Jennifer Herrera, THE HUNTER

Jennifer Herrera, THE HUNTER

Zibby interviews literary agent and debut author Jennifer Herrera about The Hunter, an expertly plotted, richly atmospheric, and truly haunting suspense novel about a detective who loses her job and her husband and is forced to move back to her small Ohio hometown, where three men have suspiciously drowned. Jennifer discusses the themes she loved exploring: broken marriages, tricky adult sibling relationships, and reversed gender stereotypes (hence a detective with a very intuitive female sense of the world and three male victims!). She also talks about her career in publishing, the books she’s reading, and balancing motherhood, a full-time job, and writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jennifer. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Hunter.

Jennifer Herrera: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Of course. I love your tagline. “Small towns hold big secrets.”

Jennifer: It’s true.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

Jennifer: Absolutely. The story follows a detective, Leigh O’Donnell, who makes a really big mistake. She points her sidearm at a suspect and lets him get away. When she does this, it just destroys her whole life. Her husband leaves her. She loses her job with the NYPD. She feels like she is completely adrift. She doesn’t even know why she did it. Then she gets this call from her brother in her hometown in small-town Ohio. He says there are these three suspicious deaths. Can she come and investigate? Now she gets it in her head that if she does this, that her husband will come back to her. She’ll get her job back with the NYPD. This crumbling life that she has will just suddenly reconstitute itself. Of course, it’s not so easy. When going home, she has to deal with all of this emotional baggage she’s been avoiding for forever. As it turns out, once she deals with this baggage, she’s going to be able to gain insight into the case as well as insight into why she made that really big mistake.

Zibby: Very interesting. I have to say, I had to read to the end to figure out all the different threads and what happened. I was definitely not expecting what happened, so there you go.

Jennifer: Good, good, good. Nobody has guessed it so far, which makes me really proud.

Zibby: I have to say, one of the many themes in the book that really resonated with me as a mom who’s divorced and who has to share custody — having to share her daughter with Eric, her spouse, and the difficulty they were going through with the marriage and even passing her in the lobby and trying to discuss on the side, all these things — wait, what? You’re going on vacation? What’s that about? The way you wrote it, too, something like, “They were going up. My family was going up. They couldn’t hear me. I was going somewhere else,” it just was heartbreaking the way you wrote that. Tell me a little bit more about that piece of the puzzle.

Jennifer: I loved this idea of somebody who loves her family so passionately, but she has this separation from them. They have these different realities. She has to cross that bridge to get to them. She doesn’t know how to do it. I feel like anybody who’s been in a relationship feels that way. You and your spouse or you and your partner have these different life experiences. Because we don’t always have the language to describe why we are the way we are, that means sometimes your family rides to an elevator, to a different plane where you can’t access them. You feel like, how do you get to them? How do I get to them? That is the journey of this book for her. How does she get to her family? That felt really real to me. To be in a relationship for a really long time is really, really hard. It’s really hard. I’ve been with my husband since I was nineteen. We’ve certainly been through some ups and downs. Because it’s so hard, I wanted to represent a book that captured not just the lustful stages of a relationship, but the stages where it could break. If you’re not careful, it will break. Maybe it is breaking. Then to ask yourself the question of, do we really want this? If we do really want this, how do we mend these gaps?

Zibby: It’s so funny. I just did this retreat over the weekend. We did a Fierce Women retreat. One of the women at the end was saying something about, “My husband gave me this great advice.” Then she was like, “I have a really good husband. I’ve tried to divorce him three times, but he just won’t let me.” She wasn’t really kidding about it either. She’s like, “He just won’t let me leave him.”

Jennifer: I feel like you need somebody like that because at some point, it gets really hard. Somebody has to convince you, okay, we can do this. It’s worth it to do this. It feels great to do this.

Zibby: I don’t know. I got divorced, so I can’t really speak to that.

Jennifer: Not with every relationship, obviously.

