Karen Abbott is the best-selling author of SIN IN THE SECOND CITY, AMERICAN ROSE, and, most recently, LIAR TEMPTRESS SOLDIER SPY, named one of the best books of 2014 by Library Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and Amazon, and optioned by Sony for a miniseries. Her works to date have looked at women who function at the edges of society: brothel owners, striptease artist and Civil War spies.
I am so pleased that she was able to join us.
Take it away, Karen:
What’s your next book about and when is it coming out?
My next book is called THE GHOSTS OF EDEN PARK, and it’ll be published this October 8. It’s the incredible true story of America’s most successful bootlegger, George Remus—reportedly an inspiration for Jay Gatsby—who, by the summer of 1921, owned 35 percent of all the liquor in the United States. The press calls him “King of the Bootleggers,” writing breathless stories about the Gatsby-esque events he and his glamorous second wife, Imogene, host at their Cincinnati mansion, with party favors ranging from diamond jewelry for the men to brand new Pontiacs for the women. There’s also a badass woman district attorney, a sordid love triangle, and a sensational murder that perfectly captured the excesses and absurdities of the Jazz Age. I have never had so much fun writing a book.
What was the most surprisingly thing you’ve found doing historical research for your work?
A great question–and this gets to the heart of why research is the best part of the job. You’re a detective on the hunt, hoping that the next box or folder or envelope will yield an important clue, or a psychological insight into one of your characters. I’ve had memorable and lucky finds for all of my books. For SIN IN THE SECOND CITY, I went through the papers of the Everleigh sisters’ rival madam, Vic Shaw. Among them I found a business card belonging to one “Lil Kowalski.” She looked like the headmistress of a private school, all Victorian ruffles and tight chignon, but she was actually a “whipper,” in charge of disciplining the prostitutes on staff. The card said: “Lil the Whipper: beat 1,000 harlots bloody.” It was surreal, and a reminder of the cruelties of that time and place. For AMERICAN ROSE, it was the sheer—sometimes frightening—intensity of my conversations with Gypsy’s sister, June Havoc. I was the last writer to speak with her before she died, and many of our conversations had the feel of a confession. For LIAR TEMPTRESS SOLDIER SPY, I found one of the death threats received by Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew. The message was scrawled in red pencil and said: “Old Maid, your house is on fire. Give us some of your blood to write with.” I shivered right there in the rare books room of the New York Public Library; it was genuinely upsetting. I can’t imagine how terrified Van Lew herself felt reading that message back in 1864. And for THE GHOSTS OF EDEN PARK, I found the invitation George and Imogene Remus sent to 100 guests for their New Year’s Eve bash on December 31, 1921. Remus longed to be accepted by Cincinnati society, and invited them all to come—the Tafts, the Longworths, the Sintons—but none did. In a way, Remus later got his revenge. He was a very bizarre, innovative, and devilishly unpredictable character.
Your books are often compared to novels. Do you consciously use novelist’s tools in writing narrative history?
The truth is often stranger than fiction, and narrative nonfiction is, above all, about storytelling. Of course you hope to enlighten readers about a particular subject, but the main goal is to get them to turn the pages. So, yes, I use all of the novelist’s tools I possibly can: ending chapters or sections on a tense scene; foreshadowing; painting a descriptive picture of a time and place—what storefronts would characters have seen? What odors would they have smelled? Of course, I adhere to nonfiction’s constraints: you can’t invent anything, including dialogue and characters’ thoughts. If I’m lucky, I have a wealth of primary material to work with: diaries, letters, memoirs, interviews with contemporary newspapers—all of the things that let you report what you character said or felt in the moment. For THE GHOSTS OF EDEN PARK, I was incredibly lucky to find a murder trial transcript at Yale University. For seven days, from the library’s opening to its close, I sat at a huge overhead scanner and copied all 5,500 pages, one by one. It was a goldmine, and the book is much richer for it. Sometimes I’ll go back and reread certain passages of testimony, and feel transported—even just for a moment—back to 1927. Historical nonfiction writers are in the business of time travel, and it’s always a thrill to find your way back to the past.
