During the mightiest dust storm of the 1930s, an itinerant rainmaker is bludgeoned to death in a small Oklahoma town. Sheriff Temple Jennings, who is running for re-election in a tight race, struggles to solve the case. Farm foreclosures, wandering tramps and other miseries of a years-long drought and the Depression, make his job that much harder. When he arrests a young man from the Civilian Conservation Corps, the sheriff’s wife, Etha, is convinced of the boy’s innocence and sets out to prove it.
After the success of UNMENTIONABLES, why did you opt to return to Kaylie Jones Books for your second novel as opposed to going mainstream?
As a true collaboration of established and emerging writers, KJB stands out as an exceptional imprint. The passion and enthusiasm of its founder, Kaylie Jones, for each KJB book is unmatched.
My first novel, UNMENTIONABLES, was the flagship publication for KJB. With both my first and now second KJB book, I have felt a part of the process from early on. My input was sought and welcomed on editorial changes, cover art, and both blurb inquiries and blurb selection. As an imprint of Akashic Books, KJB brought the expertise and support of that 20-year-old, highly-respected indie publishing house to my project as well. When it came time to shop around my second novel, I didn’t hesitate to go to KJB first and, when accepted, looked no further.
How did you come up with the concept for this book?
When I decided to write a mystery set during the 1930s Dust Bowl (see Inspiration below) I knew that the lawman solving the case would almost certainly be a sheriff and a male. My first novel was built around a strong female protagonist and I wanted to continue in that vein so in this book the sheriff’s wife is closely involved in the solution. Together they solve the murder but not necessarily in collaboration. Place and setting are vital to my stories. As a Midwesterner, I am sensitive to the nuances of rural farmlands and towns. I took care in building the fictional world of Jackson County, Oklahoma, and populating it with what I hope are a compelling cast of farmers, county clerks, a blind movie theater owner, hobos and young men planting trees for the Civilian Conservation Corps.
I know you hail from the Midwest. How did your own personal experience find its way into this novel?
Growing up in several small towns in the Midwest, I brought to this book, as well as to my first, a perspective on communities that are surrounded and set apart by farmland. I was in eighth grade when my family moved 70 miles to another Ohio town. There I took on the role of an observer and those observations certainly color how I perceive the economic, race and class distinctions I write about.
Where did the inspiration from this book come from?
I was tremendously impressed by the nonfiction winner of the National Book Award, THE WORST HARD TIME, by Timothy Egan. Egan’s book traces the stories of those who survived the Dust Bowl years. As a graduate student, I studied the 1930s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency and strongly connected with Egan’s vivid stories of families who chose not to migrate westward but stayed on the barren land. I am also an avid reader of mystery novels and wanted try my hand at crafting a who-done-it set in this time and place.
What challenges did you encounter while writing DEATH OF A RAINMAKER?
Nailing down accurate details of time and place, language and mores, is extremely important in historical fiction. My challenges included discovering what types of road surfaces were common in 1930s Oklahoma (asphalt, slab, gravel); where a sheriff and family typically lived (often in an apartment or house connected to the jail and courthouse), and how many pounds a young man joining the Civilian Conservation Corps gained during his first two months (twelve). Finding the answers to these types of questions required research in on-line data bases, in magazines of the period, in dozens of history texts and in first-hand accounts. When some detail I wanted was elusive, I was tempted to skip it or write around it but usually plunged on because those small facts make the story more vivid and is one of the reasons I myself read historical fiction.
Can you talk to us about your writing process?
After the hazy nebula of an idea appears, the story undergoes several months gestation as it takes form, initial research is done, plot points are jotted down and discarded, and character bios are developed. All these bits and pieces end up on a big newsprint pad (the type propped on easels in front of a classroom) where chapter outlines are penciled in. Then the writing begins, often interrupted by a day or so for research as questions pop up.
What surprised you about this book?
I was surprised how difficult it was balancing the need to incorporate clues while not giving away the solution too soon. I had to figure out how to hide clues in plain site. After forty years of reading, and getting fooled by mysteries, for some reason I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to build my own.
What are you excited about readers to discover in DEATH OF A RAINMAKER?
The Civilian Conservation Corps, that gave jobs, food, clothing and shelter to unemployed men ages 18-25 during the Depression, plays a big role in this book. I don’t think a lot of readers know about the CCC or how it worked. The corps served in almost every state, planting billions of trees and establishing trails, campgrounds and bridges in state parks, among dozens of other endeavors. Many of their projects still stand today.
Is this part of a series?
This book is intended as a series and is subtitled A Dust Bowl Mystery. The second opens when a horrific train wreck rocks the town of Vermillion and, shortly thereafter, the reclusive wife of the owner of the hardware store is murdered. As the sheriff is called upon to work both cases (one in tandem with railroad detectives), his wife is drawn into the investigations as well.
We are grateful to Laurie Loewenstein for chatting with us, and look forward to visiting the town of Vermillion in the future. For now, DEATH OF A RAINMAKER: A DUST BOWL MYSTERY hits bookstores on October 9, 2018. You can preorder your copy here.