For my M.A. thesis, I’m writing a novella, a political thriller set in Kansas, which is a goofy idea. Not because political threat isn’t real in Kansas, but because no one ever writes political thrillers set in Kansas! It follows a guy named Hollis—the assistant campaign manager to a congressman who is running for governor. Somebody shoots the congressman in a church, so Hollis has to figure out who killed him. Because 1) curiously enough, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else on the investigation and 2) Hollis has a very zealous loyalty to the congressmen. Hollis is a bit of a Boy Scout. He really believed that this dead congressman would have fixed the political system. Nothing against Boy Scouts; they’re just usually zealous.
There’s a savvy journalist named Megan Forster-Henry. Hollis and Megan go on a wild goose-chase through the seedy underbelly of big agriculture and state politics. (They’ve got a bit of a thing going on. She’s actually the real game-changer. Hollis is a bit of a rube.) And here’s the thriller part: big agriculture and state politics don’t take too kindly to a couple of rabble-rousers mucking around in their dirty dealings.
Most of my novella takes place in fictional towns in Western Kansas. I’ve done a lot of research to make these places feel familiar—especially regarding religion, highways, population density, and agricultural business. (I’ve done more than just drive through on I-70.) We have an impressive but dilapidated highway system. You’ve probably heard about it on the news!
I want a Kansan to read this novella and recognize Kansas in it—to feel like the scenery, the people, and the language portray contemporary and realistic culture in Kansas, with all the blustery politics that engulf us.
I’m fascinated by stereotypes of Kansans and how my family and friends and enemies complicate these stereotypes. Even if the stereotypes are subverted, you may not realize it because Kansans want to avoid conflict and show hospitality. So Kansans mostly are really kind. They mostly do keep their opinions to themselves. They are mostly concerned with a community much more local than Kansas. They may seem to have “fly-over” personalities, but you should make a stop, mill around. If you’re from around here, you may see how, politically, hot-button issues rile people up. But then they live their lives with small kindnesses and pleasantries. And this isn’t untrue of the rest of the country, or world, but Kansans do it differently, I insist.
— Peter Williams (B.A. ’15, M.A. ’18)