Kristen Ness joins Zibby to discuss her captivating and clever new novel, AT LOGGERHEADS. Kristen shares her lifelong passion for marine biology and how a sea turtle sighting inspired this book, which took a decade to write. She also delves into her novel’s themes (from family dynamics to political intrigue), her literary influences (@maryalicemonoe and @patconroyliterarycenter), and her current work on a suspense novel involving puffer fish toxins. Ultimately, she encourages aspiring writers to keep going and to draw inspiration from their favorite books.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kristen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss At Loggerheads: A Novel.

Kristen Ness: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here and talk to you.

Zibby: It’s so fun. It was so great that we met in Charleston. You were like, “I’ve got this book. What do you think?” We kept in touch. Now here it is. I feel this sense of, not ownership, but pride in you and all that’s happened in the last couple months. It’s amazing how fast things have gone.

Kristen: Yes, it has. It’s flown by. It was such a pleasure to meet you then. I just felt this immediate connection, like I know so many people do when they meet you. I’m so glad we kept in touch. Really appreciate you having me on your podcast so we can talk more. I just feel like we have so much to catch up on and talk about.

Zibby: I’m so excited. Let’s start with At Loggerheads. Thank you for the detailed explanation in the beginning for the term “at loggerheads” in case people didn’t know and how it also dovetails with the turtle. Tell listeners how you came up with the idea for this book and what the book is about.

Kristen: First of all, the book is about a murder that takes place on a fictional barrier island in South Carolina called Anders Isle. That brings together our main characters, Dr. Brooke Edens, who’s a sea turtle biologist, and the local detective, Drew Young, to unravel a mystery that might impact the race for the White House. You have some sea turtles and some murders, politics, and a romance. Definitely, a love story carries through it as well. I first got the idea for it — first of all, I just, from a very young age, have always been obsessed with marine biology and sea creatures. Growing up in South Carolina, we would come down to the coast, to the barrier islands here, Isle of Palms mostly. I was that kid out on the beach with my cast net dragging stuff out of the tidepools to see what I could find. Just always have been fascinated by all of that type of sea life. That was always a secret passion of mine. When it came time to do something about my other passion, which is writing, and I finally needed to come up with an idea thinking that I might attempt a novel-length book, it had to have something to do with sea creatures. I was searching for my idea and had a lot of free writing going on and just writing in my journal, the things that I would always do. I hadn’t really hit on that idea yet.

My mom and I were out at Isle of Palms walking on the beach. This was a while ago, probably fifteen years ago or so, when I first got the idea. I saw a sea turtle track for the first time where the female loggerhead — you’ve read my book, so you see this in the book — comes on shore to nest. She leaves this track on the sand that looks kind of like a bulldozer drove onto the beach. It’s very hard to miss, especially at low tide. I had never seen one in real life. My mom and I came across this. I thought, this is a turtle track. I’d seen pictures of it. The seed of an idea came to me. What might happen if there was this track going to the beach but there was no turtle, no nest, and no track going back to the ocean? Which is normally what you would see, either a nest or at least a track back to the ocean if she did what we call a false crawl and didn’t make a nest. This seed of an idea just popped into my head. I guess sometimes with writers, that happens when you’re thinking of ideas.

My book, obviously, isn’t science fiction, so the turtles aren’t flying away. They’re not mutant ninja turtles. I needed to come up with some story around this that would build into a fiction. I’ve always enjoyed the genres of murder mystery and suspense and thriller. I chose murder mystery as my vehicle to deliver the story and built the outline out over time and then sat down and just started writing it from page one. It took me about ten years, off and on, to write the first draft. There was a lot going on in life. A lot of things needed my attention. My book was something I would just come back to for a creative outlet and to visit those characters and escape into that world. About ten years ago, we moved down to Charleston. I was living in Charlottle when I started the book. I immediately joined the Sea Turtle Team so that I could see firsthand what that was like and get out there and help the sea turtles. That was the inception of the book and where it all went from there. Now here it is in real life.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. One thing that I thought you did in a really interesting way versus other murder mysteries, if you will — this doesn’t fit neatly into that category, which I liked. I liked that it had so many different things to it and that it wasn’t predictable in where it was going. Instead of starting off with a murder of a person, it takes us a little bit to get to the murder of the person. Instead, we start with the murder of a turtle. You humanize the turtle right away by showing us the turtle’s tears and what it does to — her name’s Diane, right? No, I got the name wrong.

