Guest host Julie Chavez interviews author Jamie Day about The Block Party, a delicious, nail-biting, ingeniously plotted whodunnit about an affluent, seemingly peaceful cul-de-sac and the murder that happens at their block party. Jamie reveals the magic in his shifting POVs and the brilliant author he tried to emulate in his writing. He also shares the childhood neighborhood memories that inspired this novel and explains how he combined relatable characters, conflict, rom-com, suspense, and juicy community message boards to make it compulsively readable.


Julie Chavez: Jamie, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to talk about your book. I’m so excited you’re here.

Jamie Day: Thank you so much. It is really a thrill and pleasure to be here.

Julie: I am excited because I read The Block Party yesterday. You should know that I was walking around the house with it in my left hand while I was doing things. I read it cover to cover. I loved it. After I finished reading it, I thought, how do I sum this up? It’s sometimes hard for me, especially with a book like this. I don’t want to give too much away. This book was satisfying.

Jamie: I don’t know if there’s higher praise. One time, somebody once said “highly readable” about a book of mine. I thought, is that praise? Highly readable? Then I thought, actually, it is. That’s the goal. The goal is not to make you work hard. The goal is to entertain, enthrall, captivate your imagination, and just keep you turning the pages going, what’s going to happen next? It’s really high praise to say at the end of that journey. I never take it for granted. I’m asking you to spend an awful lot of time with something that came out of my head. I never take that for granted. I always think about, what’s the experience I want you to have? Satisfied and satisfying is just a terrific description of what I’d be after, a terrific word for what I’m after. Thank you.

Julie: It’s my pleasure. You definitely achieved it. It was so interestingly expressed and woven. I was invested. There’s just so much to talk about today without even giving anything away. I have to say, I typically can see things coming. This one had a lot of twists that I didn’t see coming. I think it was Sally Hepworth that said people will devour this book. That’s how I felt about it.

Jamie: I’m hoping this is your summertime, poolside, good time read. That is exactly what I was after. It’s a bit of a magic trick. That’s part of the craft. You’re really trying to create something that says, can I play fair and lead you in certain directions but give you all the answers? Everything’s there for you, but yet you still struggle to put it all together at the very end. That’s the crafty part. That’s the magic trick part. Honestly, that’s really part of the fun for me as a writer.

Julie: That’s such a good way to put it. It is a magic trick because the best books, you don’t see the magician. You don’t see the author, necessarily. Of course, in memoir. In a novel, there is sort of this disappearing act. You definitely pulled it off. Also, what’s interesting about this book is the way that you wove the perspectives. Some is written in the first person. Some is written in the third person.

Jamie: There’s a reason for that. There’s a very good reason that I made that choice. I could tell you why that —

Julie: — I would love to hear that. I thought you were going to just dangle that in front of me. I’m not telling.

Jamie: This is one that I’m going to reveal. This is a magician trick I’ll reveal. Lettie is the character that was first person. Lettie is a teenager. She’s a high school senior. Rising senior I guess is what they say. She’s going into her final year in high school. The book opens in the summertime. She is suspended from school for something that she did. It’s really the start of her journey. The name Lettie, by the way — this is kind of a fun story. I don’t think that name actually exists. I sat down to write the book. I’m like, I got to name this character. What’s her name? Lettie pops into my head. I’m like, is that even a name? I think it should be a name. Is there anybody named Lettie? I really couldn’t find the origin of the name Lettie. I don’t think there’s a lot of people named Lettie. Maybe it is, but it’s not a very popular name. I gave her this backstory. Her given name is Elizabeth. She couldn’t pronounce it as a young kid, so she called herself Lettie-beth. Then it just stuck as Lettie. The thing about Lettie is, as a teenager, what is she saying versus what is she thinking? I have a teenage daughter. Oftentimes, she speaks in monosyllabic kinds of — I believe some of them are words. Some of them are noises.

