The Library will be closed on Monday, May 27, 2024, in observance of Memorial Day.

Interview With an Author: Christina Estes

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Christina Estes and her debut novel, Off the Air
Author Christina Estes and her debut novel, Off the Air. Photo of author: Lauren Gilger

Christina Estes is an award-winning reporter who has spent more than 20 years covering crime, public policy, and business in Phoenix, Arizona. Her reporting has been heard on National Public Radio (NPR) and appeared in the Arizona Republic, Arizona Business Gazette, and Phoenix Business Journal. Christina's career-inspired Off the Air, her debut novel, and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Off the Air?

My experiences working in local TV and radio and my love for Phoenix.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I originally wrote Jolene with a different name and backstory. I made the mistake of writing about the 29-year-old reporter I wish I had been rather than a flawed character I needed to root for. I created Jolene's backstory using my personal experience as a former foster parent. I love Jolene. I know, technically, she's a character and not a real person, but I don't care. I still love her.

Are Jolene, Nate, Jim, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on a specific individual?

So many characters are inspired by my experiences, but no single character is written after an actual person. Some are composites or may share characteristics.

Same question for two specific characters (because I think there may be stories for each of them): Larry Lemmon and JJ?

I created JJ based on two reporters I met early in my career and amplified her celebrity ambition. I can remember how I felt like an outsider when I moved to Phoenix from the Midwest more than twenty years ago. Meeting colleagues from southern California was intimidating. They seemed so glamorous and confident. Drawing from those experiences, I created the dichotomy between Jolene and JJ.

As for Larry Lemmon, he is not based on a real person, but his views are certainly not unusual, and, depending on the political cycle and current events, you can hear similar comments on the air.

Your biography says that you've worked in Phoenix as a reporter for 20 years. And your descriptions of Phoenix bring it alive in the novel. Are many of the locations you write about real places (or stand-ins for actual locations)? Do you have any favorite places? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss but would only learn about from a resident?

Off the Air includes real locations and businesses with special significance. For example, two of my favorite photographers introduced me to Rito's Mexican Food and Harlow's Café. I included Chicago Hamburger Company because the owner allowed me to follow his journey during the first year of the pandemic. He was open and honest during a frightening time, and I appreciated his transparency. Food City chips and salsa are my favorite snack and I made them my main character's favorite.

I included the history of the former Phoenix Indian School, which many people may not know about. Three historic buildings remain in what is now Steele Indian School Park. There's a walkway with columns depicting the school's history and a bridge that leads to a garden with Native American poems etched into concrete. It's a jewel in the heart of the city.

I also include two real-life reporting examples. One of my favorite stories involved a vacant restaurant that the property owner had abandoned. It attracted blight, illegal activities and there was even a fire. The owner ignored requests to clean it up, and a judge eventually ruled it could be demolished. I was there the day a group of neighbors, who'd been fighting the blight and working with the city, showed up with balloons and sparkling grape juice to celebrate the demolition.

The other example relates to a personal experience. I was nominated for an Emmy for a story about a fish visiting the dentist and lost to a story about bubble wrap. Yes, bubble wrap! In Off the Air, my main character experiences the loss. Some readers empathize with her disappointment. Others laugh. I can now do both.

Do you have a favorite novel, movie, or television show centering on journalists? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don't. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)?

I wish I could name some, but I have little time for movies and TV

How was it for you to write a fiction novel about a murder after covering crime as a journalist? Did your discipline as a journalist help or hinder you when you decided to write a fiction story? Now that you've done both, do you have a preference?

Some people think that because I'm a reporter, I must enjoy reading or writing true crime. I don't particularly seek it out. After years of covering crime and talking with victims and their families and friends, it doesn't feel right for me.

Transitioning from writing as a reporter to writing as a novelist has been more difficult than anticipated. Early on, I made the mistake of thinking, "Well, I'm a reporter and write every day, so I can write a book." Uh, no. I had to learn (and still am learning) how to write a novel. As a reporter, I may get 30 seconds or three minutes to tell a story. Totally different than writing 300 pages.

You've been an award-winning Journalist for over two decades. Is there a common misperception about Journalists that you would like to explain/correct?

I think some people who have never worked in local news do not understand how much the industry has changed and how challenging it is for journalists who care about their communities to earn a decent living and stay in the business for more than a few years.

Local TV, radio, and newspapers do not have the community and corporate support they did when I started. More content is required using fewer resources while facing constant competition from countless websites, streaming services, and social media platforms.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

I've learned a lot, and I'm still learning. Here are five things:

  1. I'm proud of myself for not giving up.
  2. Overall, crime fiction writers are kind.
  3. The number of people and amount of work involved in getting my manuscript into different formats available at libraries and other places is staggering.
  4. The debut journey is more emotional than I ever imagined it would be.
  5. I will never be 100% satisfied with a manuscript.

What's currently on your nightstand?

Oh no, you don't have enough space for me to list them!

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Can I please name six? They are authors with special meaning and my eternal gratitude.

J.A. Jance and Hank Ryan for writing books that have entertained me for years and inspired me to write.

Kellye Garrett and Mia P. Manansala for reading an early draft and encouraging me to keep writing.

In addition to J.A., Hank, Kellye, and Mia, authors Linda Castillo and Lee Goldberg read advance copies and kindly provided thoughtful blurbs.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I loved Trixie Belden mysteries and Judy Blume books.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Speaking of Judy Blume, I can recall the shock when I started reading Forever by Judy Blume. That was not the kind of Blume book I was used to!

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Maybe every book assigned in high school? Ha! I worked a lot and would always fall asleep doing homework after I got home. However, if teachers had assigned crime fiction, I'm confident I would've stayed awake and finished them.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

A collector’s edition of Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville published by Easton Press in 1977. It is stunning! Bound in leather, stamped with hand-finished brass dies, edges coated with gold leaf, a blue satin ribbon marker, and gorgeous illustrations. Truly a piece of art.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Yes! The book is Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes. It came to me as I was preparing for my book launch. As a debut author and someone who prefers to stay home rather than socialize with strangers, I was a bundle of nerves.

I read Shonda's memoir and realized once was not enough, so I listened to Shonda narrate. Then, on the first day of launch week, I re-listened to Chapter 10. During launch week, I think I talked about her book almost as much as mine. Several times, as I was about to downplay a compliment, Shonda's wise words appeared: "Thank you." Smile. Shut up.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Have I mentioned Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes? It really is life-changing.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper. I still think about Polly and Bear.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Dolly Parton and Beyoncé’s versions of "Jolene." My main character is named Jolene after Dolly's song, and during launch week Beyoncé released her album. I adore both versions.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Ooh, this is tough. The answer would vary, depending on the day. As I write this, I would love to spend a day at home with Bentley, my four-legged angel. Bentley was my best writing partner, and I miss him.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked but never have been?

What's it feel like to write a bestselling mystery series that people compare to Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series and Lee Goldberg's Eve Ronin series?

What is your answer?

I'll let you know when it applies—ha!

What are you working on now?

I am beyond thrilled to be working on a sequel to Off the Air.

Book cover of Off the air
Off the Air
Estes, Christina