INTERVIEW / JENNY VOS
PHOTO / KODY FORD
Each year the Books in Bloom literary festival in Eureka Springs brings a bevy of authors to Northwest Arkansas. This year, The Idle Class was able to sit down with one of these authors to discuss her most recent work.
Amy Stewart is the author of eight books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Drunken Botanist and Flower Confidential. Her most recent book, Girl Waits With Gun, is an incredible feat of historical fiction set in rural New Jersey at the outset of the 20th century. Its protagonists are the stubbornly self-reliant Kopp sisters Constance, Norma, and Fleurette, who run afoul of a powerful silk manufacturer and soon find their home under siege. At a time when women were still fighting for the right to vote, the Kopp sisters allied themselves with local law enforcement and took up arms to protect their lives, their property, their independence.
And the whole nation took notice.
Set against the backdrop of factory strikes and a growing labor rights movement, Girl Waits With Gun depicts a world at a crossroads, struggling to reconcile the progress of technology and culture with the tenets and traditions of local communities. The Kopp sisters’ stories are brought to life with joyful and inventive use of the press of the day, and Stewart’s detailed and extensive research makes this century old tale leap from the page with clarity and urgency. A sequel, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, will be published by Houghton Mifflin in September.
[Idle Class]: How did you first come across the story of the Kopp sisters?
[Amy Stewart]: While researching The Drunken Botanist, I ran across a story about a man named Henry Kaufman who was arrested for smuggling tainted gin. I thought I should do a little more investigation to see if Henry Kaufman went on to do anything else interesting. That’s when I found an article in the New York Times from 1915 about a man named Henry Kaufman who ran his car into a horse-drawn carriage driven by these three sisters, Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp. They got into a conflict over payment for the damages, and it escalated from there.
The sisters received kidnapping threats, shots were fired at their house, and they were generally tormented for almost a year. I never did figure out if this Henry Kaufman was the same one who was arrested for gin smuggling, but I kept digging into the story of the Kopp sisters.
Once I compiled a short stack of newspaper clippings, I thought, “Well, surely somebody has written a book about the Kopp sisters. At least a little local history book, or a children’s book, or something.” I was amazed to find out that nothing had been written about them at all. There was no book, no Wikipedia page—nothing. They’d been completely forgotten
about. I reconstructed their life stories from scratch.
[Idle Class]: Given your previous experience in nonfiction, did you ever consider writing their story as a biography?
[Amy Stewart]: Briefly. But the problem with nonfiction (as I know well, having done a lot of it) is that you always have to be able to answer the “so what?” question. If I told you I was going to write a nonfiction book about about New Jersey’s first female deputy sheriff, you might say, “So what? Why would I care about that?” People tend to decide whether or not to read a nonfiction book based first on what they think about the topic. People who are not interested in earthworms are not going to read my book about earthworms, no matter how fascinating it might be.
But fiction doesn’t have that problem, exactly. You might read a novel about a French tennis player or a Depression-era schoolteacher or a Civil War doctor, and it wouldn’t matter so much if you’re not normally interested in tennis players or doctors. You’ll read it because you think it’s a great story.
Also, there’s so much I don’t know about the Kopp sisters. I don’t know what they talked about at home, or why people did what they did. Months and sometimes years go by when I don’t know specifically what they were doing. Fiction lets me fill in those gaps.
[Idle Class]: You’ve written now in multiple genres, both fiction and nonfiction. How does this range of experience influence your writing?
[Amy Stewart]: Well, in both cases, I do a tremendous amount of research, which I very much enjoy. I’m always improving my process and figuring out new ways of digging up facts from the past. But in the case of fiction, what’s so great is that I get to write in someone else’s voice. My nonfiction books are all written in Amy Stewart’s voice, but these books are written in the first person from Constance’s perspective. So I get to think about how a woman born in 1877 would have talked about her life.
[Idle Class]: As you were writing, did your characters ever want to break from the factual restraints of the plot? How did you reconcile the demands of creative license with your loyalty to the historical record?
[Amy Stewart]: I’m trying to do a very specific thing, which is that I’m trying to take what I know–the actual facts of their lives, gleaned from newspaper articles, census records, and so on–and stitch them together, using fiction to fill in the gaps. So for the most part, I try to stay very faithful to their real lives. I have made a few changes, all of which I disclose at the end of the book. For instance, in real life, their mother was still alive. I killed her off a few years early, only to simplify the story and to make my job a little easier! (Sorry, Mrs. Kopp.)
