Kelly Brakenhoff - A Dead Body, a Science Lab Conspiracy, and a Vandalizing Stalker

Kelly Brakenhoff - A Dead Body, a Science Lab Conspiracy, and a Vandalizing Stalker

Kelly Brakenhoff writes the Cassandra Sato Mystery series including DEATH BY DISSERTATION, a 2020 RONE Award Mystery Finalist, and DEAD WEEK, "a diverting whodunit," (Publishers Weekly). Kelly is an American Sign Language Interpreter whose motivation for learning ASL began in high school when she wanted to converse with her deaf friends. NEVER MIND, her first children's picture book introducing Duke the Deaf Dog and illustrated by her sister, Theresa Murray, has quickly become popular with children, parents, and educators for promoting inclusive conversations about children with differences. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about her book, Death by Dissertation.

Please give us a short introduction to what Death by Dissertation is about.

Death by Dissertation introduces the ambitious, feisty Cassandra Sato. After graduating with a Ph.D. and working a few years at a college in Hawai’i—where she was born and raised—Cassandra moves to Morton College in the heart of the Midwest because she thinks it will help her get experience to someday become a university president.

When a student dies two months into her dream job, she struggles with culture shock, academic politics, and threats of violence while she helps the investigation. Cassandra is surrounded by an old friend, hilarious students, and supportive co-workers, but it’s her job on the line if she can’t figure out how to end the nightmarish string of suspicious incidents.

What inspired you to write about someone who gives up life in Hawaii for a dream job in Nebraska?

Years ago, I met one of my best friends while my husband and I lived in Hawai’i. I’ve often wished she lived closer to me in Nebraska so we could hang out together in person. Of course, who in their right mind trades the sunny skies and sandy beaches of paradise for miles and miles of cornfields? Right, no one.

When I began writing my novel during National Novel Writing Month in November of 2014, it was my chance to finally bring my wishes to life. So, I invented Cassandra Sato (who is only a little like my real-life friend) and moved her to Carson, Nebraska, to see how she’d handle the face-freezing winters and ethnically homogenous people.

Tell us more about Cassandra Sato.  What makes her tick?

Cassandra Sato is a fish out of water. She’s grown up in a tropical paradise where most of the people look like her. She’s ambitious and takes this job in Nowhere-ville, Nebraska to get the experience she needs to become a university president. She’s a workaholic on one hand, but kind, caring and witty as well. She’s a bit overwhelmed in this story by how different life is surrounded by miles of cornfields and mostly Caucasian students who have had a very different upbringing than she has. In addition, you get to learn about Lance the Deaf student and what life is like attending a college where people feel somewhat uncomfortable approaching you because they don’t use the same language. Many people are fascinated by American Sign Language and Deaf Culture, and this book will give you insights into what it’s like to struggle to fit in.

Why did you pick rural Nebraska as the backdrop for your story?

It worked pretty well for Willa Cather. Oops, sorry that was too sarcastic. In all seriousness, I live in Nebraska where during the past two winters we experienced blizzard level snow, fourteen straight days of below-freezing temperatures, and biblical flooding that destroyed farms and businesses in 70 out of 93 counties.

Imagine moving here from Hawai’i! Because of the extreme weather, Nebraskans are hardy folks whose survival depends on having a sense of humor. Our state tourism department’s official slogan is “Nebraska: Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” For real! #nebraskahonestlyitsnotforeveryone

I know the people who attend and work at Morton College. Not in real life, of course, but the extra characters who populate Carson, Nebraska, are just like my family members, neighbors, or coworkers. I’ve moved around a lot during my lifetime and Nebraskans are unique.

Why academic cozy mystery? What drew you to the genre?

As an American Sign Language Interpreter with more than twenty years of experience, I've worked in college classrooms for fifteen different majors. I actually attend classes with the deaf students and overhear both the most inspiring and the most inane professors you could imagine. At faculty meetings, I’ve seen the jockeying for position that happens on a daily basis. The most jaw-dropping dialogue in my books are often exact quotes I’ve overheard people say in real life. College communities are microcosms of the larger world and the perfect setting for shenanigans, mayhem, and murder.

I think we all struggle to fit in somewhere, whether it’s a new job, with classmates, or who we want to be when we grow up. This story touches on all of those emotions, while also making you laugh. Because when I’m overwhelmed by life, laughter is the best way for me to deal with difficulties and move on.

Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?

I bake the best scones. Unless you grew up in the U.K., in which case mine would not be authentic enough. They would hate my creativity because I add things like apples and cinnamon baking chips or dried cherries and dark chocolate. Check out recipes on my blog!


This is the first book of a series.  Can it be read as a standalone? How do the other books in the series tie in with this one?

Death by Dissertation, Dead Week, and Dead of Winter Break can all be read as standalone books. But they also follow Cassandra and her friends through the academic school year and each episode focuses on a different mystery. Just like a season-long TV show.

If you could choose one character from your book to spend a day with, who would it be? And where would you take them?

I kind of have a crush on the leather flight jacket-wearing Marcus Fischer, one of the guys who’s interested in dating Cassandra. He’s a mashup of personality traits of guys I admire from movies, TV, and real life. But he has flaws and a backstory that is revealed as Cassandra gets to know him better. He’s pretty handsome, and he looks good in a pair of jeans. No more needs to be said.

We would attend a Husker football game together on a crisp fall Saturday. Spend the pregame day tailgating, buy the corncob head, release the red balloon after the first touchdown. The whole Husker experience. That’s quintessential Nebraska.

Do any of your characters take off on their own tangent and refuse to do what you had planned for them?

Shannon Bryant is an American Sign Language professor who began as an interesting guy on the sidelines of the story. But the more scenes he appeared in, the more he began to shine. I love including deaf characters and ASL in the books, especially when they can use their special skill set to help solve the mystery. I’m finishing edits on the third book and he keeps pushing into more scenes, grabbing the spotlight. After I’m finished with Dead of Winter Break, I might have to write a short story starring him as the main character.

Was there a single defining moment or event where you suddenly thought, 'Now I'm an Author,' as in—this is now my career?"

This is tough because I absolutely love my day job. Hanging around with deaf people every day and doing the challenging work of interpreting between two languages at the college level is my passion. I also love writing and being an author. Luckily, I’m self-employed so I try to plan my schedule to fit both of them into my life. I can’t imagine giving up interpreting completely.

This pretty journal is the bullet journal I use every day. I bought it last summer in Heidelberg, Germany and love its beauty and thick pages.

How do you force yourself to finish what you're doing before starting the next project when the new idea is nagging at you?

I'm not one of those people who gets a zillion ideas in the shower. I’m a planner who enjoys checking off the to-do boxes one at a time in my bullet journal. When ideas come to me, I write a quick paragraph or two to preserve the idea and then go back to my WIP. I suppose since I publish in two very different genres that let me work on two writing projects at once and eases some of that temptation other authors feel.

Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?

Hmmm. No??

What are you working on right now?

My children’s picture book featuring Duke the Deaf Dog called Farts Make Noise releases on August 31st. I’m in the middle of book launch mania for that one. At the same time, I’m finishing up book three in the Cassandra Sato series, Dead of Winter Break. That will be out later this fall.

My office. To celebrate my 1 year book birthday for Death by Dissertation in April, I upgraded from a battered old library table I had used for years.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

My website is and that’s where you can find all the social media links where I hang out when I am procrastinating on writing. Also if you have young children ages 3-9 in your life, please check out the video I made of Never Mind, the first Duke the Deaf Dog book, where my friend Amy Willman and I read the story in English and ASL. Here’s the YouTube link: