Edith here, in a January that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.
My new favorite author weaves dark, intriguing women-centric stories set in the mid 1920s in Appalachia. I recently finished reading The Hollows, her second Kinship mystery featuring Sheriff Lily Ross. I’m delighted Jess Montgomery agree to be interviewed on the Wickeds today! Read to the bottom for a special giveaway.
Here’s the book blurb. Ohio, 1926: For many years, the railroad track in Moonvale Tunnel has been used as a short cut through the Appalachian hills. When an elderly woman is killed walking along the tracks, the brakeman tells tales of seeing a ghostly female figure dressed all in white.
Sheriff Lily Ross does not believe that an old woman would wander out of the hills onto the tracks. In a county where everyone knows everyone, how can someone have disappeared, when nobody knew they were missing? As ghost stories and rumors settle into the consciousness of Moonvale Hollow, Lily tries to search for any real clues to the woman’s identity. With the help of a friend, Lily follows the woman’s trail to The Hollows—an asylum in northern Athens County—and begins to expose secrets long-hidden by time and the mountains.
E: Your series is set in southeastern Ohio. Until I read The Widows, I had no idea Ohio had a section of Appalachia. What was your best resource for researching the history of the area?
J: My family of origin, on both sides for many generations, is from a county in Eastern Kentucky, the heart of Appalachia. So, I grew up as a child of Appalachia, although I was born in southwest Ohio, learning the ballads, foods, heritage and so forth. I drew on those experiences and memories. For southeastern Ohio, the Appalachian part, I visited often, and spent time chatting with people who live in the area on several trips. Our younger daughter went to college at Ohio University in Athens County, which is part of that region, so it wasn’t exactly hard duty to go over there to visit.
E: Similarly, the details you brought to The Widows about unions and Prohibition are fascinating. In this book you have a notorious asylum. Tell our readers how you researched that. Was it a real place or did you imagine it?
J: The Ohio Asylum for the Insane (as it was called back in the day) was indeed a real place. The asylum, and others like it, have been closed for quite awhile. The building I describe is now known as “The Ridges” and is part of Ohio University’s campus. Most of the building is closed, but the central section houses some offices and a lovely art museum. I researched by visiting for a walking tour of the building and by reading articles and books on the former asylum.
E: How much does your fictional sheriff Lily Ross resemble the real first woman sheriff in Ohio, Maude Collins?
J: Lily was inspired by Maude Collins. In real life, Maude became sheriff in 1925 when her husband, Fletcher, was killed in the line of duty. There was no mystery as to who murdered Fletcher. Maude was elected in her own right in 1926—and won by a landslide. My Lily is similar in that she too was married to the sheriff and worked as his jail matron, then became sheriff when he was killed in the line of duty—but of course in my mystery novel, she doesn’t know who killed him. Lily’s feelings, actions and thoughts are of my imagination; I changed other details such as the number of children Lily has, and who her parents are and where they live.
E: I also like that your main character, Lily, continues in The Hollows, but she shares the lead role with a different co-protagonist than in the first book, this time with her friend Hildy. How did you decide to change, and was it hard to make the switch?
J: The books are, among other things, about individual needs and desires versus community needs and desires. They’re also about family ties—for good or ill. Thus the name of the county seat, Kinship. As sheriff, Lily is at the heart of Kinship and the surrounding community. I thought it would be great to draw in a different narrator to share the story-telling with her in each novel. Also, I did not want to be constrained by having the same alternate narrator to share the stage with Lily for each story—that would limit the aspects of community and characters I could explore. So, it wasn’t a difficult decision.
E: That’s such an interesting approach, having co-protagonists. I like it, and it works. You’ve been a journalist for the Dayton Daily News in your day job. Are you still writing a column? Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
J: I still write a weekly column, Literary Life, for the Dayton Daily News. It covers authors, literary events, and literary history of the greater Dayton area. I love the discipline of having a column due each week—I’ve written this column for eight years, and prior to that, wrote a weekly humor column for ten years. But I prefer writing fiction.
E: I do, too. Several of us Wickeds include recipes in our books. I love that your blog has a Pie of the Month feature! What’s your favorite pie? Do your pie recipes have Appalachian roots, too?
J: Hmmm. My favorite pie. I’d say it’s a tie between chocolate and French coconut, for eating. I love baking all kinds of pies. The pie recipes don’t really have Appalachian roots—though, like people everywhere, people in Appalachia love pie!
E: I was delighted to read (in your Jungle Reds guest post from a couple of weeks ago) that you’ve signed contracts for books three and four. Can you tell us anything about Lily’s next adventure? And will each subsequent book feature a different co-storyteller?
J: Each subsequent book will, indeed, have a different co-storyteller sharing the page with Lily. I’m currently working on book three, and don’t want to say too much about it yet, other than it is set in 1927, and brings Prohibition center stage, rather than as an element in the background.
E: Thank you for joining us! Jess says she’ll send one commenter the ebook of The Widows so you can get a start at, well, the start of the Kinship series.
Readers: What is YOUR favorite type of pie? Jess weaves ballads and gospel songs into her novels, and she loves folk music and bluegrass. What is your favorite type of music?
Jess Montgomery is the author of the Kinship Historical Mysteries (Minotaur Books), set in the Appalachian area of Ohio and inspired by Ohio’s true first female in 1925. Under her 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.