Melanie Breaux writes thriller novel set at Penn

Credit: Sophia Ciocca / The Daily Pennsylvanian

It’s hard to imagine that a Penn Law student would have time to write a novel.

But Melanie Breaux, who graduated from Penn Law in 2007, managed to write a murder mystery novel when she was a law student as a way to relieve her mind from what seemed like endless hours of studying.

“The Puppeteer,” which is set at Penn, follows Kelli Gray, a law student who witnesses the murder of her best friend in the library and begins to unfold the mystery on campus and around Philadelphia.

Breaux sat down with The Daily Pennsylvanian to talk about her life as a lawyer and a mystery novelist.

Daily Pennsylvanian: Did the idea for The Puppeteer come from an experience you had at Penn?
Melanie Breaux: It didn’t come from one specific experience. It came from long hours at the law school, long hours late into the night at the library and living in University City. I used to walk around here a lot at night and think “What if … What would happen if….” Law school is not collaborative. You study a lot by yourself and my mind would just wander to different scenarios that could happen. I couldn’t help but sit there late at night and think things could happen here — it’s late, it’s dark … I just wondered what would happen if there were crimes committed right at the law school.

DP: How did your experience at Penn Law and as a lawyer influence the novel?
MB: I tried to put actual classroom experience in the book. There are scenes that take place in different classes like torts and criminal law classes. But I really tried to bring my day-to-day experience into the book. The main character uses how she learns to think at law school to figure out the mystery and the crimes that are occurring around the law school. One thing I learned in law school is logical step by step thinking, looking beyond the obvious surface of a situation.

DP: Is the main character Kelli Gray based on yourself or someone you knew?
MB: No, not at all. There are a lot of differences between the main character and me. She’s an older law student, turning 30. I was actually around that age, but she’s not a fresh-faced law student who went straight from undergrad like a lot of law students are. I wanted her to have life experience. She had a child who died, a failed relationship and she’s an alcoholic. She has a past. But now [at law school] she is serious and studious. She buries herself in her books to get away from the pain of her past. She wasn’t like me at all … at least I don’t think so.

DP: Why did you choose to unfold the murder mystery on Penn’s campus and in greater Philadelphia?
MB: I was immersed in this setting myself when I started the book and I thought it would be a really cool backdrop. Kelli would sit on the field across the street from the Law School, and the very first scene is a murder that takes place in the law library so Penn’s campus is really integral to the story. She has lunch at the White Dog Cafe. She also drives all around Philadelphia, to the suburbs and places like the King of Prussia mall.

DP: Are you planning to pursue more mystery writing?
MB: I just started writing the first book in a new series. It’s going to be another mystery series set in Philly, but not necessarily set at Penn. For now, I’m going to continue with the murder mystery novels. That’s what I love to read and have fun writing. It’s really fun to work out a plot and plan a mystery and a twist at the end. I write to entertain, and I think thrillers and mysteries are really good for that.

DP: What was your experience like at Penn Law?
MB: I had a great time. It was a really intensive program; I did a lot of studying and spent a lot of hours alone, but I loved it and thought the teachers were amazing.

DP: Are any of the other characters based on people you knew at Penn?
MB: The people are totally fictionalized. They are probably characters I had floating around my mind since even before law school. I would say I was more influenced by the place than by the people here.

DP: Do you think Philadelphia is inherently scary?
MB: Yes, I think it can be. There are so many different kinds of neighborhoods and people here, it’s easy to create a scary or eerie setting.

DP: How do you juggle practicing law and being a writer?
MB: Even during law school, it was hard to be writing a first draft of a novel. But I try to do it as much as I can, late at night, on the weekends. I try not to watch a lot of TV and to write as much as I can.

DP: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer/mystery novelist?
MB: Growing up, I read mystery novels and watched horror and thriller movies and writing was always an interest. I’ve always written fiction. I always loved writing, and it’s always been a part of my life. But until I got the idea for this particular novel, I never dreamed of writing a novel. But I really like novel writing now, so I’m going to continue.
I’ve written a lot of short stories, plays and screenplays. Even in grade school, my favorite assignments were creative writing pieces. Writing has always been a huge passion. I took writing classes after college. Writing was always a hobby, something I’ve always, always done.

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