Sunday, January 31, 2016

North Melbourne Books February Newsletter - featuring Amy Stewart

In the February edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to American writer Amy Stewart about her fiction debut, Girl Waits With Gun.

When Amy came across the true story of the Kopp sisters, three young women who in 1914 joined forces with the local sheriff, she knew she had her next book.  Girl Waits With Gun is an absorbing historical drama, its gorgeous language perfectly capturing the times. Amy tells us what inspired her about the story and what helped her to write it.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Amy Stewart

North Melbourne Books: Girl Waits With Gun tells the true life story of the Kopp sisters - Constance, Norma and Fleurette - who in 1914 find themselves in a heated dispute with a rich, belligerent silk factory owner. When he tries to bully the three young women with his gang of men, the sisters join forces with the local sheriff. He teaches them how to use a gun and offers protection but ultimately it is the sisters who must combine their inner strengths to fight not only kidnapping and death threats but also public ridicule. It’s an amazing story, all fully researched from the historical record. What was it about these women, especially Constance, that leapt out at you and inspired you so much?

Amy Stewart: I think I liked Constance right away because she was kind of a misfit, and don’t we all identify with that? At the age of 35 she was unmarried, still living at home. She very much wanted a job but it wasn’t so easy in 1914. And she was a large woman – almost 6 feet tall, 180 pounds. She would have towered over most of the men at that time. She must have felt like she didn’t fit in in so many ways, but thanks to this accident, she found her calling.

And I loved the idea of writing about three sisters! Their personalities are very much based on real life. I was able to interview family members who gave me hints about what they were like, and I tried to stay as true to that as I could. Norma really was very grumpy and anti-social, and Fleurette was, in real life, very fashionable and theatrical.

NMB: While the story is based on fact, where the record is missing you’ve filled in the gaps using your imagination. Did you find yourself putting aspects of your own personality into the story?

 AS: That was the challenge - in spite of everything I knew about them, there are all kinds of gaps in their story. I knew that if I could write it as historical fiction, I could fill in those gaps.

I’m not confined to the facts, although I try to be true to them. If something really happened, I kept it (with very few exceptions, all of which are explained at the end.)

I didn't deliberately put my own personality into those characters, but I suppose that's inevitable. I did really enjoy writing Norma, because I got to be as misanthropic as I wanted to be, and not apologize for it! Norma hated just about everybody. We've all had days like that, right?

NMB: One of the book’s great achievements is how it reads very much like it was written at the time the events take place, in 1914. How did you get the tone and voices right? Were there any particular writers from this period that you found helpful?

AS: Thank you! I put a lot of thought into how to make this book sound like it was written in Constance's speaking voice, as if she's sitting in a chair in her living room telling you what happened. I read - and continue to read - a lot of fiction from the era, including Mary Roberts Rinehart and other crime fiction writers. Of course, I was reading a lot of newspapers. I also found it very helpful to read transcripts of any kind - Congressional testimony, court proceedings, speeches - Google has scanned a lot of stuff like that, so you can spend hours reading transcripts of people speaking in their own words. All of that made such a difference. I have a long list of words and phrases that struck me as unusual to modern ears but common in those days. My copyeditor and I go round and round about what would have been common usage at the time. For instance, in those days it was "lip-stick," not "lipstick." Little things like that occupy a great deal of my time.

NMB: Girl Waits With Gun is enormously enjoyable to read. You’ve also written a second Kopp sisters book. Was the book as much fun to write as it is to read?

AS: Yes, the second book will be out in September 2016. They've been great fun to write, but of course, it's a lot of work. I work every day, whether I feel like it or not, which means that I have good days and bad days.

I think it's always more fun to read a book than to write one, just as it's probably more fun to watch a movie than to make one. I've never made one, but it seems to me that making a movie must involve hours of tedium, lots of things going wrong, accidents, cost overruns, equipment failures...and writing a book is the same, in a way. It's fun, but it's also work.

NMB:  What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?

AS: I just finished Pearl S. Buck's The Angry Wife, about a white Southern husband and wife just after the Civil War. The wife is not at all happy that the South lost the war. It's not a perspective I've thought about much. It's a fantastic book, especially considering the fact that it came out in 1947, seven years before the landmark Supreme Court case that ordered an end to segregation in the South.

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart is published by Scribe. RRP: $32.99