I frequently receive emails from Twitter with suggestions about people I might like to follow. I received such an email not long ago, and read this profile: “I love words and car racing. By day, I’m a software documentation manager, and by night, I’m the author of a mystery series about a female racecar driver.” I’m not sure what software documentation manager even means, but the rest of it sure got my attention. I love words. I love racing. I wrote a mystery novel about a racecar driver, gender notwithstanding. The above profile belongs to Tammy Kaehler, and I realized immediately she was someone I wanted to get to know.
Like me, Kaehler has never competed on a racetrack. I don’t do it because of an eyesight condition. She doesn’t do it because, rather ironically, she’s terrified of driving fast. That certainly hasn’t’ slowed her down when it comes to writing great books. Tammy Kaehler is the author of three Kate Reilly Racing Mysteries. Her debut novel, Dead Man’s Switch, received high praise from Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, Los Angeles Magazine, Kirkus,and a host of others. Breaking Points, the second book in the series, was named Best Motorsports Book of 2013 by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association. When she’s not at the racetrack, you’ll likely find her reading, writing, and consuming large quantities of caffeine and chocolate. Thankfully, she still found some time to answer a few of my questions. Here’s what she had to say.
Q: Racing is a male dominated sport yet the vast majority of book buying adults are women. Was that ever a concern to you when you were writing the first Kate Reilly novel?
A: I write the books I want to read. So, no, it was never a concern that women might be interested in the male-dominated racing world—because I am!
But of course, there’s reality to consider. The first agent I ever contacted to pitch the book (at least the first one to respond) told me that he (yes, he) wasn’t interested because a female racecar driver sounded “too butch” to appeal to female readers. In addition, I’m aware that racing isn’t always an easy sell to female readers who might think, “racing? no thanks” without listening to me or looking into the books. Similarly, I struggle sometimes to convince racing fans that they’d like fiction about racing. And that they’d like it starring a female driver.
But, you know, a writer needs to write what he or she wants to write. And I wanted to write about the racing world, as well as about a woman who kicks ass. I figure if I simply keep at it, I’ll keep finding my audience!
Q: You came into fiction writing as a sports fan but not necessarily a big racing fan. The learning curve must have been tremendous. How did you handle that in the early going when you had an idea and an inspiration but a whole lot of blank pages in front of you?
A: By the time I started writing, I’d gone through most of a season as part of a racing team (the sponsor/marketing part, but part of it, regardless). I’d absorbed a lot of detail by that point. From there, I asked lots of questions, read lots of blogs and articles, and watched lots of racing on television, making notes throughout. Plus I have a secret weapon: a husband who’s a mechanical engineer and a lifelong car guy. He’s always on hand to help me work out technical details.
But you’re right, it was—and still is!—a big learning curve. The more I write, the more I realize I don’t know. The short answer is that I toss in as much as I know (as much as makes sense to include in the story) with each book, and then I go out and learn more for the next one.
Q: Why do you think racing and fiction are such a good match?
A: I think the drama, tension, and high emotion/adrenaline of racing competition are just made for fiction, and particularly made for murder mysteries. One of the reasons I was so fascinated by the racing world as a subject for my own stories was the contrast between all that drama and the friendly, family atmosphere that exists in the paddock. The racing world is truly a very warm and welcoming place, which provides a great balance for the highs and lows of a story.
Q: What should thriller fans unfamiliar with Tammy Kaehler know about you, your work, and the Kate Reilly character?
A: You’re going to learn something about the racing world—and it’s going to be accurate and fascinating. I’ve had people in the industry tell me that I really do portray the type of people and the world convincingly, which is precisely my goal. So you’ll get a feeling of what it’s really like in the paddock, in the car, and in a race—all from the safety of your own home! That’s part of what I wanted to do: give people a safe glimpse at such an extreme, exciting, and dangerous world.
You’re also going to read about an outsider trying to make her way in a world that she might not think she belongs in. It’s the “fish out of water” scenario, one that I think we all experience at some point in our lives. Kate’s going to stumble along the way—as we do—but I can promise you, she’ll ultimately find success.
Q: In terms of your books, what would you say to the race fan who only wants to read non-fiction (something I have experienced as well), or the fiction fan who has no interest in racing or sports?
A: For the race fan, I’d tell them it’s another way to experience the race weekend away from the track and at their convenience. I’d suggest they try something new and get a taste for how the racing world could be … but like you, I’ve encountered the reaction and sometimes there’s no changing someone’s habits!
For mystery or other fiction readers with no interest in racing or sports, I talk about the strong female role model in my books, and I talk to them about why I love reading fiction: because I get to explore hobbies, locations, and types of people I’d never normally meet. My books are a way for readers to do the same.
Q: Do you have any writing plans beyond your current series?
A: I don’t have any other writing plans beyond Kate Reilly, as yet. I can certainly imagine developing some—if an idea comes to me that is too good to pass up—but I don’t have any plans as yet.
Q: Were there any books or authors that especially influenced your own work?
A: Dick Francis is my biggest inspiration. I have always loved his mysteries, which combine interesting puzzles, great characters, and a glimpse inside the world of steeplechase racing. I’d like to be the Dick Francis of auto racing—of course, with a female protagonist.
In addition, I’ve always been a fan of Agatha Christie, because I appreciate the gentle, cerebral kind of problem-solving she offers (in contrast to other energetic, run-all-over, action-hero approaches, which I also like). Nancy Drew was also an early role model (for my character), because she’s a plucky female who’s always ready to tackle a challenge. I hope my protagonist can live up to those examples!
Q: What would you say is your biggest strength and weakness as an author?
A: My mother-in-law tells me I have too many characters in my books! I understand her point, but to accurately portray the racing world, I’ve got to populate my books with a whole lot of different people with different backgrounds, roles, and interests. And I think that’s also my strength—at least, my portrayal of that world is. I think I manage to convey an accurate flavor of what the paddock and a team culture are like. It might not be a world everyone wants to live in, but it’s an interesting place to visit on the page.
Q: I saw a video on YouTube in which you describe yourself as a pantser. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “pantser”is a discovery writer or one who flies by the seat of one’s pants rather than outlining and planning ahead. Has your style/approach changed any as you’ve gone along?
A: My approach has changed from my first book. As I’ve gone on, I’m doing more and more planning ahead of time. I can’t say that I’ve fully planned out the book I’m currently working on, but I did a lot of character profiling and planning of clues before starting. The truth is that I hate the panic I feel when I reach the 2/3 point and don’t know what the hell is going to happen … so I’m doing more and more thinking and planning ahead of time, with each book. But the jury’s still out if I’ll make it through the first draft minus the panic this time around!