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An Interview with Jessica McCann


Jessica McCann is a historical novelist and has worked more than 30 years as a professional writer for magazines, universities, corporations, and other organizations. One of her earliest assignments as a freelancer was covering a new surgical radiation technique for destroying brain tumors, during which she was permitted to don scrubs and observe inside the operating room. Since then, her reporting and creative nonfiction has appeared in dozens of magazines.

McCann’s debut novel, All Different Kinds of Free, was awarded the Freedom in Fiction Prize; her second, Peculiar Savage Beauty, was named Arizona Book of the Year and shortlisted for the international Rubery Book Award. Bitter Thaw, McCann’s most recent release, was named 2023 Best Indie Book by Shelf Unbound magazine.

In all her writing, McCann shares stories of ordinary people overcoming adversity to accomplish extraordinary things. Themes of nature, forgiveness, and perseverance are another hallmark of her work.

Phoenix is home and provides year-round opportunity to be outdoors – hiking, swimming, gardening, or reading a book on the patio. It’s where she grew up, fell in love, raised a family and chased her dreams. While she loves to travel and discover new places, McCann can’t imagine living anywhere else.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

There were a handful of news stories that intrigued me over the course of several years and coalesced into a premise for my latest novel.

I keep a file in my office of random news articles and other snippets that catch my eye from one day to the next – things torn from magazines, quotes copied from books, pieces printed from the internet. Every so often I rifle through the file and see how these fragments of inspiration may fit together. It sometimes takes years for an idea to form.

In 2013, I came across an article from the Washington state Fox News affiliate KPTV about members of a prison work crew who dove into a cold, fast-moving river to rescue three young brothers whose canoe had capsized. When asked by the reporter why they’d risked their lives to save the boys, one inmate, Jon Fowler said, “You see three helpless kids in a river, you help. Just because we’re incarcerated, doesn’t mean we’re bad people.” That brief news piece – and Fowler’s quote in particular – grabbed me. I wanted to know more. What crimes had those men committed? Why was it the inmates who jumped in to rescue the boys, and not the correctional officers on the scene? I printed the article and tucked it into the idea folder.

About a year later, I read a news piece about authorities in California hoping to solve a 25-year-old murder. They shared a photo of the quilt found with the body of a mother of two who had been strangled. The hope was someone might be able to identify the owner or maker of the quilt after all that time.

Then, in 2017, I read an article by National Geographic about the five coldest rivers on earth. Among them was the Rainy River, which runs through the rugged wilderness along the Canadian and U.S. border in Minnesota.

My mind clicked: on the ability of people to keep secrets for decades, the love represented by a hand-made quilt, the primal instinct of a convicted criminal to risk his life to save a child, the way lives of intersect in unexpected ways, and the untold stories behind them all. In a matter of minutes – after years of thinking – the characters, setting and hook to my story snapped together.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

The title, Bitter Thaw, is a play on words with multiple meanings, and it came to me easily as I hammered out the first draft of the novel. The fictional Minnesota town in which much of the story is set is called Bitter Rapids – for the river that is pivotal to the story, as well as the bitter cold temperature of the region.

Of course, the word “bitter” can also relate to human emotion. And thaw represents the melting of grudges, the letting go of pain, the forgiving of people who have wronged you, and of forgiving yourself for past mistakes.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

My entire professional career has been as a writer, editor, and marketer. As a freelance writer and magazine editor, I was fortunate to have many fabulous assignments through the years. Highlights included interviewing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, publisher Steve Forbes, Senator Barry Goldwater, and a National Geographic underwater photographer.

That said, my work history hasn’t always been “glamorous.” Previous employment included working in the produce department of a grocery store, waiting tables in a restaurant, answering phones in an executive suite, and dressing in furry animal costumes for community education events.

Every job and experience has made me a better writer and a better person.

What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?

Reading is critical to the life of a writer.

Memoirs by people similar to characters in my novel help me understand the characters as people. Memoirs allow you to get in the heads of the authors, and when you’re in their heads, you see the world through their eyes.

Nonfiction books about the era I’m writing about are also critical – to understand the historical events, cultural moirés, businesses, trends, and other elements that shaped the average person during that time.

A few nonfiction titles critical to development of Bitter Thaw include: Basil Johnston’s Ojiway Heritage, Louise Erdrich’s Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country, the Minnesota Historical Society Press’ Sister Nations: Native American Women Writers on Community, Hilde and Ylva Østby’s Adventures in Memory: The Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting, and Mike Ritland’s Team Dog.

Finally, reading a healthy dose of fiction of any kind entertains, inspires, and educates. It raises the bar I set for my own writing.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

Books that make the reader reflect on life are my favorites, no matter the genre. I write to reflect on and make sense of all that I’ve learned and loved and experienced. I share my writing because I believe every one of us endeavors to make sense of it all. So many elements of life – love and loss, fear and hope, regret and redemption – are universal. Through reading and writing, we learn from one another.

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