Jess Montgomery is a new name on the writing scene, but she is already an accomplished writer under her given name. She has published several novels, written a long-time newspaper column, and served as the 2014 John E. Nance Writer in Residence at Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio.
Her new Kinship Historical Mystery series under her pen name is quickly getting notice. Montgomery's novel, The Widows, is the first in the series and is a murder mystery set in 1925 in rural Ohio that involves strong female characters as a sheriff and union organizer. Before The Widows was published, it won a 2018 Montgomery County, Ohio, Arts & Cultural District Artist Opportunity Grant and a 2016 Individual Excellence Award in Literary Arts from the Ohio Arts Council. Writer Rhonda Havig talked with Jess Montgomery about the main characters in her new novel, writing historical fiction, and the importance of writing communities.
Rhonda Havig: The main characters in The Widows, Lily Ross and Marvena Whitcomb, are inspired by Maude Collins and Mary Harris "Mother" Jones. What drew you to the stories of these real-life women?
Jess Montgomery: Lily is indeed inspired by Maude Collins, Ohio's first true female sheriff, and Marvena by Mother Jones, the union organizer. But the key word is "inspired." The novel is not in any way the story of these two real-life women; they simply serve as a launching point. In real life, Maude lost her husband, the sheriff of Vinton County, when he was killed in the line of duty, and there is no mystery as to who killed him; in fact, Maude was a witness. Later, in 1925, she was appointed sheriff by the county commissioners, was elected in 1926 in her own right, served one term, and then went on to a career in other areas of law enforcement. Lily, on the other hand, has no idea who killed her husband, but is determined to find out. I do not try to guess as to how either Maude or Mother Jones thought or felt about their lives, but created Lily and Marvena as characters in their own right, from my imagination.
That said, I greatly admire the courage and strength both Maude and Mother Jones showed in their lives, their convictions, and how they did not let the strictures of their times keep them from pursuing their careers. I like to write (and read) about strong women who have their own sense of agency. That doesn't mean that they never have difficulties or doubts, or that they don't have weaknesses or personal growing to do. I'm not particularly fond of female characters who rely on manipulation or others' strength to achieve what they want—I much prefer strong characters!
When I discovered Maude Collins, I was immediately intrigued by the notion of a female sheriff in 1925. She had to have been one of the first in the U.S. and was the first in Ohio—the next female sheriff in Ohio was in 1976! Yet in photos of Maude, she looks not only strong, but also quiet and calm.
RH: Lily and Marvena are loving and protective mothers. As a mother, how have your relationships with your own children influenced your writing and the way you write characters who are mothers?
JM: This question made me smile! Lily in particular is about the same age as my own daughters (mid-twenties), which is stunning to think about, since Lily is widowed and has two children—my daughters are single and pursuing careers. Lily, of course, is supposed to have a career as a wife and mother—until fate intervenes. As I wrote scenes between Lily and her mother (Mama), I found my own voice coming out in Mama, especially in admonishing Lily to be safe in a dangerous world. When our daughters were younger, I usually told them "have fun!" rather than "be careful!" but now they are both in careers with inherent physical dangers and I want to tell them "be careful!" It feels a little too late for that, though! Mama also doesn't entirely understand Lily and her "newfangled" work, and I admit, in some ways, I don't always understand my own daughters' careers. I'm certainly a proud mama, but I know I couldn't do the work either of them do. So, I'm in the position, now, of sitting back in awe and admiration, as I observe their amazing, strong lives unfold—and, every now and then, holding my breath just a little. (But I don't let them know that!)
On the other hand, Lily and Marvena are, indeed, loving mothers to their own children, and ache to protect them from the dangers of the world. I definitely called on memories of taking care of our daughters when they were little, nursing them when they were hurt or ill, and wanting to shield them from the inevitable hurts of the world, which come to us all no matter how protected our childhoods are.
I really loved developing the relationships between Mama and Lily, Nana (the mother figure of all of the coal mining town) and Marvena, between Lily and her children, and Marvena and her daughter, and between Lily and Marvena as well, who start as adversaries but eventually grow into sister-like friends. Bringing these and other relationships to life—particularly between the women in the world I created—is as key to me as writing a compelling mystery story.
RH: How did you approach conducting research for this novel?
JM: I started out with a broad focus, learning as much as I could about the events and, particularly, issues of 1924 and 1925. The twenties are abundant with fascinating social, political, and economic issues and upheavals! So often, the first images that come to mind with "The Roaring Twenties" are glitzy flapper girls in cities, with jazz playing in the background. There's nothing wrong with exploring that part of the era, but as I studied the decade, I was struck by how different life was in rural areas. In many ways that's still true today, which I find fascinating as well.
