Amy Stewart is the author of the novel Girl Waits with Gun and six other books, including The Drunken Botanist and Wicked Plants. Some of her earliest research for the novel happened right here in Portland, and Tin House editor Masie Cochran was there to witness it all. We've brought them back together to reminisce about those early days. Stewart will be at Powell's City of Books on September 22 to talk about her novel.
Amy: Let's start with how we met. Portland State University invited me to teach in their MFA program as a writer in residence, in partnership with Tin House. That meant that I was lucky enough to get to spend almost three months living in the little apartment between your magazine office and book publishing office. It was like being in a little Tin House sandwich! I loved it.
One night, you and I were having dinner with Janet Parker, who was Tin House's art director at the time. Somebody asked me what I was working on. Usually I don't like to say anything about a book idea until I've committed to it, but that night I told everybody around the table about my research into the Kopp sisters. Your reaction that night was absolutely inspirational. It was the first hint I had that other people might love the Kopps as much as I did.
Masie: I'd met you a few weeks before at a block-party-progressive you hosted, with a different drink at each of the three Tin Houses. But that night at Janet's was the first time I'd heard of the Kopp sisters. I couldn't believe their story. There was so much there already and I'm not sure, at that time, you'd written any prose. I think you were still in the research and outlining phrase. Is that right? And even though it was early on in the project, there was so much spark and imagination in the story. I remember thinking that you talked about Constance, Norma, and Fleurette like they were family. I know you do a ton of research for your other books — what was it that stuck with you about Constance and her sisters? Why did you keep coming back to them?
Amy: You're right — they've always felt like family to me. I felt quite possessive of them right away. I was amazed that nobody had ever written anything about them, that they had been completely forgotten about. There were newspapers all over the country running stories about the night Constance picked up a gun and went and stood on a street corner to defend her sisters. How could that have been so completely forgotten? But then I realized that the newspapers from 1914 are full of stories that have never been told again.
What I really loved about Constance was that she was not a cute plucky girl detective solving crimes with charm and lipstick. She was 35 and unmarried when this started, and really didn't have much going on in her life or any kind of plan for the future. She was what we would call today a plus-size heroine, which is to say that she was about 6 feet tall and weighed 180 pounds. I think she didn't know her own strength until she came up against Henry Kaufman, the man who was threatening them.
And of course Fleurette, the youngest of the Kopps, won me over right away. She was very stylish, very theatrical, very dramatic, and, at that age, very selfish. I had a harder time figuring out the middle sister Norma at first, but eventually I tracked down a family member who remembered Norma from when he was a little boy. He had all kinds of stories about how hard she was to get along with — how tough and judgmental and plainspoken she could be. I thought, Oh, I know women like that!
|Author Amy Stewart and Tin House editor Masie Cochran|
So yeah, they all seemed like women who could be in my family. I was very loyal to them. Once I dug up their story, I felt a very powerful obligation to tell it. I wasn't about to let them be forgotten again.
But then I had a problem, which is that I really wasn't quite sure how to take hundreds of newspaper clippings and a vast amount of genealogical research and all these courthouse documents, and shape it into a narrative. I was drowning in facts — glorious, amazing, too-good-to-be-true facts!
Masie: I often wonder about the paper mines you live in! Throughout the process, starting in 2012, you sent me emails with news clippings and pictures. I love scrolling through your old email subject lines: "Begen Atlas," "1912!," "Strike Mothers," "Chasing After Constance" — and perhaps one of my favorites — "Boy Sent By Parcel Post." You remarked, "I don't know why anyone bothers to make stuff up, when things like this actually happen." Without giving too much away, what were some of the most interesting facts you dug up? Were there any of note that you couldn't fit into the story?
Amy: Oh, it's endless. I'm looking at a clipping right now from 1915 about the most-robbed man in Bergen County. He was the postmaster of Rochelle Park, and he and his wife came home from the theater to find that they'd been robbed for the "forty-eleventh time," as his friends put it. Sheriff Heath got called out to make yet another report on stolen silver. How much silver did that guy have? I assume that eventually it was all stolen, and the robbers left him alone.
And of course, the coverage of the Kopp sisters' escapades went nationwide, so I was reading papers from all over the country and digging up weird stories everywhere. In Florida the Daughters of the American Revolution had a luncheon in a hotel, and someone thought it would be charming to put baby alligators in the fountain for local color. The alligators ate all the goldfish in the fountain, then climbed out and went after the ladies. There was much shrieking and climbing on chairs.
So you can imagine me sitting there thinking, Note to self: find a way to work the alligator luncheon into chapter seven. It never happened.
Masie: The way you collect weird facts — that's what makes your nonfiction so much fun to read. I've always wondered, though — wasn't it daunting to change gears and write fiction?
Amy: Oh, yes, of course. Fiction has always seemed like the deep end of the pool. But I felt so strongly that Constance should tell this story in her own words. I really wanted it to be all about her voice, and her view of the world she lived in. Also, even though the Kopps found themselves in a very dangerous situation, I wanted there to be a certain lightness to this book. I wanted it to be one of those stories that you can just inhale. And I think there's more room for that in fiction.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to say this about Portland: I did so much research in the library at Portland State, and I spent hours and hours wandering around Powell's, thinking about this book and trying to decide what it would be and where it would fit in the ever-expanding universe of books that is physically manifested right there on Burnside. I found some wonderful books on crime-fighting, including A Municipal Mother, about Portland's own police officer Lola Greene Baldwin, who joined your police force in 1908. I also turned up a fabulous book on Victorian-era women shoplifters called When Ladies Go A-Thieving. The whole time I was writing Girl Waits with Gun, images of Powell's and my fabulous little apartment next door to Tin House would kind of drift into my mind, because the roots of this story are still anchored there. So thank you for being a part of that.
Masie: Come back to Portland when you're figuring out the next book!