Mariah Fredericks’ latest, Death of an American Beauty, is the third novel set in Gilded Age New York featuring ladies maid Jane Prescott. Jess Montgomery’s latest The Hollows is the sequel to last year’s debut The Widows, set in 1920s Appalachia Ohio and featuring Sheriff Lily Ross. Both authors write beautifully vivid historical fiction showcasing inspiring female characters in the 20th century. Since they both write similar series, they decided to sit down and have a conversation about the resonances between their time periods and the present day.
How did the social issues going on in these time periods affect how you both wrote your stories and developed your characters?
Jess Montgomery: I’m continually startled at how the social issues of the 1920s have strong counterparts in the 2020s! Workers’ rights, gender roles, personal freedom versus government control were all sweeping societal dynamics of the 1920s. Then, those issues played out in the unionization movement, women’s changing roles after having achieved the right to vote, and Prohibition. Now, they play out in topics such as workers’ rights in a ‘gig’ economy, how we view and define gender, and freedoms such as gun ownership. It’s fascinating to think, for example, about how now we discuss topics such as a universal income, or minimum wage, or protecting workers who juggle various ‘gigs’ like driving for Uber or similar services. At the root of those discussions is the question: how do we find the balance between the rights of companies in a capitalist economy and the needs of workers to be protected from exploitation?
In The Widows, this plays out in the coal mining community, as some miners are ardent for the right to discuss and vote for (or against) unionization, while other miners are opposed to ‘rocking the boat,’ so to speak.
“I’m continually startled at how the social issues of the 1920s have strong counterparts in the 2020s!”—Jess Montgomery
I think the sweeping issues of our times, and how we respond to them, definitely define our characters in real life. There’s no escaping the influence. Even ignoring issues says something about our character—what we prioritize, how protected (or not) we are from the issue, how poor or well-off we are.
So, the issues of the 1920s define, to some degree, each of my characters’ world views, relationships, and decisions. It is fun to mix that up with other elements of character—personal history, temperament—and hopefully create nuanced, believable characters.
Mariah Fredericks: My books are set in the decade before Jess’s. Obviously the Gilded Age is a time of enormous resonance now. I’ve written three Jane Prescotts. Each book is set in the years just before America’s entry into World War I and the global collapse into slaughter is a shadow that should—if I’m writing it right—be felt across the narrative. I wanted the series to reflect a world where the old structures were crumbling, peaceful co-existence seems less feasible, and violence, to be frank, more and more attractive.
With each book, I look at the key events of the year and take my themes from them. A Death of No Importance, set in 1910-1911, ends with the Triangle Fire, so exploitation of human life, the use of others for profit or gratification, was front and center in the murder and the motive. In Death of a New American, the Titanic provided the framework, not just in the gender dynamics revealed in the ethos of women and children first, but the fact that so many immigrants died in that tragedy. For Death of an American Beauty, I took themes presented by the 1913 Armory Show and the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. What is beauty—and who gets to decide? What are the limits of freedom for certain Americans at this time? For book four, we’re going to Broadway just as World War I breaks out. It’s a lot of fun—until it’s not.
How did you feel, writing these characters in those specific time periods?
JM: I found myself thankful for how much more freedom I have as a female than my characters do—and also thankful for how much more freedom men have emotionally than men did in the 1920s. Of course, I’m thankful for the expanded legal freedoms that I have in the 2020s versus women in the 1920s, as well as expanded career opportunities for my daughters and for other women. But I’m also thankful that, for example, my husband can reference how he feels about something, without it being considered odd or unusual. I’ve had a few readers say they don’t like Lily’s husband particularly, because he doesn’t share his emotions with her, and that he seems too tough. Well, I think he’s actually quite liberal for his era, particularly in a rural setting. He taught Lily to drive, for example. And though he and Lily don’t have the open, honest conversations that would be considered healthy in our era, he does share some of his emotions and tenderness.
At the same time, writing a mystery centered on a working mother in a rural area in the 1920s really gives me greater appreciation for my own grandmothers and great-grandmothers, as well as a deeper understanding of the value of expanded family groups for providing child care and keeping a home running. There were no child care centers for Lily to take her kids to back then! I think with even greater respect than before about my own great-aunt who was essentially a live-in nanny for one of my aunts so she could attend college and work outside the home, or about my grandmother who took care of her mother while, at the same time, tending to her husband who had tuberculosis, and rearing her children.
So, drawing on these ancestors as a way to help me build believable characters has increased my empathy and appreciation for both my ancestors and my characters.