Zibby: No, I know. I’m kidding. I feel like that doesn’t just apply to marriage either. Friendships go through all those kinds of twists and turns as well. It’s really anything, your relationship with your family. That’s another theme in your book, too, with the sibling relationship. Adult sibling relationships are not written about enough, I feel like. Sometimes. This ecosystem of her and her brothers and what it means to go back to the place where you were when you had another identity — all of us have our own family-of-origin identities. Then we like to think we’re so different in the world. Then we go back, and we’re just the same as we were before. It’s really her brothers, especially Logan — Logan? Rogan? Logan.

Jennifer: Ronan.

Zibby: Ronan — sorry, I’m so bad with names — whose determination to get her back pays off. The way he entices her and then how he is there with her through the whole narrative and really wanting her to succeed, it’s really neat to see that depiction, particularly sister-brother relationships too. Tell me about deciding to do that.

Jennifer: It’s something I think a lot about too because I have a small baby at home and I have a three-year-old, so I have siblings. Future siblings, I guess, because right now, they’re not really aware of each other outside of, this is the big one who screams, and this is the little one who’s my toy. Eventually, they’ll develop a relationship. I think sibling relationships are so tricky. You grow up, and sometimes you’re in competition with each other. Sometimes you feel like they have your back, like they’re your whole world. It’s at both extremes constantly. At the same time, they’re your blood. They’re always going to be around. I really wanted to depict a person who has a tricky relationship with her siblings. That’s not because either of them is “a bad person.” It’s just, again, when they were young, they had these gaps in experience where they saw the world in completely different ways. They were becoming people in their own rights. They didn’t necessarily check in with the other person because they were kids. How do you, as adults, go back and revisit those times and say, “This is where it went wrong. This is how we can grow and have a real adult relationship from this”? My mom has three brothers, just like Leigh’s mom in The Hunter. Those three brothers are the closest people in her whole world. I was always fascinated growing up. How do you get to that point where your brothers are your best friends? For me, I wanted to show that point as being possible for Leigh, that she can get to that point where even if she’s been estranged from her family for so long, she can have that closeness.

Zibby: Your mom has three brothers. Do you have brothers?

Jennifer: I have a brother and a sister.

Zibby: A brother and a sister, awesome. Very cool. I have a brother too. It’s really awesome. I don’t know how to encapsulate that whole relationship in a sentence, but there you go. You used to be a literary agent. Now you are a novelist. Tell me what that transition has been like. What even made you want to write a novel?

Jennifer: I’m actually still a literary agent.

Zibby: Oh, you are? Sorry.

Jennifer: I know it’s so confusing with my bio, but I am still a literary agent. I started off working in publishing when I was in grad school. I was in grad school for philosophy in California, in Orange County. I really hated it. I love California. I hated grad school. It was not a place where I really wanted to thrive or I felt capable of thriving. I had a professor who was working on a book. He wanted some help with it. I started doing that. Somebody asked me to ghostwrite their book, which was fun. I was like, oh, this is a job. We moved to New York City. My poor husband, I was picking him up from LAX one day, and I was like, “I think we need to move to New York so I can work in publishing.” He said, “Maybe.” I was like, “Okay, so we’re doing it.” I just started making plans.

Zibby: Hence the marital terrain that we have to navigate. I see the beginnings of the cracks here.

Jennifer: Oh, yes. There are many cracks along the way.

Zibby: When I steamrolled my husband into moving to New York…

Jennifer: It wasn’t the first time either. I moved us to Missouri. I moved us to California. Then I moved us to New York. The poor man, but he’s still here. We get to New York. I start working in publishing. I just really love it. I found that a lot of my curiosity that I had about ideas that really drew me to grad school in the first place could be exercised in publishing. I work in mostly nonfiction. I get to explore ideas that I’ve never heard about before or things that I want to know about, things that I think my mom would want to read about or my dad would want to read about, or my friends would. I do all of that nonfiction stuff. That’s really exciting. I still have this creative side of me that really wanted to do something else. For me, I think a crime novel felt like the really natural extension of that because I’ve always loved crime books. I think that there’s something very comforting about, you start off with this ghastly murder, and then a plucky detective arrives on the scene. You get this clean resolution that gives you this very real psychological benefit of feeling as though the world is under control again. All is right.

For me, though, I felt like a lot of the detective novels I read really centered this very masculine world where you had either a male detective or you had a female detective who felt very male. What I wanted to do was to create a detective who felt very female to me. I had just started writing this right after I had my first child. I was very aware of the things about me that were very, very female and that were very, very powerful, and one of those being this very deep intuition. You know when something’s wrong with your kid even if they’re not showing any symptoms. They don’t have a fever. They don’t have any of the signs. You’re like, something is wrong. You’re right. Almost always, you’re right. I wanted to create a detective who has that same intuitive sense of the world, that very female sense of the world. I wanted to have her use that as a way to solve crimes.

Zibby: By the way, I often think there’s something wrong with my kid. Let’s just say, caveat, if you have immense anxiety and you think that every little thing is something worth calling the doctor about, maybe you don’t always know. One of the things you did that’s really interesting, too, is — in most crime novels, the victims are women. I read a Q&A that you did about how — muscle mass — there’s a reason why. Women are perceived as easier to kill. Can’t fight back, whatever. You, here, have three men who are dead. The crime is to figure out who killed them by a woman. Talk about flipping that gender stereotype a little bit.

Jennifer: That has been one of the fun pieces of writing this book. When I sat down to write a crime novel, I had this idea that I wanted to create this very intuitive detective who’s very female. Then I closed my eyes, and I thought, who should die? I immediately pictured this young, beautiful woman. I thought, why did I do that? I really went back, and I started reading. Are women more likely to die from homicide than men? It turns out they’re not. Men are the victims in eighty percent of the homicides. Yet from my, admittedly, very imperfect analysis of the top-selling crime books, women are the victims three times the rate of male victims. The question becomes, why do we do this? There are lots of reasons we can give to that question. I don’t necessarily have the answer, but I knew that I wanted to correct that in the book that I was writing. I wanted to have the victims be male, to be able-bodied, to be very strapping and strong and young so that the question becomes, how could somebody kill three big dudes? I thought that that really created this deep sense of tension because it feels like an impossible act. Yet someone did it.

Zibby: Interesting. I love it. Can you go back for two seconds? When you’re a literary agent for nonfiction, what are some of the books you’ve worked on?

Jennifer: Some really exciting ones. I did a book that came out this past summer called What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us. That’s a book about how we change in the wake of catastrophic events where we have a before and an after so that the person we used to be is no longer the person that we later become. That has been really exciting. The writer wrote for The New Yorker, for The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, a really skilled writer. I also represent, her name is Gayle Jessup White. She is related to both Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. She works at Jefferson’s Monticello. Her book is about trying to gain legitimacy for both sides of her life, both sides of her lineage, and how she was able to use that to help bring Sally Hemings’ story more into the light. Things like that. I have a bunch of ones that are upcoming. Books that tackle these really big ideas about identity I think are really fascinating, especially as we are trying to make sense of ourselves as a culture, as a world.

Zibby: I’m getting a little concerned about all the murder in your fiction and the things you’re acquiring. I don’t know. I might just take a couple steps back on my next .

Jennifer: Fair, fair. I’ve heard writers of detective fiction say that they are the calmest, chilliest people because they’ve exorcised all their demons on the page. They have no baggage with the world.

Zibby: I love that. Are you the type of person who’s always looking for the understory? Not the understory. That’s not even a real word. To be a detective and to be always searching for other answers and really reading people and figuring out things that other people aren’t seeing, of course, you need to do a little of that to write a novel to begin with. Where do you think that comes from?

