Kristin A. Oakley - Mysteries that Tackle Big Issues Such as Unschooling

Kristin A. Oakley - Mysteries that Tackle Big Issues Such as Unschooling

Kristin A. Oakley’s debut novel, Carpe Diem, Illinois, won the 2014 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for non-traditionally published fiction and other awards.  As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about it, and about what inspired her to write a book about a place where children are being unschooled.

Please give us a short introduction to what Carpe Diem, Illinois is about.

For decades, the small town of Carpe Diem, Illinois has quietly unschooled its children, eschewing tests and classrooms for real-life experiences. Now, long-smoldering political feuds and deep personal secrets threaten to explode. When her mother is hospitalized in Carpe Diem after an auto accident, teenager Tali Shaw, the daughter of a powerful state senator, finds herself at the heart of a vicious conspiracy to bring Carpe Diem down. Can prize-winning Chicago Examiner reporter Leo Townsend overcome his own demons and expose those behind the scheme before it's too late? And when the truth is finally revealed, can Carpe Diem ever be the same?

What inspired you to write about a place where children are being unschooled?

Fahrenheit 451 was the inspiration, though Carpe Diem, Illinois is nothing like Bradbury’s novel. While I listened to Fahrenheit 451, I wondered why novels with futuristic societies usually depict them as evil, dystopian – why not create a society that’s an improvement over our own? And for me, an unschooling town would be a great improvement. A place where everyone was free to learn what they wanted, when they wanted. I knew a lot about unschooling as I had unschooled both my daughters, started several unschooling support groups, volunteered at the InHome Homeschooling Conference in Chicago, and wrote a few articles for Home Education Magazine.

Actor Robert R. Doyle, Engineer Justin Hind, and myself after recording both books

Why did you pick a small town in Illinois as the backdrop for your book?

I lived in Freeport, Illinois for over ten years and Rockford for six years after that so I was very familiar with northern Illinois. Carpe Diem, Illinois opens at the location of the Tiger Whip Road and Highway 20 which is an actual location on the way to picturesque Galena. Whenever we pass it, I imagine Patrick Holden sitting on his idling Harley and I say, “Here’s Patrick’s corner.”

Tell us more about Tali Shaw.  What makes her tick?

Fifteen-year-old Tali Shaw is struggling to find her way in the world like most teenagers. Her cold father and selfish boyfriend make it difficult. She’s smart, but has low self-esteem and not many friends. When the book begins, Tali’s finally starting to connect with her distant mother and then her mother is in a serious car accident and she may not survive.

Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?

I’m an adjunct writing instructor at the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies, a board member of the Chicago Writers Association, and editor of their online publication The Write City Magazine and new journal The Write City Review. All of which aren’t so secret. However, not many people know that in addition to all-things-writing I like to oil paint.

You have a BA in Psychology.  How does this help you in creating your characters?

That was a long time ago (yikes!), so I’m not sure if it’s helped. I also have a law degree which did help with writing the legal aspects of both Carpe Diem, Illinois and its sequel God on Mayhem Street.

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

All the time. Jacob Landry, the villain in God on Mayhem Street, gave me headaches because he was so uncooperative. Setting the manuscript aside to work on an oil painting helped. And when I was first writing Leo Townsend, my protagonist, I found that I didn’t entirely understand him so I interviewed him. Leo was hungover during the interview but he did manage to tell me that he was a triathlete. It was good to know as that become important to his story.

Do reviews and reader feedback shape your work? Or do you feel like it's better to avoid the feedback—both positive and negative—so that it won't interfere with your vision?

I appreciate hearing from readers, book clubs are a lot of fun, and I do take into account their opinions for future work, but I always write what interests me the most. I spend years working on a book, so I’d better be interested in the characters and the subject matter—the vision. However, to improve my writing and create the best-possible books, I hire professional editors and definitely value their opinions. Plus, I continue to take classes, read how-to books, and attend retreats to improve my writing. I’m learning all the time.

Is there something that compels you to write?

With Carpe Diem, Illinois I wanted to make people aware of unschooling as a viable alternative to traditional schooling. With my current trilogy, the main character compelled me to write his story. And do you find that writing helps you achieve a clarity about yourself or ideas you've been struggling with? Not really. I’m not big on journaling or diaries though I know they can provide a lot of inspiration for writers. I do like writing about the big issues – unschooling, gay rights, good versus evil – and enjoy presenting both sides of the issues which, at times, can be a struggle.

When working on a new book, what’s the first thing you do?

For the trilogy I’m currently working on, I use Alan Watts’ The 90-day Novel. I like this book because it helps me brainstorm ideas about my manuscript while giving me the tools to structure it in a way that makes sense. I’m a seat-of-my-pants writer, a “pantser”, so his technique allows me to do that while helping me see how it’ll all fit together.

yellow couch
My favorite writing places: my yellow couch in my living room and Verona Public Library Quiet Room

This book was very well received and won the 2014 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award. Tell us more about the experience.

I was thrilled and happy to find out Carpe Diem, Illinois was one of the finalists, but then when the book won, well there was a bit of dancing involved. The Chicago Writers Association has a wonderful celebration at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square in January to honor the winners which I attended with my family came. It was an incredible thrill. Since then Carpe Diem, Illinois became a finalist in the Independent Author Network 2015 Book of the Year and a runner-up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Competition for Best Indie Book, so I did something right.

Do you think unschooling is a trend in education that will continue to make waves?

I sure hope so. As more people come to understand unschooling, child-led learning, I’m optimistic they’ll want to provide this educational freedom for their own children and grandchildren – at least during summer vacations. Ideally, I’d like unschooling to be an educational option for all children (and people of all ages) every single day.  

What are you working on right now?

This fall we finished recording Carpe Diem, Illinois and God on Mayhem Street so they’re now available as audio books. I hired Robert R. Doyle, an American Players Theatre actor, to perform the books and Paradyme Productions, a local Madison, Wisconsin recording studio, to record him. It was an amazing process and a lot of fun.

I’m currently working on a young adult dystopian trilogy called The Devil Particle Trilogy. I’m finishing the fourth draft of the first book and have a second draft of the second book waiting for revisions. The third book is still just ideas in my head that I have to get down on paper. I hope to get the first book, The Devil Particle, published by the end of 2019 and the second and third books published in 2020.

And then, of course, it’s back to Leo. A few years ago, I’d written 120 pages of the next book in The Leo Townsend series and now I can’t wait to dust them off. I’m eager to see what kind of trouble Leo will be getting into and how he’ll manage his way out of it.

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

Yes, please, contact me! I’d love to hear from your readers! They can contact me through my Facebook Page:; on Twitter:; or Instagram: I also send out a weekly newsletter about my life as a writer. They can contact me at to let me know if they’d like to receive it.