I can interpret them. I can know what she’s saying, always. I can see the hidden meaning. I have to study facial expressions and eyebrow twitches and all that. I can see what she’s trying to say. Every now and again, she just opens up. She gives me this peak into her inner world. It’s profoundly complex. It’s so much deeper than I realized. It’s so much more aware and insightful and magical in a lot of ways. I’m just sometimes in awe of what she knows, what’s going on behind the curtain, if you will. I realized if I’m going to tell the story, Lettie’s story, I have to be able to give you the verbal Lettie but also give you that inner world. It’s really hard to do the inner world if you’re not in that character’s head. That’s why I chose to write her first person. For her mother, who’s the other main protagonist, Alex, she’s got her own struggles. She’s really struggling with alcohol. That automatically removes you a little bit from your own experience. The alcohol does. From that standpoint, I really wanted the alcohol to represent a barrier between Alex and herself. That barrier is why I said I could tell her story in third person, Lettie’s in first. I think that’s the right thing for this book.

Julie: I am amazed to hear that. Just listening to you talk about it, I’m like, that’s absolutely the way it needed to be done. I’m so impressed. You’re exactly right. Teenagers, they’re so inscrutable, but their world underneath is so much — we talk about things like puppy love or teen whatever. You forget it’s so real, so intense, their world is. You’re right, they’re cagey.

Jamie: Those are great words, inscrutable, cagey. Excellent, excellent word choices. The thing that I didn’t want to do is I didn’t want to downplay her. Sometimes people, maybe they’ll read her character and say she’s too mature for a teenager. I would just counter that by saying you don’t know the teenager’s inner world. You don’t know how smart they are. You don’t know how adult they actually are. Most of the non-adultness of a teen manifests in behavior where you would kind of say, I wouldn’t have done that. Then there’s some pieces that are emotional immaturity. Their ability to process and analyze and interpret and intuit is as strong as an adult’s, I believe. It’s just not as mature.

Julie: That makes sense. They’re still sharpening those tools, but they have them all.

Jamie: They’re sharpening those tools. It’s all there. I didn’t want to downplay her or make her less than. I put some care into giving her both that sharp adult view of the world, but yet, the way you put it, the tool isn’t quite as sharp as it’s going to be. She’s just in that phase of figuring it out.

Julie: You did such a great job with that, and also the relationship between Lettie and Alex and the ways that they both make themselves visible to each other and hide from each other and then how that interacts with the rest of what’s happening around them. It’s just masterfully done. To your earlier point when you were saying it’s readable, it is readable. That’s the reason I was able to just go through it so quickly. That’s not a, yay, I took your wonderful life work and read it super fast. It was more like, I wanted to keep turning the pages. I love when I can read smooth like that. Your writing is very smooth but also very thoughtful. I think it’s going to be a great poolside read.

Jamie: That’s what we want, yes. That really was the mission of the book. I’m a huge fan — full disclosure, I think Liane Moriarty’s amazing. She is the writer of Big Little Lies. She wrote Nine Perfect Strangers. What she can do that I admire and want to emulate, honestly, is she can do so much with so little. It’s really hard to do. With Stephen King, who said, I would’ve written you a — maybe it wasn’t Stephen King. Maybe I just am ascribing it to him. I don’t know who said it. I would’ve written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.

Julie: That’s so true.

Jamie: It’s really a tricky part of the craft, to be able to express complex interpersonal relationships, dynamics, emotions, and what have you simply, quickly, effectively, and to convey a lot with a little. That always is impactful for a reader. That was a mission of mine in this book. I’m glad to hear that it seems like mission accomplished. I don’t ever want to say that, but it seems like you picked up on something that was very important to me as the writer.

Julie: I’m so glad. It was obvious there on the page. It’s funny you say that because I did think this does have — I would recommend it to someone that liked Big Little Lies. That’s always my go-to when somebody says, recommend me a book. I’m like, tell me one you liked. I would completely put this in that wheelhouse.

Jamie: The other piece, I would say, it also combines Big Little Lies with Desperate Housewives. I don’t know if you that show.

Julie: It does have Desperate Housewives vibes. Oh, man, I binge-watched that season when my first son was an infant. I have very fond memories of Desperate Housewives.

Jamie: It’s just that tone, that light-hearted tone. I’ll give you a little background on how this book came to be.

Julie: Please do. Yes, that’s great.