Kristen: Yes.

Zibby: Diane, right? Okay. No, not Diane. The other girl.

Kristen: Brooke. Brooke is the main character.

Zibby: Brooke, sorry. What it does to Brooke in terms of her emotions and how she’s even willing to rope in her ex, who becomes this huge character in the book, because of it, as a reader now, we are completely drawn in and caring about the turtle, caring about the culture, wanting to know more. Why does she care so much? In your ten years or in your structuring of the story, did you contemplate starting out with the murder of Brooke’s dear confidant, friend, everything, which comes later? I almost don’t want to spoil who gets murdered because that in and of itself feels like a big unveiling. Did you think about putting that further up? Did you always want to start with the turtle on the beach — sounds like yes — with the track marks, the road tracks? Tell me about that.

Kristen: The structuring of it, yes, I wanted people to care about the turtle straight out. That was intentional that I had that scene where you see the turtle happen very close to the beginning. Originally, that chapter was actually the first chapter. I didn’t have a prologue. I wanted those readers who might be coming to it strictly for a murder mystery and might not have, immediately, an interest in sea turtles — I didn’t want to turn those readers off by starting with a sea turtle. I hoped that they would care once they started reading. I wanted that hook to be a little more vague at the beginning. I ended up moving the scene where the children are out on their boat to the prologue and leaving it more vague. I just said that they were teenagers. I didn’t give them names so that the readers didn’t get too attached to those characters and then left it very vague about what they find so that you don’t know right away if they’ve found a human body or if they’ve found something else very scary and then went into the first thing that you see. The first murder, in terms of an animal that you see, is with the sea turtle.

I’m very glad that you related to it and cared about the turtle as a result and wanted to see what had happened with the turtle because that was intentional on my part to get the readers to care about the sea turtle by seeing it in this position and seeing what had happened to the sea turtle. Of course, people who already love sea turtles are immediately going to be upset about it. Even people who don’t know anything about sea turtles, they’re going to find, hopefully, some empathy for that sea turtle and for the whole situation and for our main character, who is obviously really upset about it because she knows this turtle. As part of being on the Turtle Team, you do get to know some of the regular sea turtles that nest on the beach because those females come back to nest every two to three years on the same stretch of beach. Over time, some of them get to be well-identified by their size or by their track mark or whatever it might be. Yes, originally, I had thought about putting the turtle right up front and then switched it around so that you had a little bit of a glimpse of something else going on to keep you reading past the turtle and get a little deeper into it.

Zibby: Interesting. You mentioned the White House. There is one subplot — not even a subplot, but one element of the book which involves a father-son dynamic. I don’t want to give things away in that either, but not so dissimilar to the Bidens in office at the moment. Who do you pin the blame on? Who does what? What do we really know? I don’t want to say anything. There is that element of coverup, not necessarily in the government. I don’t want to say anything negative about anybody. None of us really know the facts. There is something somewhat similar. Speak a little bit about that. It’s also the bounds that parents will take or children will take for their parents. What will parents do for their children? It all kind of links back to your overall theme, I feel like, which is the sense of home. What does that mean? How do we all define home? Who do you want to be at home with? All of that.

