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Reporter Christina Estes debuts 'Off the Air,' her first mystery novel

Christina Estes has covered Phoenix City Hall and the business community for KJZZ News for nearly a decade. She was a TV reporter here before that. And today, she’s out with her first book — a mystery novel about a reporter in Phoenix. 

"Off the Air" centers around Jolene Garcia, a feisty TV news reporter on a mission to get the scoop on the murder of a controversial radio host named Larry Lemon. The book is full of Phoenix references for the true Phoenicians out there — and a whole lot of intrigue set in the world of local news. 

They say to write what you know, and Estes certainly does that here. But Estes says writing Jolene was not entirely writing herself on the page. 


CHRISTINA ESTES: I've always wanted to write. But when you're little and somebody goes, what do you want to be when you grow up? Does anybody say author? I mean, I never knew an author, right? And then I never knew anybody who pursued it as a career, but I saw lots of reporters on TV, heard them on the radio, read their bylines in newspapers and magazines, and I love reading. So that's a form of reading and a form of writing. I think that's what steered me into journalism.

LAUREN GILGER: So this has been sort of a long wanted project you've been working on, I know, for a long time. And it's, it clearly, I mean, there are some clear motivations from your work as a reporter here. But, I mean, tell us where you drew the line. Talk about, about trying to turn your own life and your own experience as a reporter into fiction.

ESTES: Oh, my gosh. What a question, because even though this is set in Phoenix and I have real local references and businesses, it is fiction. And you laugh, right? That's everybody's reaction. They're like, yeah, sure it is. Who's this person? Who's that person?

GILGER: Everyone must be based on someone.

ESTES: And I will say there are character names that are based on people that mean a lot to me. For example, the news director's name is Bob and my favorite TV news director was named Bob. So I put that in there. The main character's nemesis is Jessica JJ Jackson. She goes by JJ, like Beyonce. She is actually sort of a composite of two or three reporters from when I first started. And that's because when I first started, I felt very intimidated and not ready for this market. And I thought everybody else was so sophisticated. So I pulled on that to create her nemesis.

GILGER: What about your main character, Jolene, here? Like is this you in some form?

ESTES: She's me in that she's from the Midwest and she arrived here feeling like an outsider, so that I was easy to pull on. Jolene is 29. I am no longer 29 by more than 20 years. So we don't have that in common. I created her backstory based on my personal experience as a former foster parent, and she's named Jolene because her mother named her Jolene after Dolly Parton's song.

GILGER: OK. So you can see the pulls there, there are some ties. But also her main motivation in a lot of this right is, is losing this Emmy award, right? And you have a story pretty similar to that I think.

ESTES: Oh my gosh, was that her main motivation? OK. This is perfect timing because there is a new development to that story. OK. So in real life I, about 15 years ago, was nominated for an Emmy, a feature story about a blowfish going to the dentist. For real. I know, exactly, like, how can you lose?

GILGER: What a great story.

ESTES: Well, I lost. And I lost to a story about bubble wrap day. I know, I know. And I can still remember feeling like really devastated, like 15 years ago self. So in the book, Jolene, my character is the one who loses the Emmy to bubble wrap day. Now in real life, I just a few days ago, talked to the guy who won the Emmy for bubble wrap. I tracked him down. He was not easy to track down either. Like he's not on Twitter, Instagram, Threads. None of that.

I found a connection through somebody I knew on LinkedIn. I was like, he's not responding to me. Can you ping him, please? And let him know. I really want to share this story with him. So I talked to him. I called him, he gave me his number. I called him a few days ago and I said, I want to offer you a belated yet, sincere congratulations.

GILGER: Because you probably didn't at the time.

ESTES: Yeah, I did not at the time. And he thought it was really funny and so I signed a book and put it in the mail to him.

GILGER: That is so great. OK. So, I mean, there's a lot of Phoenix in this book, too, and there's this idea of writing what, you know, and obviously this is a place, you know, and have lived for a long time. But it really kind of, it feels like a love letter to Phoenix in some ways, I think. Tell me a little bit about why you wanted to set it here and the ways in which you wanted to highlight Phoenix portray it? Like, how does it become a character sort of in its own way?

