"WHAT I LOVE IS WRITING": ALANA MEIKE INTERVIEWS SAMANTHA JAYNE ALLEN
After winning the Tony Hillerman Prize with her debut Pay Dirt road, Samantha Jayne Allen returns with her apprentice PI Bethany Richter in Hard Rain. It is Bethany's first solo case as she tries to discover the man who rescued a woman in the flood that devastated her Texas town. Her search leads her into a tangle of dealers, preachers, and drifters and a man who might not be that heroic. Our Mieke Alana caught up with author to discuss her book.
MIEKE ALANA:“Hard Rain” starts out with a devastating flood that caused widespread damage and took the lives of several people, and it sets off the chain of events that are described in the book. I lived in Wimberley when the 2015 flood happened, and there wasn’t a resident of that town who wasn’t affected in some way by that disaster. You did a fantastic job of describing the wide-ranging effects of that type of event, particularly in a small town. One thing I appreciated was your examination of rapid growth and environmental factors that have contributed to the increasing severity of floods in Central Texas. So I wanted to ask you about what kind of research you did, and whether there were particular interviews or stories that stood out to you?
SAMANTHA JAYNE ALLEN: First, thank you so much for having me! Like you, I was living in Central Texas during the devastating Memorial Day flood of 2015 and recall it vividly. I was in San Marcos, in a new apartment complex built right along the Blanco River. The night I evacuated my apartment at two a.m., and later that week hearing the helicopters hover low to the ground while searching for the dead, are moments that still haunt me. A desire to bear witness to that time was part of what drew me to write this story. The book is heavily fictionalized, but is inspired both by my firsthand experiences in 2015, and another flood in the area in 1998, back when I as a kid. Central Texas is known for flash flooding, but after 2015, studies came out proving that urbanization had newly altered the floodplain. I came across several articles saying that, basically, with all the pavement now there’s no place for water to be absorbed back into the soil. That alongside extreme weather patterns due to climate change, new developments that cleared the native vegetation—not so unlike the one I lived in—made the flooding that much worse. I was really interested in the juxtaposition between what’s essentially an act of God and out of our control, such as rain, and what damage we’ve brought on ourselves.
M.A. : I’ve loved your main character, Annie McIntyre, since you introduced her to us in “Pay Dirt Road.” She returned to her small home town of Garnett, TX after graduating from college, which was not what she’d planned—and unexpectedly finds herself working as a PI. What was your inspiration for the character?
S.J.A. :They say write what you know—not that I have ever been a PI, but I, too, was unsure of what I wanted from a career, or life generally, when I was Annie’s age. I graduated from college during the recession, and I think that combination of internal and external forces bringing uncertainty into my life was territory I wanted to explore again, but in fiction. I’ve always loved reading PI novels, and in them, oftentimes the main character has kind of fallen into their PI work, is usually a jaded former cop, etc. So, then I thought, taking on the role of PI might be similar to how a new grad in this economy will take on random gigs that feel like a detour simply to make ends meet. And what if in taking on this unexpected role she comes of age and finds a purpose?
M.A. :Annie feels a certain ambivalence about returning to Garnett. On the one hand, she loves her family--and her PI work brings her tremendous satisfaction. But it’s not the life she had envisioned for herself—she went off to college and expected she would move on to something “bigger & better.” Going back home after college can feel like failure. Can you talk a little bit about how you developed her perspective?
