A Conversation with Nancy Pickard
Q: The Virgin of Small Plains is your eighteenth novel, but the first you’ve set entirely in your home state of Kansas. Why have you waited until now? What challenges presented themselves in writing about an area and community so close to home?
A: The piece of advice new writers hear most often is probably “Write what you know.” Good advice! And yet, I have lived in the Kansas City area all of my life—the first half on the Missouri side of the state line and this second half on the Kansas side—and until Virgin I had written only one novel that spent any time in my home area. That’s very odd, isn’t it? Why would a writer do that? Why would I set books in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Florida, Alabama, Arizona, and Colorado, but not in the state where I live? Part of the reason, I think, is that sometimes it’s hard to write about—just as it would be to photograph or paint, if I could actually do those things—people who stand too close. I can’t see them clearly; or rather, I can see the pores of their skin, but not them. Some perspective is required—at least, it is for me—and that means backing off. But I backed waaay off; in most of my other books I backed off half a continent from home. It’s also true that I always wanted to live somewhere else. I love New England, so I let my series heroine, Jenny Cain, live there. I love southeast Florida, so I invented a city modeled on Ft. Lauderdale and let another series heroine, Marie Lightfoot, enjoy the weather. But then about three years ago, as I was thinking about the book that would become Virgin, I looked at my life and said to myself, “Nancy, you have a mother who’s almost ninety years old and she lives here, and you have an only child who’s in college thirty miles away. You’re not going anywhere. What’s more, you’re probably never going anywhere.” And suddenly, just like that, and to paraphrase Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, if I couldn’t be in the states I loved, I’d love the state I was in. In that revelatory moment, I felt no resentment and I didn’t feel trapped at the idea of being “stuck” in Kansas. Instead, I felt midwestern from the soles of my feet to the roots of my hair. I felt as if I lived exactly where I was supposed to be, and for perhaps the first time in my life, I was content—no, more than content, I was delighted—with that fact. For some mysterious reason, probably having to do with the miracle of acceptance and surrender, something in me opened up creatively to . . . Kansas. Hey, somebody’s got to do it (I say, smiling). And there will be no cracks about boring and flat, please, because this is my state now!
Q: What inspired you to write this story? Was the genesis of The Virgin of Small Plains significantly different from the ideas that spawned your previous books?
A: It had a remarkable genesis, starting with a dream. I was in Ft. Lauderdale, staying in the home of some friends while they were away, and I was worried and depressed about my writing. In another of the instances of surrender that seem to dot my adult life, when I went to bed I said to the universe, “Okay, I give up. I don’t know what to do. Help.” I went to sleep, in tears. That night I had a dream of flying. I’d had flying dreams before; anyone who has them knows how wonderful and wondrous they can be. But this one was different because for the first time I was a flying instructor, teaching other people to fly. It felt terrific. When I woke up, I knew something had shifted from bad to good and that that dream might signify hope. That morning, sitting on my friends’ porch, listening to a flock of wild parakeets in the trees outside, I started a novel I called Green Wings, about a young woman in Kansas who owned exotic birds. She wasn’t Abby, not yet anyway, but she was the beginning of Abby. It would be a couple of years before my contractual obligations to another publisher would allow me to think about Green Wings again. When that day came, I pulled out that little start of a manuscript and showed it to my Ballantine editor, the genius on my shoulder, Linda Marrow. Over the next couple of years, the girl became Abby Reynolds and the book became The Virgin of Small Plains. In case you’re wondering about chicken and egg: That dream came first and the revelation I talked about earlier, about Kansas, came second, just before I swallowed hard, crossed my fingers, and said to
Linda over the phone, “Let me tell you what I’d love to write next . . .” As for the dream, here’s what I think it means: I think it meant I was ready to move on to something bigger. And not only did it inspire Virgin, but I think it also predicted Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path, the book that Lynn Lott and I wrote to try to help writers become the pilots of their own writing lives.
Q: What about the development of the novel? Did this book present any unique challenges?
A: I’m sure it did, but I have a hard time remembering them. Like giving birth, I guess. I remember the joy of delivery, but not the labor pains. It’s funny because I do remember struggles I had with every other book, but not with this one. I vaguely remember struggling to get the first chapter right. Abby was too passive at first. She needed to take charge. And I recall my editor suggesting that I edit out some scenes I had written that showed Mitch and his ex-wife in Kansas City. She suggested I bring him back into the story right at the point when he’s on the road, going back to Small Plains. I resisted that, but I should have trusted Mitch to tell me if she was right or not. I do remember what a relief it was to write that scene where he’s standing at the gas pump, at the intersection of the highways, trying to decide whether to go on to Small Plains or turn around and go back to Kansas City.
