With a few decades of journalism under her belt, Gwen Florio recently quit the business to write fiction full time. Her first mystery, Montana, comes out in November. Dakota will follow next spring. Both feature reporter Lola Wicks. Or maybe it’s ex-reporter Lola Wicks. In Montana, Wicks takes a head-clearing vacation to visit a friend out west, far from Baltimore. The departure isn’t pretty. She might have slammed the door behind her. I guess we’ll have to wait to find out if Wicks makes a completely clean break, as Florio has done.
Ahead of the release of Montana, Florio sent me an advance copy (full review follows) and agreed to answer a few questions via email.
Question: After decades as a journalist, what was the most challenging thing for you in making the switch to writing fiction?
Gwen Florio: Hands down, making stuff up. I was so used to interviewing people and reading documents while taking notes throughout, and then writing stories from those notes, that when I sat down at a blank screen with no notes to rely on, I panicked.
Question: Okay, curious minds want to know: how much Gwen Florio is there in Lola Wicks?
Gwen Florio: I laughed when I read this. Some, of course. Lola is an investigative reporter who worked overseas. I’ve done some investigative work, and of course I reported from conflict zones. But I only parachuted in for short periods, while Lola was permanently stationed in Kabul. So, she’s a better reporter than I, and younger and thinner, too. Bitch. I did give her my own social awkwardness, but I hope that in Lola it’s funny, while for me it’s torture. Oh, and Lola and I are both addicted to coffee.
Question: The Afghanistan memories for Lola Wicks are powerful and she has a strong desire to go back and keep covering the story. Were you disappointed you couldn’t stay there longer? How much of the Afghanistan references are events or moments that happened to you?
Gwen Florio: At the time I worked there, I wish I could have worked full time as a foreign correspondent. I’ve since come to my senses. The Afghanistan references that relate to me are the most tangential ones – the smells, the tastes, the sounds of the country. Tense checkpoint situations are largely drawn from reality, as are the references to fixers who put their lives on the line with no guarantees that their families would be taken care of if the worst happened.
Question: Are Canadian border crossings always so either tense and/or comical? What are you trying to say about Canada?
Gwen Florio: Darned if I know. That scene was added after the first draft was written. I intentionally made it comical because I thought the book was pretty dark, and it needed some leavening. Come to think of it, I’ve had some very funny banter while crossing into Canada, and the pleasantries always came from the Canadians. The Americans were utterly without humor.
Question: Why Montana as a title?
Gwen Florio: Ah – that’s from the publisher. I’d named it “Sweet Montana Home,” as a play on the Bill Staines song, “Sweet Wyoming Home.” The publisher thought it sounded too, well, sweet and rightfully suggested a punchier title. The bonus is that it gives me a theme for the sequels – Dakota, Wyoming, etc.
Question: What was the moment of inspiration for this story?
Gwen Florio: I’d written a novel set in Afghanistan that my agent worked like crazy to sell, ultimately unsuccessfully. “Write another novel,” she said, after which I cussed some. Then I dug through my stuff and found a fragment I’d written that survives largely intact as the prologue to Montana. But I have absolutely no idea what gave me the notion of that poor woman waiting on a hillside while a bad guy rifled through her cabin below. The entire novel was a matter of me figuring out what put her there.
Question: What are you working on next? Will Lola return?
Gwen Florio: Lola returns in Dakota, scheduled for publication in March, in which she heads off to the oil patch in western North Dakota after a young Blackfeet girl with ties to the patch turns up dead. There was a lot of wind in Montana. Dakota features a lot of snow, despite the fact that I was a wimp and did my research in the Bakken in July.
Lola Wicks is tough. She’s been a foreign reporter in Afghanistan and she has grown used to working in a strange country “among the casually over-armed.”
Suddenly the newspaper closes down its foreign bureaus and Wicks is on an airplane headed home and she’s trying to get comfortable. She’s too tall for coach seats and wonders when the newspaper stopped paying to send its reporters by business class. She apologizes for elbowing her seatmate. Before she goes to sleep on the long journey home, however, Lola also needs one more drink and finds a unique way of signaling the flight attendant. She’s, shall we say, on edge.
The return to her Baltimore newsroom doesn’t go too well. She doesn’t want to cover zoning hearings and school board meetings. That work is for interns, she asserts. She wants to return to Afghanistan but the newspaper needs to cut costs. There are no more interns, the editor tells her, and she better learn to incorporate social media into her work.
Lola Wicks agrees to a break. A little R & R. She’ll go visit a reporter friend—Mary Alice Carr—in Montana. She’s so angry she has a vivid daydream fantasy of blowing up the newspaper offices and she demonstrates a penchant for swiping small objects, which will come in handy. She heads off, goes west.
But there’s one problem. Lola Wicks doesn’t fish, doesn’t like horses, and doesn’t, in fact, do a lot of normal thinks like eat breakfast or carry a purse. In more ways that one, she’s a stranger in a strange land.
And one more problem. She doesn’t have a friend in Montana. Mary Alice Carr is dead. Lola is the one to find body, half-way up the hill behind her remote cabin. There’s a bullet hole in her cheek.
And, from there, Montana is off. And running. Soon, Lola Wicks is following Mary Alice’s trail, trying to figure what chains Mary Alice was yanking. But Lola doesn’t speak the local tongue. She has to learn the lay of the land. She has to ingratiate herself with the locals—and making nice is not exactly in her nature. To top it off, the negotiated self-exile from the newspaper hasn’t put her in the cheeriest frame of mind.
But Lola Wicks is sharp-eyed and, once convinced that she’s onto something, sinks her teeth in harder. And deeper. The trail runs through issues with drug trafficking and politics and finds her wary of the state’s first Indian candidate for governor.
Montana is beautifully written. Florio milks the scenery for every ounce of atmosphere—the wide skies, the wind, the trees. And the wind. Did I mention the wind? Florio is equally adept at zooming in on fine details. Florio writes with the eye of a keen reporter and the heart of a poet.
Lola Wicks knows at some point that the best way to tell the big story is to find the revealing details, the fine points. When all else fails, follow the money. Or whatever the money is buying. Montana is built around the themes of guises, masks, poses and borders. But it’s also a story of finding a new place to call home and a new character within.
Lola Wicks uses all her skills—dogged research, intuition and observation. She learns some new tricks and skills as she adapts to her new surroundings. Out in Montana, as she finds out, weapons come in all shapes and sizes. Everyone out west is over-armed—casually or not—and when push comes to shove every option is fair game.
Full disclosure that Gwen Florio was a colleague of mine but our friendship in journalism and fiction in no way impacts my thoughts about Montana. Catch Gwen at The Tattered Cover in Denver on Friday, Nov. 15.
Here’s the cover for Dakota, due in early 2014: