Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Blog Tour Q&A with Jess Montgomery, Author of The Widows

Please join me in welcoming Jess Montgomery to Let Them Read Books! Jess is touring the blogosphere with her debut historical novel, The Widows, and I recently had the chance to ask her some questions about her protagonists and their inspiration and the challenges of bringing their story to life. Read on and enter to win a paperback copy of The Widows!

Kinship, Ohio, 1924: When Lily Ross learns that her husband, Daniel Ross, the town’s widely respected sheriff, is killed while transporting a prisoner, she is devastated and vows to avenge his death.

Hours after his funeral, a stranger appears at her door. Marvena Whitcomb, a coal miner’s widow, is unaware that Daniel has died, and begs to speak with him about her missing daughter.

From miles away but worlds apart, Lily and Marvena’s lives collide as they realize that Daniel was not the man that either of them believed him to be–and that his murder is far more complex than either of them could have imagined.

Inspired by the true story of Ohio’s first female sheriff, this is a powerful debut about two women’s search for justice as they take on the corruption at the heart of their community.

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Hi Jess! Thanks so much for visiting Let Them Read Books!

Your characters are based on Maude Collins, Ohio's first female sheriff, and Mary "Mother" Jones, a famous community organizer. How did you first discover these women and what was it about them that inspired you to write The Widows?

Our younger daughter went to Ohio University in Athens County. I was researching places to visit with her in the area for her birthday and ran across the tourism website for Vinton County, which abuts Athens County to the southwest. Maude Collins was featured on the county’s tourism website, with a few photos and a brief bio of Maude, who was appointed to fill her husband’s role as sheriff when he was killed in the line of duty in 1925, thus becoming Ohio’s true first female sheriff. Maude went on to be elected as the county’s sheriff in her own right in 1926—in a landslide!

I was immediately inspired by the quiet strength and strong character that I sensed in Maude from both her bio and her photos. As I began writing a novel inspired by her role as sheriff in the 1920s, I realized that my character, Lily Ross, needed another character who would serve as both a foil and an ally. I knew that Lily knew only aspects of her husband Daniel, and I wanted her to discover a more complete understanding of his life—ironically, after his death, while investigating his murder. A rather minor character slowly emerged to fulfill that role—Marvena Whitcomb, who was a childhood friend of Daniel’s. She grew to become Lily’s connection to the coal mining community of the region. I already knew about Mother Jones in general, and then I read about her role in the true-life Battle for Blair Mountain (essentially warning of the dangers of an uprising—and she turned out to be right), which took place in West Virginia in 1921 as coal miners rebelled against the poor wages and unsafe work conditions set by their coal company bosses.

Lily and Marvena would be well aware of this battle and end up wanting to prevent a similar battle from taking place in their region. So I realized I could have the strong spirit of Mother Jones become a part of Marvena’s character.

What led you to creating fictional characters based on these pioneering women rather than writing biographical fiction about them?

One reason is that I am a novelist, not a nonfiction writer. Much has already been written about Mother Jones’s life and work.

In Maude’s case, the circumstances of her sheriff husband’s death—he was killed in the line of duty—are certainly tragic, but not at all mysterious. There was no doubt about who killed him. My novelist mind started wondering, though, what if the sheriff was killed, but no one knows by whom or why? What if the explanations given to his widow are sketchy and unsatisfactory? What if she started asking questions? What if she was appointed sheriff and decided to use the access that gave her to help uncover the truth of his death? And so from there, Lily Ross was born as a character inspired by Maude Collins.

In writing fiction, as well, I was able to explore themes and questions that were personally interesting to me but that might not fit the truth of the real-life women who served as inspiration for my characters.

What were the most challenging aspects of writing this story?

My family of origin is from Appalachia, so I was very comfortable writing a novel set in the foothills of Appalachia in southeastern Ohio. However, my family members were mainly tobacco farmers, with just a few distant relatives who were coal miners. It was really important to me to compassionately and accurately portray what it might have been like to be a coal miner in the 1920s without turning to standard stereotypes. So I did a lot of research and reading and visited the area and interviewed a few gentlemen who had been coal miners in the 1950s and 1960s, and whose fathers or grandfathers were coal miners before them in the 1920s. I so appreciated them sharing their stories and providing insight I couldn’t have gotten through only online research and reading. Their personal histories and narratives, though not included in the novel, gave me an understanding that I hope does honor to both the men I interviewed and to all who work in this challenging industry.

What was your favorite scene to write in The Widows?

Lily and Marvena decide together to undertake a very dangerous rescue mission that puts their lives at risk. It was harrowing to write, but so much fun to take on that challenge.

What's the best piece of writing advice you've received?

It’s hard to pick just one! I think the best advice is to read, read, read (both craft books and other people’s novels). Equally important is that good writing is really revising, and revising again!

What are you working on now?

I’m working on THE HOLLOWS, the follow-up to THE WIDOWS. It takes place a year and a half later. It’s exciting to follow up on Lily Ross as well as the broad cast of characters in her community.

About the Author:

JESS MONTGOMERY is the author of the Kinship Historical Mystery series, focusing on a 1920s female sheriff in Appalachia. Under Jess's given name, she is a newspaper columnist, focusing on the literary life, authors and events of her native Dayton, Ohio for the Dayton Daily News. Her first novel in the Kinship Historical Mystery series, THE WIDOWS, garnered awards even before publication: Montgomery County (Ohio) Arts & Cultural District (MCAD) Artist Opportunity Grant (2018); Individual Excellence Award (2016) in Literary Arts from Ohio Arts Council; John E. Nance Writer in Residence at Thurber House (Columbus, Ohio) in 2014.

Connect with Jess

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram 

The Widows is on a blog tour!

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  1. Thanks for this captivating and fascinating novel. This historical interests me greatly as it is unique and compelling.

  2. Loved your author interview. Looking forward to reading this one.

  3. I enjoyed the post, learning about Jess and the book. Thanks!


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