Jennifer: I think it’s part of my personality, first off. I’m always very fascinated with who people are underneath. I had read somewhere that we have three ways of experiencing the world: our actual experiences, how we describe those experiences to other people, and then the story we tell ourselves. Each of those things, we think, would line up with the thing itself, but it doesn’t always. For me, I think that one of the things I’m really interested in is figuring out why people do the things that we do, not just other people, but myself. Sometimes you yell at your spouse or your kid or something, and you’re like, what was that really about? We’re part of this therapy generation. We’ve all been taught to see the world in terms of who we used to be and to be on nodding terms with that person. As a result of that way of thinking, then it means that we always have those layers to our experience. Maybe that’s generational. Maybe two generations from now, nobody will go to therapy anymore. They might have a different way of seeing the world. Right now, we’re in this moment where we’re always trying to uncover past versions of ourselves to figure out who we are now and who we want to be in the future.

Zibby: That’s a great answer. Amazing. Tell me how you get stuff done with two little kids at home. You wrote this book. Now you’re doing all the publicity. Are you writing another book? How is life happening for you?

Jennifer: Oh, my god, that’s an amazing question. I don’t know. In a constant state of panic, I think. A constant state of panic. I have a full-time job. I have these two little kids who are amazing and so much fun and just ridiculous in all of the ways that little kids are ridiculous. I have a house that I guess has to get cleaned once in a while or something. For me, I think that I am so much better at every other aspect of my life if I can take some time during my day to write and to be inside my own head for a little bit. There are a lot of people who do yoga or meditation. I would love to be one of those people. I’m just not. This is what I do to take care of myself. I am working on another book. It is under contract with my publisher. The protagonist of this book, Leigh O’Donnell, will get another installment. That has been really fun to write as well. When I worked on the first book, I didn’t know there would be a second one. In fact, I hadn’t even planned on it. I thought, here is the most important part of her story, this singular moment where once she gets through this really tough time, then she’s not going to have any hard times for the rest of her life. That was the story I had told myself about my character. Then I started thinking more about how women’s stories work. Women’s stories work in cycles a lot of times. Our bodies work in cycles. Our way of growing is a cycle for growing into ourselves, for being a mother, for beyond that. I wanted to create another cycle for Leigh’s story. Now she’s healed this one thing about herself. What’s the next way in which she has to grow? That being the impetus for the next story and for this next crime that she gets to uncover. There’s a dead body, I will say. At least one.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Are we going to stay in Ohio or go back to New York, anywhere?

Jennifer: We are going to go to Pennsylvania, actually. I’ve been really having a great time. I live in Philadelphia right now. I’ve been having a really fun time researching history in Philadelphia, yes, but in different parts of Pennsylvania. I’m from Ohio originally too, so Pennsylvania’s always felt very close to me. Researching, for instance, slate mining in Pennsylvania has been really fun. There are a lot of geographical features that you can bring into a story if you’re looking at a new place.

Zibby: My mom’s family is from Ohio, by the way. They’re from Dayton.

Jennifer: Oh, where are they in Ohio?

Zibby: From Dayton.

Jennifer: That’s amazing.

Zibby: I’ve watched the poor city go from being so glamorous — maybe it’s because I was a kid. Then now it’s just sad to see cities waning. It’s been hard. What part of Ohio are you from?

Jennifer: The same sort of situation. My parents are from Cleveland. For them, their families came through a chain migration through working in the car factories. One person would get a job at a car factory and then would bring over the rest of their family. They were really entrenched in that world. Then the factories haven’t, maybe, been employing people at the same rates as they used to, and so it has been a very declining city. My parents, when I was young, moved to a small town in rural Ohio, which has a different sort of decline. It has similarities to the town Copper Falls in my book, but there are a lot of ways in which it’s different. One of those is that the town I grew up in is a very farm-centric town. That has been interesting in a different way because it’s a bunch of family farms, and they’ve been fighting corporations coming in and wanting to turn their family farms into a giant dairy farm, and all of the ways in which that destroys the legacy. You see these people really hanging onto this old world. You have to respect that. You have to respect the ways in which they want to keep things small and keep things family and keep things private.