Jamie: My editor Jen and I, we usually brainstorm ideas. We’ll get on the phone. We’ll just talk about different ideas, different settings, different kicking-off points for a book. Sometimes it’s a title. Sometimes she’ll suggest a title. In this case, Jen was talking about her neighborhood block parties where she grew up, the barbeques and the lawn games and all that. It reminded me of my childhood. I grew up in that time when we got off the bus, went right home, got on our bikes, got together with our friends, rode around, played football in the backyard or other hide-and-seek games. We would gather on the street as a little neighborhood. They were all my best friends on the street. We were just a collective. As a kid, it was idyllic. It was fun. It was just what I knew. Then I become an adult, and I realize, oh. I see my neighborhood differently now because I know what’s happened to all those people. There was divorce. There was alcoholism. There was infidelity. There was all these dramas unfolding out of view behind the closed doors. When Jen mentioned the neighborhood block party and I thought about my own street, I thought this is a great place to set up a story where it’s both the idyllic and the nostalgia that we all can connect with as well as these darker forces at play. That was the kicking-off point, if you will, for why I wrote The Block Party. There was another piece to that that I was going to share with you. Then I got so caught up in my nostalgia and my memory. I forgot what it was.

Julie: I love it. We’ll loop back around. It’ll be fine. You’ll remember it later. I love hearing that, though, about how people come up with ideas. Especially for a novel, that has always intimidated me. How do you think of what you’re going to write about? Just taking something like that, especially something where there’s a disparity between what you see and what’s actually happening, that delta right there, there’s always so much in there that you can write about and explore.

Jamie: For book fans — everybody listening to this is obviously a book fan. For the writers that are also listening, the engine of a story is conflict. Without conflict, your story just can’t move forward. Really, what you’re always looking to do is create relatable characters but then interweave the conflicts between them. That is really how the story starts to take shape. All of the characters in the book, from the alcoholic mom to the rebellious teen daughter to the hyper-competitive neighborhood dad to the one everyone envies, all of these people have some kind of relatability to them. Then what you need to do as the writer is to find out, where are the points of conflict? Where can we have intersections come in where we can get the drama? That’s when you start to get people turning the page. You think you want to know the answer to the mystery, but really, what you want to know is, how do these little conflicts resolve? They’re conflicts that I’m familiar with in my life.

Julie: One hundred percent. I love that you used that word, relatable, because I never would’ve put my finger on it, that that’s what you need in those characters. Especially in this arena of realistic fiction, you want to read and see your neighbors and people you might know in there. That’s what really makes it so compelling too, is that it doesn’t feel far off from the neighborhood you know.

Jamie: I’m a big fan of Lee Child. I don’t know if this conversation will be out on video, but you probably can guess that I don’t look anything like Jack Reacher. I’m nothing like Jack Reacher. I’m the anti-Jack Reacher. Yet I can still relate to Jack Reacher, but it’s more fantasy. It’s aspirational. It’s what you could imagine yourself to be. In a book like this, if I put Jack Reacher in the neighborhood and I have your six-foot-five goliath who can do superhuman feats, it’s going to change how you relate to the story. Every single character, every single person has to be something that you can relate to. There’s the relationship between Lettie and the new boy who moves in across the street, Jay. We all know that unapproachable, mysterious person that we want to get to know better. They have little hints of danger to them. We’re kind of eager to dip our toe in that water and see what happens. Those are the kinds of characters I love to write because I just pull from my own life and my own life experience. I’ve lived long enough to have had plenty of encounters with plenty of different kinds of people.

Julie: Indeed. To your point, like you said, as you get older, you have a sense of all the different sorts of people that live in the world and inhabit it, and then understanding that interplay. Lettie wants to dip her toe in there. I will say, also, as a mom of teenagers, I was like, oh, my gosh, make good choices, everyone.

Jamie: I still say that to my kids. I have a nineteen-year-old. When he’s leaving the house to drive to wherever, I’m like, “Make good choices.” You can’t help but still always feel like the parent. At some point in that book, Lettie kind of realized that that is — her parents just care. Even if they do the wrong thing, say the wrong things, act the wrong way, they’re trying to do it from a place of love. At the end of the book, I want everyone to feel like you could have compassion, pretty much, for everybody, almost everybody. There’s some that you kind of can —

Julie: — Some less than others.

Jamie: Some less than others.

Julie: I think within this book, there are so many different characters to find compassion for, and some of which are surprising.

Jamie: Do you remember when you said we’d come around and I’d remember that thing?

Julie: Yes, I did. I knew it would happen. Here we go.

