Nancy Pickard, known for her Jenny Cain mystery series, ventures into suspense territory with The Virgin of Small Plains, a stand-alone novel set in Kansas in which the grave of an unknown murder victim, a teenage girl, becomes a shrine for people seeking miracles.
Why did you write The Virgin of Small Plains?
I've always wanted to write a stand-alone novel that has a full, novelistic feel. I wanted mystery, romance and a deep feeling of setting, to spend time with characters that had known each other for generations, to write a book with a little touch of magic. To a great extent it's also because it's set in Kansas. I'm a Midwestern girl born and bred. It's harder for some of us to write about things closer to home. It's not so much a fear of telling the truth, but wanting to do it justice.
Will you write another mystery series?
There's no way I can guarantee that I won't write another series, but the next stand-alone will also be set in the Midwest.
Is smalltown life vastly different from city life?
I live in a little suburb close to Kansas City called Prairie Village, where there's a feeling of everybody knowing everybody else. I think the same thing is true of New York City, by the way. I remember walking around with my agent, Meredith Bernstein, and we did all the errands that I do, and Meredith knew as many people as I do in Prairie Village. If you're gregarious or warmhearted, you make small villages wherever you happen to land.
The novel has such a strong visual sense. Did you have any artistic model in mind?
When I think about the dramatic possibilities of the prairie, I immediately see wide open spaces. And then I picture Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth. Imagine a farmhouse up on a hill, and then an expanse of autumn yard going downhill and then there's a young woman, and I think she's disabled in some way or ill. She's sort of propped up, staring back at the house—a woman lost in a vast expanse. As I say that, I feel a rise of emotion, I can almost feel tears coming up in my chest. I'm beginning to think that that is what it's all about—that drama of being alone in that wide open space.
Do you believe in miracles?
Yeah, I do. I respect the fact that others don't. I'm not interested in forcing my beliefs on my readers. I love the unexplainable. It would be so boring to me if everything could be explained.