Kristen: That’s so true. I’m so glad that you mentioned that theme of home also because it has several layers in the book, home being the setting, of course, of Anders Isle. That sense of place certainly plays a part and is almost a character in and of itself. Then Brooke’s search for meaning of home through the book, right up front in the first chapter, I kind of hint at this whole idea of her search for home. Then you have the sea turtles. People say once they leave the beach, they somehow find their way back to their home beach, their natal beach where they were born. That’s where the females nest, or at least in the region of their nesting. Then you’re right, just the idea of, who do you want to be at home with? How are these family dynamics working? When it comes to politics, I didn’t want to pin any one type of politics down. I wanted to leave that to the reader to bring to the story what they wanted. I did want that interplay.

They’re interchangeable, almost, the father-son dynamic in the characters of Caldwell and his father, who’s the senator running for president. I wanted them to be close enough in a way that the son often mirrors the father or wants to make the father proud. He wants to live up to his father’s expectations. That plays a large role in the things that he decides to do and the way he goes about his life. Then I don’t want to give too much away, but I kind of flip it at the end. I just want to make sure that people think about it from different perspectives. You say father being protective of his son or a son wanting to emulate his father. Sometimes it works out that way in the dynamic. Then other times, there are questions about what that relationship really is, like you see playing out in current politics. I also didn’t want it to be too tied to any one time in politics. Since I’ve been writing it over time, obviously, it wasn’t directly related to any one campaign or one time in politics. Yes, that sense of home definitely carries through, and that idea of, what does home mean? Is it the people that you live with? Is it the structure of the house? Is it some activity that you find comfort in or some other group of people? Is it a place, just a place somewhere on the map that you have to go to to make yourself feel comforted and like you’re at home?

Zibby: Sometimes it’s another person.

Kristen: Sometimes it’s not a person. For Brooke, it very much started as just this place on Anders Isle in the book. Then over the course of the story, she starts to see much deeper meaning in what her sense of home is and what feels like home.

Zibby: You packed a lot in here, loss, love, intrigue, crime, science. I know you were very influenced by Mary Alice Monroe down in Charleston and all of her environmental work and all of that. Can you talk about her and other writing role models that you’ve had and that really kept you going on your path to the ten-year book and why you didn’t give up?

Kristen: Yes, absolutely. First of all, don’t give up. It might take a really long time, but just keep writing. Mary Alice Monroe has been a great mentor of mine. I actually met her when I first joined the Turtle Team ten years ago, but I didn’t tell her that I was writing my book at the time because I was kind of in the middle of it. I wasn’t sure how it was going to come out. I definitely drew a lot of inspiration from her books and from her whole idea around her books of bringing environment into the story or highlighting a species. She writes a lot of family saga type books. She has a series called The Beach House that I had read and really carries those themes of nature and the environment and conservation through her books by telling about this one particular family in The Beach House. Then in other books, she highlights other species that way.

I really loved the way she did that and was hoping to do something similar but in a different genre, so bringing it into the murder mystery/suspense/thriller genre but very much hoping that people would read the story and learn to care about whichever sea creature was in it. Like Mary Alice always says, if you care, then you’ll act. Then you’ll do something to protect or to try to conserve, so really spreading that word through writing. One of my other earliest influences in my writing and also just my love of reading was Pat Conroy. He’s very well-known as being one of the best writers about the South and the Lowcountry. The descriptions in his books, the way that he could evoke the scenery and the emotions in the characters — he had very drama-filled stories. He’s such a great storyteller. He was an early inspiration of mine. I had the opportunity to meet him one time in person before he died. That was such a thrill. I was with my mom when I got to do that. He was an early inspiration. More recently — these are just contemporaries of mine, people who’ve had books come out more recently. I’m very excited to see a lot of attention on the ocean and its creatures in recent fiction. My book’s about sea turtles or has an element of sea turtles in it. You’ll learn about the sea turtles and the science behind them, their biology and habitat.

