I read and reviewed A Kind Of Justice by Renee James recently, and while it had me giving out some intense murder vibes, it was an amazing story. I mean it’s been over two weeks and I still want John Strand dead. I even got permission from the author to write my own murder scene for John, so yea… Murderous tendencies and Author’s fueling them aside, I was excited when Renee accepted my requests for an interview, and even more excited when she actually answered my deranged questions.
For those of you that haven’t read or heard about A kind of Justice, here are a few details about the book
Against all odds, Bobbi Logan, a statuesque transgender woman, has become one of Chicago’s most celebrated hair stylists and the owner of one of the city’s poshest salons. She is finally comfortable with who she is, widely admired in her community, about to enjoy the success she deserves.
Then her impossibly perfect life falls apart.
In the space of a few weeks, the Great Recession drags her business to the brink of failure, her beloved ex-wife needs help in facing a terrible tragedy, and a hateful police detective storms back into her life, determined to convict her of the five-year-old murder of John Strand—pillar of the community—and a sexual predator.
As the detective builds an ever more convincing case against her, both of them will be shaken by revelations—about themselves, about their own deeply held secrets, and about the bizarre ritual murder of John Strand.
A.O. Chika’s Interview with Renee James
Q: I really need to get this off my chest, so I’m going to start this interview with a question that’s been on my mind since I read A Kind of Justice. What inspired John Strand?
A: Men who beat transgender and transsexual women—including men who beat them to death—generally regard transwomen as a lower life form, yet seek them out for sex. I don’t know all the reasons why this happens, but I’m sure for some men, it’s because they’ve reached a point in life where they have difficulty getting aroused by genetic women, but transwomen have a kinky appeal. Most men who date transwomen aren’t like this, but there’s definitely a creepy element out there.
I drew the Strand character as just such a man—a sociopath who didn’t like women, wasn’t sure about his own sexuality, and who sought out pre-op transwomen (ie, transgender women who still have male genitalia) because he got a kinky rush from the sex, because he could find vulnerable transwomen who were easy to dominate, and because in the early 2000s, it wasn’t hard to get away with murdering a dispossessed transwoman making her living on the streets. The latter point was important to Strand because his violence against women sometimes resulted in murder.
Q: Wilkin’s character growth throughout the book was amazing, was writing him tough?
A: It was a lot of work, but it was fascinating. I started out with the thought that he’d be a one-dimensional opponent—honest, but highly bigoted. The idea was that he’d scare Bobbi on several levels—his investigative acumen, his transphobic disgust for her, and his race. Physically, I saw him as that stereotypical black man who looks powerful and has a scowling countenance that scares the bejeesus out of nice middle-class white people. I wanted him to stimulate Bobbi’s own bigotry with her fear of what he looked like. I loved the idea of have two lead characters who were the victims of bigotry but also filled with their own bigotries.
Wilkins became more nuanced as I wrote him because he was a rational man of principles and what happens to people like that is, when they meet people from the subgroup they profess to dislike, they discover that we all have a lot in common. You find people and qualities in people to admire, whether they’re trans or black or even Republican.
Wilkins was there so we could see how Bobbi reacted to horrible stresses in her life, but in several ways, he stole the scene. He changed more than anyone and his story has more moral equity than even Bobbi’s.
Q: Did you plan the book to end the way it did?
A: No. I didn’t know where it was going to end. One of the reasons it takes me so long to turn a manuscript into a book is that I don’t use a hard outline for the first draft. I write it with a few vague plot points in mind so I can make it up as I go along and entertaining myself. If I already knew how it was going to end, it would be work, not entertainment.
I tried several different endings after the first draft, but I have a hard time giving Bobbi a sad ending and I really liked that Wilkins faced a moral dilemma with no right answer, so I went with the ending you read.
Q: So… Ever thought about murdering people like John Strand (I swear I don’t have a mic on me XD)?
A: Absolutely! I’m a Vietnam veteran. I never killed anyone, but you don’t spend 18 months in a war zone without finding violence in your soul, not unless you’re a very special kind of conscientious objector (which I was not). In fact, in the first Bobbi Logan book, Coming Out Can Be Murder, I had her perform the coup de grace on Strand. I thought it was really well written and well-conceived, but most people who read the book were really bothered by that. So, when I republished it as Transition to Murder, we changed her role.
Q: What character was the most difficult to write and which was the easiest?
A: There were several, starting with Bobbi and Betsy. I needed to give them both a wide range of emotions, but the first time through I made them way too overwrought, especially Betsy. One of my ace beta readers started her notes on the manuscript saying, “I’d only read this for a friend…”
It took two more drafts and lots of edits and cutting upwards of 20,000 words to get them as they now appear.
The hardest character was Jalela, the young African-American transsexual woman trying to get off the streets by hiring on as an assistant in Bobbi’s salon. I had envisioned a much larger role for her, with scenes depicting her initial interview and others showing her progress as an employee and the growth of her relationship with Bobbi. I ended up having to cut a lot of it because I couldn’t get her voice to sound right—I just didn’t have enough experience with young black transwomen. I tried to connect with some, but inquiries like mine are regarded with great suspicion (for good reasons) and I failed.
The easiest character to write was Cecelia, who’s drawn on several women I’ve known in the Chicago trans community. It’s fun to do her because she’s imperious and uninhibited and funny. She’s the kind of mentor who helps Bobbi diffuse the nightmarish stresses in her life by fixing her up with a male prostitute. Has there ever been a better release for tension than a good orgasm? And could there be a more fun character that Cecelia?
Q: What chapter did you have a hard time writing, A.KA. What chapter made you look at the manuscript and say ‘Nope, Nope Nope, I’m not dealing with this right now’?
