Wednesday, 16 January 2019 06:57

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.

One to Watch: Jess Montgomery and "The Widows"
Robin Agnew
Wednesday, 16 January 2019 06:20

Personally, I’ve never been fond of family reunions. My mother would bake an overly dry bundt cake and my Uncle Julie and Aunt Francis would constantly call me by my older brother’s name. Normally, the affair would end with someone feeling slighted. However, if your “family’s” last name is Soprano, wonderful things can be revealed.

Recently in New York City, I had an opportunity to hear the cast, along with the director David Chase and writer Matthew Weiner, reunite to opine about the lasting success that allowed The Sopranos to run for six seasons from 1999-2007. “Personally, I never thought it would run for more than one year,” David Chase said.

But 20 years after the show's premiere, The Sopranos stands as a classic, in large part responsible for ushering in the 2nd “Golden Age” of television. Many shows with dark undertones and antiheroes from Breaking Bad to Ozark owe credit to Chase’s vision.

And while the show's lead, James Gandolfini who played Tony Soprano passed away in 2013, several of the show's stars gathered to share what the experience of working on the show has meant to themand to remember Gandolfini.

“We were never close. Not friends off stage,” said actor Edie Falco, who played Tony’s wife, Carmela Soprano. “But, he displayed a certain warmth and was a brilliant actor.”

Actor Annabella Sciorra, who played one of Tony’s love interests remembered Gandolfini as a gentleman, “James would say, 'I’m going to put my hands here now.' Which was rare.”

And Lorraine Bracco, who logged more hours on screen with Gandolfini than any other cast member as Tony’s therapist, Jennifer Melphi, said, “He could be shy. And he didn’t give a rat’s ass about the fame.”

The Sopranos' success opened more than a few doors for those involved. “My two season’s on the show became my calling card,” said “Big Pussy” actor Vincent Pastore.

And while the show gave new life to many a career, it also killed quite a few folks. Actors recalled how their biggest fear was being killed off, or more appropriately, whacked.

“I’m glad I got to die in the hospital from cancer, not shot down in the street,” said actor Vincent Curatola, who played Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni.

And actor Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti, recalled the moment he knew his number was up, “I knew I was getting whacked after I got out of drug rehab. Tony was never going to trust me again.”

For my own part, James Gandolfini and The Sopranos will always remain a significant watershed event and serve as a landmark on how I view the current crop of television programs. There will only be one Tony Soprano. Sleep well and know you will always be remembered fondly.

After graduating Summa Cum Laude from Boston University and working for the governor of Florida, Owen Band returned to Miami where he successfully smuggled cocaine for the Medellín Cartel and attended the MFA program at Florida International University. His writing has appeared in the Miami New Times, The Forward, Perspective and Mystery Scene Magazine. Owen currently resides on the UWS of Manhattan where he daily struggles with middle age, baldness, a slightly enlarged prostate. He is currently writing a memoir.

The Sopranos 20th Year Anniversary: Remembering James Gandolfini
Owen Band
Thursday, 13 December 2018 19:51

Clea Simon is the author of four, mostly cozy, mystery series and one standalone thriller. Her latest book, A Spell of Murder, is about witch cats and is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her books have a sparkle and edge to them that’s delightful to discover in a cozy.

Mystery Scene: You didn’t start your career as a mystery writer, but as a journalist. What brought about the change?

Clea Simon: Honestly? I think I needed the time to build up my courage, as well as my writing chops. When you’re doing journalism or writing nonfiction (I wrote three nonfiction books before my first mystery), you can tell yourself that the writing doesn’t matter. You’re giving people information. But when you’re writing fiction, all there is is your writing—it’s all your imagination. It takes a lot of confidence to believe that my writing alone would be enough.

Specifically, what happened was that after my third nonfiction book, The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats, came out, Kate Mattes—the owner of the much-missed Kate’s Mystery Books—invited me to come sign at her annual mystery holiday party. I pointed out that my book wasn’t a mystery, and she said, “Believe it or not, Clea, there’s a huge overlap between women who love cats and mystery readers.” So I did and I signed along with dozens of other authors and I had a blast. And at the end of the night, Kate said to me, “You should write a mystery.” It was like she was giving me permission. And so I did!

