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Amy Stewart On Solving The Problems Of Her Characters’ Everyday Life

by Brendan Dowling on September 12, 2017

Amy Stewart’s Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions marks the third in the acclaimed Kopp Sisters’ series, which kicked off with 2015’s Girl Waits With Gun. Here, eldest sister Constance, now a deputy sheriff, bucks against a system where local women are being jailed under flimsy (yet legal) pretenses. As she fights to bring justice to two recently arrested women, her youngest sister Fleurette contemplates pursuing her theatrical ambitions, threatening to disrupt the close-knit family dynamic. With Confessions, Stewart mines an often overlooked period of American history, yielding rewarding results while providing a captivating legal thriller. Fans of historical fiction will be eager to see how the three Kopp sisters—the steadfast Constance, flinty Norma, and starry-eyed Fleurette—continue to surprise as they navigate their sharply changing world. Amy Stewart spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on August 4th, 2017. Photo credit: Terrence McNally.

Constance Kopp and her sisters were real people and you’ve done a ton of research on them, but in terms of creating the fictional version of the Kopp sisters, how do you balance between what they actually did and what you as an author want or need your characters to do?

I’m sure everyone does this differently when they’re drawing from real life, but my idea was if it really happened, it’s in the book. I use fiction to fill in the gaps where I can’t possibly know what occurred. Sometimes I change things a little bit, and I always explain that in the back of the book. For instance, I’ve tweaked timeframes and that’s particularly true with this third one. I wanted to write about these two cases that I thought had a lot in common. They didn’t exactly overlap in time, so I mushed the timeframe and put them together.

The other thing I have to do is figure out what kind of people they are and why they do the things they do. What do they talk about at home? What’s their everyday life like? Because those are the things that aren’t in the historical record. In a lot of cases, I’m working backwards from the real events and asking, what would have had to happen to lead up to this? What would have to happen in order for Constance to be motivated to do this thing that she’s about to do? It’s all about looking at the pieces that I have and then trying to come up with a plausible way to connect them.

I’d imagine knowing so much about the day-to-day life of people during that time helps fill out the fictional parts, like Norma’s involvement with carrier pigeons.

One of the great things about these books is I throw myself into the writing and a lot of the time, it’s figuring out how do I solve the problems of their everyday life. I have to ask myself, how are they going to get to the train station? They have a horse and buggy, but what do you do with a horse and buggy when you get to the train station? There’s a day of research! (laughs) It turns out there were people who kept commercial stalls to put your horse and buggy in when you came downtown for shopping or needed to go somewhere by train. Someone would take care of your horse during the day. It had never occurred to me to wonder that.

But in the case of Norma and her pigeons, I knew something about Norma’s personality because I got very lucky: I got to meet Fleurette’s son. He was very happy to tell me all about his mother. You can only imagine what it felt like to sit in this guy’s living room and be able to ask him questions about one of the characters in my novel. It was astonishing. But he also remembered his aunt Norma from when he was a little boy. He was the one who told me that Norma was this very difficult woman, really disagreeable and hard to get along with. She pushed people away, she was judgmental, and she was harsh. thought, That’s fantastic! I can really work with this! (laughs) I loved the idea of one of the three of them being really unpleasant and hard to deal with, because we all have people like that in our families, right?

With the pigeons, my thinking was that Norma has to have something that she likes, she has to have something that she’s actually interested in that keeps her busy. Especially in these first few books, she doesn’t have a big role. She will later on, but at this point she really doesn’t. She did an astonishing job of staying out of the papers. I don’t have a picture of her, she was never quoted, so she obviously kept a low profile. I thought, what is it about women like that who I know, where they don’t like anybody but they love their little dog, or they have cats. I didn’t want to give here a little dog, that just seemed too easy.

The great thing about carrier pigeons is that they really were used for communication at the time. I used to have chickens in my backyard so I know about taking care of a flock of birds every day. Plus, it’s something that can actually take her places. Stuff is going to happen for Norma in connection with these pigeons that will all be fiction, but it gives me a vehicle to put her into situations that I never would have otherwise.

