Kelly Collins: All of the books you’ve published thus far are based on true events and people in American history. What draws you to this particular genre?
Karen Abbott: I was a late convert to history, and started my career as a journalist in Philadelphia, where I mainly covered media, in particular how the city's two daily newspapers were being gutted by near-daily layoffs and buyouts. In 2001, I quit and attempted to write a book about a gory triple homicide, which was only slightly more depressing than covering the layoffs and buyouts, and when that book didn't sell I had to cast about for another idea.
I remembered a story my grandmother, who is now 96, told me a year or so earlier. In 1905, her mother and her aunt emigrated from Slovenia to the United States. One weekend, the aunt took a trip to Chicago and was never heard from again. I was intrigued and haunted by this bit of family lore, and I began looking into what was going on in Chicago in 1905. I sifted through hundreds of old issues of the Chicago Tribune, and I eventually came upon a report of Marshal Field Jr., the son of the department store mogul, getting shot. I poked around further and read a rumor that he was shot at a brothel—not just any brothel, but the world's most famous, the Everleigh Club, which was an opulent, 50-room double mansion that catered to foreign royalty and was run by two mysterious Southern sisters. It spawned the tradition of drinking champagne from a lady's shoe, which popularized the expression to "get laid." I forgot all about my missing ancestor, which sounds terrible, and became obsessed with the story of this brothel at the turn of the 20th century. That research led to my first book, Sin in the Second City, and I've been a history addict ever since.
CK: I read that you got the idea for Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy while sitting in traffic. Can you tell me more about that?
KA: I had moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta, and it was quite the culture shock, as you can imagine. I had to get used to seeing the occasional Confederate flag on lawns, and hearing the jokes about the "War of Northern aggression." But the point was really driven home for me one day when I was stuck in traffic on Route 400 behind a pickup truck with a bumper sticker: DON'T BLAME ME: I VOTED FOR JEFFERSON DAVIS. I was behind that truck for two hours, and began thinking about the Civil War in more detail—in particular, I wanted to know what the women were doing. Not just any women, but the "bad" women, the defiant women. Some women did things like sew uniforms for the soldiers, or hold bazaars to raise money for supplies. Some women took things a step further and became informal recruiting officers, shaming any man who shirked his duty to fight. One Southern woman, after hearing that her fiancé refused to enlist in the Confederate army, sent over her slave with a package. The package contained a crinoline and a note with some pointed advice: "Wear this, or volunteer." (He volunteered.) But I wanted to find four women who went even further than that—four women who lied, wheedled, plundered, avenged, stole, drank, seduced, spied, and murdered their way through the war, and I think I found all of those qualities in Belle Boyd, Rose Greenhow, Emma Edmonds, and Elizabeth Van Lew. Each, in her own way, was a liar, a temptress, a soldier, and a spy—sometimes all at once.
KC: Your story about the bumper sticker made me think of the days when I lived in Raleigh, NC and people would detect my “Yankee” accent and make hostile remarks about the outcome of the Civil War. It always astounded me that it was practically a daily topic of conversation in the South and really hasn’t been diluted with time. In the course of writing this book, did anything strike you about why it’s still such a hot topic in some parts of the South?
KA: I sympathize with the hostile remarks; it happened quite often to me, too! It strikes me that America is a nation that mostly looks to the future, except when it comes to the Civil War. I remember reading that the residents of Vicksburg, Mississippi refused to celebrate the Fourth of July, since their city fell to the Union on that day in 1863. Shelby Foote told a funny story about that: In the 1930s, a family visited from Ohio, and on July 4 they drove their car to up to the levee, spread out a blanket, and had a picnic. They forgot to set the brakes on the car, and it slid down into the river. Locals all said it "served them right" for celebrating the holiday.