Zibby: Interesting. My brother produced this movie maybe ten years ago with Dennis Quaid and Zach Efron. If you need a movie, you should watch it. It’s about family farms and what happens when someone comes in.

Jennifer: That’s fantastic.

Zibby: I’m forgetting the name. Anyway, if you need a dose of home and you want to watch that.

Jennifer: I would love that. When I first started writing this in Ohio, I thought maybe I should incorporate farming. I was like, I know nothing about farming. My parents were the city slickers who moved to the small town. I can tell you that people rode tractors to schools and what kind of jeans people wore. Outside of that, I don’t have any information here.

Zibby: That’s the great thing about writing novels. You can choose to learn about anything you want. Any books, really. dive deep into that. What are you reading now?

Jennifer: This is one of those questions where — because I work in publishing, it’s such a big part of my job to read the best-sellers list constantly, to ask myself the question of, why are people reading this book? What are people expecting out of the future books that they’re going to read? How can I sell books into that marketplace? That’s my work brain. I also have my fun brain. My fun brain gets really excited about reading books that aren’t new because it means I can turn off that piece of myself that’s constantly working. In this case, I’m rereading a book that I read many times but that I still feel like I’m gaining insight from. That’s this older book, Women Who Run with the Wolves. That is a book about women’s stories and how they’re different, maybe, from men’s stories and how we have all been taught — at least, I was taught that you have this thing called the hero’s journey, and that is representative of everybody’s stories. That’s how we think about the world. That’s how we experience it. She really breaks down the different structures of stories that exist and, especially for women, what each of those story structures does for us at different places in our lives. That has been really exciting for me, to just go back to that and to keep mining it for information.

Zibby: You’ve got the wolves. You’ve got The Hunter. There’s definitely something primal about all these things. The murders.

Jennifer: Yeah, there is. I think that that is really exciting. How do you tap into that primal piece of yourself? I don’t know about you, but for me, my life is so removed from any of that. I want to know, would I feel more connected or would I feel more enlightened if I were able to access that part of me that everybody has but that we’ve been taught to suppress in order to be a part of a world?

Zibby: Maybe it’s because that primal piece of you has actually come up so much more after having kids.

Jennifer: You know, I think that’s probably true. One of the things that the protagonist, Leigh, has, she has a very heightened sense of smell.

Zibby: She can smell sweat. That’s crazy. I’m like, what does sweat even smell like?

Jennifer: When I was pregnant, I could smell sweat.

Zibby: Really? Oh, my gosh.

Jennifer: Yes. That’s how it felt for me. Giving her this very strong sense of smell felt very primal to me. It felt very connected to the parts of my life when I associated most closely with being a woman, and so being pregnant and breastfeeding and having that intensity of emotion and that strong sense of smell.

Zibby: Love it. Any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Jennifer: Parting advice for aspiring authors, one of the things that I think that I learned — I’ve wanted to be a writer for much longer than I’ve been a writer. It took a very long time for my tastes to line up with my skills, or my skills to line up with my tastes, I guess. I think that the most important advice I can give anybody is just to be really patient and to fall in love with the thing you do so that you’re less tied to what the outcome is. If you can be really patient with yourself and you can treat each thing that you write as a way for you to grow, not just as something for your reader to enjoy, then you’re never going to feel like you wasted your time regardless of the outcome. Eventually, people will connect to the thing that you say about your life or about other people’s lives that’s true. Just write something that’s true. People will find it.

Zibby: Love it. Jennifer, thank you so much. I’m so excited you’re doing an event at Zibby’s Bookshop. I’m sorry I won’t be there myself. By the time this airs, it will have happened, so people can just go look at pictures of you at the store or whatever. Really excited. Thanks for drawing on this primal, fierce energy we all have under there. Thanks.

Jennifer: Thank you. This has been so much fun.

Zibby: Good. Take care.

Jennifer: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Jennifer Herrera, THE HUNTER

THE HUNTER by Jennifer Herrera

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