My family of origin is from Appalachia, in Eastern Kentucky, just south of where The Widows is set in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio, so many of the cultural aspects—food, style of speech, music, and so on—came easily to me. However, my family members were mostly tobacco farmers, with only a few uncles who were coal miners, so I had to do a lot of reading and research about coal mining in an effort to get that aspect just right. I was particularly intrigued by reading about the Battle for Blair Mountain, a true 1920s civil uprising in West Virginia of coal miners and union organizers versus management, second only in size to the Civil War. The characters in my novel are well aware of this uprising, and Lily and Marvena hope to help their community avoid a similar bloody conflict.
I took several multi-day trips to the setting, interviewing people and gathering background for Bronwyn County, which I created from two adjacent sections of actual counties in that area, so I could draw in both farming territory and coal mining.
I also double and triple checked all the facts I could. It's a story, and the events in the lives of Lily and Marvena are wholly from my imagination, but I wanted to make it as realistic as possible. And yet, I probably used only ten percent of the facts I researched because, again, it's a story—not a history book.
RH: What do you find most challenging about writing historical fiction?
JM: It's so easy to fall down a rabbit hole of research and not actually write! I still chuckle about the time my husband came home and wanted to know how the writing went. "Terrible!" I said. "I don't know what kind of egg beater Lily would have used in 1925!" He gave me a long look and then said, "How about . . . she just used a fork?"
I found a 1925 egg beater at an antique shop and keep it in my office (not my kitchen!) to remind myself to not get so caught up in tiny details that I don't make progress in writing.
It's also important to weave in only a few historical details as necessary—to set the time and place, but not overwhelm. The details should emerge as part of the action, not stop the action. This is a challenging and delicate balance to strike.
RH: You are an accomplished writer under your given name. Why did you choose to write as Jess Montgomery?
JM: My most recent novels before The Widows were written from the first-person point-of-view. The mysteries were social satire, and my stand-alone coming-of-age novel wasn't light-hearted, but it was definitely a story meant to be inspiring and heart-warming. The Widows is written from the third-person points-of-view of two narrators, Lily and Marvena. The mystery is darker than others I've written and has many more layers. What's more, it's set in 1925. So, the voice of what I'm now writing felt sufficiently different to call for a pen name. That said, I don't think The Widows or future novels will feel too jarring to fans of my past work.
RH: You have interviewed a variety of authors for your newspaper column and are very involved in the writing community in your local area. How has this interaction with other authors affected your writing?
JM: I've grown very far away from my early image of what it means to be a writer—an image that I think many people have and that is part of our popular view of "writer." That image is the writer works alone, scribbling away, and then wings his or her work out into the world to meet its fate.
That's partly true; writers do have to spend great swaths of time working alone to actually create the initial material. But I've learned that writers can only grow and succeed within the context of a community—other writers to learn from and to, in turn, mentor, professionals such as agents to help get that work in excellent shape to find a publishing outlet, editors to help the writer further shape the work to its fullest potential, reviewers and publicists to help alert readers to the existence of the work, and of course readers to respond to the work, hopefully by being touched or moved. I'm passionate that it is essential for writers to see themselves as part of—and to engage in—a broader literary community.
RH: What advice do you have for writers who have written a novel and want to pursue publication?
JM: Well, first of all, build a community around you! You'll need it for support, encouragement and feedback—whether it's a small group of other writers or engaging in a workshop. Secondly, learn to take good advice from beta readers, agents, editors. I say "good" advice, because sometimes writers get bad advice—for example, if your passion is writing horror, don't let anyone talk you out of that due to their own preference for another genre. On the other hand, a lot of creating something worth reading is checking your own ego at the door. If an aspect of your work truly isn't resonating for several readers, then you probably need to take another look at your work and figure out how to improve it. It takes a long time, I think, to develop a sense of what advice to follow or not, and the best way to develop that sense is to keep learning your craft, both through reading others' works, and through reading craft books and magazines. Finally—well, not really finally, because there is so much to learn about writing!—recognize that though you are an artist, the production of that art (the publication of books, stories, essays, poems, and so on) is an "industry." The agents, editors, marketers, and publicists in the industry are passionate about that art, yes, or they'd be in a more lucrative industry, but they are also businesspeople. There is a process for querying agents, finding editors, and so on—and it's there to make both their and your jobs easier and less chaotic. Learn that process, respect it, follow it.
RH: What are you working on next?
JM: The sequel to The Widows! It's tentatively titled The Hollows and catches up with Lily a year-and-a-half later, in fall 1926. Lily is now campaigning for the position of sheriff in her own right and dealing with what we would today call "survivor's guilt," as she realizes that she loves her job—but she could only initially come to it (in that era) as a widow.