The perennial debate about States' rights can't be discounted—that's obviously as vital today as it was then—but I think a lot of the continued animosity is borne of the sheer brutality of the Civil War. With 620,000 casualties, it remains the deadliest war in American history. The South's economy and large swaths of its land were completely destroyed. Tens of thousands of amputees came home unable to support their families. For white Southerners, defeat vanquished their way of life and cultural identity. Those who survived the War passed down stories of immense suffering and hardship, and I suppose some descendants can't help but take it personally. In their view, the South seceded peacefully, only to be attacked by ruthless Yankee invaders. And of course there's the simple fact that it's always easier for the victors to move on.
KC: Why do you think these four women were willing to risk everything – their families, their homes, their comfort, and their lives for their causes?
KA: Part of the reason I picked these particular four women was because they each had such different backgrounds and motives for getting involved. Belle Boyd was only 17 years old when the War broke out, and kicked things off by fatally shooting a Yankee soldier who had invaded her home. She claimed self-defense, and was emboldened by the fact that she got away with her crime. She used her many connections in the Confederate army to secure herself a role as courier and occasional spy. And while I do think Belle was genuinely devoted to the Southern cause, I also think she was motivated by personal glory and fame. She was a bit "Civil War Girls Gone Wild," as evidenced by her romantic dalliances with Union and rebel men alike, and she never hesitated to get her name into the papers—rather odd behavior for a girl purporting to be a spy.
Emma Edmonds was such a fascinating character; I constantly marveled at her mix of strength and vulnerability. By the onset of the War she had been living as a man for two years, working as an itinerant Bible salesman. She began hearing about the abolitionist John Brown and the drumbeat of events leading up to the Civil War, and decided to join the Union's cause. While Emma was a staunch Christian and abolitionist, I think she was equally motivated by her need for excitement and adventure; in her diary, she wondered what part she might play in "this great drama." And on that front, she certainly was not disappointed.
I spent a lot of time trying to understand Rose Greenhow's mindset and motives. Her whole life had fallen apart in the years leading up to the War. She lost five children in quick succession. She lost her husband in a freak accident. And with Lincoln's election, she lost her access to the White House; she had been longtime friends with high-ranking Democratic politicians, and had even been a confidante to former president James Buchanan. So she was desperate to get her old life back, or at least to cling to what was left of it. I think she was operating from a place of deep depression and fear, and truly believed that if the South lost the War, life would not be worth living at all. Why else risk not only her own life, but also that of her eight-year-old daughter?
Elizabeth Van Lew was, perhaps, in the most dangerous position of all. She was a native of Richmond but had been educated in Philadelphia under the care of an abolitionist governess, and when she returned to the South she brought those ideals back with her. After her father died, she liberated all of the family's slaves, and even spent her inheritance buying slaves for the express purpose of freeing them. Before the War, Elizabeth's neighbors just thought she was an oddity, a benign spinster who still lived with her mother in this grand old mansion. But after Virginia seceded, it was very dangerous for Elizabeth to be an outspoken abolitionist. She received death threats from neighbors, and was followed constantly by Confederate detectives. Nevertheless, she followed through with her plan to operate a Union espionage ring in the Rebel Capital, including placing a former family slave as a spy in the Confederate White House. In her diary, she wrote often of her heartbreak over the dissolution of the Union. She was a true patriot, and wanted nothing more than the country to be whole again.
KC: Do you think Rose and Belle ever suspected, even toward the end of the War, that the Confederate cause was lost? Why do you think they continued to put themselves in danger for a cause that was dying?
KA: I think they did suspect, especially Rose. When she traveled abroad to lobby European leaders to recognize the Confederacy, friends back home sent her reports of the War. If Confederate losses were heavy, she'd cry herself to sleep, or take out her frustrations on politicians who refused to do her bidding. But she was willing to continue to fight for her cause, even at risk to her own life.
KC: Emma and Elizabeth faced a different situation. Despite their joy at the defeat of the Confederacy, they both must have felt great sadness, too, since their friends, family, and neighbors weren’t exactly supportive when they learned of their clandestine operations during the War. Do you think Emma and Elizabeth ever considered how they would be judged after the War for their actions?