Jamie: Now it happened. Jen mentions the block party. I’m like, okay, let’s create the dark, mix it in with the light, really fun. This is around COVID time that I’m having this conversation. COVID’s pretty much still just everywhere. I couldn’t bring myself to write a dark story. I just didn’t want to do it. I kind of felt like there was a little voice guiding me, if you will, saying to lighten the tone. That’s really what I wanted to do with the book. I wanted to combine the relatable characters, the nostalgia for simpler days and simpler times, and then couple that with the behind-the-closed-doors stuff. Really, the tone of the book is very important. That’s something I want readers to know. You’re not going to go into this getting this propulsive feeling of dread. A lot of these darker thrillers, around any corner is your imminent demise. I wanted it to feel more light and more summery in that way, a little bit more of a summer breeze, but that hint of menace was always there. I think that’s what Liane does beautifully as well in her books. There’s just an undercurrent of menace, but yet you never felt like you left the breezy world of the privileged parents trying to guide their young progeny through grammar school or whatever, wherever they were in Big Little Lies.

Julie: You’re exactly right, though. I never even thought about that. For certain books, if they are too dark, it’s too stressful for me. You’re exactly right that after COVID, I think we’ve seen an explosion in romance. We’ve seen people need —

Jamie: — Rom-coms. Rom-coms are everywhere now. I actually think this book straddles the world of rom-com and suspense. I don’t know if there’s a lot of books like that out there. I’d be fine if it starts a trend. Let’s go. Let’s get more of these books out there.

Julie: Yes. The thing that I really liked about it was its depth. Just looping back around, we were talking about the lives of teenagers. That was something you did so well because the characters really do feel very not only relatable, but believable. I believe that what they’re doing makes sense to who they are, whether or not I want them to do that. I want them to make different choices sometimes, but that’s just how I read a book, like a weird control freak.

Jamie: Thank you, by the way, for that. A tricky thing with this particular novel is there’s not three characters. This is a neighborhood. We are at the end of a cul-de-sac. We have house one, house two, house three, house four. I think there could be fifteen characters. They all play an important role in the story. It’s a multilayered role that some of them play. To be able to keep the plot going, advance the story, and deliver all these characters but still have them be relatable and yet distinct enough that you can remember them, that was tricky. I have to say, it was a big bite of the apple that I took. There were moments while I was writing it where I’m chewing on the apple going, it’s too big a bite. It’s too big a bite.

Julie: I love that game, when I’m sitting in front of the computer thinking, this is never going to work.

Jamie: Right? You just go, how am I going to pull this off? It’s one of those books, also, where it goes back in time, and not only goes back in time, but I think it’s a year. We do an entire year.

Julie: Yes, an entire year. I really like how you sectioned the book, though. It made it really easy to track. Otherwise, I think that really would’ve gotten confusing because we’re talking about a Memorial Day block party, and then we’re going back. I also really liked how you used the community message boards. Those really made me laugh. They were perfectly placed where they were. You have it divided into the seasons.

Jamie: I did it by season. That’s right.

Julie: The message boards that are in there and everything, it was a delight to read.

Jamie: Thank you. Good to talk about those because those were great. I don’t mean that as, I’m so great.

Julie: You are, but still, I understand.

Jamie: Community message boards are great.

Julie: They’re incredible.

Jamie: Mary Higgins Clark once said — I’ve taken this to heart. She said if you’re a crime writer and you don’t read The New York Post, you’re not doing your job. I have a literary exterior but a tabloid heart. It’s what I love. I am endlessly fascinated by people and endlessly fascinated by their choices, by their words, by how they defend themselves, by how they attack, by how they retreat, all of it. It’s endlessly amusing to me. I’ll go on community boards in my town and just read. I’m a lurker. I’m lurking on there. I’m like, OMG. There was a time where, I admit, I fully admit — I am making a confession. I engaged. I was out there. I was putting my opinion out there just like these — I am reformed. It has been, I don’t even know how many months since my last post. I am out of the game of engaging, but I have not lost my love of reading these people. What I realized I had to do — there was a couple things that were happening. One is, I’m going back. I’m doing a year. That’s hard to do, to keep a story going over a year. The seasons seem like a very natural way to divide our time. We’re all familiar with how the seasons determine our actions, our behaviors, our events, our happenings. I could build a world around the changing of the seasons. Then I realized, hey, the book starts — I’ll give this away.

