For crime novelist, Jaden Terrell, writing about death is a way to confront her own fears. The Nashville-based author has three successful detective novels on the shelf and another landing in bookstores soon. Terrell always dreamed of being a teacher and a writer, but she found it difficult to do both at the same time. After 12 years in the classroom she put down her chalk and dedicated herself full-time to developing the character of Jared McKean, an ex-cop turned detective. McKean finds himself solving complex and violent cases while balancing a complicated life. We had the chance to talk with Jaden about what it’s like for someone whose craft means exploring the dark and confusing world of death and murder.
You can learn more about Jaden by visiting her website: www.jadenterrell.com
Do you consider yourself a crime writer or a mystery writer or is there a difference?
I usually say I write private detective novels because they fall somewhere in between mysteries and thrillers. They’re really a blend. I guess you could say my books are more mystery than anything else because they start with a whodunit and become more thrilleresque as they move toward the end.
I think we write about a lot of things that we fear, and we fear death. We write a lot about death and that idea of not only being betrayed by somebody you trust but of never knowing. So in real life you never know what happened, you’ll never know why it happened or exactly what the person who is murdered was thinking in the last minutes. And sometimes you don’t get justice. But in a mystery novel, you usually do get justice even if the bad guy gets away he’s probably coming back again and the hero will eventually be victorious. In the mystery novel, you get the ability to understand what happened and to make things work out right.
Was there anything in particular that led you to the genre of crime?
I didn’t even think of this until years after I began writing crime fiction. All of a sudden one day it struck me that when I was 18 my father died. At the time we thought it was a suicide but the more we learned the more likely it seemed that his wife (not my mom) had killed him. My grandparents hired a private detective, but the police needed her (my step mother) to turn state’s evidence on a drug trial and convinced them to drop it. She was granted some kind of blanket immunity. Coincidently, her brother was a police officer and we found out later than when the ambulance arrived the brother was already there and they had cleaned everything up. I didn’t even think about that connection until I had been writing crime fiction for quite a while.
In the crime novel, the death is the pivotal thing. How important do you think the details of the actual death are?
It depends on the subgenre you write. There are “cozy” mysteries that have been described as the kind of mystery where somebody gets killed, but nobody gets hurt.
In those stories, they’re making light of something in the same way that when someone turns 50 you decorate with gravestones and black. People that read cozies usually just like to figure out the clues. The death is almost peripheral since you can’t really explore the effects of death in a light novel. In books like mine, I kind of take the opposite approach because I think that death has a ripple effect. It affects so many people in so many different ways. I try to handle it sensitively but also be realistic. I don’t want to downplay it so much that it seems trivial, but I also don’t want to make it so grotesque that you are wallowing in it.
When someone dies, especially when someone killed them on purpose it throws the whole universe out of balance. So even in the lightest mysteries you get that sense that the world’s not safe because there’s a killer out on the loose. The whole trajectory of the novel is making the world safe again. We know what happens now, the bad guy is taken care of and even though we might know that there are other ones out there, the equilibrium has been restored. When people read it they get the sense that there are bad things in the world, but they can be fixed. I think there’s a comfort in that. We are afraid of death and I think we are afraid of betrayal. Murder is the ultimate betrayal and death is the ultimate price that you pay. Together they are very powerful.
As the writer, you have to think about death, particularly violent death and how you’re going to frame that. Has that changed the way that you look at death and mortality as it relates to you?
I think that I write about death because I’m afraid of it. Do you remember being little and you had to say that prayer “If I should die before I wake?” I would always say “If I should die before I wake, but please don’t make it tonight.” I think that fear of dying, especially of dying in a painful way, I’ve always been really aware of it. Take, for example, horseback riding. I love horses, but I don’t like riding because I’ll be riding along and think “I would die if I fell on that.” I’ve always been aware of my mortality. So I suppose that in a way writing about it is a way of purging that fear
Do you think that the concept of facing your fear of death is why people enjoy reading crime/mystery books?
I think it is a big part of it. It’s the same reason people like to go to horror movies and watch sad movies. These stories give us a catharsis, but they also help us make sense of things that don’t always make sense. We’re never going to unravel the mystery of death unless somebody comes back to tell us about it. So this kind of story helps us deal with our fears and our own feelings about loss. It can be very cathartic.
I’ve heard the mystery novel described as the modern morality tale–the detective or sleuth takes the role of the knight errant who goes into the underworld and saves the innocent and comes back at great expense to himself. So the mystery novel is a form of the type of thing that people have been reading and enjoying for hundreds of years–something scary is happening and one brave soul goes out and defeats that evil and makes things all better. I think that that’s where it really resonates with us. We’re all secretly afraid of the dark.
We work on a lot of different levels and (through fiction) you can explore a lot of in depth themes without coming across as being preachy. My third book, River of Glass, centers on human trafficking. I could write a report or an article about human trafficking that some people might read or I can tell a story and people will feel like they know these girls and they’ll learn more about this issue without being hammered over the head.
What’s next for Jared?
My fourth book, which comes out soon, focuses on Tennessee walking horses. Over the years, people began to really value the horses’ higher step. The higher they step the better they would do in shows. And so people would find these terrible ways to make them keep their feet up higher—it’s called “soring”. It’s been ridiculously difficult to find out how pervasive it is. There are two conflicting camps –people who say that most people don’t do it and that you can breed for that walk and then you have other people that say you can’t get that walk without soring. Of course, my guy (Jared McKean) is a horse lover and I have horses and so it’s a topic that is near and dear to me. I want to write about it to raise awareness. I’m hoping that I will be able to do a good job. I think Jared will figure it out, but I’m not sure he’ll be able to determine how widespread it is.
I’ve always seen Jared’s story as a 10 book arc. After that, I guess if people still want to read about him and if I still feel like I have things to say and I can keep it interesting then I’ll keep going.