S.J.A. : A key part of Annie’s personality is that she suffers from nostalgia. She’s a romantic at heart, she idealizes the past and her family lore as her grandfather is this larger-than-life ex-sheriff, but she’s also a dreamer, prone to yearning. This makes her restless and distracted in the present moment, and that unevenness within her drives a lot of the tension. It’s not just an ambivalence of her desires, though. It’s this place. She’s a Texan, and as you know, there’s this big mythology that doesn’t always jive with reality. She learns—or is still learning—that just because you love someone or someplace doesn’t mean they’ll grow kinder towards you. I was working on Pay Dirt Road and happened to catch an NPR segment when I was in the car one day about nostalgia, and in it (I think this was an episode of Hidden Brain,), the host explained that because nostalgia is bittersweet, we tend to think people who are nostalgic are prone to depression. But studies show that nostalgia actually makes people more optimistic, because this type of reflection reaffirms the importance of our social connections and helps us envision a hopeful future. Annie is unsure of where she fits in her hometown, but she earnestly believes that she can make it—and herself—better if she solves these cases.
M.A. :Another thing I loved about both of your books is how well you describe the essence of small-town Texas. There are certain characters & businesses that are so important & influential in small towns—the café, the church, the honky-tonk, football coaches, law enforcement. And there's one scene where Annie is having a glass of lemonade with her boss, Mary Pat, and they're watching the blue jays and she smells the lavender--it made me homesick! I believe you lived in small towns, but live in a big city now. Can you talk about what you liked/disliked about small towns versus the city? And would you ever move back?
S.J.A. :Thank you! I think part of the reason I write is because I feel a kind of homesickness, so I’m especially gratified to hear that the feeling resonated with you. I grew up in San Marcos, TX, and a smaller town, Geronimo, TX, before we moved to Tehachapi, CA which is a fairly rural area. I miss having actual dark skies at night, having space—room to breathe in a way that you don’t get in a city. I’ve lived in Atlanta for years now and while I love it here, I still feel claustrophobic at times, and like everyone, hate the city’s traffic. So, I miss the physical beauty of living in those places, even the associated loneliness, but also the community. And yet, there was also a lot of closed-mindedness when it came to politics or diversity, at least when I was growing up, and I don’t miss that. Despite the big pillars in place typical to a small town, no place is purely monolithic though. Places change like people do, and so might my family’s needs. I landed in Atlanta for school and work—another upside to city life is proximity to opportunities, of course—but now that so much is remote, who knows.
M.A. : Please tell me there’s another Annie McIntyre book in the works? Is there anything else you’re working on?
S.J.A. : Yes! I love writing these characters and this place, so to have another in the works is a total dream come true. Book three in the series, Next of Kin, will be published in April of 2024.
M.A. : I always love to ask writers about their process. Are you more of a plotter or pantser? Do you have set times for your writing, or do you wait for inspiration to strike?
S.J.A. : A little of both. With each of my books so far, I’ve known the ending before I started writing the beginning. I like to think of outlines more like a map of places I’d like to get to in the book. Plot points are like my trail markers, and how I’ll get from A to B is something looser—and I forgive myself when I inevitably veer off course. Plot, in my mind, is driven by character, and so as my understanding of the characters deepen, the story changes. I have a toddler who keeps me busy, so when a pocket of time presents itself, even if it’s just a few minutes, I have to seize it. I write when I have childcare, and every day in the morning before she wakes up.
M.A. : What do you enjoy most about being a writer? And what are your biggest challenges?
S.J.A. : What I love is writing. There are all kinds of challenges that come with being a writer, especially when you decide to publish, but what sticks out for me is the fact that the writing itself—not the career—is one of the few things you have ultimate control over. That’s tough to accept, but also very freeing. Writing to the best of my ability is hard work, but the act of it also brings me a sense of clarity and immense joy—I find it important to focus on the work, and to love and have fun with the work.
M.A. : What are some writers/books that have inspired you, and that you like to recommend to others?
S.J.A. :: Some inspirations for me have been Larry McMurtry, along with classics of the PI genre, such as Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. Some newer series and authors I enjoy include Attica Locke’s Highway 59 series, Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt, Stephen Spotswood’s Pentecost and Parker, and Kristen Lepionka’s Roxane Weary. I also love to recommend any and everything by Megan Abbott, Amy Gentry, Ivy Pochoda, and Laura Lippman.