And I’d like to ask you my favorite question that you asked me: What was the most surprising thing you found during your research? And, a bonus: who was the fiercest warrior of them all?
I must admit, I was constantly surprised writing Women Warriors because so much of it involved me working with historical periods that are very much not my field. But I was blown away by the story of Ani Pachen, a Tibetan nun who led her clan in armed resistance against the Chinese invasion of Tibet. I stumbled across her story when I had already finished the chapter that she belonged in. It was worth serious re-writing to include her.
As far as the most fierce warrior of them all goes: I would nominate Nakano Takeko, a woman of the samurai class who led a group of thirty women in a “forlorn hope” mission during the siege of Aizu in 1868. The world of the samurai was coming to an end and a number of samurai families were engaged in a bitter battle against the newly modernized forces of the Meiji emperor. Takeko and the other women confronted guns of the modern imperial army armed with swords and a traditional weapon known as a naginata. Despite the odds, they managed to do some damage before they were gunned down. Takeko took a bullet in the chest at the height of the battle. Dying, she asked her sister to cut off her head so no imperial soldier could take it as a trophy.
Ask me on another day, and I might nominate someone else.
Interested in learning more about Karen Abbott and her books?
[Come back tomorrow for the last episode of Telling Women’s History, when we’ll be talking to Katie Nelson and Olivia Miekle, hosts of the What’s Her Name podcast, which I listen to regularly every Monday night.]
Joanna Scutts is a literary critic, cultural historian, and the author of The Extra Woman, the story of the 1930s lifestyle guru Marjorie Hillis and the lives of single women in mid-century America. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New Republic, New Yorker, and Slate, among many other venues. She was the inaugural Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society, where she co-curated the multimedia interactive installation “Women’s Voices” and the gallery show “Hotbed” for the Center for Women’s History.
In addition to writing about women’s history, you co-curated women’s history exhibits during your stint as the New York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History. How does telling history in a visual or multi-media form differ from writing history?
The biggest challenge is maintaining nuance in a format that demands brevity. I learned early on that 100 words is pretty much the absolute maximum that you can expect a visitor to read at once, so it’s a real discipline to write wall text that gets across your point without requiring a huge amount of background knowledge. Images are hugely valuable but they can be deceptive. People tend not to ask questions about who is pictured, why, and how: how social class dictates whose images we have. The result is that the creation of knowledge is much more collaborative – when writing, you are in charge of the narrative to a far greater extent than you are in a gallery, when a visitor can chart her own course, pick things up or skip over things as she pleases. You have to do your best to grab and keep her attention, but you can’t guarantee it, so an exhibition has to work at multiple levels: you want the casual visitor to get something out of it as well as the person who takes a dedicated tour or reads every label diligently in order. I had never curated an exhibition before, so our show “Hotbed,” about activism in Greenwich Village in the 1910s, was a steep learning curve.
I also learned a huge amount from researching and curating our permanent interactive exhibit, “Women’s Voices,” which is designed as an introduction to 400 years of women’s history in New York. We wanted to avoid reproducing a hall of fame of “great women” (which usually means privileged white women) to rival traditional male pantheons, so we came up with a networked system. Women are tagged with broad categories of interest, achievement and geography and the visitor navigates between them that way. You can jump across time and find unexpected connections between, say, Helen Keller and Salt’n’Pepa (based on the fact that they all lived in Queens.) We also really wanted to avoid reifying an individualistic approach to history, so we included organizations, events (like the Stonewall uprising) and even anonymous groups (like the young female Irish servants who immigrated in huge waves in the mid-19th century) along with individuals. It’s not so much a timeline as a fun, messy tool of discovery – or so I hope.
Writing about a historical figure like Marjorie Hillis requires living with her over a period of months or years. What was it like to have her as a constant companion?