The book starts with a murder. It’s very clear, or a crime, we should say. It starts with a crime. Then we soon find out right after, it’s a homicide in a sleepy little place called Meadowbrook, Massachusetts. Now, Meadowbrook does not exist. There is no town on Google Maps called Meadowbrook, Massachusetts. I did that because I really wanted this to be Anywhere/Everywhere, USA. I knew as we were going through the different seasons that we were going to lose the sight of the fact that a terrible crime has taken place. That’s really the big part of the plot of the book, and so we had to keep coming back to the crime. The community forums started to function as my Greek chorus. They were the ways that I could bring you back into, hey, it’s a crime. Hey, something terrible has happened. Let’s not forget about why we’re here. Let’s remember why we’re here. Then they gave me an opportunity to show the interplay between just ardent friends and neighbors, so a little bit more of that relatability. We have the antagonist, the gossip, the “completely out in left field, not following the conversation” person. We have all these different characters who are really characters that we’re familiar with from our own community forums. That really adds to the idea that this story could take place in your town. That’s what I wanted as well from the book. The forums were super important for that.

Julie: I really am appreciating hearing all this. It’s so satisfying. It’s so readable. That is because of all the thought and intention that you had behind it and that you’ve put into it. Listening to you talk about, really, the art of storytelling is so fascinating for me. I am just loving hearing about this.

Jamie: That’s the joy for me. How I can capture a reader and make them fall in love with a story, it’s just such a magic trick. It’s just full of endless possibility. The thought that has to go into every word and every paragraph and every scene and how it all has to weave together and then how it all has to make sense in the end and how you have to keep turning the pages — back to any writers out there listening to this, you have to remember you’re asking somebody to spend six, seven hours with you. I don’t know how long it took you to read the book, but it’s not like watching a movie. It’s more like you’re binging at least half the season of something. That’s a lot of ask. I have a hard time making breakfast, doing the laundry, getting to the gym, getting to my computer, walking the dog. My day is full. I just always remember I’m asking a lot of you, the reader. I’m always going to keep that front and center as I’m going through my day and my work to say, how do I make this work for you? How do I make this work for you?

Julie: That’s really neat to hear about the way that you keep the reader in mind. That’s a really lovely sentiment. You’re right, for writers out there, it’s an important one as well. That’s a good way to keep centered on, what am I trying to do here?

Jamie: The other thing it allows you to do is — there’s a phrase in the writing community called kill your darlings. It’s really about when you love something and somebody says, hey, this isn’t working. Can you let it go? You’ve fallen in love with a character, and you have to kill the character. That was always the intended meaning of it. You’ve written somebody you love so much. Now you have to kill them. I’ve always looked at it like, I will wipe out what I’ve done if there’s a better way to — if somebody can show me a better way to do it, I’m down. That’s the commercial fiction writer in me, the one who’s willing to say, it’s not about me. It’s about the reader. Whatever it takes to deliver for the reader is what I’m going to do. I have my trusted circle. I have my advisors, my proofreaders, my editor. These are the people I go to. When they tell me, “This isn’t working. This is what I think would work better,” I listen to what they say. Then I can figure out, okay, how can I actually implement it? That’s the rewriting work. Writing is rewriting.

Julie: That’s such a good way to think of it, kind of practicing the art of nonattachment with that, if I can be its creator and also the person who releases it to be whatever it’s meant to be. It’s no wonder there are so many parenting metaphors about books too, or child metaphors. It is so true. They’re ours for a time, and then they’re going to go, hopefully, live their lives and maybe call us.

Jamie: If my book calls me, I might need some additional help. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. Yes, with my kids, I do want my kids to call me. Once I’ve released the book, once my editor says, “Okay, this is good,” it’s not mine anymore. It now belongs to some other thing. I just let it go. I don’t own it. I just always want to do the best I can for the reader, for the reader, for the reader. In this case, I’m looking for readers who want to be entertained, enthralled, invested, and ultimately, surprised.

Julie: I cannot wait for everyone to read The Block Party so that I can talk to them about it. Thank you for this time. This was such a thoughtful, valuable conversation. I know it’s going to stay with me. Thank you.

Jamie: Such a pleasure. I really enjoyed it. Thank you, everybody, for your time and attention. It means a ton to me. Thank you.


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