Q&A With Jennifer K Morita
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Q&A With Jennifer K Morita
Today I have the pleasure of doing a Q&A with writer Jennifer K Morita. Jennifer is a senior writer for University Communications at Sacramento State, but a mystery author by night. Jennifer also used to be a freelance writer.
Q: So Jennifer we spoke through messenger and you were telling me you were looking for a publisher to publish your first mystery book. Would you like to tell the readers of the blog and I a little about the mystery book you wrote and how you came up with the concept for the book?
A: THE GHOST OF WAIKIKI tells the story of unemployed newspaper reporter Maya Wong, who reluctantly returns to Hawai’i to be the ghostwriter for a controversial, rich land developer. Before she can adjust to being back home, a man dies under mysterious circumstances and she’s plunged into the middle of murder investigation. Maya clashes with the detective in charge of the case, who happens to be her ex, while dodging a killer as she digs for the truth before she becomes the next victim.
Versions of Maya have been rattling around in my head since my early days as a newspaper reporter covering local government. Back then, I was really into three amateur detective series in particular: the Mas Arai books by Naomi Hirahara about a Japanese gardener, Sujata Massey’s Rei Shimura series with a Japanese American woman living in Tokyo and the Irene Kelly mysteries by Jan Burke, featuring a newspaper reporter on the city hall beat.
I had an idea for a book about an Asian American journalist who solves mysteries. I thought I had to set it in California, where I live now, but in my heart I wanted to write about Hawai’i because I’d lived there for a few years as a kid. In 2017 we went back for a family vacation, and I noticed some apartments in Waikiki. Looking up at the plants and laundry on the balcony I got the idea to have Maya live in one of those apartments. But I didn’t get beyond a few paragraphs and a brief character sketch. Then the pandemic hit, and I suddenly had plenty of time to toss around ideas.
Q: You’re the senior writer at Sacramento State and you write mystery stories at night and on the weekends. How do you juggle doing both?
A: Lots of coffee. Seriously.
On a good day, I wake up early, make coffee, and take care of the business side of writing, like emails and social media, before we have to go to work and school. At the office, I eat lunch at my desk so I can write during my break, but the bulk of my writing comes after dinner, or sometimes while our food is cooking.
I’m a night owl, and I love writing when everyone is asleep and the house is quiet. I also write on weekends in between kids’ activities and Capitol Crimes events.
When I’m really under a time crunch to turn something in, I spend the day at a café where no one will bother me. I have been known to send my husband, kids and Mushu the dog to my in-laws during their school breaks, and one year for Mother’s Day I holed myself up in a hotel room for two days to write.
I like working in Google Docs. It’s the easiest way to jump from my laptop to iPad to phone, because it’s amazing how much you can do while waiting in your car during school pick up, or when you’re early to Zumba.
But life often derails my writing schedule. I’m a mom with lots of family and kid-related obligations. I try to give myself grace. Rather than daily word count goals, I have weekly ones, because I know some days I won’t be able to write much. Like in a couple weeks when I’m taking my daughter’s Girl Scout Troop to sleep with penguins. The laptop will stay home, but I’m bringing my coffee.
Q: You used to be a freelance writer. What exactly is a freelance writer, and what advice do you give to those who want to go into freelance writing?
A: There are a lot of different kinds of freelance writers. In my case, I was a newspaper reporter so I wrote news and feature stories for various magazines, tabloids and online news sites. I was a new mom at the time, so I took jobs that I could work on between playdates or when the girls were in preschool or napping. For a while, I made enough to make the payments on our Honda minivan and a heavily discounted trip to Disneyland one year. You have to really hustle to make enough to support yourself, let alone a family, but now there are websites to find freelance work.
Q: I love reading mysteries! What is it about the mystery genre you enjoy writing so much?
A: I love reading mysteries, too. I’ve loved them since I was a kid, so whenever I imagined myself writing a book, it was alway a mystery. As a reader, I enjoy puzzling out the clues and figuring out whodunnit before the last page. As a writer, I love the idea of righting a wrong through fiction, whether it’s bringing a killer to justice or fixing an injustice in society. Justice prevails in mysteries, and as a writer I control whether the rich developer gets to build a shopping mall over an ancient Hawaiian heiau. Of course it doesn’t really change anything, but maybe it gets readers thinking. Plus, it’s really satisfying to stick it to the bad guys.
Q: Who among your family and friends were supportive about your writing goals and saw your talent?
A: Everyone has been extremely supportive of my writing career. My husband, who is an elementary school principal and former sports writer, can praise my writing and also tell me what doesn’t work. More importantly, he made the girls’ lunches at 6:30 this morning so I could email my editor before going into the office.
The writing community has been incredibly supportive as well. I don’t think people realize how welcoming and helpful writers can be. Right before the pandemic, I had lunch with author Laura Jensen Walker, whose first cozy mystery was just about to be released. I hadn’t written a single word of my book at the time, and her advice to me was “Just do it.” A year later, she was one of the first people to read my manuscript. She told me I was a mystery writer and said I needed to join Sisters in Crime and my local chapter, Capitol Crimes. Those organizations as well as Crime Writers of Color have been invaluable resources.
Q: Where is your favorite spot to sit down and plot, write, and edit your work?
A: I don’t really have a favorite place to write, unless you count any decent hotel room where I can work undisturbed from morning to night. We have a small house that’s over a hundred years old, so I write in the kitchen. It started during the pandemic when the kids were in Zoom school. One daughter was in her bedroom, the other in the dining room, so I worked at the kitchen table. It’s actually very convenient because I can also keep an eye on dinner or bake while I write.
Q: What’s it like being a senior writer at Sacramento State writing newspaper stories? It all sounds so exciting!
A: I’m a writer for University Communications at Sacramento State, and I write stories for the official website that amplify the great things our faculty and students are doing. I’m very fortunate because I love my day job. I get a lot of satisfaction from the work I do. Telling stories about professors and their research or students who have overcome insurmountable odds to graduate with honors is very fulfilling. Some stories I’ve covered have even inspired ideas for my mysteries.
I also really love working on a college campus. It’s a beautiful setting with trees and walkways. When I get stuck on a story, I take a walk and clear my head. Plus, there are four coffee places on campus.