MF: It’s strange to say, because the Gilded Age was an awful time for so many Americans; you could write a character who’s just weighed down with inequity and injustice. Women in most parts of the country can’t vote. They can’t serve on juries. The cultural expectations—not to mention the domestic workload—of wives and mothers feels incredibly limiting to us now. But it’s also a time when women are making extraordinary strides, not just in suffrage, but labor, family planning, the arts. To me, the Progressive Era feels incredibly dynamic and politically engaged. There’s hope, determination. A feeling of “We will demand our rights in this new country.” And while Jane isn’t consciously political at all times, her outlook reflects the optimism and drive of a young country. I find her a very hopeful, energizing character to write.
How do you each write Lily and Jane so each character’s emotions and reactions are true to her time, yet remain sympathetic to modern readers?
JM: It’s a challenge! For example, in The Widows, Lily references experiences that her husband had following the Great War (which we would call World War I) that clearly show he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People living at that time would not know or use that term. They would have known the term “shell shock,” an idea that is a forerunner to PTSD, but doesn’t entirely cover all of the elements of PTSD. And, of course, “shell shock” infers a reference only to men who would have fought on the frontlines of war, leaving out women who might also have experienced elements of PTSD from other experiences—such as Lily’s in helping with influenza victims while her husband was at war. In The Hollows, Lily suffers from depression, but would not use that terminology.
In these cases, I actually found it both challenging and freeing to have to show these characters’ emotional states through their actions and dialogue, with the hope that modern readers would both understand what the characters were feeling and experiencing without the modern label, and feel empathy for them.
It’s also a challenge because Lily, as a sheriff who also happens to be female in a very rural area in the 1920s, is definitely going against expected roles of her day. It helps that her character was inspired by the true first female sheriff in Ohio, in the Appalachian region of the state, in 1925, so I have historical fact to back me up. Lily, though, is her own character, and her adventures are not at all biographical for her inspiration (other than how she at first came to be sheriff.) I try to show, in Lily’s thoughts and private conversations, how frustrated she is by the strictures of her day, while struggling to balance that with the gender role expectations.
On the one hand, I can’t make her too, too modern or she will be unbelievable. On the other hand, some choices she might make, especially as a mother, which would have been acceptable and expected in her time and place, such as in the area of disciplining children, would render her too unsympathetic for modern readers. So, she’ll never send her kids to bed without supper!
I’m able to shade her a bit modern because her own father was very forward-thinking, for example taking her hunting. I based that on my grandfather who, albeit a few decades younger than Lily’s father would have been, was ‘modern’ in his thinking. He found a way to get his daughter to high school, in a time and place (late 1930s/early 1940s in Appalachia) that that was a challenge. My own father was very ‘modern’ for his gender, given the time and place he grew up, making sure to teach my mother to drive in the 1950s, and then paying for her to go to college in the 1960s. I was a late-in-life baby for my parents, coming of age in the late 1970s, so I didn’t appreciate my father’s ‘feminist’ attitudes until well after I grew up. Though my grandfather and father would have been startled to be called ‘feminists,’ in their own way they were, and through them I’ve come to understand that people can have a range of views, no matter where or when they lived. I’ve infused that into Lily’s experiences as a child, and thus in her attitudes as an adult.“Sometimes you sacrifice authenticity in order not to bring a reader up short with the sense that they’ve been smacked in the face.”—Mariah Fredericks
MF: It’s a struggle, there’s no question. To be blunt, sometimes you sacrifice authenticity in order not to bring a reader up short with the sense that they’ve been smacked in the face. This is commercial fiction. You don’t want people feeling alienated by the characters. Certain words are not used. Most of the time, I think that’s the right thing to do. A few times I have thought I’m painting an overly kind picture of the past—and our forebears. Language and attitudes were brutal. That was part of the harshness people lived with, part of the oppression.
Jane is a kind person. She has her points of pride, but she doesn’t spend a lot of time feeling superior to others. I’m leery of giving her levels of insight a young woman of her time might not have had. So what I try to do with key issues is depict an arc. Jane will start at one place with an issue, but end up in a new place. In Death of a New American, suffrage is part of the narrative. Now when women got the vote, many of them didn’t bother to use it at first. So, does Jane want the vote? Uh, maybe? She doesn’t really know. But by the end of the book, she’s seen what not having a voice gets you; she knows, Yes, I want this. But it’s an evolution.
Any time I depict her or other major characters as free of the prejudices of their day, I try to explain why. Jane’s best friend is of Italian descent. Her family has been very generous to Jane. Therefore, her view of that community is different from the popular notions of the time. I also try to show her making mistakes. Not out of cruelty, but ignorance of other experiences. And I try to show some of the pain and anger caused by those mistakes. It feels dishonest and self-flattering not to. But it’s a very tricky line.