Talk about lucky! First, I received a copy of this incredible book as a contender for this year’s Great Group Reads List for the Women’s National Book Association. Then, after falling in love with the characters, I learned the author lives half an hour away from me, so we were able to meet and chat in person. I am so pleased to announce that DEATH OF A RAINMAKER has been selected as one of our recommended selections for book clubs nationwide!
I hope you all read it, and love it as much as I do.
LAURIE: Thank you so very much for inviting me to participate in your blog. Connecting and learning from other writers has been a true gift during my publishing journey.
What inspired you to write this story?
From grade through graduate school and beyond, I have been a devotee of history. After finishing Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, a non-fiction work and a recipient of the 2006 National Book Award, I immediately re-read it. Egan magnificently tells the stories of six families who survived the Dust Bowl years in the 1930s. He describes the worst of the many dust storms that swept through the High Plains. It took place on April 1935—a 100-mile long, 4,000-foot high mountain of rolling dust that instantly turned midday into night. As I read this portion I thought, wouldn’t this be a terrific time and place for a murder?
It definitely was! You paint such a vivid picture of the time period. What kind of research did you do and how long did you spend on it?
Research is never a chore…however it does seduce me into tempting side trails that keep me from writing! Initially I spent six months collecting materials from books, diaries, historic newspapers, period music and films. Once I started writing, I often paused—for an hour or a day—to do additional research on a particular subject as events in the story unfolded.
Your characters are so three-dimensional; even the supporting cast. Are any based on, or inspired by, actual people?
Bits and pieces are borrowed from real people. For example the physical description of Etha Jennings, one of the main characters, is modeled after the actress, Thelma Ritter, who appeared in All About Eve and Rear Window, among many other films. Additionally, I pushed myself to prepare character bios for each member of the supporting cast as well as the protagonists.
That is fascinating! I’ll definitely keep Thelma in mind for any future installments. J Without revealing any spoilers, what was the most surprising turn your book took?
The appearance, early on, of a blind theater owner who is one of the primary supporting characters. I don’t know where that idea came from.
I love him: such an unusual and memorable character. Did you have to do additional research for him?
I found documents on-line designed to teach those with visual impairment how to accomplish daily tasks. For example, one manual suggested folding currency in different ways to distinguish between a $1 bill (flat and unfolded) and a $5 bill (folded in half with short ends together). I wanted the theater owner to be able to operate smoothly in the sighted-world but to also show the reader the adjustments he had to make.
What was the most challenging thing about writing this novel?
Incorporating clues so that the reader had a fair chance of guessing the outcome without giving anything away or making the clues too obvious.
Your book is billed as “a Dust Bowl Mystery” – which do you consider more important: the Dust Bowl part, or the mystery part?
For me, the conundrum in answering this question lies in the word “important.” As a reader myself, I would say the mystery–since my primary duty as a writer is to tell an engaging story. However, I do believe strongly in the importance of studying and learning from our past.
What did you come up with first, the characters or the mystery? Did one inform the other?
I set out to write a mystery. I read so many of them and decided to try my hand at one. I wanted the case to be solved by a married couple. Since the story is set in the 1930s in rural Oklahoma, that dictated that this would be a sheriff and his wife (although there were a smattering of female sheriffs at this time). The characters were created for this structure.
Female sheriffs? Sounds like a great idea for a spinoff. You have so many memorable and unique characters! My favorite, though, has to be Etha, the sheriff’s feisty, resourceful and compassionate wife. Did her role change between the first and last draft?
From the first to the last draft, Etha remained steadfast. I wanted a married couple to solve the murder and to give Etha a legitimate role in the investigation. Since one of the jail cells is in her kitchen area (as was not unusual in rural jails of the 1900s-1950s), I felt that gave her an opportunity to be part of solving the case. In later research I found that the spouses of rural sheriffs often were responsible for feeding prisoners, doing their laundry and completing paperwork for the office.
That is so interesting, and it allowed for some of my favorite scenes in the book. Speaking of Etha, I was very touched by her relationship with Carmine, the young man who reminded her of her dead son. This was such a powerful and poignant piece of your story. Can you talk about this subplot? How you came up with it, and why you included it?
I wanted Temple and Etha to be emotionally at odds throughout the story. In my own experience, I have come to understand how grief can take many forms. This has occupied my mind a lot lately. When two parties fail to understand the other’s reaction to significant loss, deep divisions arise. Etha sees qualities in Carmine that project, in her mind, who her son might have been as a young man.
Rumor has it you’re working on the sequel. (Please say it’s true!) Is there anything you can share about it? Will all the characters make a return appearance?
Writing a sequel is not as easy as I imagined! I am working on another story, set four months after Death of a Rainmaker. Temple and Etha are involved in another case, which is again set in Jackson County, Oklahoma, in the 1930s.
That is excellent news for fans like myself. Laurie, thanks so much for taking time to do this interview. Congratulations on the Great Group Reads selection! Now get back to work; a lot of us are already waiting for the sequel!