In some novels, setting exists as a character of its own, exerting forces that move the story forward. One such book is The Mourning Hours, authored by Paula Treick DeBoard, which takes place in rural Wisconsin. The story pivots on the disappearance of a sixteen-year old girl, Stacey Lemke. Her boyfriend, Johnny, the narrator’s older brother and high school wrestling star, is the last person to see Stacey before she vanishes in a blinding snowstorm. “No one knows what to believe—not even those closest to Johnny—but the event unhinges the quiet farming community and pins Kirsten’s family beneath the crushing weight of suspicion.” I was interested in how Paula crafted the landscape in her story with such intimacy:
Q: The landscape in THE MOURNING HOURS is incredibly detailed, from the muggy summers and freezing winters down to the names of the streets, in way that grounds the characters and the story. I had a vivid image of the road that Stacy disappears from, and could almost hear the howling wind as people try to search for her, but are driven back by the blizzard. I could also visualize walking through the Hammarstrom’s house. Did you map out the farm and the town as you wrote?
A: I based the farm and the house on land in eastern Wisconsin that has been in my father’s family since the early 1800s, so I basically wrote those aspects of the setting based on my childhood memories. I was probably around the narrator’s age when I spent part of my school vacations every year on that farm, and when I sat down to write, I just plopped myself mentally back into that physical location. I probably googled “map of Wisconsin” a few dozen times while writing – even though Watankee is a fictional town, it was important to me that I situated it in a real location, and I referenced other towns and freeways throughout. I like to feel physically grounded to a story as a reader, and wanted to bring out that same groundedness as a writer.
Q: You did a wonderful job. I understand you grew up on a farm, which undoubtedly contributed to the novel’s setting. What aspects of the story, if any, did you need to research?
A: I’ve never actually lived on a farm, but I did grow up in a small town in Ohio, so the small-town setting was very familiar to me. I did need to research wrestling, but that didn’t prove too difficult – I’m married to a sportswriter who happens to love the sport. When he gave a stamp of approval on those scenes, I was ridiculously proud. Early in the writing of the book, when I realized something was going to happen to Stacy, I contacted a retired coroner in my county and we sat down for a lovely – if somewhat gruesome – chat. Most of the things that I learned from that conversation didn’t make it into the story, but it did help me eliminate some possibilities and keep me focused on where the story should go. My other research was informal – mainly emails and Facebook messages to my three sisters about tiny details that I wanted to get right. I found that just talking some things out helped to solidify vague parts of the story, and my sisters are very detail-oriented people who also happen to be generous with their time.
Q: The Hammarstrom’s middle child, Emilie, is the counter to Kirsten’s innocence, and I couldn’t help but think how different the story would be if told through Emilie’s somewhat jaded voice. Was it hard to pick Kirsten’s age? Why nine?
A: It’s funny that you say this, because Emilie was my favorite character, and I was thrilled when I could get her into a scene. I do love the innocence of Kirsten’s character, and I realized very early on – within maybe two pages of drafting – that she would be the one to tell the story. She had the right combination of curiosity and naiveté to pull it off, whereas her older siblings and the adults in her world would have had a completely different voice, maybe jaded or knowing or cynical. I have forgotten many things about my own life, but I do remember the complexities of being nine – old enough to understand some things, but not old enough to be deliberately included in any adult conversations. Any older and she would lapse into that judgmental-pre-adolescent phase I remember so painfully, and not have quite the same multifaceted feelings for Stacy that she does as a nine-year-old. One of my nieces, Kera, was around age nine when I was developing Kirsten’s character, so she was in many ways a model for me when my own imagination and memory got stuck.
Q: How did you arrive at your title?
A: I wrote the first draft under a working title which I knew would probably change if the book saw publication. But when it came time to suggest another title, I had nothing – that first title had been in my mind for too long. My husband and I went out to dinner and wrote about a hundred titles on a napkin – some of them pretty desperate and most of them awful. After some back and forth with my editor, I came up with a short list of ten titles, and then on a whim, I added “The Mourning Hours.” It was actually the title of a book I wrote when I was nine years old, when my mother gave me a spiral-bound notebook to fill during a cross-country drive in our station wagon. That story hasn’t survived, but I always loved the title. My editor loved it, too – I think she thought I’d been holding out on her all along.
Q: I understand your novel grew from a short vignette about a girl watching her brother’s wrestling match. What made you decide to start the story with the adult Kirsten, rather than keep it in her young voice?
A: Ultimately, I worried that Kirsten’s voice would not ring true on the page without the adult counterpoint. I like to think of the narration as being a twenty-something woman remembering her feelings as a nine-year-old; it allowed Kirsten’s youthful perceptions to be influenced by what she had come to realize as an adult. In one of my MFA workshops, a present-time opening scene was suggested, and somehow that just felt right. Much of the story is a long flashback, but the reader knows s/he will eventually return to the adult Kirsten heading home to the scene of her family’s mysterious tragedy.
Q: What will be the setting of your next novel?
A: My next novel begins in Sacramento and follows a father-daughter duo as they head east along I-80 in search of revenge for a wrongful death. The end destination is Oberlin, Ohio with some stops along the way in Lyman (Wyoming), Omaha and Chicago. My husband and I took a reverse of this road trip in the spring, so I could get the details right. You really haven’t lived until you’ve driven on the Bonneville Salt Flats outside Wendover, Utah, or had a giant soft serve cone in Little America, Wyoming.
Paula Treick DeBoard is a reader, writer and all-around slave to the field of public education. She earned a B.A. in English from Dordt College in 1998 and thought, “I’ll teach high school English during the week and write fiction on the weekends” – a delusion which persisted for a decade, during which time she wrote exactly one short story. In 2010, she graduated from the University of Southern Maine with an MFA degree in Creative Writing (Fiction) and a rediscovered passion for staring at a laptop screen for long hours. The Mourning Hours is her first novel; her second book will be released in fall 2014. She is represented by Melissa Flashman of Trident Media Group.
When not writing, Paula teaches composition at San Joaquin-Delta Community College in Stockton, California, and lives in nearby Modesto with her husband Will, their beagle, two cats, and a dog of indeterminate breed that suddenly appeared in the yard one day. Other useful information can be obtained from her website and information of questionable value can be found in her blog, Live from the Bean.