KA: I think Emma was wholly fearless. This is someone who not only fought on the front lines during the bloodiest battles of the War, but faced the constant threat of her gender being discovered, and the possible repercussions—arrest, being charged with prostitution, and being kicked out of the army. Even when she was seriously ill, she stayed and fought for as long as physically possible. I think the fact that she wrote an account of her wartime activities (and initially gave her memoir the provocative title of Unsexed: The Female Soldier) suggests she didn't much care about others' judgments. Elizabeth, however, was in a much more difficult position. I think that she was so immersed in her espionage work during the war that she didn't once consider her post-War circumstances; she wasn't even sure she'd survive. And once her neighbors discovered her spy ring, her life remained in danger. She even begged the federal government to destroy all of her secret correspondence with Union officials because she was terrified that her neighbors might find it.
KC: I want to shift gears a bit and talk about how you wrote this book. Writing nonfiction requires such meticulous research, how did you do your research?
KA: Researching in old archives is the best part of the process. It's like a detective hunt—you never know what you're going to find in the next box, the next folder. I searched archives in Richmond, Washington DC, the Shenandoah Valley, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere, and also had the pleasure of interviewing a descendant of Elizabeth's brother, John Van Lew, who provided some details about her incredible spy operation that had never been published before. In the National Archives, I found love letters (allegedly) from prominent Union officials to Rose Greenhow, and scraps of her encrypted messages to Confederate contacts. In the New York Public Library, I read original pages from Elizabeth's diary and found one of the death threats she received (it read: "Please give us some of your blood to write with," and included a crude rendering of a skull and crossbones). It gave me chills; I can't even imagine how terrifying it was for Elizabeth to read that during the War.
KC: How long did it take you to write this book?
KA: It took me five years to research and write Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. I know some nonfiction writers who need to do all of their research in a long, sweeping stretch before they can write, but I need to do both simultaneously. I guess it’s my background as a journalist—I learned to respect (and fear) deadlines. This method also keeps me focused on what’s important to the story. If I fall down the rabbit hole of research and want to follow an interesting tangent, I’ll limit this indulgence, reminding myself that I can’t justify spending a month researching something that might amount to only a line or two in the book.
KC: Please describe your writing process. For example, is your writing time scheduled or do you write when inspiration hits? Do you set daily goals for a particular number of pages?
KA: I’m a night owl, although I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to reset my clock for morning work. There’s something inspiring about being in front of your computer when most everyone else is dead to the world. No phone ringing, no texts, no ping of emails. Just you, the keyboard, and a very generous pour of wine.
KC: What books are you reading at the moment?
KA: Right now I'm reading (and rereading, in some cases) books set in or written during 19th Century New York: The Age of Innocence, The Alienist, Time and Again, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Getting myself in the mindset to attempt a novel.
KC: Can you tell me about your novel? Do you prefer nonfiction or would you consider writing fiction about this era?
KA: I love fiction, especially historical fiction, and I've finally worked up the nerve to try it myself. It's about a 19th century con artist who lies her way into New York society, and what happens when her past catches up to her. It's based on a real person and a true story, but there's not enough source material for a nonfiction book. Fiction is challenging me in different ways; now I actually have to call upon my imagination to invent, to put flesh on the historical bones. The one frustration about history is that dead people don’t always say or do what you want them to, and I’m looking forward to having more control over that.
KC: Now for a James Lipton-esque question - If your book was made into a movie, which actresses would you see playing your four female leads?
KA: I'm sort of ashamed to admit how often and thoroughly I've pondered this question! Here's the lineup: Ellen Page as Emma, Reese Witherspoon (in a brunette wig) as Rose Greenhow, Hilary Swank as Elizabeth, and Jennifer Lawrence as a hot-headed Belle Boyd. And if Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Gosling wanted to play Stonewall Jackson and George McClellan, respectively, who am I to object?
KC: What a great lineup; I would definitely go see that movie! Thank you, Ms. Abbott, for your time. Your next book sounds fascinating and I look forward to reading it!