Litani, the newest release from acclaimed crime novelist Jess Lourey, explores the darkness at the heart of the rural Midwest in a novel inspired by a chilling true crime.
In the summer of 1984, fourteen-year-old Frankie Jubilee, the protagonist of this gripping story, is shuttled off to Litani, Minnesota, to live with her estranged mother, a county prosecutor she barely knows. From the start, Frankie senses something uneasy going on in the small town. When a bullying gang of girls invites Frankie to The Game, she accepts, determined to find out what’s really going on in paranoia-prone Litani.
Jess took time out from her busy launch schedule recently to speak with me about the emotional landscape of teenage life, our shared interest in Minnesota, and her knack for building menace into scenes.
Your protagonist Frankie Jubilee relocates from Pasadena to rural Minnesota at age 14 following the death of her father. What does Frankie find in Litani, MN?
It’s an emotional move for Frankie. She’s unexpectedly lost her father, the man who’s been raising her for years. She’s forced to move to a strange town to live with a mother she barely knows. On top of the loss and the culture shock of moving from urban California to rural Minnesota, she soon discovers that something very dark is happening in Litani, something the locals refer to as The Game.
This new release builds upon the theme of hidden dangers lurking in small towns you explored in Unspeakable Things and Bloodline. What draws you back to this material?
Oof. I’m afraid it’s firsthand experience. I grew up in the small town of Paynesville, which is where the true crimes that inspired Unspeakable Things and Bloodline both took place. There’s something terrifying and claustrophobic about small-town danger. I thought Mare of Easttown did a fantastic job exploring that unique horror.
As someone who went to high school outside of Minneapolis, I’m wondering what you think accounts for the contrast between “Minnnesota Nice” and the darkness underneath – Satanic cults, sex offenders preying on children, and so forth?
Unfortunately, this darkness isn’t unique to the Midwest, but there is definitely something unsettling about the contrast you refer to, the deeply disturbing deviant behavior that plagues every community vs. the light, surfacey Minnesota Nice response to it. I think Minnesota Nice is rooted in the stoic, “keep your head down and do your work” attitude of the Scandinavians and Germans who moved to this icy land stolen from the Ojibwe and Dakota people. I also think it’s hard for any community to acknowledge its own dysfunction, and it feels easier, or safer somehow to look away and pretend it’s not happening. In the short term, at least. That bill always comes due.
I love the flashback you include in the opening pages, of Frankie’s mother Linda Jubilee taking out one of Frankie’s pre-adolescent teeth with a pair of pliers. Can you talk about Frankie’s relationship with her mom, and how it evolves during the book?
Thank you! When Frankie comes back into her mom’s life, Linda Jubilee is a successful county district attorney. She’d tried to flee Litani’s grip, even got as far as California back before Frankie was born, but her demons called her back. I think it was a great gift that Linda didn’t bring Frankie with her when she returned to Litani, when Frankie was only five. She instead left Frankie to be raised in California by Frankie’s dad, even though she dearly loved her daughter. Linda Jubilee is a damaged woman, but she was trying to protect Frankie the best she knew how. But then, when Frankie’s dad dies, Linda has no choice but to take her daughter into the belly of the beast. Her initial response is to look away, to pretend things aren’t as bad as she thinks, but she soon realizes she has to face the reality of Litani or lose her daughter forever.
Frankie’s deceased father was a botanist, and plants play an important role in her memories of him, and in the book as a whole. Can you talk about that influence, and what made you want to use it in Litani?
The true crime that inspired Litani is very dark, and it involves children. It was important to me to protect their identity and experience, so while I used the broad strokes of the true crime as the set up to my novel, I made all the characters entirely fictional. The second thing I wanted to make sure to do was to make it, ultimately, a story of hope. For that, there needed to be healing, and there’s few things more healing than plants and art. Frankie uses both to survive.
You do a great job building menace into your book. One example is Frankie’s visit to Ronnie’s house half-way through the story. Can you talk about that process of ratcheting up tension within a scene?
I appreciate that. What worked, I hope, to make Litani a page-turner is that the stakes are very high on every page, and you as the reader know it, but Frankie doesn’t. She can’t see it because she’s a kid. She senses things aren’t right, and she turns to the grown-ups for clues on how to respond, but they’re all pretty busy looking away to be of any help. So, she has to explore on her own, walk right into the danger. It made the book difficult to write because I fell in love with her as a character, and I wanted to protect her, but that’s not how fiction (or life) works.
Litani neatly straddles adult and YA. Can you talk about the appeals of writing at the boundary of genres?
As a writer, creating a young adult character navigating a dangerous, grown-up world allows me to tap into my unresolved childhood terror. It’s an uncomfortable and transformational process, and it naturally touches on a lot of universal fears. As a reader, I love reading these kinds of books because I enter the story through the naïve eyes of the main character, visiting the terror of childhood from the safety of fiction, and I feel like that’s a powerful process, too.
Two horror/crime novelists you’ve mentioned before as influences are Stephen King and William Kent Krueger. What lessons have you drawn from their work?
Stephen King’s stories are so accessible, so able to beautifully articulate fear and dread. No one does it better. Kent’s books are also immersive, but it’s his amazing talent at writing place/setting that I so admire and am desperate to copy (but always fall short). Megan Abbott and Rachel Howzell Hall are two other crime writers who’ve influenced me, both for their shocking, beautiful language and their master-class-level character studies.
Have you gotten rural crime narratives out of your system at this point, or can we expect more work in this vein? What’s next?
Strap in, because there’s more coming. I just turned in edits on The Quarry Girls, estimated publication date 8/16/22 from Thomas & Mercer. It follows drummer Heather Cash in the summer of 1977 as she fights to evade the serial killer or killers hunting in her tightknit Midwest community, where she soon discovers that she needs strength and secrets of the seemingly broken neighborhood women to survive. It’s inspired by the community response to the 2-3 active serial killers preying in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in the ‘70s, where I was living before my family moved to Paynesville.
Jess Lourey writes about secrets. She’s the Amazon Charts bestselling Edgar, Agatha, and Lefty-nominated, Anthony-winning author of crime fiction, nonfiction, YA adventure, and magical realism. She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft’s Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a Psychology Today blogger, a TEDx presenter (check out her TEDx Talk for the surprising inspiration behind her first published novel), and the inventor of the Book in a Bag kit. When not leading women’s writing retreats, reading, or fostering kittens, you can find her drafting her next story. Jess can be reached at http://jessicalourey.com/