Behind the Books with Biographer Karen Abbott

No one is born into their dream job, and Karen Abbott, author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, is no exception. Odd jobs come first. In her case, it was being "the worst lifeguard ever,” fired for “rotating with the sun."

After the odd jobs came the roles worthy of a resume. Abbott took a weekly newspaper gig in Philadelphia that blew sunbathing and CPR out of the pool water.

Then, finally, things aligned. For Abbott, six years of journalism, coupled with the chance discovery of a 1905 murder in Chicago, led to an abiding love affair with American history.

And not just any American history. Abbott’s first (NYT bestselling) stab at narrative nonfiction was Sin in the Second City, a fringe-filled tale of Chicago vice told through the brothel of owners Minna and Ada Everleigh. After Sin came American Rose, a story of vaudeville star and striptease specialist Gypsy Rose. Misogyny being ripe in the air of the 19th century, Abbott’s histories enjoy poking holes in American patriarchy, raising the profiles of forgotten women who made the most of a man’s world.

Her latest work follows suit. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is a Civil War saga told from a subculture of femme fatales. Take Frank Thompson. He was a Union soldier, willed by God to fight in “this great drama,” and so eager to reunite his country he only became a “he” six weeks earlier. Frank Thompson was in fact Emma Edmondson, a woman barred from fighting because of her gender, so she fought crossdressed for her country instead.

Abbot’s yarns of female empowerment can also be found online, where she has written for Smithsonian, Salon, and The New York Times. For this installment of Behind the Books, we learn about Abbott's respect (and fear) of deadlines, the paralyzing prospects of switching genres, and the one frustrating thing about history: "Dead people don’t always say or do what you want them to."

Signature: What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?

Karen Abbott: 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.

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.

SIG: What writers have influenced you most?

KA: I have a long list of favorite writers: Pete Dexter, Joan Didion, John McPhee, Joan Didion, James Dickey, Patricia Highsmith, Edgar Allan Poe, Christina Rossetti, Theodora Keogh. I love old school journalists like Herbert Asbury and St. Clair McKelway. I reread Gary Smith’s collection of sports writing every year or so; I first discovered him when I was starting out in journalism and was floored by his work. His 5,000 word pieces contain all the depth, drama, and character development of the very best book-length fiction.

SIG: What genre do you read the most? Does it change often?

KA: I have to read a lot of fairly dry, academic work for research, so I try to sneak in novels and novelistic narrative nonfiction as often as I can. Right now I’m at the beginning stages of researching a novel, which is both a liberating and paralyzing prospect. It’s set in Gilded Age New York, so I’m reading a mix of books set and written during that time period—everything from The House of Mirth to Washington Square to The Alienist. It’s my favorite historical period, and I’m really looking forward to spending some time there.

SIG: American Rose. Sin in the Second City. Your books feature strong and underappreciated female characters. What other female figures have you come across in your research and thought: “They would make for a fascinating story”?

KA: I’m a sucker for any strong female character, especially ones who subverted the rules in some way. Luckily, I wrote about many of them for the Smithsonian: Madame Restell, the 19th century abortionist; Marm Mandelbaum, who ran a gang of thieves in 19th century New York; and Cassie Chadwick, the “high priestess of fraudulent finance,” a con artist who once passed herself off as Andrew Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter.

SIG: To what extent does your writing reflect your own life story?

KA: I spent sixteen years in Catholic school, where you’re encouraged to regurgitate information rather than question it, and where the rules—in my opinion—are sometimes subjective and silly. So I rebelled early and often; I guess you could say I’m a former Catholic schoolgirl gone horribly awry. Eventually, though, I had to grow up and find a job, but I’m still living vicariously through my rebellious characters.

SIG: In Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, which character proved the most rewarding or surprising as your research unfolded? Why?

KA: I loved them all for different reasons. Confederate spy Belle Boyd was all id and great comic relief; I laughed whenever she showed up on the page. Emma Edmonds, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Union army, was unfathomably brave but also vulnerable; her romance with a fellow soldier is one of my favorite stories in the book. Rebel operative Rose Greenhow was incredibly brazen. I didn’t agree with her politics, but I admired her willingness to confront her enemies, and to wield her femininity in such a powerful way.  In many ways, Elizabeth Van Lew was the savviest of them all. When Confederate detectives suspected her of spying, she only increased her efforts on behalf of the Union, recruiting more operatives and embarking on dangerous missions. She risked her life on a daily basis for the Northern cause.

SIG: Read any great biographies or memoirs recently?

KA: And I’d Do It Again, by Aimée Crocker. She was a friend of Oscar Wilde and a socialite who, after as a young divorcée, traveled to the Orient. Her exploits included a spell in an Indian harem (as a guest, she stipulates, “not a regular inmate”) and concubinage to an aristocratic Chinese man who tried to have her killed by knife-throwers—along with a nighttime dash through the Borneo jungle to escape headhunters. Thanks to scandalized newspaper reports back in San Francisco, the Crocker legends soon exceeded reality: “If only I could have lived up to them,” she deadpanned, “I would have had quite a time.” I wish I had known her!

SIG: What five writers - dead or alive - would you invite to an imaginary dinner party?

KA: Let’s start with Sappho, for some ancient gender politics. Dorothy Parker would bring enough Johnny Walker for everyone. Madam Polly Adler would dish salacious gossip about her cathouse patrons. Emma Goldman would get everyone onto the dance floor. And Edgar Allan Poe—because I love his work, but I’d also want to ask him how he died. I’d like to solve that mystery.

SIG: To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?

KA: Read and write, and do these two things whenever you have a chance. Surround yourself with writers who are better than you. Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t depend solely on external validation. Write about what thrills you and terrifies you.

SIG: Faulkner said a writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination. Do you use all three equally, or rely on one over another?

KA: It depends on the project. In journalism, nothing is more important than observation -- specifically the ability (unless you’re Hunter S. Thompson) to observe in a way that doesn’t intrude upon the story and affect its integrity. Take “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” considered one of the all-time greatest pieces of journalism, which succeeded because Gay Talese had the patience and savvy to stand back, shut up, watch and listen. In nonfiction, imagination comes into play when you’re thinking about structure, and how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, and what specific details you need to make a scene tighter, to bring it to life. My next project—the novel— 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.