During Nashville's Southern Festival of Books, Karen Abbot was able to sit down and chat with us about Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy, a book that details the lives of four women who bucked societal convention, risked their lives and became spies during the Civil War.
What initially inspired you to tackle such a little known topic in American history?
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and I moved to Atlanta in 2001. And I was really struck by the fact that they’re still fighting this war down there. It really sort of seeps into life and daily conversation in a way it never does up North. I was just shocked by the Confederate flags on the lawns and the jokes about the “War of Northern Aggression.” It was all sort of driven home for me one day when I was stuck in traffic on 400—if you’ve ever been to Atlanta you know what I’m talking about—and I was behind a pick-up truck with a bumper sticker that said “Don’t blame me, I voted for Jefferson Davis.” (Who was, of course, the president of the Confederacy). I was just sitting there shocked, and I was behind this truck for hours. It just gave me the opportunity to really start thinking about the Civil War. Of course, my mind goes to, “Well, what were the women doing? And not just what were the women doing, but what were the bad women doing, the defiant women?” I wanted to find four women who lied, wheedled, avenged, flirted, shot, drank and spied their way through the Civil War. And I think I found four who do that.
What was one of the most surprising things that you discovered during your research into these women’s lives?
There were a couple of things. One has to do with Emma, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Union army as Private Frank Thompson. I was wondering, how did she get away with this? There were about 400 women for both North and South who reportedly disguised themselves as men and enlisted. I came to the conclusion that [they were able to get away with it because] no one had any idea what a woman would look like wearing pants. They were so used to seeing women pushed and pulled into exaggerated shapes with their corsets, and the very idea of a woman in pants was so unfathomable, that even if she was right in front of them, they wouldn’t recognize it.
And also just the way that women were able to exploit their gender. Their gender was sort of a physical and psychological disguise. Physically, they’re hiding dispatches and weaponry in their hair and their hoop skirts. As a psychological disguise, if anyone accused them of treasonous behavior or espionage, their response was, “How dare you accuse me! It’s unbecoming as an officer and a gentleman, I’m a defenseless woman.” But of course, they were the farthest things from defenseless women.
Do you have any all-time favorite historical figures?
Oh, god. So many. Where do I even start? I think the Everleigh sisters, who are the subjects of my first book. They were two madams who were sisters and ran a world-famous brothel in Chicago in the early 1900s. They were really fascinating and enigmatic characters. Also, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the female pirates. I love them, too. They often dressed in drag, and people didn’t know they were women. I mean, obviously I have something about women dressing in drag.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m thinking about a novel, which would be scary because it’s the first time I would attempt to do it. I wrote about her for the Smithsonian, and I can’t give up my love of history and facts, so it would be based in the history of Cassie Chadwick. She was a con-artist in Gilded Age New York, and she sort of lied herself into New York society. And then she disappears. There’s enough about her to do a blog post, but there’s not enough nonfiction sources to do a full book. So it would be the first time I would have to add flesh to the bones. I can’t decide yet if it’s going to be liberating or paralyzing. But I’m going to give it a shot!
Any authors you’re looking forward to seeing here at the Festival?
One of my friends, Joshilyn Jackson. I think everyone should go see her and Patti Callahan Henry. Also Ariel Lawhon; I love her book. Those were my three big ones. Oh, and Daniel Wallace, who wrote Big Fish!
Are you doing anything fun while in Nashville?
I was going to try and honky-tonk, but I should probably save that for when I don’t have to work the next day. Next time, though.
(Author photo by Nick Barose)