Q&A with Christina Estes about her mystery debut, Off the Air

We interviewed Phoenix-based journalist Christina Estes to discuss her Tony Hillerman Prize-winning debut novel, Off the Air. Read our conversation below!

Tell us about Off the Air. What inspired you to write it?

Off the Air introduces Jolene Garcia, a local TV reporter in Phoenix, Arizona, trying to cover real issues in a world that seems more interested in reels, clicks, and likes.

When a controversial radio talk show host dies, Jolene’s managers are ecstatic because she conducted his last interview. They’ve got the advantage. But not for long. National media descends on Arizona with bigger budgets and better scoops and Jolene ends up fighting for her job and her life.

Three things inspired Off the Air:

  1. My love of mysteries, especially series. Reading a series brings a sense of comfort and familiarity. I’m invested in the characters and want to know what’s going to happen to them next and how they’ll react in different situations.
  2. My love for Phoenix, a city I never expected to stay past my initial three-year contract in TV news. I’ve read countless books set in other big cities and want to read more based in Phoenix. It’s always a thrill to come across a reference, landmark, or business that relates directly to where I live.
  3. My love for local news. I’ve been reporting for more than twenty years and wanted to recognize the thousands of people who work in more than two hundred local TV markets across the United States.

What do you think are the main themes/issues addressed?

While writing, I kept thinking about recognition. We all need it. We want to be recognized at work, home, and in various situations. How we get recognition—or don’t get it—can have a lasting impact. People leave jobs and relationships if they don’t feel valued. My main character, Jolene, seeks recognition through her career. By being the first to report exclusive information or break a story, she gets the acknowledgment she craves. Part of her desire for recognition comes from her upbringing, which she doesn’t yet realize or chooses not to accept.

Did the book require special research? If so, share interesting details about it.

Thanks to my experience, I have many memories to call on. I even mention two real-life stories in Off the Air.

I love reporting about residents who come together to improve their neighborhoods. I included a real situation where neighbors brought balloons and sparkling grape juice to celebrate and witness the demolition of an abandoned restaurant that had become an eyesore.

The other story relates to my personal experience being nominated for an Emmy® for a story about a fish going to the dentist and losing to a story about bubble wrap. In the book, it is Jolene’s loss. It’s been interesting to hear reactions to that vignette. Some readers relate to Jolene’s disappointment, while others laugh.

What do you hope readers will take away?

In addition to entertainment, I hope readers have a better understanding of the people and decisions behind local news. And I hope people look forward to reading more about Jolene’s evolution as a reporter and person.

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