Robin Agnew

Women's and workers' rights, Prohibition, and a murder mystery come together beautifully in this debut historical novel set in 1920s rural Ohio.

Jess Montgomery’s debut novel, The Widows (Minotaur Books, 2019), is the first in the Kinship series set in a small Ohio mining town in 1920s. Told in alternating narrative voices, the story tells the incredibly hardscrabble life of two women, one the state's first female sheriff and the other a union organizer. Both are inspired by historical trailblazers, Maude Collins, the first woman sheriff of Ohio and labor rights activist Mary Harris "Mother Jones." And both, as one might surmise from the book's title, are widows. The main narrative follows the new sheriff as she investigates the shooting death of her husband, the former sheriff, Daniel. The book is impossible to put down or forget.

I read the end note in your book about how you came up with the idea of your main character, but can you talk about Sheriff Lily Ross a little bit?

Lily is both tough and tender. She feels deeply about the people in her lifeher husband, children, family, friends, and community. And yet, when she must face gut-wrenching events and choicesshe has the grit to do so. In some ways, she's a modern woman, both for her times and for ours. She does not hesitate to take a highly unusual job for a womanserving as an appointed sheriff after her husband Daniel dies in the line of dutyand to use that opportunity to dig into Daniel's death. Yet at the same time, she concerns herself with issues of hearth and home. Lily also, over the course of The Widows, grows as a character. For understandable reasons, she has isolated herself inasmuch as she can from the community at large. Daniel is, in many ways, her protector. Yet, she doesn't really need that protection, and she does need to come to terms with the value of her community, as flawed as it is. Her growth is to realize both of those truths, and that realization comes to a head as she faces a challenging decision.

What about Marvena Whitcomb, whom we meet when she comes looking for Daniel to seek help and encounters Lily instead?

As I developed Daniel's backstory, Marvena started as a minor character, a childhood friend of Daniel's. Daniel was an outsider, in many ways, in his own family, and Marvena grew up in a harsh situation, so when they met by accident as children, it was only natural for them to become friends. Eventually I realized that Marvena knew Daniel better than anyone else. At least, she knows a side of Daniel, and a background, that Lily does not. Fairly quickly, Marvena emerged as more than a minor character. She became a woman with a voice of her owna foil to, and yet an ally of, Lily. I was inspired by the work of Mother Jones, a unionizer, and realized that I could imbue Marvena with some of Mother Jones' spirit. They would have been contemporaries in the 1920. Marvena is older than Lily, grittier, more world-wise, and tougher, at least at first. Lily helps Marvena, though, face her vulnerabilities.

I think like many people, I was aware of the terrible working conditions in the mines and the challenges union organizers went through only vaguely. They are certainly a part of our history that should be better known. Can you talk about that a little bit?

I do think historical fiction invites people in and gets them inside some history they may not know about. My own family of origin were mostly tobacco farmers in Eastern Kentucky, going back many generations, but I had a few uncles and great-uncles who worked in coal mines. After leaving tobacco farming, the men and some of the women in my parents' generation mostly became factory workers. My father was a tool-and-dye worker. I grew up hearing them say, "At least we weren't/aren't miners." It wasn't meant to be disparaging; rather, it was acknowledgment that mining is some of the toughest, scariest, grittiest work. So I too was aware of the conditions, but not to the extent that I am now, and honestly, there's so much more to learn.

Mining, and unionization in general, has a complex and long history. I was stunned to learn of real life events such as the Battle for Blair Mountain that took place in West Virginianot far from the Southeastern Ohio setting of The Widowsin 1921. It's the second-largest civilian uprising in our history, and yet most people don't know about it. However, Lily, Marvena, and their peers would have been well aware of that event.

In one scene, Marvena is 'speechifying' to the men she's trying to organize, and she cites the Battle for Blair Mountain, as well as several other coal mining incidents. Every one of them is true. I also spent time in Southeastern Ohio visiting towns that had once been coal company-owned towns. I had the great fortune and honor to meet two retired coal miners, whom I mention in the acknowledgments, who generously spent a lot of time sharing their own stories and stories from their families with me. It is important to me to be as accurate as possible, and honor the hard work, and often the hard lives, of people in these communities.

It's such an accomplished book, are there lots of drafts in a drawer somewhere?

Thank you! Honestly, I have a whole bin of research notes and drafts. I started with Lily. My first draftsas is always the case with first drafts, at least for mefelt forced and flat. I realized that one issue was that Lily couldn't possibly know enough to solve the crime of her husband's murder on her own. It's not a shock to the reader that he diesthe news of his murder comes in the first chapter. But it was important for Daniel to come to life as a character.

