Oh, Happy December! In addition to being my birth month, December claims the most holidays of any month when you count all the special days celebrated around the world, and gives us reason to congregate with friends and family. To that end, I bring you December’s Author of the Month, Jess Montgomery, a dear friend, a fabulous writer, and a superior pie baker! Her debut novel THE WIDOWS comes out in January of 2019.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, Jess, to my authors’ group. Tell us a little about your writing journey to this point.
Jess Montgomery: It’s been quite a long, winding journey! I started writing when I was about six. My first ‘book’ was called The Fireman (about a fireman who saves a cat from a tree), and I inscribed ‘published by Little Golden Books’ on the inside front cover–a cover I’d made from red construction paper. I sold it to my aunt for a penny! I forgot about that little book until my first actual publication, a mystery novel, many years later. My aunt had passed away, but my uncle found the little book in a box of her mementos. It was a terrific reminder that, for whatever reason, I’ve long had the passion to tell stories, the drive to get them into the hands of readers, and even an intuitive understanding that there must be a process for doing so. I think stories–reading or watching them and certainly creating them–is my way of trying, at least, to make some sense of the world. I majored in English (I have at B.A. from Wright State University and an M.A. from Bowling Green State University), but I only had one formal creative writing class. I’ve learned my craft from reading literature, reading many craft books and magazines such as Writer’s Digest and The Writer, and attending workshops. Most importantly, I’ve learned by writing, revising, submitting, and repeating the cycle over and over. THE WIDOWS will be my eleventh published novel (I have two other mystery series and one stand alone novel under my legal name), and I’ve been writing a weekly column called Literary Life for the Dayton Daily News since 2010. I also wrote a humor column, Sanity Check, for the Dayton Daily News from 2000-2010. Additionally, I’ve had a few short stories and essays published in literary magazines.
J.I: What drew you to historical fiction?
J.M.: I’m fascinated by how events and upheavals of the past, which we often think of as old-fashioned or quaint, actually keep playing out in modern times. The underlying conflicts, human needs and fears that drove women’s rights, unions and workers rights, and even Prohibition in the 1920s are the same conflicts, needs and fears that drive similar issues today. I love historical fiction that brings to life people from another era, upending our stereotypes of the era. For example, what image first comes to mind for the 1920s for most people? Probably glitzy flapper girls and jazz music. While those elements were certainly part of the era, that was not the experience of most people in the 1920s, certainly not in rural areas. I also love historical fiction that hinges on a forgotten, or nearly forgotten, piece of history. And, I have to admit, though it might be a cliché, that I love the research aspect. Finally, I like the challenge of figuring out how a detective might solve a case long before DNA, cell phones, the internet, or even easy access to land line phones or paved roads!
J.I.: How did you decide on the time period for your new novel THE WIDOWS?
J.M.: THE WIDOWS was inspired by Ohio’s true first female sheriff in 1925, Maude Collins. So, the era came part and parcel with the inspiration!
J.I.: The novel features two strong women. Was this a conscious choice as you wrote, or did the story expand the characters into their roles?
J.M.: It was a conscious and inevitable choice. I like strong women in real life, by which I mean women who know their own minds and goals, and who have agency–the strength and will to stick to their convictions and pursue those goals. Strong, to me, does not mean not showing emotions or acting completely alone or independently. I think two particular strengths of women are being able to show and share their emotions and to work as part of a community. These are strengths that I also like to see in men, by the way! I do not enjoy reading books in which any protagonist, male or female, does not have agency or who act only in response to external forces. That said, the action in THE WIDOWS begins as Lily learns that her husband, the sheriff of Bronwyn County, has been murdered. After that, though, Lily definitely makes her own choices to dig into the truth behind his murder, as well as to work with Marvena, Daniel’s friend and a union organizer and moonshiner. The tough part was that Lily started out as a strong woman, and I wanted to show how she grows personally through solving her husband’s murder. It’s so much more satisfying to me if a mystery novel does more than simply show “who-dunnit.” I want to experience the protagonist’s growth. So, I gave Lily some issues from that past that make her a bit insular and mistrusting of her community. These misgivings test Lily throughout the story but ultimately she has to rely on her community to help her solve the crime–and, with Marvena, she must make a very tough choice on behalf of her community at the end.
