Author Interview: Karen Abbott

What are some of the “teachable” moments in your book that make it work well for a Community Reads program?

One of my main goals in writing LIAR, TEMPTRESS, SOLDIER, SPY was to highlight forgotten heroines of the Civil War, on both sides of the conflict. History is usually written by, for, and about men, and I think it’s important to explore women’s impact and contributions, which are so often overlooked or dismissed. My book delves into all aspects of women’s lives during the Civil War. They had to get used to the sudden absence of fathers and husbands and brothers and sons, to the idea that things would never be as they had been. They had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse, no influence in how the battles were waged. Instead they took control of homes, businesses, and plantations. They formed aid societies and held bazaars to raise money for soldiers. They even served as informal recruiting officers, urging men to enlist and humiliating them if they demurred. And some—privately or publicly, with shrewd caution or gleeful abandon—chafed at the limitations society set for them and determined to change the course of the war. In my book I tell the story of four such women, spotlighting not only their contributions to the war (daring espionage exploits, participating in bloody battles, lobbying European royalty) but also how their actions fueled the evolving campaigns for suffrage and women’s rights.


What do you think of the Community Reads structure as a literary event format?

In our quick fix, soundbite-driven, 140-character culture, I am deeply appreciative of any program that encourages people to take the time to read and to engage in discussion about books. I think it’s a brilliant format.


Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at author events that you’ve participated in?

I love connecting with readers and hearing their own (occasionally scandalous!) stories. WIth SIN IN THE SECOND CITY, people would tell me about ancestors who were part of the 19th Century Chicago political machine, or who operated a saloon in the vice district, or—more than once—who worked in a “house of ill repute.” With AMERICAN ROSE, one elderly gentleman approached me and said that he had seen Gypsy Rose Lee perform in 1935. “She took 15 minutes to peel off a single glove,” he recalled, “and she was so damned good at it I gladly would’ve given her 15 more.” And with LIAR, TEMPTRESS, SOLDIER, SPY, numerous people have shared their ancestors’ Civil War experiences; I’ve heard tales of generals’ triumphs, wives’ heartbreaks; soldiers’ post-war hardships; and of course a few intriguing anecdotes about women spies. 


You refer to your books as “sizzle history,” which focuses on women with scandalous stories for their times. How do you think writing historical accounts of little-known people connects to an audience that may not be drawn to history in the first place?

A journalist actually came up with that term, dubbing me the “pioneer of sizzle history,” and I’ve just decided to embrace it. I don’t  interpret “sizzle” to mean “scandalous,” per se; I like to think that I make history exciting for people who might otherwise find it dull. It’s a compliment when readers tell me that they don’t normally read history, but that my novelistic storytelling made them want to keep turning pages. My overarching goal in my nonfiction work is to lay out the facts and personalities, warts and all, and to tell the most compelling story possible. The truth really is stranger—and usually more interesting—than fiction, and it’s great fun to find forgotten characters and bring them back to life.

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