One of the authors who gave me a blurb for my book is Shelby Van Pelt. She wrote Remarkably Bright Creatures, which also has an element of mystery in it, so these cross-genre books similar to mine where they can fall into several categories but have that teaching aspect about a sea creature. Hers is the giant Pacific octopus, Marcellus. She teaches us about the octopus through his character. Then I’m reading right now, Whalefall by Daniel Kraus, which is a little bit of a suspense. It also ties in a father-son relationship. It involves the sperm whale, a scuba diver who is accidentally swallowed by the whale and has to deal with how to get out if he’s going to survive. I haven’t finished, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. Then the other one on my list to read is Shark Heart by Emily Habeck.

Zibby: Yes, everyone is talking about that book.

Kristen: I’ve heard a lot of good things. That’s a love story, and a kind sci-fi love story, about her lover or her — I’m not sure what his relationship is to her because I haven’t read it yet. He has this rare disease where he’s going to turn into a great white shark. Everything I’ve heard about it says it’s a beautiful story about love and loss and dealing with somebody having to go through this type of change. I’m interested to read that one next.

Zibby: I am too.

Kristen: They’re all current inspirations.

Zibby: I remember standing at the bookstore — I think it was our manager, was like, “This is totally going to be a big book.” I was like, “Oh, what’s it about?” She’s like, “You have to read it. It’s from the point of view of a shark.” I was like, “No, no, no, that’s not for me.”

Kristen: I know. That was my initial reaction too.

Zibby: She’s like, “No, I thought it wasn’t for me either, but…” Now I’ve had eight million people tell me this, so it’s totally on my list to read.

Kristen: It’s in my stack. I had the same reaction initially. I don’t read science fiction. That’s not my usual genre. I was thinking immediately, I don’t know. I don’t know if I can get into it. I’m going to read it. I think I’m going to like it based on what I’ve heard.

Zibby: We’ll have to trade some notes after we read.

Kristen: Yes, we’ll circle back and talk about it.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about learning the craft of writing and how you honed your craft so far.

Kristen: I grew up writing in my journal all the time and just learning by doing, just getting all my thoughts out on paper, very much like you did, I think. I read your memoir. Very much, I was drawn to the page. I loved to read. I would scribble down little ideas and observations, things that were happening in my life. I’m sure my journals from my teenage years are so embarrassing. I haven’t dug them out of whatever box they’re in, but I really don’t want them to see the light of the day. I’m sure there are all kinds of things in there about what was going on. It all was overly melodramatic. There was my start just writing, period, and reading. Then in high school, college, even all the way into law school, I would find ways to write creative papers. Instead of my final term paper where I was supposed to analyze such-and-such in a nonfiction way, I’d go to the professor and say, can I take this book and tell it from the perspective of this secondary character that we don’t see and just make up a whole different world? Would that work? Would that be okay? I’ll still learn about it and analyze it, but I just want to fictionalize it. I was lucky that I had some professors who let me do that and continue my pursuit of the writing.

Then in college, I majored in English. Then in law school, I lost track of a lot of the creative writing side. You do kind of hone your skills to being — somebody mentioned it as, you learned linguistic precision when you’re in law school, which I thought was an interesting way to make me feel better about not being in a creative writing program and being in law school. Something creative, I got out of it, sort of. You learn very carefully to choose your words and to make sure that every sentence means what it’s supposed to mean. That linguistic precision was a skill that I could claim came from law school. Then I was just always writing in search of my idea, doing a lot of keeping up with the journal, writing little short stories, writing poems. I love poetry. None of these are published. This is all stuff that will never see the light of day. It’s in a drawer somewhere. Just working on my craft.

Then when I started getting serious about finding my novel idea, I took some courses at Queens College. I was in Charlotte at the time. I took a creative writing course in the evenings just to get some of the basics about how you structure a novel, how you character develop. I read a lot more as a writer. I came to books more as a writer looking for, what are the best kinds of dialogue tags? How does this writer pace the plot and the dialogue with the description and the narrative? Came to more of my reading with a writer’s point of view. That helped a lot, especially as I was starting to write my book and would get stuck or be unsure or be doing what I always do, which is really bad and going back and editing as I write, which is, again, why it took years.

