In an odd twist of fate, the Joplin tornado may be partly responsible for Kathleen De Grave’s most recent novel, “The Hour of Lead,” which has just been published by See Sharp Press.
Like so many others in the region and around the world, De Grave, a professor in Pittsburg State University’s English Department, was deeply affected by scenes of the tornado’s devastation and stories of its impact on individuals’ lives.
“I was obsessed with the tornado,” De Grave recalled.
Her thoughts about those directly affected by the tornado and how they dealt with trauma brought her back to an earlier story, based on a dream that her husband, Earl Lee, had had.
De Grave said she had tried to write the story many years ago, but it wouldn’t work at the time. Keeping the original themes, she reset the story from Wisconsin to Kansas in the year 2039, where climate change has had a catastrophic affect.
Her protagonist, Weylan Collins, lost his mother in a tornado when he was 4 and has spent his life feeling it was his fault. As an adult, Collins desperately wants to help an ailing child. He uses technology in an attempt to do so, but hurts the boy, instead.
De Grave’s work, which she describes as speculative fiction, takes the reader along with her characters through the multiple universes that they traverse. Hallucinogenic mushrooms and nanotechnology both play important roles.
“Even as I worked with plot and robots, a lot of my work was in writing the novel as character-driven fiction, with an attention to language,” De Grave said. “That's what was challenging and fun. And my writing group, several of whom were PSU faculty, held me to those standards.”
De Grave took a year off from her duties as a professor to research and write the book.
“For a year, I lived the life of a writer,” De Grave said. “I can’t thank the university enough for letting me do that.”
In order to write the novel, De Grave spent uncounted hours researching everything from economics to climate change and technology. For some of her research, she turned to her husband and her two sons. Her husband is the author of “From the Bodies of the Gods: Psychoactive Plants and the Cults of the Dead,” which was recently published by Park Street Press.
“My son Erin is an environmental scientist,” De Grave said. “My other son is an astrophysicist.”
“The Hour of Lead” is a dramatic departure from De Grave’s previous works. She is the author of novels “Company Woman” and “In Real Life Women Don’t Play Jazz” and of “Swindler, Spy Rebel: The Confidence Woman in Nineteenth-Century America.”
“The Hour of Lead,” the title of which comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson, is available online and in bookstores.