You mentioned that Norma will have a bigger role in later books. Do you have a map of the series already planned out? Do you know how many books will be in the series?

I have it mapped out in the sense that it’s one long story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  I know where their relationship goes over the course of about fifteen years, and that’s the time period I want to write about. It’s this era in their lives where they were living and working together as adult unmarried women under one roof, which is what’s so interesting to me. How do you figure out who to be in the world and how to survive at that time as an unmarried woman who has to earn a living and is also involved in crime-fighting and detective work?

Whether it ends up being seven books or more is going to depend on if people keep reading them, my publisher wants to publish them, and I still want to keep writing them. But I do want to get to the end. I want to tell the whole story of what happened to them

You’ve talked about meeting Fleurette’s son. What has the Kopp family’s reaction to the books been?

It’s been great and I’m so relieved! I met Fleurette’s son, I met their brother’s grandson, and I also talked to some other people on that side of the family. You can imagine if someone calls you out of the blue and says, “Hi, I’m going to write a novel about your great aunt!” That would be so weird, right? But they’ve all said, including members of the family who had never met one another, “Oh, we’ve always thought of them as the Charlie’s Angels of the 1910s.” They were not surprised. (laughs) They’ve been very gracious about it and they’ve been very complimentary.

This series takes place in rural New Jersey right before the onset of World War I. What is it about that time period and place that captures your interest as a writer?

I like the 1910s because it’s such a weird period of time in our history. It’s not the twenties yet, so it’s not what we think of as the Modern Era. It’s still this creaky, Victorian morality. There’s change coming, but it’s not quite there yet. It’s really interesting to compare the 1910s to the era that we’re in right now, because there was all this disruptive technology back then. Cars were brand new and they were on the roads, but roads were not built to withstand car traffic. Counties were having to decide if they were supposed to build new roads for these things. People had to make maps about which roads you could actually drive cars on, because you couldn’t just go on all of them. Telephones were brand new, so how people communicated changed all of the sudden.

But as for New Jersey, in a way, I didn’t really pick this, this story picked me. I stumbled across it when I was working on The Drunken Botanist. It was a thing in the newspaper when I was looking for something else. It’s a very interesting location in the sense that it’s close to New York, but it’s not New York. It’s fascinating to be a little outside of New York, but it’s so close that you can see it. You can literally see the New York skyline from lots of places in Paterson. Plus of course there were a lot of famous people who were through New Jersey at the time. William Carlos Williams has this secret cameo in the second book. Thomas Edison was hanging out making movies in Fort Lee. Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn were involved in the strikes. All of the suffragists were there. All of the labor activists went through New Jersey. There’s a lot of stuff happening culturally then that I keep bumping up against, which is really fun.

So many of the issues that the Kopp sisters are dealing with seem contemporary. I was really struck by your historical note about the parallels between how we use twitter to disseminate information and how newspapers back then would reprint stories and facts would get changed over time.

Looking at the media then and the media now is pretty amazing. Of course it’s what helps me write these books—there were a handful of daily papers in Bergen County and Passaic County. Everything was reported in so much detail because that was the only way—there wasn’t even radio yet. Newspapers at that time were very biased and open about their bias. There was no expectation of unbiased media. The Hackensack Republican was—guess what—the Republican paper. The Bergen Evening Democrat was the Democrat paper.

But also seeing how much stuff got made up, and I know it got made up because I have contradictory stories. There’ll be a story that says the sisters lived in Newark and they definitely didn’t.  I think a lot of quotes got made up. I love having Constance in her own words, but I have to be very suspicious of all the newspaper quotes because I think some of these reporters never even met her. They pulled a story off the wire, embellished it, and put their own version up.

In this book, we follow the lives of some of the women in Constance’s jail, who are all being held for committing so-called morality crimes. What was it like delving into the stories of these women, because they’re all based on real people, right?

