Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sneaks and Subversives and Society Belles: An Interview with Karen Abbott

by Tina Whittle

Karen Abbott’s latest book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, weaves together the stories of four very different women—a socialite, a farm girl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who became spies during the Civil War, two working as operatives for the Confederacy and two for the Union. A meticulous research, she is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine’s history blog, Past Imperfect, and also writes for “Disunion,” the New York Times series about the Civil War.

She graciously agreed to share how she came to write what USA Today calls “sizzle history” and gives us a sneak preview of topics to come in her Savannah Book Festival presentation (Saturday, February 14th, at 2:50—3:50 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Telfair Square).

Tina Whittle: Your writings—including your latest book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy—focus on real women whose stories don’t show up in history texts. What drew you to their stories?

Karen Abbot: Obviously, history is mainly written about men, by men, and for men. And every time I’d read a historical account—of reform efforts, of the evolution of entertainment, of war, of anything—I’d immediately ask: what were the women doing? And not just any women—what were the “bad” women doing? The defiant, revolutionary women? In the case of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, I wanted to find four women who lied, seduced, wheedled, plundered, spied, drank, avenged, stole, and murdered their way through the American Civil War. Of course these women had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse, no say in how the battles were waged, so I wanted to spotlight the ways they were able to change the course of the war—and, in the process, their own lives.

TW: And such fascinating lives they led! Two of them Union, two Confederate, all of them defying cultural expectations through their activities both on the battlefield and behind enemy lines. In a culture where the word “feminist” often provokes controversy, what can contemporary women learn from their nineteenth-century counterparts?

KA: I am loath to tell women—of any era—how they should be conducting themselves or how they should label themselves. But were it not for those incredibly brave and (for the time) radical 19th century feminists, women today would not have the luxury of debating the semantics of that word. One of my favorite anecdotes about Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew: every year, when she paid her property taxes, she included a note objecting to not having a vote. All four women in the book were well ahead of their time, in many respects.

TW: Yes, that was one of the first things that struck me as I read your book. Despite differences in the four women’s political beliefs and socioeconomic statuses, there was a skill each wielded as finely as any weapon—the ability to manipulate societal expectation.

KA: Absolutely! These women masterfully exploited society’s ideas and expectations of “womanhood.” War, like politics, was men’s work, and women were supposed to be among its victims, not its perpetrators. Women’s loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself. But after Confederate operative Rose Greenhow was captured, there arose a question—one that would persist throughout the war—of what to do with what one Lincoln official called “fashionable women spies.” Their gender provided them with both a psychological and physical disguise; while hiding behind social mores about women’s proper roles, they could hide evidence of their treason on their very person, tucked beneath hoop skirts or tied up in their hair. Women, it seemed, were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men.

TW: Your biography states that you are a native of Philadelphia who now lives in New York City. How did the Civil War South find its way onto your writerly radar?

KA: I spent six years in Atlanta, and was immediately struck by the way the Civil War seeps into daily life and conversation down there in a way it never does up North. It was quite a culture shock to see the occasional Confederate flag on a lawn, and to hear the jokes about the “War of Northern Aggression.” The point was really driven home one day when I was stuck in traffic on Route 400. For two hours I idled behind a pickup truck emblazoned with a bumper sticker: DON’T BLAME ME: I VOTED FOR JEFFERSON DAVIS. As soon as I got home, I began looking for Civil War heroines.

TW: It’s obvious to any reader that you do a lot of research—the endnotes to Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy are a novella-length work all their own (approximately sixty pages). How do you manage to find—and keep—the storyline amidst so many facts and statistics and competing narratives?

KA: My goal was to tell the story of the Civil War through the perspectives of these four women, and to tell it in a way it hadn’t been told before. It was important to me that the women’s stories all connect in some way, that there was a cause and effect, that one woman’s actions influenced another’s circumstances. So it was a challenge to map out all of these connections, especially since I’m sort of a technological Luddite; I’m sure there are programs to help writers keep track of such things, but I don’t own or operate any of them. Plus, I’m very tactile; I like to physically move the puzzle pieces around and see where they might fit. At one point, I printed out the entire book and spread it all over my apartment floor—a bit difficult when your apartment is only 600 square feet. I also am addicted to post-it notes and outlines; by the time my research is finished, I’ll have a 100-page outline of the book’s major events and the sources I’ll need to write them.

TW: Are you planning on doing research while you’re in Savannah, famously gifted to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present from General Sherman?

KA: I love Savannah—I used to visit fairly often when I lived in Atlanta—and I’m excited to get back there. I think I’ll have to do the “March to the Sea” walking tour. And also eat as much shrimp and grits as possible.

TW: Savannah is a great place for both eating and exploring the dark corners of history. The attraction of shrimp and grits needs no explanation. What is it about the notorious and nefarious that catches your scholarly interest?

KA: I’ve always been interested in “dark” subjects, all things hidden and mysterious. When I was a kid, maybe 13 or 14, I used to write stories about murderous, cross-dressing matrons and submit them (fruitlessly, of course) to Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines. I’d blame at least part of this interest on my Catholic school education, which—at least in my experience—elevated subversive and taboo topics by refusing to discuss them. Of course I wanted to prod and poke and examine the things that were kept just out of reach.

TW: So now that you have three best-selling books on the historical nonfiction shelves, what’s next?

KA: My next project is a novel, based on a real-life Gilded Age con artist. The historical record is too insufficient for a work of nonfiction, so I’m trying my hand at fiction. It’s 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.

TA: And we’re looking forward to that next book!

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Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City, American Rose, and, most recently, Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, which was named one of the best books of 2014 by Library Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Amazon, and Flavorwire, and optioned by Sony for a miniseries. She has written for the New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian magazine, Salon, and other publications. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots, Poe and Dexter.

Tina Whittle is a crime fiction writer living and working in Southeast Georgia. Her Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver mysteries have garnered starred reviews in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. The fourth book in this Atlanta-based series—Deeper Than the Grave—was released in November from Poisoned Pen Press. You can read more about her and her work at

[ This interview was originally published on the Savannah Book Festival Blog and the Low Country Sisters in Crime blog on 2/5/15. ]

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