticif you don't know what it means, and if you do, it's good for a chuckle. I may want to set a book in Canada sometime, so I wanted a French connection, so to speak.
Jolie appraises real estate for a living. Do you have experience in the field?
Not as an appraiser. When my sister took a course for a real estate license I took it with her, for a lark. I passed the state test but never used the license. Between that and buying and selling several houses, I felt competent to at least research the profession. I wanted something that gave Jolie time to get in trouble. An earlier book featured a school teacher, and I had to have her break her arm so she'd have time to solve the mystery.
Ocean Alley reminds me of my childhood vacations at Ocean City, NJ. Did you base Ocean Alley on a particular town? Have you lived there?
I never lived in Jersey, but I've visited several of its beaches. I wanted to create a town that reminded me of the Maryland beaches I visited as a child – most are condo canyons now. Many Jersey shore beaches kept more of their small town feel. I think of Ocean Grove as I write. I only visited there twice, so the books are not modeled on that town, but I admire it.
In the first few books, Jolie lives with Aunt Madge, who changes her hair color all the time. Why does she do this?
I wanted Aunt Madge to be an independent octogenarian who didn’t represent stereotypes of widowed women in that age group. (Not to put my foot in my mouth, but you don't often think of people as running a B&B at that age.) The changing hair color was a way to be different, and a bit funny. She still does it, but Jolie only notices it once or twice in each of the later books.
Although Jolie works, she’s also busy managing and fundraising for a local food bank, Harvest For All. How did she get involved with this charity?
Ah, good question. When she first moved to Ocean Alley, the woman who ran it was a thorn in Jolie's side. Very needy and a bit intrusive. Jolie avoided her at all costs. When the woman could no longer manage the food pantry, the minister at the church more or less conned Jolie into it. She was very reluctant at first, but she's absorbed it into her daily routine and is pretty good at it now. The Harvest for All pantry fundraisers also inject a lot of humor.
Your secondary characters are vivid. Jolie re-meets Scoobie, an old friend from high school, who had a challenging upbringing and drug issues. He is trying to recover and get on with his life. His name reminds me of a cartoon dog, but more Shaggy than Scooby. Tell our readers about Scoobie, and why you dubbed him as such?
Scoobie is my favorite character. Initially, the third book was going to be called "Justice for Scoobie," because I planned to kill him off. Bad idea!! Instead, he's the victim of an attack, and the book was called "When the Carny Comes to Town." Scoobie is sort of an amalgamation of several people I've known who worked hard to recover from, shall we say, youthful indiscretions. The name took awhile to develop. I wanted a silly nickname, and don't plan to let readers know how he got the name. Only Aunt Madge calls him by his given name. Scoobie's poetry is usually my husband's work. He doesn't write specifically for the books, but because he's written a lot of poetry, I can usually find something that works with the plot.
George, a journalist, enlists Jolie’s help to write his stories. Scoobie has helped with cases, but he also cautions Jolie not to involve herself. It would seem that George and Scoobie are at odds, and yet the two become best friends. How can these opposites attract?
Because sometimes they do. Smile. Jolie would say George works her into stories so he can make fun of her, but by book three she enlists his help some. Scoobie and George have known each other since high school, and they've looked out for each other. Both of them have a good sense of humor, which can reach across any personality boundaries.
Are all amateur sleuths OCD, as Scoobie claims when he asks Jolie to join a support group?
Hmm. An amateur sleuth has to be more than nosy, or s/he would give up when the going gets tough. They don't have to be OCD-ish, but it helps. When I did the prequel ("Jolie and Scoobie High School Misadventures"), it shows an event that led Jolie to always want to get to the bottom of things. Scoobie has worked hard to accept life as it is, which gives them a chance to annoy each other at times.
Another interesting secondary character is Max, a brain damaged veteran suffering from PTSD. What
I used to help a number of vets via my job as an assistant to two members of Congress. (One Republican and one Democrat. That's Iowa for you.) In 2003, the VA was faced with many new veterans needing help, because of the Iraq war. The policy changed from "we're always here for you" to "we'll only serve you if you meet certain criteria." Lots of Vietnam vets who weren't already in the VA system were turned away, and sometimes they came to the congressmen. On behalf of my bosses, I'd do my best to cut through red tape and look for ways to get the VA to serve them. (It wasn't the VA's policy choice not to serve; their budget was getting slashed just as there were more vets to help.)
Anyway, between becoming an advocate for a number of vets and working with several who had PTSD, I knew I had to put a vet in the story as a continuing character. It doesn't work if I simply preach "help our vets." People read for fun. So I've given Max some quirky characteristics, and lots of people look out for him.
You seem to enjoy having pets in your books. How did that come about?
Animals crack me up. It is a challenge to give them a role other than just being cute, and in a coupleof the books they help Jolie a lot. Generally not on purpose, but it works. Her cat Jazz is a source of comfort for Jolie. When Jolie left her casino-addicted husband, she especially liked Jazz because the cat did not require Jolie to put on a brave face. Aunt Madge's two retrievers are my favorites. I had to look for ways to keep them involved after Jolie moved from the B&B to her own house.
I’m sure most police detectives wouldn’t have a sense of humor if amateurs involved themselves in a case, but Sergeant Morehouse has more humor than most. Why does he tolerate Jolie's intrusions as well as he does?
Morehouse's humor becomes more evident as the books go on Even in the first book, he definitely gets Jolie's goat a couple of times by needling her, on occasion. I work hard to make the police not look like bumbling fools. What's the point of dumb police work? That said, Jolie has to see something they don't or be driven to solve something they would prefer she stay out of. So, there's a "push and shove" quality to their relationship, and he gives her firm instructions to butt out on many occasions. She ignores him. There is one humorous line Morehouse has in every book. I challenge readers to find it!
When you conceived of the series, did you plot all the character arcs?
Not quite, but some. Scoobie was the easiest to evolve, because he was deliberately changing his life. Some reviewers didn't like Jolie in the first book. They saw her as so self-centered as to be unsympathetic. Obviously, reviewers don't drive character development, but I do learn from comments sometimes. I worked hard to have Jolie change slowly from someone whose recent life traumas made her focus on herself to someone who thinks more about others. Not too much, or she wouldn't have the ability to have some snarky (and funny) thoughts about people who cross her path.
What’s next for Jolie and Scoobie?
I don't want to give too much away, but I will say the ninth book will take place a couple years into the future. I wanted to inject some new elements without putting readers through every phase of change. It'll be fun.