I discovered Marjorie when a friend gave me her first book, Live Alone and Like It, as a Christmas gift in 2008. So I lived with her almost ten years before the book was finished – knowing that she had this incredible vibrant voice, knowing that her story upended things I assumed to be true about women’s lives during the Depression and between the major 20th-century feminist “waves,” but not really having an outlet beyond buttonholing people at parties. But she was always there, and always an inspiration, especially as someone who got famous and reinvented herself in her late 40s, which is still a story we don’t hear enough. Women get such a constant thudding narrative about time, that you have to do X by Y age, and by the way, past age 40 you’re on the scrap heap. But Marjorie was always there as an inspiration, and a reminder that you have a right to happiness at any age. You only have to stake your claim to it.
How do you define women’s history?
The longer I specialize in this area, the more I’m convinced that women’s history is about power, about resisting and rewriting narratives of power. It’s not, to me, simply about “rescuing” women who’ve been lost to history and rebranding them as icons, she-ros, whatever (I wrote about this recently, in relation to the YA publishing phenomenon of books about “rebel girls”: Well-Behaved Women Make History Too) It’s about interrogating why women were written off in the first place and how their voices, and the voices of other marginalized groups, were – and continue to be – ignored, doubted, downplayed, and forgotten. I’m not interested in a version of women’s history that just replicates the heroic values that have underpinned masculine history and doesn’t look at structures of power. I want to write about communities and collectives, how women have collaborated to seize power – my new book is about a secret club of feminists in Greenwich Village in the 1910s, and I’m excited to dive into researching a whole network of women, their friendships and relationships. Heroic individualism is, to me, such a toxic ideology.
I’d love to kick that same question back to you – what does women’s history mean to you, and especially, what did you learn by centering women in such a traditionally male arena as war and combat?
At the root, I believe that women’s history means adding half the population back into the story–a seemingly simple definition with messy implications when you try to do it. It does require “rescuing” forgotten women’s stories, whether that means remembering that most of the traditional all-male stories are not, in fact, as all male as the usual narrative suggests or looking at women’s lives outside of male institutions. Rescuing stories is not necessarily the same thing as creating new heroic figures. Though I don’t think a new hero or two, and a new definition of hero, is a bad idea.
Putting women back into history requires looking at how their stories have been erased, demonized, or marginalized—something I spend quite a bit of time on in Women Warriors. It also requires looking at relationships between women: Sharon Jansen does some interesting work on this in The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe, drawing family trees that link mothers, daughters, aunts and nieces across generations to discover networks of women that played an often overlook role in history. Similar networks of relationships happen at all levels of society.
In the case of women warriors, I came to the conclusion that most women who went to war went because they were women, not in spite of being women. They became warrior-mothers, or warrior-daughters, or warrior-widows or warrior-citizens.
Interesting in learning more about Joanna Scutts and The Extra Woman? Check out these links:
Link to Women’s Voices: https://www.nyhistory.org/womens-history/exhibitions/womens-voices-talking-back
Link to Hotbed: https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/hotbed
Link to Extra Woman: https://books.wwnorton.com/books/detail.aspx?id=4294994159&LangType=1033
Link to her website: https://joannascutts.com
(The month is coming to an end, but it’s not over yet. Come back tomorrow for another Telling Women’s History interview. Next up: Karen Abbot, author most recently of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War)
Erin Blakemore and I met many moons ago in a wonderful on-line writing group called Backspace. And like many Backspace alumni, we’ve stayed in touch on and off ever since. She is one of the hardest working writers I know: a prolific journalist who writes smart articles for smart publications about history, science, and the weirder corners of our culture. She is also the author of The Heroine’s Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder, an exploration of some of the most beloved fictional heroines and the writers who created them.
The tweet pinned at the head of her Twitter feed says it all:
Good morning, heroines and heroes of the literary world. This is your daily reminder that writing is hard. And raw. And worth it.
— Erin Blakemore (@heroinebook) March 4, 2014
Take it away, Erin:
Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing.
