Readers Den: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Interview and Wrap Up
Welcome back to the Reader's Den as we wrap up July's book. I hope you have enjoyed Karen Abbott's book Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy as much as I have. Please join us for the next book A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson.
I talked to the author about what she likes to read (when she's not busy writing!)
What are you reading now?
I spent the past five years reading some pretty heavy, academic Civil War tomes—many of which I enjoyed—but it’s been fun to return to narrative nonfiction and fiction. I’ll read any genre as long as it transports me to a different world, and preferably to a different time period; I just reread The Age of Innocence so I could visit Gilded Age New York, which to me is an endlessly magical and intriguing setting. I’m also working on a modern journalism piece (something I haven’t done in quite a while!) and I’ve just pulled Gary Smith’s classic book of essays, Beyond The Game, from my shelf. I’m also rereading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The journalism piece I’m working on features some bizarre, quirky characters and a sensational murder; it’s sort of Midnight meets Fargo.
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I wish I were like Joyce Carol Oates, scribbling furiously every minute of the day, but sadly I have my moments of laziness. I almost don’t feel guilty for watching as much television as I do, since so many current shows are incredibly well-written and crafted. I also recently began meditating in an attempt to cure my lifelong insomnia, but it’s proving beneficial in other ways, too. And I can’t neglect to mention my African Grey parrots, Poe (after Edgar Allan) and Dexter (after the novelist Pete Dexter). They are excellent writing companions, although they have a tendency to poke their beaks down into my files and shred my notes.
What made you become a writer?
When I was a kid, as young as four or five, I would “write” books, staple them together, and create a library shelf of my work, but as I got older never considered writing to be a viable profession. I obsessively watched LA Law (and developed major crushes on both Susan Dey and Harry Hamlin) and thought I might become a lawyer. When I was a junior in college, I got an internship at Philadelphia magazine. I had never been surrounded by such interesting people, all of whom were having so much fun doing their jobs—every day was a new interview, a new personality, a new story, a new puzzle to piece together. I was sold. And I’m really lucky to have come of age in an era when people could still get print journalism jobs straight out of college.
What historical periods do you enjoy reading about?
I adore everything about the Gilded Age: the mood, the excess, the depravity, the incredibly enterprising criminal class. I also loved the Progressive-era setting for Sin in the Second City. When people think of the Progressive Era, they usually think of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, or Ida Tarbell's exposé of Standard Oil, or any of the other famous muckrakers. The history books failed to mention that a large group of Progressive-Era reformers targeted red light districts across the country and terrified citizens with lurid tales of “white slavery.” I have a few of those propaganda posters framed and hanging on my wall.
Your books are nonfiction; do you consider venturing into fiction, and if so, what genre?
I am actually in the very early stages of drafting a novel. It’s based on a real woman, a con artist, who lived and operated in Gilded Age New York. I couldn’t entirely divorce myself from my love of nonfiction and my love of history, so I was happy to find such a fascinating character. There’s not enough there for a nonfiction account, so the challenge is going to be to fill in the blanks; it’s calling upon a very different part of my brain, so I hope it’s up to the task! It will be the very first time I get to make dead people do and say what I want them to do (dead people are stubborn like that), so I’m at least looking forward to having that control.
Your subjects can be seen as “unconventional.” Why choose them and not women like suffragettes or political/economic activists?
My subjects are not in the history books, as much as they deserve to be. They pushed and poked at social conventions, and chafed at their perceived limitations. They were revolutionary. The word “maverick” is interesting—it always struck me as being a historically male word—but I like to write about female mavericks.
Is there any historical person you really want to write about?
There are many, but I am loath to tip my hand! I’m superstitious and think it’s bad luck to talk about a book when it still exists only in my mind.