Q: The action shuttles back and forth in time, altnerately charting the events that lead to and follow from the Virgin’s death in 1987 and the repercussions still simmering seventeen years later. Why did you choose to braid the two narratives in this way? Was it difficult to keep your timelines straight?
A: I did it that way because I am fascinated by how people deal with their lives after events or other people disrupt them. I’ve watched people who never recover, who simmer in resentment, disappointment, regret, and frustration for the rest of their lives. And I’ve watched other people let go of the past and get their lives onto a track of their own choice. Maybe they get revenge, maybe they find redemption. I make no judgments about which way any person goes; we never know how hard it is for other people, or how bad things may have been for them. But it interests me. The people who handle it successfully inspire me. I’m thinking here of ordinary people, but also of giants like Nelson Mandela. So I wanted to show the time of disruption in the lives of Abby, Mitch, and Rex, and then catch up with them again to see what they made of it. Would Mitch be defeated by all he lost? Would Abby choose wrong? Would Rex “get over” the Virgin? It wasn’t hard to keep the timelines straight, because I had “practiced” by doing something similar in my Marie Lightfoot novels. But I am terrible at arithmetic! I was always subtracting one date from another and getting it wrong, so that weeks later I’d find out I had made somebody the wrong age or something. Arrgh! I am so paranoid about it. I triple check dates and still get them wrong, because if you subtract wrong three times you get three wrong answers, not one right one. Even in the copyedits, I’d find red messages saying things like “But if Rex was eighteen in 1987, then wouldn’t . . . ?” Thank goodness for copy editors who have both sides of their brains functioning. Even in writing this, I originally typed, “But if Rex was eighteen in 1967 . . .”
Q: How carefully do you map the plots of your books before sitting down to write? Do your characters sometimes surprise you?
A: As to plots, here’s how it works. To sell a book to my publisher, I devise a plot and then I write a proposal and pretend that’s what the book will be about. I send it to my agent and editor and they join me in pretending that’s what the book will be about. Then we go to contract. And then I write the book, which turns out to be almost nothing like the proposal. At various times during the writing I will make laughable attempts to plot the rest of the story before I get to it, and then the story will do whatever it damn well wants to do, since characters don’t read proposals, either. My characters do surprise me. That’s the part of writing fiction that I love best. For instance, in Virgin, I had no idea why Rex’s mom, Verna, was so sick the night of the storm. The first time I met her was when she was standing in the hallway outside of the bedroom, just before Rex joined his brother and his dad in the truck. She was sick. I hadn’t planned it, she just was. Now, if a character is ill, there should be a reason for it that has something to do with character or plot development. But all I knew was that she seemed to be feeling miserable and I had to let her feel as she really did feel. I couldn’t manipulate that. If she was sick, she was sick. So I let it play out to see what it meant. Turns out that was important for both character and plot, because it allowed the family to be out of town that day while so much gossiping was going on. Because Verna was in the hospital with pneumonia for a long time, she missed everything having to do with burying the Virgin, and that helped her allow herself to grow foggy about the whole event. It also kept Rex, Patrick, and their dad from talking to anybody and letting something slip. By the time they got back to town, the myth was already starting to grow. I didn’t plan any of that. I don’t know how this mysterious process works. It just does, if I can let go and let it happen.
Q: Did you find it hard to adopt and sustain the perspectives and voices of multiple narrators in The Virgin of Small Plains? Were certain characters more accessible to you than others?
A: I loved being able to write in all those perspectives and points of view. For ten books in my Jenny Cain series I was stuck entirely in the first person point of view, and in a female point of view. In Virgin I could write in the voices of young people and older ones, or boys and girls, women and men. It was a great adventure for a writer. I felt lucky.
I think I had the most trouble “hearing” Abby at first. It took my editor to tell me that Abby is a much more active, less passive woman than I was allowing her to be. Abby’s plenty feisty. I had to let Abby be Abby!
Q: You really capture the rhythms of adolescent thought, from Rex’s sexual frustrations to Abby’s heartbreak. Did you base their travails on your own experiences? On those of anyone you know?
A: Now there’s an embarrassing question! (I say with a laugh.) In a word, yes. For many of us, the angst of adolescence remains fresh for a lifetime! Here’s an example of using my own teenage experience: Remember the terrible summer Abby had after Mitch left? To write that, one of the memories I called upon was of when I was a senior in high school and my boyfriend broke up with me. It would last only twenty-four hours (that time), but of course I didn’t know that. I spent those hours hiding out, listening to sad music, and weeping my eyes out. I even remember a particular song that made me cry the hardest: “Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain, telling me just what a fool I’ve been. I wish that it would go and let me cry in vain, and let me be alone again . . .” I may laugh at that now, but the truth is it hurts to be young and in love and have it go wrong. It hurts so much. I took my own shallow memories of delicious misery and then added my imagination to it. I let hers be bigger and last longer, because Abby’s pain was much deeper and more genuine than mine had been when I was her age. Hers had better cause, and also the element of mystery. I knew what I had done wrong when my boyfriend broke up with me (kissed another boy, my bad), but she had no idea why Mitch left, and he had been a true soul mate. So she wept and hid and mourned for a long time, until she was ready to stop crying. Just as I had to let Verna be ill, I had to let Abby be sad. I felt so sorry for her. I was glad that at least she had the parrot for company.
