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Karen Abbott is a New York Times bestselling author and, full disclosure, a dear friend. We discussed her gripping new narrative nonfiction book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, but first we’ll have to speak to the tiresome subject of men, and the dismissive opinions they so casually dole out.
I was prepared to ask you questions about your new book, but then I read Jonathan Yardley’s review of it in the Washington Post and just about choked on this line:
“At its best her prose is vivid, especially when she writes about battles and the terrible costs they exact, while at its less-than-best it seems (dare I say it?) to have been borrowed from the pages of a woman’s magazine.” (emphasis my own)
I’m glad you brought this up. I’ve been on the receiving end of my fair share of condescending reviews and articles—what female author hasn’t?—but this was, by and far, the most egregious example. In one thoughtless—and rather meaningless—phrase, he manages to insult not only me, but also women who write quality journalism for so-called “women’s magazines,” and, by extension, that entire media industry. His implication is that women writers, especially when writing about subjects of interest to women, are inherently inferior and easily dismissed. Has anyone ever told Jonathan Yardley that his writing seems borrowed—dare I say—from the pages of a men’s magazine?
The passage he cites describes one of my female Civil War spies, the Confederate operative Belle Boyd, as she rides her horse through an area occupied by Union soldiers. I am guessing Yardley took issue with my detailing what Belle wore in that scene; Belle’s costumes, it should be said, were a vital part of both her persona and her espionage work. In another section of the book, I spend much more time describing the clothing and appearance of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, passages I assume Yardley didn’t find quite so objectionable.
It’s one thing if Yardley doesn’t like my book. Not everyone is going to like it; I get that. But it’s quite another to offer a such a blatantly gender-based criticism of a 500-page nonfiction book about the Civil War. Seeing this brand of sexist—and frankly lazy—criticism in 2014 is disheartening on so many levels.
Yardley concludes his review by “wondering about the book’s credibility.” For a historian, this is no small charge, and by way of support, he offers but one example: You misidentified a nine-year-old ferry conductor as Robert Fitzgerald, “who would become the father of the future writer,” but his name was Edward. Can you explain the error?
Two Civil War scholars and a retired CIA codebreaker were kind enough to vet my manuscript. If there are any minor errors, they’re on me, and come down to the fact that I’m human.
We’ve talked about the craft of narrative nonfiction, from the most nascent stages of research to contemplating structure, and crafting an engaging narrative supported by those materials. Can you talk a bit about your process? How do you respond to Yardley’s accusation that you veered into the realm of fiction?
I spent five years researching this book, tracking down archives, documents, and various sources across the country. I cite more than 200 sources in my bibliography and have 50 pages of endnotes. In the interest of preserving space (lest this book exceed 600 pages!), I give precedence to citing dialogue, statistics, and lesser-known facts. I do not invent dialogue; everything that appears between quotation marks is sourced. Knowing the passion of Civil War aficionados, I particularly concentrated on details about battles, generals, politicians and politics, the mechanics of espionage, and the daily life of the people who lived through this time.
I liken writing narrative nonfiction to a prosecutor presenting a closing argument. The prosecutor has done due diligence, gathering and evaluating all available sources and facts, and then she makes her case. Although she obviously didn’t witness what she’s describing, she recreates the characters and scene and action. She ascribes motives and extrapolates thoughts, gleaning these from her sources. She tells a story to the best of her ability based on what she knows. I understand that some academics take issue with this approach. But my background is in journalism. I am not—nor have I ever aspired to be—an academic. I’m not bashing academia or academic writing; without it, I couldn’t do my job. But it’s just not the writing I know how to do, or that I enjoy doing. When people tell me that my nonfiction reads like fiction, I take that as a compliment. That doesn’t mean it is fiction.
Do you think women nonfiction authors are held to a higher scrutiny in this regard?
I think so, but I can only speak for myself. Some male friends who write nonfiction (award-winning and bestselling nonfiction, I might add) take the same sorts of liberties without being subjected to such criticism—or if they are, it’s not as frequent or pointed. We talk about this fairly often, and they readily acknowledge the bias.
Let’s not waste any more time talking about old white men! Tell me about the four women of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. How did you choose them?
When the war begins, Belle Boyd is 17 years old, a Confederate girl living in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. After Northern soldiers occupy her town and one of them threatens to raise a Union flag over her home, she responds by fatally shooting him—how could I resist? Belle goes on to become a courier and spy for the rebel army. She was all id, with absolutely no filter or conscience. She was also incredibly overt—with both her opinions and her sexuality—for her age and for the time. If Sarah Palin and Miley Cyrus had a 19th century baby, it would’ve been Belle Boyd (although she was much smarter than either of them.)
Emma Edmonds, in the spring of 1861, enlists in the Union army as a man, calling herself Frank Thompson. She was one of about 400 women who disguised themselves as men during the war, and it was fascinating to research how they got away with this—mainly because no one had any idea what a woman would look like wearing pants; the very idea was unfathomable to them. Emma worked as a nurse and courier, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the war, and eventually becomes a Union spy. She worries constantly about her gender being discovered, especially when she falls in love with a fellow Union soldier.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a grand dame of Washington DC society, and her entire life had fallen apart in the years leading up to the war. She had lost five children within four years, she lost her husband in a freak accident, she lost her access to the White House; she had been close friends with Democratic politicians, even advising former president James Buchanan. She was desperate to regain her status, any piece of her past, so when a Confederate captain asks her to form an espionage ring, she immediately agrees. She begins cultivating sources—and by “cultivating” I mean sleeping with—including many high-ranking Union politicians.
And the last, Elizabeth Van Lew, was the antithesis of Rose Greenhow. She was an abolitionist and Union sympathizer living in the Confederate capital of Richmond, and as discreet and cautious as Rose was brazen. Her greatest coup was placing a former family slave, Mary Jane Bowser, as a servant—and spy—in the Confederate White House. Of course no one knew that Mary Jane was highly educated and gifted with an eidetic memory, capable of memorizing images in a single glance, and recalling entire conversations word for word.
It was important to me that the women’s stories all connected in some way, that there was a cause and effect, with one woman’s actions influencing another’s circumstances. I wanted to weave a narrative of the war as it hasn’t been told before, from the unique perspectives of these daring women who lived it.
Why do you think these women made such effective spies?
The idea of female traitors had been unthinkable before the war began. 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 now there was 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 proved they were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men.
Abbott: They’re not in the history books, as much as they deserve to be. They pushed and poked at social conventions, and chafed at their perceived limitations. They were revolutionary. The word “maverick” is interesting—it always struck me as being a historically male word—but, as my friend the novelist Joshilyn Jackson put it, I like to write about mavericks with vaginas.
Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.