Laurie, Would you introduce yourself to readers?
I am a fifth generation Midwesterner from central and western Ohio. My ancestors were farmers, butchers, salesmen and village merchants. My first job after college and grad school (where I majored in history) was with a small-town daily newspaper in Upstate New York as a feature and obituary writer. Edith Wharton, Barbara Pym, Richard Price, Ruth Rendell, William Maxell, Bruce Catton and Herman Melville fill places of honor on my bookshelves. After living in eastern Pennsylvania for 25 years, I make my home in Maryland.
Please introduce us to Sheriff Temple Jennings and his wife, Etha.
Temple is an honest man trying to balance justice with practicality in the hard times of the Great Depression. He detests standing guard at farm foreclosures because he knows that most times it is not the farmer’s fault that the land is not producing. But it is his duty as a lawman and so he does it. He has a restless streak that took root when, as a young boy, his family moved west after the Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania’s Alleghany Mountains. Since then his answer to grief and loss is to pack up and move on.
Etha is a tender-hearted piano teacher who has, for 15 years, mourned the death of her 8-year-old son. When she sets her mind on something, such as advocating for an underdog, Etha digs in her heels. She is not afraid to argue that sometimes the ends justify the means. Moving from Vermillion, Oklahoma, where they live on the fourth floor of the courthouse, back to Illinois, where their son is buried, is her strongest desire.
Tell us about Death of a Rainmaker, without spoilers.
When an itinerant rainmaker blows into Vermillion, Oklahoma, he stirs up hope, skepticism and opens old wounds. That evening he puts on a showy demonstration of his explosive techniques and promises to bring rain to the drought-ridden county. He and three boys from the Civilian Conservation Corp, a New Deal program for unemployed youth, retire to a local bar late that night. A fight breaks out. Then the mightiest dust storm of the 1930s sweeps into town the next day. After the storm passes, Chester, a blind man with a proud and prickly nature, is clearing out the side exit of his movie theater when he unearths the rainmaker’s body. Sheriff Jennings, who is running for re-election in a tight primary race, struggles to solve the case. Farm foreclosures, wandering tramps and other miseries of a years-long drought and the Depression, make his job that much harder. When he arrests a young man from the Civilian Conservation Corps, Etha, is convinced of the boy's innocence and sets out to prove it.
The setting is almost a character in your book. What drew you to the Dust Bowl as the setting and time period?
My father was a shy city boy from Cincinnati, descended from a long line of Jewish merchants and grocers. Yet the jolting rhythm of a tractor, the fleshy udder of a cow ready for milking, and the grassy smell of hay inexplicably called him. In 1949, after earning a degree in agriculture, he pulled open the barn doors on his family’s old summer place and dug in. For a while he made a go of it, helped along by neighboring farm families who took pity on a young bachelor farmer.
But farming is unforgiving. A stretch of bad weather, a sudden outbreak of the avian flu, a busted disc on a cultivator can wipe out a farm’s profit in an instant. Even after he married my mother, an efficient organizer who adhered to a budget as tightly as twine to a hay bale, they went broke after five years due to nothing more than bad luck.
In 2006 I read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. It tells the stories of farmers and town folk who were overtaken by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. These were the people who stayed on the High Plains, even as the land shifted under their feet, smothered their babies and killed their livestock, while others, like Steinbeck’s fictional Joads, migrated westward. I was awed by the stories of those who hunkered down and survived. I read the book three times. As the daughter of a young farm couple who couldn’t make it, the book stirred me deeply.
My response was to write a novel set in that time and place. A mystery novel--for the High Plains in the 1930s were, after all, a place of social unrest, violent and destructive dust storms that turned day into night…and fear. Death of a Rainmaker also taps into my abiding fascination with history. It is a tale about the endless ripples of an individual’s past, pushing onward until the last breath.
Death of a Rainmaker is your first mystery, but not your first book. Would you tell us about your publishing journey? Every author’s experience is different.
After spending most of my professional life as a small-town reporter and, later, a public relations writer, I wanted to try my hand at writing fiction. At age 53 I completed a master’s degree in creative writing at Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., during which time I wrote the first draft of a novel. It was set in 1911 and was based on my grandmother’s childhood in Texas. Despite signing with an agent, I was unable to sell it. It sits on a high shelf in my basement. My second attempt resulted in the publication of Unmentionables, a historical novel set in 1917 about a women’s dress reform advocate on the Traveling Chautauqua circuit. The publisher, Akashic Books, a small but mighty press, took a chance on me. Mine was the first book published under Akashic’s imprint, Kaylie Jones Books, whose motto is “Dedicated Writers Taking a Stand.” Kaylie Jones was one of my professors at Wilkes University and championed me and my writing.
What drew you to the mystery/crime fiction genre?
As an avid reader of mystery, crime and true crime books, I wanted to try my hand at a classic who-done-it. I tried to write the type of book I like to read – one with a mystery to solve, clues for the reader, a compelling cast of characters, and a small-town setting in the first decades of the 20th century.
Would you tell us about your next book?
I am hopeful that Death of a Rainmaker is the first in a series. I have plotted out the next story, which picks up four months after Death of a Rainmaker, when Vermillion is beset with both a train wreck and a murder within days of one another.
What authors influence you?
Glancing at my bookcase for thoughts on this, I feel as if my influences are all over the map. I certainly am devoted to novels set in the Midwest and West in the early decades of the 20th century, so that authors such as William Maxwell, Sinclair Lewis, James Jones, Toni Morrison and Ray Bradbury come to mind. Literary masters such as Flaubert, Nabokov, and Tolstoy push me to set the bar as high as I can.
Name an author or book that you wish had received more attention.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
I end my interviews with the same question. I’m a librarian. Would you tell us a story about a library or librarian in your life?
This is a difficult question since there have been so many libraries in my life – places of sanctuary, enlightenment and comfort as I moved from place to place. The small shelf of Little Golden Books at nursery school; the book-filled niche at the First Presbyterian Church where the church librarian was a friend of Tasha Tudor; my elementary school library where I discovered Twenty-One Balloons and Tom’s Midnight Garden.
When I was in fifth grade, my hometown’s Carnegie Library sponsored an essay contest: Describe Your Favorite Character. I was a shy, bookish child. My teacher encouraged me to enter the contest. I wrote an essay about Eloise, the title character in the book by Kay Thompson with delicious illustrations by Hilary Knight. My teacher, Mrs. Felton, marked my paper up with red ink and gently asked for a re-write. Looking back, I believe I must have re-written that piece at least six times. My essay was awarded second place. I am forever grateful to the library and to Mrs. Felton for providing me with that first, heady dose of self-confidence and for whispering in my ear “You can write.”
Thank you, again, Laurie. I hope the rest of you come back tomorrow for my review of Death of a Rainmaker.
Laurie Loewenstein's website is https://laurieloewenstein.com/