ESTES: Oh, my gosh. Phoenix is so misunderstood, aren't we?

GILGER: I think so.

ESTES: Especially in the publishing industry, which is so New York-centric. I love my publisher. They know, I love my publisher. They also know that I think they don't always get us out here in the West. And when I was trying to get an agent because getting a book traditionally published with what they call "the big five," these big five companies that are based in New York, is very similar to, I think, like breaking into the music industry or acting, in that you need an agent who will then champion your work to find an editor, who will then go to the publishing, sales and marketing, all those people, and say we need to get this book.

So as I was trying to get an agent, you know, I would send what they call query letters, and some of the responses I got just made me so [FRUSTRATED NOISE], because I remember this one, she was like, oh, this is a nice story about a small town newsroom, and I was like, we are the largest city. And then I felt like the mayor in the chamber of commerce, like I was, you know, advocating for our city size and our value and our importance. But I, I really wanted to said it in Phoenix because I've spent more than 20 years here, and that's more than 20 years I expected to stay. Because when I arrived, I thought I'm gonna do my three years in TV news and get out of this place. Oh, my gosh. I arrived in the summer, from the Midwest. I was like, where am I? And here I am, and it grows on you, and you make friendships that have lasted forever and ever. And every place I picked in the book, a local business has significance.

GILGER: Give us a few of your favorites because there are some really good kind of name drops in here.

ESTES: Oh, well, I did of course mention Metrocenter Mall, because you can't talk about Phoenix without Metrocenter Mall.

GILGER: The late, great.

ESTES: So there's a reference to Metrocenter in there, but some businesses I mentioned, Chicago Hamburger Company is one because the owner, Bob Pappanduros, actually interviewed him early in the pandemic, when it was really scary and small businesses had no clue if they were just going to be wiped out what was going to happen. And he, he was really honest and transparent, for an entire year he let me follow and was really honest and I was like, you're going in the book, I didn't know how at the time, but he's in there, and it's a key scene, so yay.

Cerreta's is a family owned business in Glendale. French Mints are great. They appear in the book in an Emmy scene. So there's a big Emmy party and the Cerreta's French Mints are in a scene.

GILGER: That's awesome. All right, some good Phoenix name drops in there is always good. I want to talk a little bit before I let you go about trying to make this transition, right? Like we talked about how this is sort of, you know, inspired by your work as a reporter and how you've been kind of wanting to do this for a long time. But like we, we as journalists, like we deal in facts that is our world. But what you're doing here is, is fiction. I really wonder how it is and, and how you had to kind of mind shift yourself to write fiction when you've spent a career, you know, reporting the news?

ESTES: It's tough and I'm still learning by, by no means have I mastered this at all. So I'm definitely still learning. I will say there are quite a bit of facts in here. And some history that all relate to Phoenix, but, but it is difficult to, to sort of flip back and forth between those. The biggest thing that I discovered is that just because I'm a reporter and I write every day does not make me a novelist by any stretch. And that's what took me a really long time to figure out. And once I realized that, then I realized I needed to learn the craft of writing a novel instead of thinking, oh, I write every day I can do this.

GILGER: Not the same beast at all. Was there something sort of freeing in that though, being able to sort of make it up and take the story where you want it to go?

ESTES: You know what I'm working on the sequel and it feels, is it more freeing? I don't know what the word is, but it does, it feels better with the second one. Maybe because I've got one now under my belt. And so now I'm anxious to write one that's even better, and I'm probably gonna put way too much Phoenix up in there again, but I don't care, it's my book.

GILGER: I'll take it, I'll take it. So, yes, there is a sequel coming and I understand the plot also has a pretty good Phoenix reference right to start off with, right, we might remember.

ESTES: Yeah. Yeah. If you, if you're really into Phoenix local news, you may recall, oh my gosh, maybe seven years ago or so. I don't know exactly when there was a, a situation at city hall where the mayor was stuck in an elevator. And that is, that is how book two will open.

GILGER: That's good to know. All right. A little teaser for book two. Christina Estes, of course, a senior field correspondent here at KJZZ and author of the new book "Off the Air." Christina, thank you so much and congratulations.

ESTES: Thank you, Lauren.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.