Q: You never expressly tip your hat to divine intervention in The Virgin of Small Plains, but there are indications throughout the text that some higher power may be at play—even though the story carefully supplies more plausible explanations for seemingly extraordinary events. (Case in point: The climactic car crash, which evokes the clockwork precision of a deus ex machina but at the same time seems like a natural narrative development.) Do you believe in the supernatural or spiritual?
A: I love mystery with a small and capital M. And I believe in letting readers think what they want to think. (Smiles and disappears.)
Q: The subplot involving Catie Washington both complements and nicely counters the murder mystery at the heart of The Virgin of Small Plains. Did you specifically conceive this character and her story to vary the tone of the book, or did they evolve organically from the story?
A: Catie didn’t exist in the first partial draft of the book, nor did that subplot. Until they appeared, I had a nagging feeling that something big and important was missing. I don’t know what finally triggered the idea, but I do know that something like it had already been on my mind several years ago when I wrote a fable about healing. That story, “It Had to Be You,” originally appeared in the anthology Marilyn: Shades of Blonde. In that story, a full-length image of Marilyn Monroe appears on Mt. Rushmore alongside the presidents. She brings miracles of sexual healing, and plenty of trouble, and changes many people’s lives before she vanishes from the mountain. So I’d been having “Lourdes” thoughts, related to a beautiful, deceased young woman, for quite a while. I cannot say this often enough—writing is strange. Or maybe it’s writers who are.
Q: The twister that dominates the central passage of the novel alters not only the town of Small Plains but also the shape of the action unfolding there: Abby sees Mitch again; Catie’s faith is providentially confirmed; and the reader is properly introduced to Jeff Newquist, a pivotal minor character. How did you hit upon the idea of this perfect storm, so to speak?
A: I wanted to play with the traditional structure of mystery/suspense novels, because I didn’t want to do the same old thing that I knew so well. In so many novels, the plot starts with a death, and then there’s at least one more death about midway through the book to keep the plot moving, and then there’s the final climax/revelation. I rebelled against doing that again. I thought, “What if I had, essentially, two climaxes, so that the first part of the book builds to one of them—something every bit as dramatic as the kind of climax most books end with—and then the rest of the book builds to the second climax? It meant not holding back in the middle; it meant throwing everything against the wall and taking the chance that I wouldn’t have enough drama left for the ending. I decided to take the risk.
Q: You’ve achieved success and acclaim as an author of mysteries. Have you always been interested in that genre?
A: I have, ever since reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. The first short story I ever wrote, as a senior in high school, was a mystery.
Q: How did you launch your career?
A: By leaping off a cliff! One day I gave all my paying clients (I was a freelance writer) thirty days notice, and thirty-one days later I started writing fiction full time. I must have been out of my mind. But what else can you do when you are overtaken by a desire to do nothing but write mystery novels for the rest of your life?
Q: Do you feel that this book delves into new territory for you as a writer?
A: I do, but what may have really happened is that I finally got the chance to use everything I have learned in more than two decades of writing fiction. When I started out I had a limited number of tools in my belt, but now I know how to do quite a lot of things I couldn’t have done then. It’s easier to make your visions come true when you have the tools you need to build them.
Q: What are you working on next?
A: Another book set in a small town in Kansas, though in an entirely different landscape. There’s a spectacular bit of scenery in the far northwest corner of the state where an ancient inland sea once surged through the continent, cutting it in half from top to bottom. That wide ocean left chalk beds and carved great stone monuments that now rise above the flat earth. There are badlands there. It’s a dramatic, isolated landscape that comes as a big surprise if you’re not expecting it. Most Kansans have never been there, much less anybody else, or even heard of it. I won’t say more, because the characters haven’t let me in on all of their secrets yet.
Q: It must be asked: Have you ever experienced a tornado firsthand?
A: I have seen a funnel drop down from a cloud, though it didn’t touch ground. And I have lived through so many tornado alerts that I’m dangerously blasé—except when a twister is on a direct path to the University of Kansas! Then I can get nervous, as my son could tell you while he answers all my cell-phone calls: “Can you go to the laundry room?” “What? You’re not watching the weatherman?!” I know that eerie green light—what we call “a tornado sky”—very well, and I have driven under that oily boiling belly of the storm. But I’ve only actually been in tornadoes in my dreams. That’s close enough, thank you!