September 13, 2016

Jennifer Chiaverini

Taking readers inside a dark moment in history
Interview by

Historical novelist Jennifer Chiaverini has taken readers to the Civil War era in bestsellers like Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule. Fates and Traitors tells the story of the infamous assassin John Wilkes Booth through the voices of the four women who knew him best. Chiaverini answered a few questions about her book and its fascinating protagonist. 

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How could a bright, beloved son become America's most infamous assassin? Historical novelist Jennifer Chiaverini, who has taken readers to the Civil War era in bestsellers like Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker and Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, answers that question in her latest work, Fates and Traitors, which tells the story of John Wilkes Booth through the eyes of the four women who knew him best. Chiaverini, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, answered a few questions about her book and its fascinating protagonist. 

Your book has the subtitle “A Novel of John Wilkes Booth,” but its told from the perspectives of four different women. What do the voices of the women in his life reveal about Booth that a straightforward story about him would not?
For me, one of the great joys of writing historical fiction is the opportunity to bring little-known or forgotten historical figures to the forefront of the story. Women and people of color, especially, have too often been relegated to the margins and footnotes, if they make it into the historical narrative at all. I love introducing readers to these courageous, extraordinary people and allowing readers to witness transformative events in our nation’s history through their eyes.

When I first began planning Fates and Traitors, I envisioned it as a first-person narrative from the perspective of Lucy Hale, the staunchly Unionist, abolitionist daughter of New Hampshire Senator John Parker Hale—and, according to some historians, John Wilkes Booth’s secret fiancée. As my research continued, I discovered that Lucy and Booth knew each other only very briefly, for less than a year before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Also, because Booth concealed so many of his beliefs and activities from Lucy, her perspective was too limited for the novel I wanted to write. As I delved more deeply into Booth’s history, and especially after I learned that his dying words were for his mother, Mary Ann, and he had left his last written manifesto with his sister, Asia, I realized that telling the story from the perspectives of Mary Ann, Asia, Lucy and one of his co-conspirators, Mary Surratt, would allow me to offer a richer, more detailed understanding of who John Wilkes Booth was and how a bright, beloved son could have turned into the country’s most notorious assassin.

Did any of the four voices come more easily than the others? Which narrator did you most relate to?
All four women are fascinating characters and compelling narrators, but if I had to choose the one I would most like for a friend, I’d pick Lucy Hale. Her contemporaries described Lucy as charming, pretty, intelligent and very popular in social circles both in Washington, D.C., and in her hometown of Dover. She had a great sense of humor and a mischievous streak—which I enjoyed bringing out in Fates and Traitors—but she was also devoted to her family and worked tirelessly to support the Union cause by organizing fundraisers, sewing and knitting for the troops, and visiting wounded soldiers in military hospitals. And anyone who has ever fallen in love with someone who is completely wrong with them, only to find out too late that they’ve been deceived and betrayed, would find it hard not to sympathize with Lucy.

How did you research this novel?
Whenever I write historical fiction, I begin my research at the Wisconsin Historical Society library in my hometown of Madison. It’s a wonderful resource, an archive of marvelous depth and scope tended by knowledgeable, curious, enthusiastic librarians and scholars. In my research for Fates and Traitors, I also consulted numerous excellent online resources, including the archives of digitized historic newspapers at the Library of Congress, Genealogybank.com, Dave Taylor’s excellent blog, BoothieBarn: Discovering the Conspiracy, and websites for the Surratt House Museum, the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site and the Junius Brutus Booth Society. Whenever I can, I also like to visit preserved historical sites that relate to the people and events I include in my novels, because that significantly enhances my understanding of a place and its people.

Was there anything you discovered about Booth in the course of your research that surprised you?
Before I began my research, I assumed that Booth came from a zealously Confederate family, like that of his fellow conspirator and Marylander, Mary Surratt. I was intrigued to discover that instead Booth had been raised in a rather progressive, egalitarian, abolitionist household, and that he was the only member of his immediate family who sympathized with the South. I could imagine his family’s increasing dismay, and in some cases outrage, as they watched the son and brother they loved turn his back on their most cherished values. They probably felt powerless to do anything about it, but I doubt they ever imagined that his new passions would drive him to such extremes of violence.

"I could imagine his family’s increasing dismay, and in some cases outrage, as they watched the son and brother they loved turn his back on their most cherished values."

Did writing this book change how you viewed him?
I understand Booth and his motivations better than before I wrote Fates and Traitors, but although I sympathize with the boy he was and the difficult circumstances he endured in his youth, nothing I learned about him justifies his actions on that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre. Make no mistake, Booth is not the hero of this novel. In my opinion, he’s not even a hero of the Confederacy. At the time of the assassination, there was absolutely no political or strategic advantage to be gained for the South by killing President Lincoln. Some of Booth’s associates tried to convince him of that, but he disregarded their warnings. He could have walked away at any time, but he chose murder. I don’t sympathize with that at all.

You first wrote about the Civil War in your Elm Creek Quilts series, and its an era youve touched on in several of your standalone historical novels. Why do you think it provides such a rich setting for fiction?
Civil War era was a tumultuous and transformative time for our nation, showing the best and worst of humanity in stark contrast. Looking back, we discover great moral failings alongside true heroism in the struggle for justice, equality, and freedom. My personal heroes are people who face adversity with moral courage and dignity, whose hunger for justice and compassion for others lead them to stand up for what is right even at great risk to themselves. My favorite characters to write about either possess similar qualities, or are given the opportunity to summon up these qualities and do what is right but fall short. What the Civil War says about our country—that we are capable of both great moral failings and tremendous goodness—resonates strongly even today, and as a creative person, I’m drawn to explore and try to understand that conflict.

Do you have a favorite Civil War novel, other than your own?
I’ve read and enjoyed too many to choose only one favorite, but one Civil War novel I particularly loved is Paulette Jiles’ Enemy Women, the haunting story of an 18-year-old Missouri woman who escapes from a Union prison and flees South in search of her family.

What are you working on next?
My next novel, Enchantress of Numbers, features Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace—the daughter of the renowned poet Lord Byron and an early 19th-century mathematician who is credited with writing the first computer program long before the first computer was ever built.

Author photo by Michael Chiaverini.

Get the Book

Fates and Traitors

Fates and Traitors

By Jennifer Chiaverini
Dutton
ISBN 9780525954309

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