I met mystery novelist Jess Montgomery at the mystery/crime writers’ convention Bouchercon in 2019. Like many of the authors I interview, Jess populates her books with intelligent, strong, independent female characters. Our interview covered Jess’s expansive career as an author.
Kathryn Schleich: Where did you grow up? From your biography it appears you are an Ohio native, from Dayton. Besides your stint in the Mojave Desert with your husband, have you lived most of your life in Ohio?
Jess Montgomery: I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, which is where I live now. My husband went to Tulane in New Orleans, so he spent four years there, and I joined him for the last year. I fell in love with New Orleans and am still in love with it (and, for the record, with my husband!). We lived for three years in the Mojave Desert, which, alas, I did not fall in love with. When I was a kid, my parents would say, “We’re going on down home this weekend,” which meant a visit to Grandma Lou’s tiny house in her small town in Eastern Kentucky. So, I have an emotional and spiritual connection to that area, although I did not physically live there.
KS: Reading has been an integral part of your life. You have said, “Perhaps because of my passionate love of reading, writing has always been a part of who I am.” One of my personal passions is literacy and supporting organizations that promote the importance of reading. I’ve always believed that if a person can’t read, they will never be able to write or aspire to be an author. What are your thoughts on the importance of reading?
JM: Reading is important for everyone on a practical level. Beyond that, it’s important for human growth and deepening empathy. Plus, it’s fun! For writers, reading is essential. You simply can’t become or grow as a writer if you aren’t consistently engaging with reading, both in the genre in which you wish to write and outside of your own genre.
KS: Did you always have the desire to be a writer?
JM: Yes, I always wanted to be a writer. Storytelling is part of my DNA. But then, storytelling is part of everyone’s DNA. So is the desire to create food, help others, follow one’s curiosity, compete, solve problems, create and enjoy music and art, engage with nature, travel, figure out the why of existence—all those aspects are what make us each human. I think what happens as we grow up is that some of those desires fade, but one (or two) others become our obsessive passion and focus. (Some would call that having a career or vocation.) Those obsessive passions translate into being a chef, a teacher, a researcher, a sports professional, and so on. For me, I focused on the storytelling. I love to bake, hike, occasionally fish, and so on, but I’m not an expert chef or outdoorswoman by any means. I dabble! I’m not an expert in creative writing either—I believe in always learning—but I have expertise in creative writing.
KS: Do you recall the first piece you had published?
JM: Yes, an article about a perfumer in New Orleans’s French Quarter, for New Orleans Magazine. That was a long time ago, but I still remember the thrill of my first professionally published piece.
KS: What is your educational background?
JM: I learned about writing and literature at Wright State University from outstanding English department professors who insisted I push myself harder and harder, all the time, to become a better writer. And thinker. And student of literature.
After graduating from Wright State with a BA in English, I went to Bowling Green State University to study English with a specialization in technical writing. At the time, Bowling Green had one of only three technical writing programs in the United States, which seemed a practical pursuit. However, I kept finding myself wandering out of the technical writing wing of the English department and over to the creative writing side to pester the visiting novelist-in-residence with questions about characterization and voice and setting and imagery and … I finished my MA in English and stuck to the specialization in technical writing, although I kept writing as many stories and false starts to novels as I could. I also learned a lot about creative writing from workshops, in particular the Antioch Writing Workshop, and from reading craft books and magazines, especially Writer’s Digest magazine.
KS: You have written two mystery series, the Josie Toadfern Stain-Busting-Mysteries and Patricia Delaney eGumshoe Mysteries, as well as the YA coming-of-age novel My One Square Inch of Alaska, short stories, plus Sanity Check: A Collection of Columns, 100 reader-favorites of your weekly humor and lifestyle column that appeared in the Dayton Daily News for more than a decade. You’ve also been writing your historical mystery series, The Kinship Series. With such a vast array of writing, is there any book, series, or genre that’s a personal favorite?
JM: I learned something from each of these projects and love them each in their own way, so I can’t choose just one! Of course, my focus is now on the books in the Kinship Series. I feel as though I’m writing at a deeper, richer level with these novels, but I wouldn’t have reached that level without the previous writing experiences. Every writing project is a chance to grow, as a writer and as a person!
KS: What was the allure of writing historical fiction?
JM: I’ve found that, like most humans, I must learn the same life lessons over and over. Something I think I figured out in my 20s, I refigure out again now. I think humanity is like that. We think, as a society, that we’ve conquered a social ill or mastered a problem, but human nature doesn’t change over time, so the same problems keep cropping up in different forms. It’s fascinating to see how an issue in the past mirrors a current issue. For example, we commonly think Prohibition is quaint to look back on. But it was a complex time and issue, and now the same questions and complexities arise in how we deal with, for example, the opioid crisis or our attitudes toward recreational drugs such as marijuana.
KS: Describe your writing habits. Do you incorporate any of those habits into other realms of your life?
JM: I try to do most of my creative writing mid-morning, after I’ve taken care of the personal needs of being human (have breakfast! Groom! Stretch! Take a walk!) but before I give in to the temptation of handling email or social media. If I do the latter first, I never seem to get around to the actual creative writing. I do not wait to feel inspired to write. I’d never write. I’m a grumpy writer. I grouse to myself as I’m starting, and the only thing to do is just jump in. Then once I’m caught up in the story, I forget to be grumpy, and when I come to, out of my writing trance, I’m happy to see I’ve accumulated pages that I can later revise and edit. (Revision is my favorite part of the writing process.) I suppose I apply the just jump in attitude to other things—exercise, for example. Hmmm. I feel like I’m admitting here that without the just jump in habit, my default mode would be to laze about on YouTube and/or Netflix, or with books and computer games.
