Monday evening Nancy Pickard gave a presentation at the library about her book, “The Virgin of Small Plains,” which is the Kansas Reads book this year. This is her seventeenth novel and the first one set completely in Kansas.
Hutchinson is the 35th library she has visited in conjunction with her book being chosen for the statewide reading program. She said the smallest was in Richmond, which has a two room library.
She said she loved visiting the small communities in Kansas and saw hope in rural Kansas. She said, “You can see in many places the town is struggling. But it is alive in the library.” She said each library had a great spirit and, “I want to believe that because there is such hope for these libraries, there is hope for these towns.”
She said in Hugoton, a town of about 500 people, as she was driving into town she saw a pyramid sign in the road and stopped to see what it was about. It was promoting her appearance that evening. She said she watched for awhile as cowboys stopped to see what the sign was for. She was just a tiny bit disappointed that none of them came to her presentation that evening.
Pickard said she wanted to write a book set in Kansas because she thinks it’s beautiful and she wanted a book written by someone who thought that. She said she was concerned about the reaction she might get from her editor, but she was positive.
She said she realized that, “There are people who think our state is exotic.” She explained saying that “The Virgin of Small Plains” was a finalist in the Mystery Writers of America contest. About 500 books were submitted from all over the world. There were six finalists; two from Italy, one from Eastern Europe, two from the UK, and then her book. She was the only author living in the US. That’s when she realized her book set in Kansas was a novelty to some people, and that something unusual often stands out.
Pickard discussed that Kansas is the setting for two of the most famous books of the last century – “The Wizard of Oz” and “In Cold Blood.” She said they are both structurally the same, both are about ordinary people’s every day lives and something violent drops in and destroys that. She said she realized her book is much the same and joked, “Funny what you don’t know about books when you write them.”
She said she fell in love with Kansas when her then husband, a rancher, took her to the Flint Hills for the first time. “To this day I remember the instant the landscape changed,” she said, remarking on when the hills became noticeable. “I fell in love with it and that has never changed.”
She said it never occurred to her that not everyone would feel the same. But, she took a friend from New York on a tour one day. It was a gorgeous day with wildflowers blooming, cows dotting the landscape, and warm enough to have the window down. Eventually, her visitor asked if they could raise the windows in the vehicle because she was afraid something would get them. Pickard says it’s different for her. “I could drive on these isolated Kansas roads for years and feel serene.”
Pickard says she likes the idea of the apparent serenity of the pastoral landscape contrasted against the emotions surging underneath. She said some people feel comfortable here and some don’t. Her next book is set in Gove County with the chalk monuments. She said that is scary to some people because it’s more isolated and a more dramatic landscape.
Always looking for ideas, Pickard says she loves to visit small town cafes, which is where you hear the best stories. She also shared listening to a panel of law enforcement officers speaking once and remembering one of them saying, “If you want to commit a murder do it in an underpopulated county because they can’t afford more than one major crime a year. A big trial will break the county.” She said he went on to say they often railroaded the likely suspect because they need a suspect.
She summed up her experience traveling through Kansas by saying it was “the most amazing journey.”
She spoke briefly about the writing process and said, “The greatest joy of writing is when mysterious things happen.” She was speaking of a situation where one of her characters took over the writing and when Pickard saw a photo through her character’s eyes she knew the motive for the murder that was central to the book.
Pickard ended her speech by saying, “It’s a very strange thing I do for a living. But I think I like it. I’ve been doing it for a long time.”
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