October 1918: En route from New York to Seattle, Jessica Layton stops for a visit in her hometown of Powell Springs, Oregon, and comes face-to-face with Cole Braddock, her first and only love from years ago. Now Jessica is a highly accomplished clinical physician preparing for an exciting new job in Washington, and Cole is a successful horse breeder who is courting her sister Amy. Both are convinced they have moved beyond their youthful passion and the heartbreak it produced; nonetheless, they are grateful that Jessica’s brief visit will leave little opportunity to rehash old wounds. But before Dr. Layton can leave town, Powell Springs is hit hard by the influenza epidemic ravaging the country. With no other doctors available, Jessica must remain in Oregon and tend to her friends and former neighbors. Her work brings her in constant contact with Cole, and with each passing day he finds it harder to convince himself that sweet-tempered Amy can fill his heart as Jessica once did. Set against the backdrop of World War I and the epidemic of 1918, Home by Morning is a compelling story of betrayal, heartbreak, and redemption.
Q&A with Alexis Harrington
Question: Many of your books are set in the Old West. What intrigues you about that period?
Alexis Harrington: To be frank, cowboys are sexy. I’m sure we view the West through a filter of romantic nostalgia. The truth is that life was uncertain, people could be killed or die more easily, and it was a lawless, free-for-all place. As far as I can tell, the shootout at the OK Corral was nothing more than a turf dispute between two rival gangs who differed only in the flimsy fact that the Earps had badges. Still, some people endured incredible hardships and survived. I think that’s the appeal for me, aside from the sexy cowboys: self-reliance; the cowboy code of honor; strong, enterprising women. There’s a lot to work with here.
Q: The influenza epidemic of 1918 was such a dramatic, high-stakes race against the clock. Why did you settle on this particular event for your novel?
AH: Using the 1918 pandemic as a backdrop came to me about 10 to 12 years ago. No one was discussing it at the time, even though it killed millions of people. Then scientists and the National Institutes of Health began muttering about the next possible pandemic, the avian flu. I was spurred to action, and I was amazed by some of the things I learned. This is the only time when the subject came first, and then I had to create characters to fit it. I usually do just the opposite when I create the bones for a story.
Q: Readers and reviewers talk about how realistic your novels’ historical settings are. How do you achieve this?
AH: This is so critical to me. As authors, we don’t have the visual advantage that movies do, so careful, judicious description is a must. Of course, I must be correct about any historical props I use, too. But with description, I want my reader to be right there with the characters. What’s the weather doing? Is the wind blowing? Then you can hear it in the trees. If it’s blowing over tall grass, the blades flash in the light to show their silvery undersides. It’s really a matter of the author putting herself and the reader in that moment.
Q: How did Cole and Jess’s story change from the first draft to the one?
AH: That book went through so many incarnations, even I can’t remember them all! In one version, Jessica stopped in Powell Springs to attend the wedding of Cole and Amy that she was paying for. In several versions, I killed Amy with the flu--but that made her a martyr, and I didn’t want that. For a while, I considered letting Cole and Jess leave together to start a new life somewhere else, but I abandoned that and made her realize she couldn’t run away again.
Q: Are there other time periods you’d love to focus on in your writing?
AH: I have one contemporary that is almost finished that’s been sitting around for a while. And I have an idea for a dystopian story based on an old rock song that I’ve been meaning to make into a story for the past 20 years.
Q: Fast-forward 50 years from the book’s setting. How are Jess and Cole faring in 1968?
AH: Wow. That’s something I’ve never done. In 1968, they’d be about 80. Of course, they’re still together and have grown children and grandchildren. That’s what the happily-ever-after ending is all about.