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Alumni Profile: Kemper Donovan JD '04 (author)

by Laura Frustaci '21

Kemper Donovan JD '04 is the author of THE BUSY BODY, a national bestseller and the first in the GHOSTWRITER MYSTERY series. He is also the author of the novel THE DECENT PROPOSAL, and the host of the podcast ALL ABOUT AGATHA, dedicated to the one and only Agatha Christie, in which guise he has been featured in the L.A. Times, made appearances on BBC TV and Radio New Zealand, lectured at multiple festivals and conferences, and written for the official Agatha Christie website, agathachristie.com. He attended Stanford University and Harvard Law School, and now lives in Southern California with his husband and two daughters.


Kemper Donovan released his second novel, THE BUSY BODY, in January and is currently on a book tour through the US. This novel is part of a forthcoming three-book mystery series deal with his publisher, Kensington Books, an independent publishing house founded in 1974. But before he was a novelist, Kemper attended Harvard Law School and had a successful career as a manager for years, until finally realizing where his true creative passion lay. So how did he journey from an aspiring lawyer to a mystery novelist with a three-book deal?


After getting his undergraduate degree at Stanford—lured to California by Palm Drive—Kemper returned to his roots on the East Coast and attended Harvard Law School. “I graduated with a double major in economics and English,” Kemper says, “because I was an English major who was worried about getting a job.” He began law school immediately after graduating, and really enjoyed it, but realized in his third year that he didn’t actually want to be a lawyer at all. “So, I wrote a cold query letter to the founder of a management company called Circle of Confusion,” Kemper recalls. “He had been a lawyer at a big law firm, so I said I wanted to do what he did now, hoping he would see some of himself in me.” And he did. Kemper was offered a job and moved to Los Angeles when he graduated from law school in 2004. He’s been there ever since.


“I was a manager for screenwriters,” Kemper explains. “I managed the writer of the film HANNA, and I remember sitting in the theater watching the film, and realizing that was as good as it gets for a manager.” Not feeling as creatively engaged in management as he wanted, he decided to pivot to writing. 


“I did not do screenwriting, because I knew how the sausage was made,” Kemper laughs. “It was too daunting, too depressing… Whenever you know how hard it is, it can be chilling to the creative process. So I started writing a book, and that book eventually became, over many years, THE DECENT PROPOSAL, my first book that I published in 2016.”


After that book was released, Kemper devoted himself to writing full time and simultaneously started a family with his husband. “I definitely fell into the cliché of having a hard time with my sophomore book,” Kemper says. But that all changed after he started a podcast with his good friend, Catherine Brobeck, devoted to Agatha Christie and her works—aptly titled, ALL ABOUT AGATHA. “We planned to rank and discuss all 66 of her full-length mystery novels,” Kemper explains. Tragically, Catherine passed away unexpectedly in 2021. But Kemper was determined to finish all of Agatha’s books in her honor. “I brought in people in the mystery scholar community to finish reviewing the final six books, and now I’ve continued the podcast because I could talk about Agatha Christie for hours and hours.”


This exploration of mystery novels, themes, tropes, and Christie’s classics sparked excitement in Kemper that he channeled into that sophomore novel he had been struggling with. “ALL ABOUT AGATHA was a great creative endeavor because it allowed me to be a reader again, and invest in what’s magical about literature,” Kemper explains. Through the podcast, he was able to access the passion he had for the genre and approach his writing in a fresher way. “It took me a few years to realize that I should be writing a mystery. I don’t think I would have had that realization without the podcast.” Because of this, Kemper dedicated THE BUSY BODY to Catherine.


THE BUSY BODY is the start of a contemporary mystery series set in the present day, “but with built-in references to Christie,” Kemper adds. “You can’t help being influenced by Agatha Christie, especially as a writer of puzzle mysteries.” This series, Kemper explains, is a collection of “solvable mysteries with a detective and sidekick duo, very traditional. But my spin is that it’s the sidekick character who will travel from book to book. The sidekick is the first-person narrator, like Watson and Hastings, but we don’t know her name. She’s a nameless, enigmatic character, which gives the series a serialized mystery aspect.” 


In THE BUSY BODY, this sidekick is a ghostwriter who specializes in celebrity memoirs. Her latest assignment pairs her with a senator from Maine, but when one of the senator’s neighbors dies under suspicious circumstances, these two women team up to investigate. In the forthcoming untitled second novel in the series, the ghostwriter journeys on a literary cruise, which Kemper says is an homage to DEATH ON THE NILE and “the many other classic mysteries that take place on a mode of transportation.”


Though his books incorporate many of the classic tricks and tropes Kemper has explored on his podcast, readers don’t have to listen to the podcast to enjoy the series. “They’re very much grounded mysteries, intended to be read either independently or in series,” he states.


Of course, as such a prolific novelist, Kemper has wisdom to share with the future writers out there: “It sounds so cheesy, but follow your passion.” He elaborates: “You have to be okay with major delays to gratification, but if you’re passionate about it, you’ll be able to survive those long horizons. Writing is hard. It takes so much time and there’s so much disappointment, and so many people aren’t going to understand what you’re trying to say, or they’re not going to like it. You have to start with knowing what you love, and sometimes there’s trial and error in that. Give yourself grace, and the leeway to fail and regroup.” 





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