Building A Mystery

Author Kristen Lepionka drops Columbus clues in new thriller series.

Kristen Lepionka never thought of herself as a particularly lucky person, but after landing a spot in an online writing contest, the proverbial doors began to open. After years of querying and searching for representation, she was finally set to have her first novel hit the shelves. But her 9 to 5 job as a graphic designer gave her little time to promote it.

Then in another stroke of luck, Lepionka lost her job in a round of restructuring.

Freed from the corporate world, Lepionka now set upon a mission at bookstores, events, and libraries to introduce the world to her protagonist Roxane Weary, a private investigator working a cold case for a death row inmate while grieving the loss of her father. The Last Place You Look, published by Minotaur books in 2017, is the first in a series of four mystery novels set in Columbus to be followed by What You Want To See, which will be released this May. (614) recently sat down with Lepionka, who grew up in Gahanna and now lives in Worthington, to talk about writing, boozy, broken-down investigators, and putting Columbus on the page.

Your four lost novels are sitting on your computer. What are they? Are they what you had to write to prove to yourself that you could write a novel?

I think so. They’re all mysteries. They’re all different types of mysteries. I think I was still trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do and the type of stories I wanted to tell. The first one I wrote in four weeks to see if I could do it, and I could—but it was terrible. I wrote another one and it got better. I didn’t try to find a literary agent with the first few. [With] the last two of the four forgotten manuscripts I did try to find an agent, and the feedback I got was, “Your writing is beautiful, but you have no story,” which is really useful feedback honestly. Getting feedback is definitely huge because they don’t give feedback to everyone.

The million-dollar question: How did you get an agent?

I was part of a contest called Pitch Wars and it’s kind of an online contest. I describe it as like that NBC show The Voice where it’s an opportunity to work with a mentor. So I worked with a mentor. Her name is Kellye Garrett and she’s a former writer for the TV show Cold Case, and she helped me … with the writing of the query letter and figuring out which agents to approach. [The contest] has a fairly high success rate of people finding agents out of it. When it was time for me to query the manuscript after the contest, I ended up finding my agent within about four days.

Roxane Weary is bisexual, and therefore underrepresented and unusual as a protagonist. Was it difficult to write the character authentically, and not seem like you were trying to be deliberately edgy?

It was really important to me to write a character [where] that’s just part of who she is. This is not a bisexual mystery. Things can get weirdly pigeonholed in that way. But also, I just wanted to write it in a natural way because bisexual representation is terrible in books and movies. It’s virtually nonexistent, and when a character is bi, it’s always meant to titillate or scandalize the reader in some way. I’m bi, so I really wanted to represent the bi community in a way that was really natural. I just wanted it to feel like a very natural element of who she is. This is not something that she thinks about all the time…she’s not questioning it at all.

What are Columbus readers going to recognize?

Roxane lives in Olde Towne East. Bryden Road. She goes to a lot of bars and restaurants in the Olde Towne area, like Yellow Brick Pizza, Olde Towne Tavern, Angry Baker, Little Palace, Dirty Frank’s. The Westin Hotel is in the book. There are a few places that aren’t in business anymore that I resurrected to be in the book because I love them, which is also fun. I think it’s exciting for readers to read about a place where they live. There’s no reason to not set things here. It’s a real city. It’s an awesome place to live. I think it’s a really good place to write about because we have interesting neighborhoods, and we have a liberal city surrounded by a conservative rural area which creates interesting conflict. It’s a really ideal place to write about the type of things that I want to write about.

You’ve been a fan of this genre for a long time. What do you think draws you to it?

I think there’s interesting ways you can sort of explore human nature, I guess, in mystery stories because of that intense situation. In a contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, obviously there’s narrative tension, suspense, and all those things, but it’s not a matter of life and death. I just like that type of conflict. It’s fun to read. It’s fun to write. I guess that’s why I do it.

What You Want to See hits digital shelves and stores May 1. In the meanwhile, Lepionka will appear at the Ohioana Book Festival April 14.

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