Why mysteries? Were you a fan?

Very much so! I’ve always loved mysteries, from my Encyclopedia Brown days on. That and historical fiction, but I know a lot more about digging out facts (thanks to my years as a journalist) than I do about history, so...

Your early books were nonfiction, including one about cats—so what prompted the interest in cats? It’s obviously a passion that winds through your novels.

I’m not sure, actually. I’ve always loved cats. Maybe because as a writer I spend so much time alone except for the cat. And of course I talk to my cat. Everyone does, and so…sometimes the cat talks back!

You have now written five series. What have you learned about writing and publishing during that time?

Hmm, good question. I’ve learned that it is important to get something on paper, even if it’s lousy. You can’t revise if you don’t have it on paper. And along with that, I’ve learned that you have to revise. You have to be merciless. Do whatever is necessary to make the book better, even if it hurts!

While the book coming out now is also about cats, this one, A Spell of Murder, is about witch cats. Talk about witchcraft a bit if you would, what you know about it, how you researched it, etc.

I have dabbled in Wicca for years. At one point, I was considering a nonfiction book about it. When I was a kid, I made up a religion in which I worshipped trees, so it seems kind of right. I like the feminism and environmentalism of it—the idea of cosmic balance. And I have friends who practice, so that helps.

You also have a straight-up thriller that came out last November. What brought about that book? What made you want to write about the club scene?

World Enough was the final realization of a book I started 30 years ago, when I was a rock music critic. I kind of found myself in the punk rock scene—it was a very communal arts subculture that gave me a structure and a home and several lifelong friends—and I wanted to write about it. But at that point I didn’t have the chops, nor did I have perspective. So when I went back to that early manuscript and basically tore it apart, I realized that one of the things I wanted to write about was my longing for community—and how much we fool ourselves when we need to. It’s also kind of about looking back on youth from middle age. Fun stuff—with rock and roll!

I was always a fan of your Pru Marlowe, pet psychic, books, which sounds so cheesy when you write it down like that, but the books aren't cheesy at all, and they have quite a bit of edge. Can you talk about that series a bit?

Sure! I think the key to that is that in my heart, I’m as much Wallis (the crotchety tabby) as Pru. Wallis is the one looking on and cutting Pru down a bit, whereas Pru is trying to be tougher than she is. They both need each other. I love that series because it’s really about them working out their relationship and boundaries as much as anything. Plus, I get to research and write about different animals with each book!

Can you also talk about your Blackie and Care series? Interesting concept.

Blackie and Care started as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. What if Holmes dies and was reincarnated as a black cat? And what if he hooked up with a former Irregular, a street waif whom he had employed? Only, of course, the Irregular is a girl so.... I guess she’s me, feeling lost and alone in a scary world with only her cat for company. OK, I’ve probably said too much!

It annoys me that cozy writers are often dismissed as fluff when many of you include very serious things in your books along with the fun parts. Do you have a comment on that?

Yes, it annoys me too! Writing is writing, and cozies—all genre fiction, really—have some of the most astute characterizations and social commentary in current literature. Only we make it enjoyable, so people discredit it.

Finally, what book was a transformational read for you? What book changed your life as a reader or writer?

Probably J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It was my first experience of a character’s transformative journey and an immensely emotionally and intellectually satisfying read. Morally too! I still re-read it pretty regularly.

Thanks for having me!

Clea Simon is the author of more than two dozen cozy/amateur sleuth mysteries featuring cats (Blackie and Care mystery series, the Theda Krakow mystery series, the Dulcie Schwartz series, and the Pru Marlowe pet noir series), three nonfiction books, and one punk rock urban noir, World Enough (Severn House). Clea lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her husband and one cat. She can be reached at and on Twitter @Clea_Simon.

Clea Simon
Robin Agnew