Nancy Pickard Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Nancy Pickard
Photo: Walt Whitaker

Nancy Pickard

An interview with Nancy Pickard

In two separate interviews, one video, one text, Nancy Pickard talks about her novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightning, set in Gove County, Kansas.

Random House Readers Circle: How did the idea for this story come about?

Nancy Pickard: It started with the landscape. I saw a photograph of Monument Rocks in Gove County, Kansas, and it blew me away. Since then, I've been out there to see them. They are so unexpected, so enormous, so beautiful, and they're such a dramatic contrast to the ultraflat ground from which they rise. Even from seeing only a photo, I sensed I had to set a story there. (In the novel, I renamed them Testament Rocks.)

Many reviewers have raved about your ability to make Kansas come alive in this book and your previous book. The setting for The Scent of Rain and Lightning is very different from the one you used in The Virgin of Small Plains. How do you choose the settings and landscapes for your stories?

NP: I think they choose me. Something about a landscape will grab me and haunt me. It won't let go until it has its very own book! Currently I'm working on a book set in the farthest corner of southeastern Kansas, and for a long time I couldn't figure out why I felt such a compulsion to write about it. It doesn't have the gorgeous expansive landscape of Virgin or the surprising, spectacular landscape of Scent, so what was pulling me toward it? I finally realized that the landscape under its ground is as interesting as any landscape above ground in other places.

RHRC: Laurie Linder longs to escape from her small-town life. Do you think it takes a certain type of person and/or personality to live in a town like Rose?

NP: I think it takes a certain kind of person to do it successfully, and that would be someone who loves small town life. (And probably one who has a job or at least an income of some sort.) Anyone who longs for bigger or "better" things would probably have a hard time with it.

RHRC: Do you ever worry about misrepresenting small-town life and people?

NP: I don't, or at least not any more than I worry about representing any place accurately and fairly. When I wrote a book about New York City, I wanted to get that right; when I based a setting on Fort Lauderdale, I wanted to get that right; and I feel the same way when I set books in rural areas. After so many years of setting books in small towns (even before my Kansas books), by now I've heard so many readers tell me I get it right that I have come to have faith in their confirmations. So I wouldn't say I worry about it, but I do take care about it, because I want people who live in small towns to feel as if what I write is familiar to them. Individual human experiences being what they are, I know I can't do that for every single reader—and I don't—but I hope I do it for most of them. I've lived in Kansas for more than thirty years, and for half of those I was part of a ranching family, so I'm writing about things I know and love.

RHRC: Why do you think all three Linder sons, in some way or another, found Laurie so irresistible? What was it about her that attracted them?

NP: Well, they were young and she was sexy and beautiful and she was also a talented flirt. It's pretty simple, I'd say (with a smile).

RHRC: You've woven two compelling stories into The Scent of Rain and Lightning. Which came to you first, the backstory or the presentday story? Did you find one easier to write than the other?

NP: I always find the backstories easier to write than the present-day stories. It's almost as if they already exist somewhere in time and space, and all I have to do is write them down; where with the present-day stories, I'm never sure what's going to happen next. This was true with Scent, it was true with Virgin, and it was true in my Marie Lightfoot series, in which my heroine, a true crime writer, was giving us chapters from her books about certain crimes and I was writing what was happening in her life currently. That's really where and when I started writing novels in this way, and I love doing it, though it's still a big writing challenge for me.

RHRC: Weather in Kansas seems to be very moody, with pencil tornadoes dropping in on a sunny day and whitecaps on the highway. What is the craziest weather you've ever encountered in Kansas?

NP: Ha! Let's see. There was the ice storm when the night sky flashed green as the transformers crackled and blew up, and there was a constant thunder of tree limbs breaking off and falling down. I had a newborn, and we had to go stay with my in-laws for a week until the power came back on. There was the day we spun out on the ice on the interstate and came "this close" to hitting a bridge. There was the night Kansas City flooded and I couldn't get home. There was the pre-tornado sky of green and purple oily clouds. There was the day the huge thunderstorm in the county rolled in so fast—we could see it coming— that I panicked and stalled my truck in the mud trying to get away. There was the hail storm that made me feel as if the roof might fall in on us ... and I haven't even mentioned the drought, or the ...

RHRC: Jody goes to Testament Rocks for solace. Is there a particular place or landmark you go to for peace, quiet, and meditation?

NP: I go for drives in the Flint Hills, which is the setting for The Virgin of Small Plains. I would go out to those rocks in The Scent of Rain and Lightning, but they're too far away. Closer to home, I go to The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, to their Asian collection, which is a cool and soothing refuge.

RHRC: What is your writing process like? Do you ever feel like not writing? How do you overcome those moments?

NP: My writing process probably looks crazy from the outside. Maybe it is crazy. I don't have a schedule, except that I usually write in the afternoons. These days, that is. That can change. I may start writing in the mornings, or at night, and sometimes I write morning, noon, and night. I usually don't write a book in chronological order. Lately, I seem to write the first third, then the final third, and then I realize it needs a middle. I may write in disparate scenes and piece them together later. My process is whatever works at the time. I often feel like not writing! Sometimes I overcome it by just sitting there until writing happens. Sometimes I don't write, because books often need periods of percolation.

RHRC: How did you develop the characters for this book? For instance, did you always know that Meryl had something to do with Hugh-Jay's death?

NP: I don't think I can answer the first part of this question, because I don't remember how it happened, except to say that the characters appeared and they just kept developing more personality, etc. It took me a long time to catch on to Meryl's guilt, and then I realized he had always been the one.

: I have to ask ... do you know any real cowboys?

: I do. I was married to one for a long time. Our son saddles up now and then and has been known to fix a fence or two. I have known a lot of ranchers—male and female. I've known a lot of cowboys and a few cowgirls. They're, by and large, some of the smartest, funniest, most courteous, generous, and hardest-working people you'd ever want to know.

: What's in the works for you?

: My third novel set in Kansas. I wish I could give you a title, but it is remaining stubbornly out of reach for now. Usually, that means there is something at the heart of the novel that I have not yet uncovered, so it's kind of exciting to think that may be out there waiting for me. When I find it, it will tell me the name of my book.

Reproduced with permission of Random House Readers Circle

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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