I’ve long been obsessed with Charlotte Brontë, and she keeps showing up in my mind and in my work.
After I finished writing my first book, The Heroine’s Bookshelf, I couldn’t get her off my mind. A family member was having a really hard time, and it was affecting my ability to work. I remembered that Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre during the same kind of season. She lived feet away from her brother, who was breaking down mentally and physically, yet during the worst and most disruptive period of his life, she managed to write one of literature’s most enduring masterpieces. She’s often viewed as a sad spinster, but in real life she was indomitable.
I wasn’t ever able to break my interest in the Brontës, so eventually I decided to just give in. I’ve since written a novel about Charlotte and a book proposal about her extraordinary siblings. Something about their story—their perseverance and their defiance of the literary establishment—helps me take heart and take risks in my own work.
What have you read lately that you loved?
Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. I know a lot about Laura Ingalls Wilder, but Fraser was able to frame that material in an entirely new way. She uses Laura as a springboard for a book that’s really about the rise and fall of one of history’s great lies—the idea that a country could give away land and turn a wasteland into a farming paradise. Fraser’s witty and incisive and made me look at a beloved figure in an entirely new way. Her book really embodies the best of nonfiction to me: It was economical and as immersive as a novel, marshaling a massive amount of research into something I couldn’t put down.
In your work as a journalist, you write a lot of articles about women’s history for a variety of markets. What are some of your recent favorites?
I feel so lucky to get to do this work—and I’m pretty prolific, so this was a hard one! Here are a few I loved working on.
‘Ku Klux Kiddies: The KKK’s Little-Known Youth Movement’ (History): On its face, this isn’t a women’s history story at all. But it’s stitched in. Women and children are essential parts of hate groups and white supremacist movements, and so many of those movements have been constructed around the lie that “undesirable” races threaten the sanctity of white women. This piece allowed me to explore those issues through a surprising lens.
’Sex and the Supermarket’ (JSTOR Daily): I think this was my favorite piece I wrote last year. Our simplistic narratives of mid-century women are just that: simplistic. I knew which academic sources I wanted to use when I wrote this piece, but finding the LIFE Magazine photospreads of put-upon shopping moms really shaped my writing’s direction.
‘The Women’s Suffrage Movement Started with a Tea Party’ (History): We tend to think of the women’s suffrage movement as women with banners or bombs, but I love that its roots are in the domestic conversations of a very unconventional group of women. I find the friendships that underpinned the movement fascinating.
’The Lost Dream of a Superhighway to Honor the Confederacy’ (The Atlantic): Some of my favorite work comes from tiny tidbits in the news. When I realized that my hometown, San Diego, once had a plaque announcing it as the terminus of the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, it rang a very faint bell. Following that curiosity led me to a massively popular Twitter thread and an in-depth exploration that shows a great example of what happens when women organize—for the wrong reasons.
A question for you: What was a high point in writing Women Warriors—and a low point?
The low point? That’s easy. I spent an entire month wrestling with a chapter about female commanders, titled “Breaking the Brass Ceiling.” I started it, threw it out, started over. More than once I talked it through with My Own True Love, which is what I do when something isn’t working. I finally had to admit that there was no shared quality that held the chapter together. I finally had to abandon it. I’m not sure how many words I wrote in total, but the final Scrivener folder labeled “Chapter 5-DEAD” totals 10,600 words—twice as long as the average chapter in the book. Luckily, some of those words found a home in other chapters.
I don’t think I had a high point that was as high as the low point was low, but there were a lot more of them. If I have to chose one: finding a structure that allowed me to include some stories that were important but didn’t quite fit in my thematic chapters. (I’m looking at you Matilda of Tuscany.)
Interested in learning more about Erin Blakemore and her work?
Check out her website: erinblakemore.com
Follow her on Twitter: @heroinebook
(The month is coming to an end, but it’s not over yet. Come back tomorrow for another Telling Women’s History interview. Next up: Joanna Scutts, author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It.)