KS: You have two children. Have either of them caught the writing bug?
JM: Not as far as I know—but you just never know with kids. I think they’d eventually tell me. I know they’ve each played with writing, and I think the younger one journals. Both of our children are adult young women and, may I just say, beautiful and brilliant. We’re unabashedly proud of them. The older one works in a technical field, and the younger one taught in outdoor education for a few years and is now in law school, hoping to focus on environmental law. We’re proud and supportive of whatever direction they choose for their careers and avocations.
KS: What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
JM: Be a good literary citizen, meaning read, read, read, and show up to support other writers at their events or by sharing their work.
KS: On the opposite side, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
JM: Be coachable. It’s great to have raw talent. And I understand being proud of your work—writing is hard, and writers should be proud of their achievements. It’s also important to know your boundaries about what feedback or comments you will or won’t bring into your creative life. For example, if someone told me that I should have Lily, my 1920s detective, find a space-time continuum rift, I’d politely say no thank you. That doesn’t serve the type of story I’m telling in this series. But learn how to be coachable, meaning how to take direction and feedback from TRUSTED professionals (such as your agent and editor) or from trusted peers whose comments you seek on your work. For example, if my agent or editor says [to] work on getting into the heart of the story more quickly, I should listen. I should be coachable—not automatically get defensive about why I disagree. (For the record, I have received that advice, and it was right, and I did listen.) Too often, writers are so defensive of their work that they aren’t coachable. My suggestion: allow yourself to feel defensive if you need to but sit with it for a while before dismissing feedback from trustworthy sources. Then ask yourself if the critique has a point. Or if you can’t accept the whole critique as is, what can you learn from it to improve as a writer?
KS: What would you like your legacy as a writer to be?
JM: I would like readers to remember me as a writer who created stories, characters, and worlds that kept them thinking long after they read the last page. I would like other writers to remember me as someone who was kindly helpful through my columns. And I would like to look back and feel that I gave each project my all, grew from those projects, and chose projects that were unique to my voice, worldview, and internal wheelhouse.
KS: In your new Writer’s Digest column, “Leveling Up Your Writing (Life),” what are some of the topics you’ll focus on?
JM: Each column focuses on a specific writing element (character motivation, setting, description, and so on), with tips and techniques to improve one’s writing of fiction or creative nonfiction. Then, I pivot and ask the column reader to consider how to apply those tips and techniques to themselves as writers, to improve and level up their writing life. My first focused on character motivation and then on what motivates the writer to write. My next column will focus on setting and then on how writers can improve or create a literal setting in which to write.
KS: I’ve never interviewed an author writing under two different names. What made you decide to be an author under your given name, Jess Montgomery, first, then switch to using a pen name?
JM: The Kinship Series is different in time, setting, tone, and depth than my previous works, so much so that my agent suggested I use a pen name for these books to distinguish them from my earlier books. Being, well, coachable, I listened to her!
KS: In both your personal and professional life, you have had to overcome some serious obstacles. What is the most important lesson you learned from events like the financial crash of 2008/2009, closing your marketing business, or parting ways with an agent?
JM: So much is out of our control or not of our own doing. Things happen around us. And all we can control is how we choose to deal with them, what our attitude will be. (I feel like 2020 was a big, whopping, unavoidable reminder of that for literally everyone.) I had nothing to do with causing the 2008/2009 crash, or the fact that I lost almost every marketing client because almost all of them lost their jobs because of the crash. And yet, for a while, I felt guilty and like a failure. Then, I reminded myself that none of this was my doing. All I could control was my attitude and next steps. That led to a 10-year stint in a job I never anticipated, directing a creative writing workshop nonprofit. Likewise, I couldn’t control that my previous agent decided she wished to focus almost exclusively on nonfiction how-to books, the sort of books I find helpful but that I have no desire to write. We amicably parted. I didn’t bother with wasting time on being upset with her—she had every right to make that choice for herself. I did waste some time being terrified about what to do next in my search for new representation. Fortunately, by then I was mature enough to take the opportunity to think about what I really want out of a relationship with an agent, beyond yippee! I have an agent! I realized that for me it’s important to have an agent who gives advice on my work itself, balances that with respecting my vision and goals, and who will do an annual (or sometimes semi-annual) review of the direction I’m going and offer either course-correction advice or steer-the-course advice. I’m happy to say I found the perfect agent for me—she is terrific and fulfills all those aspects of my wish list for my agent relationship. But I don’t think I’d have found her if I hadn’t quickly recognized my previous agent’s decision was out of my control, but what was in my control was focusing more clearly on what I genuinely want from my relationship with my agent.
KS: With The Stills just published (the third book in The Kinship Series), what are you working on currently?
JM: I recently finished the draft of the fourth Kinship book, and it is with my editor now. I will be working on revisions soon. In the meantime, I’m playing with ideas both for more Kinship novels and for standalones. And, of course, my upcoming Writer’s Digest columns!
KS: It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with me.
JM: Thanks for interviewing me!
The Stills is the third book in The Kinship Series (Minotaur Books). The first two books are The Widows and The Hollows.
Learn more about Jess’s many writing endeavors at https://jessmontgomeryauthor.com/landing/