For its 17th book, Spokane is Reading selected “Girl Waits With Gun,” a title inspired by a real-life newspaper headline about the real-life Kopp sisters.
Amy Stewart’s fictionalized account of the adventures of Constance, Norma and Fleurette Kopp, published in 2015 by Houghton-Mifflin, was dubbed a “fine, historically astute novel” by the New York Times. The Kopps’ story inspired a memorable episode of the Comedy Central series “Drunk History,” and Stewart’s book is being developed by Amazon into a drama series.
The book marked the first novel from the Portland-based author, whose previous books – “The Drunken Botanist,” “Flower Confidential,” “Wicked Bugs,” “Wicked Plants” – have delved into the natural world and the threats therein.
Stewart will be in Spokane on Thursday to give two talks for Spokane is Reading. Stewart spoke with Spokesman-Review columnist Rachel Toor via email about the transition from nonfiction to fiction, about diving into history and about bringing these remarkable characters back to life.
Q. Spokane is reading “Girl Waits with Gun,” the first of four books published so far in the series. How did you first learn about the real-life Kopp sisters?
A. While researching my previous book, “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.
Q. Your previous books were all nonfiction. “Girl Waits with Gun” (and the ones that follow) is historical fiction. When you made the transition to writing novels, did you feel a little dirty making things up, or was it freeing?
A. I loved it. Writing fiction is very different in some ways from nonfiction, but there are some similarities. 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 in the first person from Constance’s perspective. So I get to think about how a woman born in 1877 would have said something.
Q. You wear your learning lightly, and delightfully: We get insight into the labor movement, expectations for women at the turn of the 20th century, the social history of New Jersey, industrialization, all against the backdrop of the coming war. But it never feels like we’re getting a dump of information. Did you find it hard to decide how much explanation and background to give the reader?
A. Thank you! I think about that a lot. I mostly read books written in the 1910s right now, and I try to think about how they describe the world around them and how that differs from how we might describe the 1910s. I don’t want to over-explain everything. For instance, if you were writing a modern-day story, you might say, “I texted him a photo.” You wouldn’t say, “I picked up my iPhone 6, which was a small, black object that fit in my pocket, and selected a photograph by touching my finger to the screen.” So I’m very aware of not wanting to do that – even if it means that modern readers don’t entirely understand what’s being described. I don’t mind if someone has to go to the dictionary or a history book to get the entire picture.
Q. You made generous use of newspaper accounts and in fact the title comes from a headline about Constance. Can you talk about the research process?
A. So 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.
I also 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 their childhood 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?
Q. I love the way you make use of Constance’s height to show how powerful she was. I wondered if the newspaper accounts made much of her height, or if you were heralding her for owning it and underscoring as a character trait?
A. Constance was, in real life, 6 feet tall and weighed 180 pounds. The average height of a man at that time, before World War I, was only 5-foot-7 or so. So she would’ve towered over everybody. The newspapers always mentioned her size, but they were quick to reassure readers that she was also very pretty and quite marriageable. I think this must’ve driven Constance crazy because she had no interest in marriage. In the novels, I wanted to make her comfortable in her own body and to have her use her strength to her advantage. After all, one of the many arguments against letting women work in law enforcement was their size. That wasn’t an issue for her.
Q. This reading series is sponsored by the Spokane Public Library. Anything you want to say to librarians and/or patrons and users of the library system?
A. Libraries have always been very important to me as a writer. For nearly two decades I lived in a very small town and could not possibly afford to travel to visit big research libraries to write my nonfiction books. During those years, I used inter-library loan nearly constantly. Now, for the Kopp novels, I’m spending time in New Jersey libraries to read old newspapers on microfilm and research historical sources.
But most important is that now libraries are bringing my readers to me! I do a lot of Skype chats with library book clubs around the country. It’s great to get to talk to readers without ever leaving my office.