[Idle Class]: The story of Lucy Blake and her lost child is your largest fictional invention in Girl Waits With Gun; what inspired you to include her story?
[Amy Stewart]: The criminal in this story, Henry Kaufman, owned a silk dyeing factory. Paterson was a very industrial city in 1914, and the silk factory owners ran the town. So of course I had to research the silk industry a little. It turns out that the Paterson silk strikes of 1913 were a pivotal moment in the history of the American labor movement. I was fascinated by that story and wanted to tell it somehow.
So entire plot thread involving Lucy Blake is fiction. She’s a factory girl who worked in Henry Kaufman’s factory and got into some trouble. She was useful to me because she gave Constance a reason to reflect on her own past, and she helped me make Henry Kaufman more of a three-dimensional villain. She also gave me an excuse to talk about those strikes and what happened to workers during that time.
[Idle Class]: Media and the press play an important role in this story. During their standoff with Kaufman the sisters use media attention to ensure that their case will see justice, and their subsequent exposure in the papers puts them in jeopardy; it is also suggested at one point in the book that the enthusiastic coverage of New York City mob activity at least partially inspires the blackmail letters they receive. How do you feel your book engages with this transformative relationship between the Kopp sisters and media?
[Amy Stewart]: Well, much of what I know about the Kopps comes from newspaper clippings. Stories about this case ran all over the country. I wanted to use the actual newspaper clippings in the novel to help anchor the story in reality, but I also know that some of those stories were inaccurate. I can compare disparate newspaper accounts and see the mistakes. So it’s also fun to have scenes of the sisters reading their own newspaper coverage and reacting to all of those mistakes and misstatements.
[Idle Class]: You have so many amusing and bizarre newspaper headlines scattered throughout the book, and I think you mention in your acknowledgements that all are actual headlines published during and around the events of the book. Did you find any headlines or anecdotes that you were especially fond of, but that did not make it into the book?
[Amy Stewart]: I did, but I’m not going to tell you about them, because I’m saving them for the next book!
[Idle Class]: You have done an extensive amount of research over the course of your writing career; what kind of sources do you find the most fun to work with, and which are the most informative? Have you ever come across relevant information in unusual or unexpected places?
[Amy Stewart]: Well, in this case, I found actual family members! I did a lot of research on Ancestry.com–I basically built the family’s entire family tree–and a few other family members were also working on the same tree. I’ve been able to sit down with people who either remembered one of the sisters from when they were children, or who had family stories to share. There’s nothing better than coming face-to-face with people who have firsthand knowledge of my characters. How many novelists get to do that?
[Idle Class]: Girl Waits With Gun includes stunning, vivid depictions of agricultural life in the early twentieth century. Were these a result of your already substantial experience in botany, or did you have to conduct more practical research in order to realize these scenes so fully?
[Amy Stewart]: Well, I certainly knew where to look. I have a guide to the trees of New Jersey published in those days, and a guide to the diseases of livestock, and all kinds of things like that. What was important to me was to think about life on a farm in New Jersey the way Constance would have. She mentioned that they did some canning, but she didn’t devote pages to describing it. That’s because canning was an ordinary part of life in those days, and she would no more spend pages describing that than you and I would spend pages describing what it’s like to answer our emails, or drive to work. It was just routine for them.
[Idle Class]: The Sequel to Girl Waits With Gun – Lady Cop Makes Trouble – comes out in September. Are you continuing to draw your inspiration from historical events in this second installment?
[Amy Stewart]: Oh yes! I know a tremendous amount about what happened in their lives for many years. This is one long story that I hope to tell in many installments. Some books, including Lady Cop will be very closely based on fact, and others will be more fictional, simply because I just don’t know what was happening in their lives at that time.
[Idle Class]: Do you know how many books you would like to write about the Kopp sisters? Do you have a conclusion in mind for them?
[Amy Stewart]: It sounds kind of crazy to say this, but it could be as many as ten books. Actually, it could be even more than that. But this is one long story that definitely has an end to it. As long as people keep reading, I’ll get to tell all of it.
[Idle Class]: Are you interested in writing more works of fiction? And if so, would they continue to be works based in history?
[Amy Stewart]: All I can think about right now is the Kopp sisters.
Amy Stewart will be in attendance at the Books in Bloom literary festival at the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs on May 15th. More information on the festival can be found at www.booksinbloom.org. For more information on Amy Stewart, her works, and appearances, visit www.amystewart.com.