The two women in particular who I write about, Edna and Minnie, are both real and once again I did their family genealogy. I found out as much as I could about their real lives. I didn’t really know that much about their cases since, especially with these morality crimes, the newspapers tended not to print every little detail because it was seen as inappropriate. I had to fictionalize quite a bit, but fortunately this is an era that has been quite researched by scholars of women’s history. It was a very strange period of time where women could get locked up for what today we could call going out on a date. This was before Miranda rights, so these women had no right to an attorney. Of course they couldn’t afford to hire one, and in some cases they got locked up for years at girls’ reformatories.

That’s all been well documented so I was able to draw on lots of girls who went through similar experiences. This period was also a good opportunity for women in law enforcement. The early police women all over the country were stepping up and saying, we need to be involved in all of this. Something’s not right here and you need police women involved in advocating for these girls and figuring out what’s really going on.

Even though Constance is a deputy sheriff, she also serves a bunch of roles: investigator, parole officer, jail matron, investigator, de facto attorney.  I would guess that is pretty similar to what a lot of police women were doing at the time.

Police women were kind of making it up as they went along. It was a new job and it was a job that women had to demand. Women were not invited to join law enforcement, they had to demand it. They had to say, you are arresting women and putting them in jail under the watch of a mail guard and that is not okay. You have to let us in and be involved in.

Police chiefs and sheriffs were not happy about that, and in some cases had to be forced to do it. States started passing laws saying that a female officer had to be on site if there were women in the jail. But that took a lot of agitating in order to get that done. So what started to happen in the 1910s is there started to be these girls’ courts. It’s similar to something we might do today with drug courts, where drug cases are handled a little differently than other crimes are.

It was just shocking to look at it from a modern perspective where you think, well this can be solved by common sense.

There was a lot of fear at the time that girls were leading men astray, right? The girls were considered the problem. They were the dangerous ones who were leading men astray and spreading venereal disease, which had no real treatment at that time. Especially with the buildup to the war, there was this real concern that we could not send our troops overseas with syphilis and gonorrhea, because you could die from that. Girls were seen as the problem, as the spreaders of disease and the spreader of immorality who had to be stopped. And they could stop it by locking them up and, in some cases, sterilizing them, because immorality was considered a genetic condition that could be passed on.

You also are a painter. Has that artistic pursuit influenced how you approach or view a story?

I don’t know that it has. I really love to paint and draw and what I love about it is that it isn’t writing. (laughs) It’s a thing where you’re not in front of a computer screen. I get to stand up and move around and listen to music and drink wine and all these things that I don’t allow myself to do while I’m writing.

Plus, it’s nonverbal, which is such a relief. People who work in any kind of literary field are just so hyper verbal so it’s very nice to get away from that. Mostly it’s an escape. It’s a chance to not think about the book I’m working on.

And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

Libraries play a huge role in everything I do. The libraries in New Jersey have obviously been a huge help to me doing research. I’ve been to all of the libraries in Bergen and Passaic county that have historical collections and have spent many many hours in basements of those libraries going through microfilm, sticking quarters in the machine, and printing out newspaper articles, because that stuff isn’t available anywhere else except in the basement of those libraries.

Now I actually do a lot of Skype chats with libraries who are reading these books for their book groups.

And what has that experience been like?

It’s been wonderful. With nonfiction I didn’t have as many book clubs reading the books because book clubs tend to read more fiction. Now I do them every week. It’s a regular part of my life where I Skype with these book clubs, and a bunch of them are library book clubs. The nice thing about it is when I was writing nonfiction, readers would come up to me afterwards and say something really interesting or insightful about the book and say, “I wish you’d mentioned this” or “I wish you’d done that.” I would think, “Ugh, Thanks a lot. The book is done! They don’t let me go back and change it now.” (laughs)

What’s different now is that, because this is a series, when people ask me questions or bring up some weird bit of historical trivia that I didn’t know, I’m taking notes! In some cases, I’ve changed how I think about some of the characters based on what readers have said.  So I think it’s made me better at writing these books, to be able to get that ongoing feedback from readers.

 

 


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