WomensHistoryReads interview: Jess Montgomery

Pioneering women in law enforcement have never gotten their due. Within the past few years, historical fiction readers may have learned the names of Constance Kopp (from Amy Stewart’s books) or Kate Warne (from mine), but there are dozens, even hundreds, of names like theirs we could know.

Add Maude Collins to the list. She was Jess Montgomery’s inspiration for The Widows, and you’ll learn more about her — and Jess — in today’s Q&Q&Q&A.

Jess Montgomery

Jess Montgomery

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.

Jess: In THE WIDOWS, my protagonist Lily Ross is inspired by Ohio's true first female sheriff in 1925, Maude Collins. Maude became sheriff in Vinton County when her husband, Fletcher, was sadly killed in the line of duty. After his funeral, she was packing up in the sheriff's house for her and her five children when the county commissioners came by and asked her to fill in for Fletcher. She did so, and in 1926 ran for office in her own right--and won. I was struck when I learned of Maude by how challenging serving as a sheriff in such circumstances would be now--what's more, nearly a hundred years ago. Then I began imagining what it would be like for a young woman to lose her sheriff husband but under mysterious circumstances, and the lengths she might go to to find out the truth. Thus, Lily was born--a character in her own right. I am blessed to have several aunts who were very tough women who were also leaders in male dominated work fields, so I drew on them as well for the spiritual inspiration for Lily.

Greer: If you could pick one woman from history to put in every high school history textbook, who would it be?

Jess: Mary Harris Jones, a.k.a., Mother Jones (1837-1903). She was a dynamo labor organizer--including for the United Mine Workers. She became an organizer after her husband and four children all died of yellow fever, and she lost her dress shop in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. She was known as "the most dangerous woman" in America in 1902 for her efforts to help mine workers organize into unions.  She is the spiritual inspiration for Marvena Whitcomb, a widow and mine union organizer in my novel THE WIDOWS.  I love Mother Jones for her feisty spirit and passion for the working class. After such a terrible loss, it would have been understandable if she'd given up--but she didn't. Learning about her is a way to also learn about the history of workers' rights, unions, and women's rights. Her name is also the inspiration for Mother Jones magazine, which I think high school students would find fascinating!

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Jess: Not at all! But I do love researching the settings and times for my novels in great detail and am indebted to actual historians. I also love to dig into source material (newspapers of the day, for example) as much as possible. I very much want to get all the historical details right, without turning my novel into an historical treatise. 

My question for you: To me, historical fiction is a chance to time-travel a bit into the past--which is fun--but it is also so much more than that. It's a way to see the present, and perhaps even the near future, with a fresh perspective. For example, women's rights have certainly progressed since 1925, but by looking at women's roles in the 1920s, we can also see the ways in which some attitudes haven't changed. Do you think of historical fiction as a lens for looking afresh at the present?

Greer: Absolutely! I’m fond of saying that historical fiction is a way of looking at how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. Anyone who brushes off historical fiction as irrelevant because it’s about things that happened a long time ago is really missing out. And historical fiction that uses history as a jumping-off point can really be enjoyed twice: once, while you’re reading the fictional story, and a second time, as you search out the real history that inspired the novel. Reading and enjoying, reading and learning — what could be better?

The Widows front cover.jpg

For more on Jess:

Web and blog: www.jessmontgomeryauthor.com

Facebook: @JessMontgomeryAuthor

Instagram: @JessMontgomeryAuthor

Twitter: @JessM_Author