By now, Karen Joy Fowler’s husband knows what to expect when his wife starts writing a book, like the bestselling The Jane Austen Book Club or the Booker Prize finalist We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. She will lament, “Oh, it’s never been so hard,” and he will remind her: “You did say that last time. And the time before that, you know.”
“Is it possible that every book is harder than the one before?” Fowler wonders, speaking from her home in Santa Cruz, California. “Or do you just not remember? I don’t have an answer to that question.”
As she does in her writing, Fowler laces her conversations with curiosity, humor and reflection. You can practically hear her good-natured wheels turning as she discusses her latest novel, Booth, an immersive, behind-the-scenes account of the years leading up to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre in 1865, by way of an investigation into the family of assassin John Wilkes Booth. The Booths were a famous theatrical family celebrated for their Shakespearian performances, especially father Junius and brother Edwin, whose 1893 funeral was described as one of “the most remarkable ever held in New York City” by the New York Times.
Despite such a wealth of source material, and despite her husband’s reassurances, writing this book was particularly difficult for Fowler. Her despair over gun violence in the United States prompted her to choose this topic, but she didn’t want to focus on the assassin. Instead, she was interested in exploring the culpability and guilt of the Booth parents and siblings. How to achieve this delicate balance, “from the words, to the conception, to the way the book was organized,” was something Fowler “grappled with on nearly every page.”
Now she passes that same conundrum along to her readers. “I would not have written this book if John Wilkes had not killed Abraham Lincoln,” she says. “As much as I am trying to argue that he is not the most interesting person in this family, I know that the narrative tension in the book is all because of John Wilkes Booth.”
Even the book’s title is problematic. “It actually should be Booths—plural,” Fowler says, “but that's just so hard to say. I knew that at least in America, if you saw a book entitled Booth, you would think this is a book about John Wilkes Booth. Which is exactly what I didn't want you thinking!”
This is one of the primary reasons why the novel doesn’t depict Lincoln’s shooting in real time. “I didn’t want to imagine what John Wilkes Booth was thinking [in that moment]. First of all, I can’t—my imagination doesn’t stretch that far. But it’s still very painful to see that turning point in our history, to wonder what might have been.”
One passage in the novel, in fact, enumerates the many close calls with death John Wilkes had throughout his life, even before he carried out his tragic deed. “It was something that really struck me when I did the research,” Fowler explains. “[His death] would have been devastating for his family, but so much better for everyone else.”
The Booth clan has long fascinated Fowler, and she has featured various family members in three short stories, including “Standing Room Only,” which is about time travelers who journey to witness Lincoln’s death. A science fiction fan, Fowler was frustrated by the many stories she read in which time travelers seem to go undetected by those they encounter. “I thought, obviously not, it won't be that way at all,” she says. “They'll just be like tourists everywhere. I live in a tourist town, and I can spot the tourists. And then I went from that to thinking, well, there will be destination holidays, and one of them, unfortunately, will be the Lincoln assassination.”
Research, she muses, “is probably the closest we will come to time travel,” and from the start of creating Booth, she had mountains to sift through. A godsend came in the form of biographer Terry Alford, author of Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, which Fowler calls “magnificent,” and the forthcoming In the Houses of Their Dead: The Lincolns, the Booths, and the Spirits. Alford’s biography features unique details, so Fowler reached out to ask a few questions. “He’s been researching this family for 30 years, and he sent me piles of research that would've taken me months and months to find on my own, if ever,” she says. “It was just mind-bogglingly generous.”
John Wilkes Booth was born in 1838, the ninth of 10 children. In 1822, his parents, Junius and Mary Ann Booth, emigrated from England to Bel Air, Maryland, where they bought 150 acres and moved a small log cabin onto the property. Junius, an alcoholic who was at times mentally unstable, was often away on tour, leaving his wife—with the help of enslaved men and women—to tend to farming and maintaining the home. The family faced poverty, hunger and disease; four of the 10 children died. Fowler portrays these ordeals with startling immediacy, especially from the perspective of young Rosalie, who watches “the household collapse into madness” and communes with the ghosts of her dead siblings.
“I’ve had dreams about the place,” Fowler says. “In my dreams, the barn is there, and the slave cabins are there. It’s clearly a metaphor for doing research. The property [in my dreams] was beautiful, but I had a sense of menace, that something was very wrong and that it was a dangerous place to be.”
Junius eventually had a larger home, named Tudor Hall, built on the property. It's now a museum on a fairly small lot surrounded by other houses. “There’s a lovely group of people who maintain it,” Fowler says. “It seems the ghosts have been purged.”
The name Tudor Hall is something of a touchstone, since Fowler’s love of historical fiction was inspired by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell and the court of King Henry VIII. “I blame Hilary Mantel for the fact that [Booth] is in present tense,” Fowler says. “Wolf Hall was so powerful that somehow Hilary Mantel has persuaded me that this is how you write a historical novel.”
Indeed, readers will feel as though they’re watching events transpire in real time, with different sections told from the perspectives of not only Rosalie but also brother Edwin and sister Asia. Information about Edwin was plentiful due to his acting career, but Asia also left behind a valuable resource. In 1874, she wrote a secret memoir about her infamous brother, though it wasn't published until 1938, long after her death. Fowler calls Asia “an incredible woman, but hard to like. . . . I would probably have wanted to make her more likable if her own words hadn’t condemned her in certain ways.” (For instance, although Asia disapproved of John Wilkes’ crime, she blamed Lincoln for going to the theater that night.) Photographs of Asia, however, continue to bewilder the author. “Nobody talks about Asia Booth without mentioning what a beauty she was,” Fowler says, “and you look at the pictures, and you just think, what are they talking about?”
Rosalie, in contrast, remains a cipher, with few details available. She never married and had some sort of “infirmity,” widely commented on but never specified. “Every time Rosalie’s name comes up, you hear, ‘What an invalid she is, poor Rose,’” Fowler laments. But these gaps in Rosalie’s history proved useful. “There was a little more freedom to imagine who she might be. She’s pretty much made up, although the things that happened to her are not. I cannot tell you how delighted I was to discover that she had a romance with a lion tamer!”
Although Fowler says she is always on the hunt for such “small details that I hope will bring the world more to life,” she also keeps a bigger picture in mind. When she first began to write Booth, she was primarily focused on issues of gun violence, but the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump caused a shift in the story’s significance. “I wasn't really thinking about the Civil War, the ongoing legacy of white supremacy and the various ways in which that war has just never ended in this country,” Fowler says. “And yet, as I wrote, those things seemed more evident to me than the fact that John Wilkes Booth had a gun.”
By the time of the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Fowler had completed her manuscript. “To watch the Confederate flag being carried into the Capitol was just terrifying and heart-wrenching, having just immersed myself in what that flag meant,” she says. “I couldn’t turn the television off. I sat and watched the footage in real time, and just couldn’t believe it.”
There’s a similar sense of horror in Fowler's visceral descriptions of how various Booth family members react to the news of John Wilkes’ horrific act: “Edwin’s first thought is not a thought, more like a blow to the head, a sense of falling, the crashing of the sea in his ears. His second thought is that he believes it. He wishes he didn’t.”
There were several post-assassination details that Fowler had to omit from the novel—such as the fact that Ford’s Theatre collapsed during Edwin’s funeral, killing 22 people. “Maybe there needs to be a second book,” she says. “Something short—a slender, poetic novel dealing with their later lives.”
After all, Fowler says, “History is full of fabulous stories.” Fabulous, provocative, challenging and necessary—such is the story of Booth.
Photos of Karen Joy Fowler by Nathan Quintanilla