Look Inside Reading Guide. Reading Guide. Slowly, word of the legend spreads. Why did young Mitch Newquist disappear the day after the shocking discovery, leaving behind his distraught girlfriend, Abby Reynolds, and their best friend, Rex Shellenberger?
Now Mitch has returned to Small Plains, reigniting simmering tensions and awakening secrets. Never having resolved her feelings for Mitch, Abby is determined to uncover the startling truth about his departure. The three former friends must confront the ever-unfolding consequences of the night that forever changed their lives—and the life of their small town. Pickard writes with insight and compassion about an unresolved crime that continues to haunt a farming community.
Pickard has a talent for adding depth to a story that conveys a sense of place and history. Her short stories have also won numerous accolades. Pickard… More about Nancy Pickard. Why have you waited until now? What challenges presented themselves in writing about an area and community so close to home? And yet, I have lived in the Kansas City area all of my life—the first half on the Missouri side of the state line and this second half on the Kansas side—and until Virgin I had written only one novel that spent any time in my home area.
Why would a writer do that? Some perspective is required—at least, it is for me—and that means backing off. But I backed waaay off; in most of my other books I backed off half a continent from home. I love southeast Florida, so I invented a city modeled on Ft. Lauderdale and let another series heroine, Marie Lightfoot, enjoy the weather. Instead, I felt midwestern from the soles of my feet to the roots of my hair.
I felt as if I lived exactly where I was supposed to be, and for perhaps the first time in my life, I was content—no, more than content, I was delighted—with that fact. For some mysterious reason, probably having to do with the miracle of acceptance and surrender, something in me opened up creatively to.
And there will be no cracks about boring and flat, please, because this is my state now! Q: What inspired you to write this story? Was the genesis of The Virgin of Small Plains significantly different from the ideas that spawned your previous books?
A: It had a remarkable genesis, starting with a dream. I was in Ft. Lauderdale, staying in the home of some friends while they were away, and I was worried and depressed about my writing. That night I had a dream of flying.
But this one was different because for the first time I was a flying instructor, teaching other people to fly. It felt terrific. When I woke up, I knew something had shifted from bad to good and that that dream might signify hope. It would be a couple of years before my contractual obligations to another publisher would allow me to think about Green Wings again. When that day came, I pulled out that little start of a manuscript and showed it to my Ballantine editor, the genius on my shoulder, Linda Marrow.
Q: What about the development of the novel? Did this book present any unique challenges? Like giving birth, I guess. I remember the joy of delivery, but not the labor pains. I vaguely remember struggling to get the first chapter right. Abby was too passive at first. She needed to take charge.
And I recall my editor suggesting that I edit out some scenes I had written that showed Mitch and his ex-wife in Kansas City. I resisted that, but I should have trusted Mitch to tell me if she was right or not. Why did you choose to braid the two narratives in this way?
Was it difficult to keep your timelines straight? A: I did it that way because I am fascinated by how people deal with their lives after events or other people disrupt them. Maybe they get revenge, maybe they find redemption. I make no judgments about which way any person goes; we never know how hard it is for other people, or how bad things may have been for them. But it interests me. The people who handle it successfully inspire me. So I wanted to show the time of disruption in the lives of Abby, Mitch, and Rex, and then catch up with them again to see what they made of it.
Would Mitch be defeated by all he lost? Would Abby choose wrong? But I am terrible at arithmetic! I am so paranoid about it. I triple check dates and still get them wrong, because if you subtract wrong three times you get three wrong answers, not one right one.
Do your characters sometimes surprise you? Then we go to contract. And then I write the book, which turns out to be almost nothing like the proposal. My characters do surprise me. The first time I met her was when she was standing in the hallway outside of the bedroom, just before Rex joined his brother and his dad in the truck.
She was sick. Now, if a character is ill, there should be a reason for it that has something to do with character or plot development. But all I knew was that she seemed to be feeling miserable and I had to let her feel as she really did feel. If she was sick, she was sick.
So I let it play out to see what it meant. Turns out that was important for both character and plot, because it allowed the family to be out of town that day while so much gossiping was going on. Because Verna was in the hospital with pneumonia for a long time, she missed everything having to do with burying the Virgin, and that helped her allow herself to grow foggy about the whole event. It also kept Rex, Patrick, and their dad from talking to anybody and letting something slip. By the time they got back to town, the myth was already starting to grow.
It just does, if I can let go and let it happen. Q: Did you find it hard to adopt and sustain the perspectives and voices of multiple narrators in The Virgin of Small Plains? Were certain characters more accessible to you than others? A: I loved being able to write in all those perspectives and points of view.
For ten books in my Jenny Cain series I was stuck entirely in the first person point of view, and in a female point of view. In Virgin I could write in the voices of young people and older ones, or boys and girls, women and men. It was a great adventure for a writer. I felt lucky. It took my editor to tell me that Abby is a much more active, less passive woman than I was allowing her to be. I had to let Abby be Abby! Did you base their travails on your own experiences? On those of anyone you know?
I say with a laugh. In a word, yes. For many of us, the angst of adolescence remains fresh for a lifetime! To write that, one of the memories I called upon was of when I was a senior in high school and my boyfriend broke up with me. I spent those hours hiding out, listening to sad music, and weeping my eyes out. I wish that it would go and let me cry in vain, and let me be alone again.
It hurts so much. I took my own shallow memories of delicious misery and then added my imagination to it. Hers had better cause, and also the element of mystery. I knew what I had done wrong when my boyfriend broke up with me kissed another boy, my bad , but she had no idea why Mitch left, and he had been a true soul mate. So she wept and hid and mourned for a long time, until she was ready to stop crying.
Just as I had to let Verna be ill, I had to let Abby be sad. I felt so sorry for her. I was glad that at least she had the parrot for company. Q: You never expressly tip your hat to divine intervention in The Virgin of Small Plains , but there are indications throughout the text that some higher power may be at play—even though the story carefully supplies more plausible explanations for seemingly extraordinary events.
Case in point: The climactic car crash, which evokes the clockwork precision of a deus ex machina but at the same time seems like a natural narrative development. Do you believe in the supernatural or spiritual?