I experimented with about 20 pages from the murderer's point of view, and then put those pages aside. I wrote about a hundred pages from Daniel's point of viewhis own history flashing before his eyes in his final moments. But I wasn't comfortable with that device, and inserting those pages seemed to slow the pace too much. However, it was in writing those pages that I discovered Marvena, and that I really got to know Daniel. Tossing aside those pages didn't feel like a waste, but a necessary part of the process. Then, when I realized that Marvena was an important point-of-view character, the novel characters, setting, community came to life for me.

And following up on that since this is your first novel, what was your occupation while researching and writing The Widows?

I have worked as a writer, a marketing communications manager both for a corporation and as a solo practitioner, and a technical writer. I also currently write a column about the literary life of my home city (Dayton, Ohio), and am a mentor in a creative writing low-residency MFA program. So, I have quite a bit of experience in writing, research, and communication to draw upon.

Did you always know you wanted to write a mystery novel?

I'm one of those (somewhat annoying) writers who always knew she wanted to be a writer. (For the record, I think one can get bitten by the writing bug at any time. One of my great-grandmothers started writing love poetry in her 90s when she became smitten with an 80-something gentleman who worked at the corner grocery store in her small town!)

I first fell in love with mysteries as a young girl, when my grandmother sent me a wonderful gift: a pair of yellow shoes and a rather obscure 'tween' novel, Mystery of Hopkins Island. The novel featured a young woman who won a small island off the coast of Maine in an essay writing contest. She goes to the island with her siblings, and solves a mystery, and also falls in love with a cute boy.  Thus began my love of shoesand mysteries.

When I decided to become serious about writing years ago, I played with other genresand then realized that I wasn't reading in those genres. I was reading mysteries. So it occurred to me that I might be better off writing in the genre I most love to read.

I always wonder about research. I know writers of historical fiction love to do it, but in a book of fiction, there has to be a balance so the history doesn't overwhelm the story. How did you pull that off? Is there a ton of research you held back, maybe for another book?

I had to really distill down what I learned in my research about coal mining history, bootlegging and prohibition, women's rights, and so much more, so that the focus stayed on Lily and Marvena and their story. I still chuckle when I think about the evening my husband came home from work and asked how my writing had gone that day. "Terrible!" I replied, "I don't know exactly what kind of egg beater Lily would have used in 1925 and I've spent all day trying to find out!" He looked at me and gently asked, "Couldn't she just use... a fork?"

That bit of conversation freed me from agonizing over every single detail, and reminded me to thoughtfully pick a few details that bring the era to life. Still, I worried about getting pertinent details just rightthe automobile, for example, and the availability of telephones and developed roads. I spent days in the area of the setting, reading articles and advertisements from newspapers of the era in the archives at the newspaper office and library. It's difficult to find specific details of history for rural areas, compared to cities. Ultimately, I tried to weave in those details into the flow of action.

As for material for future books, I'm happy to say I do have a wealth of information and ideas to draw on. The specific history of Southeast Ohio in the 1920s and 1930s is fascinating and compelling in its own right, but also reflect the history of broader social and political issues of the times, as well as of our times. I also went down a few side paths in my research that sparked ideas for possible novels that would be historical mysteries, but not part of this series. We'll see what happens!

Is there going to be a second book, and if so, can you tell us a little bit about it?

Yes, thank goodness! The Hollows will come out from Minotaur hopefully in 2020, and focuses on Lily in 1926 as she campaigns for sheriff in her own right. It follows the emotional fallout from the events in The Widows, and the investigation of the death of an elderly woman who dies in dramatic and unusual circumstances in a remote part of Lily's county.

Is there a book that was a transformational read for you as a reader or a writer?

It's so difficult to pick only one! So many books have been important to me as a writer, a reader, and in my development as a human. I'll settle on Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. The novel is both an intense mystery and a heart-rending coming-of-age tale. It brings to life a setting, the Ozarks, and community I didn't know much about. Thematically, it asks tough questionshow do we balance individual needs versus family expectations versus community values, especially when all three are in conflict with each other, and even in conflict within themselves (for example, family members in disagreement)? As a reader, all of these elements were compelling. As a writer, I was awestruck at how Woodrell intertwined a lyrical, unique voice with a challenging plot and characters. I called up a writer friend and read the opening line to her and discussed how that crisp, seemingly simple opening so cleverly yet subtly sets up the whole novel's plot, conflict, and theme. It's a novel that pushed me to dig deeper as a writer, and still does.

Jess Montgomery is the Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News and executive director of the renowned Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Based on early chapters of The Widows Jess was awarded an Ohio Arts Council individual artist’s grant for literary arts and the John E. Nance writer in residence at Thurber House in Columbus. She lives in her native state of Ohio.