From CBS's Cold Case to Kick-Butt Cozies: Kellye Garrett Discusses Screenwriting and Black Women in the Mystery Genre

Kellye Garrett discusses her years as a Hollywood screenwriter (with the CBS drama Cold Case among her credits) and the representation of black women in the mystery genre.
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Kellye Garrett’s writing experience is varied: She began her career as a magazine editor, spent eight years as a Hollywood screenwriter (with the CBS drama Cold Case among her credits) and is now a communications pro for a Manhattan-based media company. Her debut novel, the cozy mystery Hollywood Homicide, was a Library Journal Debut of the Month in 2017 and was nominated for an Agatha Award. The second book in her Detective by Day series is forthcoming in August. She is one of the very few black women publishing mystery, not just now but ever,” Fuse Literary’s Michelle Richter gushed to WD. “Being her agent and getting her books into the world is one of the proudest accomplishments of my career.” Garrett’s work can also be seen on the “kick-butt cozies” blog Chicks on the Case, where she is a regular contributor.

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You’re very active in the writing community, and are incredibly generous with your time, helping to found the debut author group 17 Scribes, serving on the national Board of Directors for Sisters in Crime, and mentoring aspiring writers through #PitchWars. Why is that outreach so important to you?

From my freshman year of college, I learned the value of having a supportive community of like-minded people. At Florida A&M, it was my fellow journalism students who also worked on the school newspaper and magazine. I’ve been lucky enough to find communities like that ever since, including when I started my publishing journey. I got my agent through Pitch Wars when I was a mentee in 2014. One of my fellow mentees created a mentee Facebook group so we all could support each other. Three years later, that group is still one of my first destinations when I log into Facebook. Their support has been essential to my success and, more importantly, my overall well-being. We alternate acting like cheerleaders, therapists and sounding boards for each other.

When I first got my deal, I was excited but I was also scared because I didn’t know what to expect. I searched out a community of debut Adult and New Adult authors and was surprised when I couldn’t find any groups. That’s why I created 17 Scribes with a few friends who I met through Pitch Wars so we could support each other.

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There’s been much talk lately about the treatment of women in Hollywood, but little (yet) about how that extends to the writers’ room. Can you speak to any meaningful differences between your experiences in the screenwriting community versus those in publishing as a novelist?

When I worked in television, I was lucky to work on shows with a good number of women on staff. Of course, there were still things that shocked me. I remember going to a meeting for women writers at the Writer’s Guild of America and essentially being told, “There’s no set maternity leave, so if your showrunner wants to fire you because you’re pregnant, there’s nothing you can do.”

There’s been a concerted effort to have more diversity in TV writing longer than in publishing, which has focused on boosting marginalized voices and stories just in the last few years with the “We Need Diverse Books” movement and other great things like that. There are programs in place in TV to ensure there’s at least one marginalized voice on staff. On the publishing front, young adult is making great strides, whereas mystery is farther behind—which is probably why I’m so vocal about lack of diversity in mystery writing. I’m happy that groups like Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America are addressing the issue.

What has it been like finding your way in a genre that still has such a need for diverse voices?

I know of at least five black mystery writers with their first books either out or coming out with traditional publishers [in the time] since I got my deal in 2016. So I do think it’s getting better. That said, we have a long way to go. When I first met Rachel Howzell Hall [author of the Detective Elouise Norton series], she said meeting a fellow black woman mystery writer was like seeing a unicorn. Sisters in Crime reported that prior to 2016, there were only 69 black mystery writers who were traditionally published—ever. And we have a much higher number than other marginalized groups. Of the five other debut mystery writers I know, none of us are with Big Five publishers.

A high has definitely been the support of my publisher, Midnight Ink. When we got the offer, my editor, Terri Bischoff, noted that she was surprised she couldn’t find a comp title of a cozy with a black main character. (Having loved cozies since I was a preteen, I was not.) Midnight Ink has fully embraced the diversity aspect of Hollywood Homicide. For example, putting my main character front and center on the cover was their idea. They see Dayna in all her #blackgirlmagic as a selling point, which is a dream come true for me.

You’ve received some wonderful starred reviews for Hollywood Homicide and its series launch. Is there one particular take that stands out to you as a favorite?

I’m a first-time author so they all stand out! I was walking in Manhattan when my publicist sent the Publishers Weekly review and I literally cried in the middle of Fifth Avenue when I saw it was starred. Then I cried again when I found out Hollywood Homicide was Library Journal’s August Debut of the Month. (Luckily, I was in my office when I got that email.) If I had to pick one, it would be Book Riot’s Unusual Suspects newsletter. The writer, Jamie Canaves, summed up the book as “Day is hilarious, smart, has a great group of friends—and my favorite part is she puts the amateur in amateur sleuth!” I love it because it captured my goal with the book. I wanted a self-deprecating main character with a group of friends who loved her enough to yell at her for doing dangerous things because that’s definitely what I’d be telling my best friend if she decided to solve a hit-and-run she witnessed. (And I hope my friends would be trying to talk some sense into me as well!) At the same time, Dayna isn’t Veronica Mars. I wanted her to stumble and make a lot of mistakes because—again—that’s likely what would happen if you or I decided to play detective.

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