A: The scenes dealing with Betsy’s trauma after her husband dies were really hard to get right. The first draft had her too over-wrought, and getting them more balanced was stressful, I guess because I was so aware of how far off I was the first time. The kind of doubts that plague me during those sessions are somewhere between waterboarding and fingernails on a blackboard.
Q: What was the weirdest thing you googled while writing A Kind Of Justice?
A: The acceptable expression for gender surgery has evolved quite a bit in this century, so I Googled the variations like “sex change”, “gender reassignment surgery” and “gender confirmation surgery” trying to get a timeline. I was going to use whatever expression was vogue in 2008, which is the setting for the book, but then I didn’t want to offend people who had worked so hard to make the wording what it is in 2016. I finally decided not to use a formal reference, opting instead for “gender surgery.”
Q: What was the toughest part of getting A Kind of Justice out there?
A: I think the hardest was the marketing process. It took as long to get from finished manuscript to publishing contract as it did to write, re-write and edit and re-edit the manuscript. And the path to publication is filled with a lot of rejection, which is hard on the ego. Most of the agents I queried didn’t even bother to respond and none of them requested the full manuscript. I met my agent at a writer’s event; she was doing first chapter critiques and got interested in the book from that experience. We faced the editor rejections together; most were professional, but there was one especially snotty one that left us both with a three-day emotional burn.
Fortunately, we connected with Oceanview Publishing shortly after that. They are one of the hottest publishers in mystery/suspense and the perfect fit for me, so everything ended well.
Q: I still want to murder John Strand, any chance you could bring him back to life so I can serve my version of ‘Justice’ on him?
A: From what I’ve seen of your writing, that would be a treat. I have a counter-offer: read the first book (Coming Out Can Be Murder) and rewrite the scene where Strand gets it. I would love to see how another author, especially one who “gets” victimization, would handle that scene.
Q: What has changed in terms of your mindset pre and post publishing your books?
A: I feel like I’ve learned so much, and yet I’m even more aware of how little I know about writing long fiction. I think I’m getting better at plot structure and using conflict to make each scene more interesting, but I don’t think John Grisham has to worry about being overshadowed by me anytime soon.
What hasn’t changed, and surely won’t ever change, is the feeling of humility and vulnerability that comes with putting the work out there. I’m emotionally invested in my characters and my craft, and putting the book up for judgment is a lot like sending your innocent six-year-old off to her first day of school—you have to do it to grow, but you know there will be lots of pain and scars to come.
About Renee James
Renee James is the pen name of a Chicago-area writer who lives in two genders.
In her male identity, James has been a full-time free-lance writer for several years, following a long career as a magazine editor and owner. In her male life, James has won dozens of awards for journalistic excellence and authored a biography.
As Renee James, her first novel, Coming Out Can Be Murder, was the 2012 Chicago Writers Association Indie book of the year and a bronze medalist in ForeWord Reviews’ LGBT book of the year competition.
Coming Out Can Be Murder was republished in March, 2014 by Magnus/Riverdale Books as Transition to Murder.
James is a spouse, parent and grandparent. She is a Vietnam veteran, licensed hairdresser, and wilderness adventurer. She has struggled with gender identity issues since childhood but never let her gender define her. Instead, she has worked to define herself according to her human values and what she does with her life.
She has been active in the Chicago transgender community. James edited the Chicago Gender Society newsletter for many years, and participated in many of the other groups and activities that make the Chicago transgender community one of the most vibrant in the world.
Coming Out Can Be Murder evolved from a fictional journal Ms. James wrote on business trips during her magazine editing years. The journal was a reflection on what her life might have been like if she had chosen to become a transsexual woman.
Transition to Murder, a revised version of James’ first novel, was released in early 2014 Riverdale Avenue Books’ Magnus imprint. It is the basis for the sequel, A Kind of Justice. Learn more about Renee James at http://www.reneejames-author.com/.
A Kind of Justice was published by Oceanview Publishing
Oceanview Publishing is an independent book publisher of mystery, suspense & thrillers. Oceanview is headquartered in Florida, and a proud member of the International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America. Twitter: @OceanviewPub www.Oceanviewpub.com
Other Books By Renee James
Winner of the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, Indie Fiction
“If he had killed me tonight, he’d be sleeping like a baby in an hour. I should be scared by that thought, but mostly I’m angry. Not stomp-your-foot angry. Get even angry. Put a knife in his gut and turn it angry.”
A beautiful young transwoman is brutally murdered. The media looks on blindly, the police go through the motions, but the victim’s hairdresser goes ballistic. Bobbi Logan is so outraged by these events that she commits two bold and courageous acts: She comes out as a transwoman herself, sending her career as a hair stylist into a gut-wrenching tailspin, and she begins searching for her friend’s murderer, an investigation that brings her into the vicious web of a powerful, seductive predator who is as charming as he is ruthless.
Originally published under the title Coming Out Can Be Murder, the book tells the chilling story of revenge when a suspected killer lives beyond the reach of the law. Bobbi Logan’s bruising search for truth and justice takes her to the pulsating streets of Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood, the colorful world of high-end hairstyling, and the city’s vibrant transgender community. Fast-paced and unsparing in hard details, Transition to Murder is a fresh, original portrayal of the life of a transwoman who is searching to discover her own “self” even as she searches for a killer.
First he wants her … then he wants her dead.
Bobbi Logan’s life and career begin to spiral downward when she comes out as a transgendered woman. But the gutsy hairdresser is determined to live her “new life” authentically, even as she is drawn into the investigation of her brutally murdered friend.
The Chicago police have all but said they’re not interested in the death of a “tranny” and the media has failed to report it. As she follows a trail of evidence through the shadowy underground of the Windy City, Bobbi is led to John Strand, a seductive powerbroker. Coming face-to-face with the number one suspect can only lead to one thing … murder. But who will it be?