From Revealing to Concealing

All through college and graduate school, my professors taught me to start with a strong thesis statement, get to the point, and development an argument. Over the years, as a philosophy professor, I’ve gained a reputation for my clear and concise writing style. In my nonfiction, I’m a pretty straight shooter with a talent for making complicated ideas seem simple.

The first thing I realized switching from nonfiction to fiction, especially mysteries, is that you ruin the suspense if you get right to the point. In side of going straight, you have to swerve, duck, evade, and meander. Building suspense is the opposite of building an argument, and in fiction the simple things become complicated. It’s boring to just blurt out the truth or describe a scene as if you were plodding through an argument. Instead, with mysteries, you have to hide the truth and dig into the dirt under your protagonist’s feet. You have to describe the gritty details of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Writing fiction forced me out of the senseless world of abstract ideas and into the sensuous world of bodies, especially bruised and bloodied bodies, hungry and tired bodies, and bodies struggling to survive. That’s not to say that philosophy is meaningless. Far from it. For me, philosophy is just as messy as sensation. And writing philosophy is very satisfying. But, these days fiction writing is a lot more fun.

Instead of writing about the ambiguities of life or the ethics of responding to others in need, I can show the complications of relationships through my character’s interactions. Rather than describing the world we actually live in, I can create a world, one where women are strong and work together to fight back against violence. I love to bring together a collection of quirky characters and spin out a good feminist revenge fantasy where sexist professors get murdered, rapist frat boys get their butts kicked, and human trafficking scumbags get a shotgun slug to the gut, and where every sleazy cat-call is answered by a clever comeback. In real life, corrupt businessmen may get away with exploiting the poor and vulnerable, but in fiction we can give them their just rewards and put them away in irons.

While I always inject some humor into my nonfiction, writing funny mysteries feeds the need for humor in my life. Even writing about murder, human trafficking, and rape, it’s important to keep a sense of humor. Without wit and comedy, life gets too depressing.


When she’s not writing Jessica James mystery novels, Kelly Oliver is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She earned her B.A. from Gonzaga University and her Ph.D. from Northwestern University. She is the author of thirteen scholarly books, ten anthologies, and over 100 articles, including work on campus rape, reproductive technologies, women and the media, film noir, and Alfred Hitchcock. Her work has been translated into seven languages, and she has published an op-ed on loving our pets in The New York Times. She has been interviewed on ABC television news, the Canadian Broadcasting Network, and various radio programs.

Kelly lives in Nashville with her husband, Benigno Trigo, and her furry family, Hurricane, Yukiyu, and Mayhem.