Zibby: There is no bad or no good. You just have to get done.

Kristen: Just working a little bit, chipping away at it, and then going to the sources, the authors who were published, and using those types of writing tools that I could find in literature and the resources that are out there, getting inspiration from the authors that I love.

Zibby: I love that. Are you working on a new book?

Kristen: I am. I’m working on more of a suspense/thriller. It will have a murder, but I think the genre will fall more into suspense/thriller. This one is also going to involve a sea creature, as I’m hoping all of my books will, not necessarily as up front and center as my sea turtles in At Loggerheads. My main character isn’t a biologist, but she has a slight background in that. Then she is an immigration attorney, which is what I ended up doing for a while after law school and still do a little bit. I’m hoping to use that side of my background to bring her character alive. In one of her major cases with a client, she’s doing a lot of work visas for scientists who are coming to work at this lab. The lab focuses on using puffer fish toxin. Puffer fish might be cute, but they are very deadly. Their toxin is 1,300 times more deadly than cyanide. One puffer fish has enough toxin in it to kill thirty adult humans. I didn’t know this. This puffer fish toxin is being studied at this fictional lab. She’s in charge of getting the visas for the scientists. Then of course, as she gets farther long and you start getting into the book, she starts to realize there are a lot of things happening that she’s not aware of behind the scenes that she might be getting involved in without realizing it. It could end up leading to some big problems down the road. I don’t want to give away too much. That’s my current book I’m working on. I’m still about a hundred pages in, so I’m getting into the muddy middle. It will also deal with the father-daughter relationship, which is something that I really wanted to write about but just wasn’t ready to until now.

Zibby: Wow. I know you already gave some advice, but what other advice do you have for aspiring authors? Aside from, don’t give up, and all that.

Kristen: Aspiring writers, what a thrill to be able to say something with a little bit of experience. I would say in addition to, don’t give up and keep writing, find the books you love, and read them for inspiration. Go to the page every day even if you just stare at it. Try to spend a little bit of time working on your story because sometimes that five minutes turns into an hour if you really get into a scene. Even if you just write a bunch of stuff that doesn’t end up being in the final draft — that’s something that I can definitely say having gone through this. Your book is going to change a lot. You’re going to edit it many, many times, so don’t worry too much about what you put down in the first draft. Just keep going.

Zibby: I love it. Amazing. Kristen, thank you. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for At Loggerheads. What a fabulous experience to go through all the emotions of the book, and all the twists and turns. It’s always hard to discuss when you don’t want to give things away. I also am fond of the character of Doug. I feel like I want to know who he would be cast as in a movie. Do you have someone in mind for him?

Kristen: For Drew?

Zibby: I’m sorry. What did I say? Doug? Drew. I’m so sorry.

Kristen: The main character. I was thinking, oh, wait a minute. I was like, oh, my gosh.

Zibby: I’m sorry. Not Doug. Drew. I’m so sorry.

Kristen: It’s been a while since I finished writing the book. I wonder if there’s a character in there —

Zibby: — His name is Drew. I am so sorry. Who would you cast for Drew?

Kristen: I kind of had in mind a Josh Lucas type, the shaggy, sandy blond hair and blue eyes. Also, Ryan Gosling was in mind when I was writing that. Similar to some of the characters they played or just that look, that straight off the beach, a little bit sandy and salty, and that blond-hair, blue-eye boy.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on.

Kristen: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you again for the lovely acknowledgment and all of it.

Kristen: You are so welcome.

Zibby: To be continued.

Kristen: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for everything you do, for readers and bringing all of these books to people, and for writers too. I really appreciate your time. Your interest in my book and the fact that you read it and brought me on your podcast just means so much to me. Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Thank you, Kristen. Take care.

Kristen: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye.

Kristen: Bye.

Zibby: Talk to you soon. Buh-bye.

AT LOGGERHEADS by Kristen Ness

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