J.I.: I know you did a great deal of research for this book. What was the most appealing part of that background exploration? The most difficult?
J.M.: The novel is set in southeastern Ohio in the Appalachian foothills. My family of origin is from Appalachia (in Kentucky), and so it felt like falling into a comfortable sense of place and community to visit southeastern Ohio to research the area and immerse myself in the setting. The most difficult part was that my family were all tobacco farmers, but the setting for THE WIDOWS is partly buckwheat farms and partly coal mining towns. The story focuses on the coal mining aspect, and I didn’t know much about coal mining, except for stories from a few uncles who’d worked in coal mines. So, I had to do a lot of reading and research to get the feel right for this aspect of the story. While visiting old coal mining towns in southeastern Ohio, I had the good fortune to meet two former coal miners. They were kind enough to spend a whole afternoon with me answering all of my questions and sharing more of their stories.
J.I.: Can you explain the thinking behind using a different author name for this novel?
J.M.: Sure! My mysteries as Sharon were contemporary stories. The Toadfern mysteries in particular were humorous and told from the point of view of the main character. My standalone coming-of-age literary novel as Sharon was also told from only the point of view of the main character, and though that novel is historical (set in the 1950s), and has some weighty issues and themes, it is also a much sweeter tale from the heart. THE WIDOWS is darker than my other novels, more literary than my other mysteries, and is told from two narrators’ points of view. My writing in THE WIDOWS is different enough from past work that it seemed like a good time to have a different author name.
J.I.: As a writer, I know what fuels my writing, but I’m always curious about what makes others pursue this solitary and challenging work. So, Jess, why do you write?
J.M.: Well, as I mentioned in the first question, I write to try to make sense of the world. If I understand people, or the world, or life at all, it’s through stories. A more practical reason is that writing is like breathing to me. If I spend too long away from writing, I literally start to feel out of breath, or like a weight is on my chest, and I get itchy. Perhaps writing is an obsessive-compulsive disorder, at least in part, for me! But more seriously, it really is how I find meaning in my life and for my life. I’m not particularly good at anything else, so I try to be the best writer I can be, to make the most of and honor the gift the good Lord gave me.
J.I: What is the next step on your writing journey?
J.M.: The sequel to THE WIDOWS, tentatively titled THE HOLLOWS. I hope I will get to do more novels in the series after that. I have several short stories and essays I’ve been itching to write, as well as a light-hearted screenplay, and two other non-mystery literary novels that I’ve been wanting to write for years. Eventually, I’ll get to all of it!
J.I.: Having read THE WIDOWS, I’m interested in seeing what other mysteries Lily and Marvena get involved in. What can you tell us about the sequel?
J.M.: It’s set in 1926, about a year and a half after THE WIDOWS ends. In it, Lily is running for election for sheriff in her own right (she filled in for her husband after his death in THE WIDOWS). She has a compelling case to solve, of course, but she is also dealing with the personal issue of realizing how much she loves her job–a job she would never have gotten, in her time and place, if the man she so dearly loved hadn’t been murdered in the line of duty. Essentially, she’s dealing with ‘survivor’s guilt,’ though it would not have been called that in 1926.
J.I.: I’m looking forward to reading that one! Now, for a little bit of fun…you love to bake pies. Which has been the most challenging pie to construct? Which is your favorite?
J.M.: I *DO* love to bake pies! I love other baking, too, but pie-baking is my favorite. I can make a pie in about an hour–and no one has ever rejected my pie! My favorite is probably French Coconut, or Shaker Sugar. Both are such a delight to make, and easy as well. And it is fun to introduce them to people who haven’t had them before and watch the look of delight they get on their faces with that first bite! As far as challenging–I hate to admit it, but I still haven’t quite figured out a cookie crumb crust that I’m truly satisfied with. I have methods and recipes (ratios of ingredients, really) for a basic pie crust, a hot water crust (great for savory pies and hand pies!), and a tart crust. But crumb crusts have me a bit befuddled. I’ll figure it out in 2019!
J.I.: Name a favorite spot to unwind.
J.M.: I love to go on easy hikes in woods. I don’t do it nearly often enough. Every time I do, I think, why do I deny myself this pleasure? I should do this every week! I’ll make that a goal for 2019 as well.
THE WIDOWS (writing as Jess Montgomery), Forthcoming from Minotaur Books, January 8, 2019
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