Jess Lourey is the author of the outrageously funny Murder-by-Month mystery series. She’s also written a magical realism novel and has now turned her pen toward thrillers. Say hello to “Salem’s Cipher” and the mysterious world of cryptography.
Lourey describes herself as someone who loves puzzles. “My brain cracks and pops like a mad dancer when it gets a chance to crack a code, solve a riddle, find a treasure. I wanted to create a book like a playground for minds like mine.”
In addition to her interest in puzzles, Lourey also said she worries about how she handles herself socially. “Like most people, I spend a lot of time worrying about saying the wrong thing, ruining everything, and generally not fitting in. I wanted to explore that in my fiction in the hopes of releasing some of it.”
Jess Lourey decided to take on the thriller genre in late 2014. At the time, thriller writer Chelsea Cain said she wished there were more female thriller writers. “I’d just finished writing ‘The Catalain Book of Secrets,’ my first foray into magical realism, and I was looking for my next writing challenge. Chelsea’s offhand comment was the spark.”
“Thrillers need bigger-than-life plots,” Lourey said. “It looked like there was a solid chance Hilary Clinton was going to be the first viable female presidential candidate in the United States come 2016, and I thought, why not follow that thread? Once I had that very rough kernel of an idea, I began outlining Salem’s Cipher.”
I dumped all my social fears into Salem so I could figure out how to overcome them…
As she began writing, Lourey decided the book needed more depth. She turned to her past for inspiration and decided to draw on her husband’s suicide in 2001. “I was pregnant at the time,” Lourey said. “For years I’d wanted to explore through fiction the ramifications of a child’s parent committing suicide. Salem’s Cipher is the result.”
Lourey also said she had the book’s concept before she had the main character. Knowing what subject she wanted to tackle, she asked herself who would be at the center of this story. She decided it had to be a woman. “She had to be smart, imperfect, and real with a reason to solve puzzles.”
The result was Salem Wiley, a genius cryptanalyst and reluctant heroine of the series. Readers will learn Salem’s father killed himself, and she feels responsible. They’ll also learn Salem became agoraphobic after her father’s death. “I dumped all my social fears into Salem so I could figure out how to overcome them,” Lourey said. “I made her a cryptanalyst to feed my hummingbird brain.”
Lourey is passionate about writing and teaching others to write fiction. She believes a novel must be entertaining but also have depth. “When you walk away from it, the characters still linger on the fringes of your life. Good fiction connects us to something bigger and better than ourselves.”
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To write Salem’s Cipher, Lourey needed to immerse herself in the world of cryptography. She said she knew nothing about the subject, not even the basic terminology. Early on, she discovered a cryptographer makes code and a cryptanalyst breaks code.
“Most of the code making and breaking is done via computers these days, but there is a rich history of manual codes,” Lourey said. “The recent Oscar-nominated movie The Imitation Game brought WWII British cryptanalyst Alan Turing to the world’s attention, but the origin of code dates back much farther. In fact, the written word itself was the original code when first developed as only a few could read it.
“There are stories of slaves who had messages tattooed on their bald heads, which were then covered by hair as they traveled to deliver the secrets, effectively covering the code until the recipient shaved the slave’s head. Another early form of code was used by Victorian lovers who wrote coded messages for all the world to ‘see’ via letters to the editor.”
When asked why she’s put writing humor on hold, Lourey said, “I love stories. Period. I follow the story that captivates me, letting its shape and theme decide the genre. But, I do miss writing funny and am planning to write ‘March Madness,’ the 11th book in my Murder-by-Month series, this summer. I need more laughter and lightness in my life.”
Learn more about Jess Lourey on the web at jessicalourey.com.