Novelist Amy Stewart Turns 1914 Traffic Accident Into 'Girl Waits With Gun'
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have news this morning of a century-old traffic accident. The writer Amy Stewart says it happened in 1914 in New Jersey.
AMY STEWART: These three sisters were out in Paterson, N.J., in their horse and buggy, going down the street, and they got hit by a car.
INSKEEP: The sisters were named Constance, Norma and Fleurette Kopp. After the crash, they wanted reimbursement.
STEWART: They got into a dispute over the damages 'cause their buggy was basically destroyed, and in those days, a buggy cost about 50 bucks.
INSKEEP: Their demands that the driver pay provoked a violent response. Amy Stewart turned this true story into a novel. Her fictional account is called "Girl Waits With Gun." It's told by one sister, Constance, who behaved in ways that women of her era rarely did.
STEWART: Really groundbreaking - the fact that she was issued a gun by the sheriff and that she went out with him to try to catch the bad guy - this was astonishing. And part of the way I know it was astonishing is that it made newspapers all over the country.
INSKEEP: She had to go to such extremes because the driver of the car was so powerful. He was a thuggish owner of a silk factory. In the novel, as in real life, the farm where the sisters lived outside town became a target.
STEWART: Shots were being fired at their house. They were getting threatening letters, arson attempts; they were basically under siege, these three women. And the oldest sister, Constance, went to the prosecutor for help. And he refused to help them - wasn't interested in taking on the case, but the sheriff was. And the sheriff actually taught all three women how to shoot and issued them revolvers. And he enlisted the help of Constance to basically go stand on a street corner in the middle of the night with a gun in her handbag and participate in kind of a sting operation to catch the guy.
INSKEEP: And you have all these details because of newspaper accounts, right?
STEWART: Yeah, you know, the great thing about this time in history, the early 20th century, is that there were so many newspapers. You know, there were seven or eight local newspapers just in the Patterson and Hackensack area, so it's extensively documented. I have literally hundreds of newspaper clippings about the Kopp sisters.
INSKEEP: What got you looking at old newspapers anyway?
STEWART: That's just my job. I was writing my last book, "The Drunken Botanist," which is a book about booze, and I was writing about a gin smuggler named Henry Kaufman.
INSKEEP: Which caused her to look up newspaper articles containing that name. And that revealed a variety of historical characters, including the man who had the dispute with Constance Kopp. What Amy Stewart says she found in those century-old newspaper files was the story of a woman who strained against the conventions of her time.
STEWART: I think this period of time before World War I is so interesting because it's the end of the Victorian era, but there's still these sort of creaky Victorian morals still in place. And women's lives in particular were very restricted at the time. You know, not only did we not have the vote, women couldn't get any job they want and even had still a lot of trouble at that time owning property. So these three women living by themselves on a farm and kind of figuring out life for themselves with really no help from any man - that just seemed amazing to me.
INSKEEP: So these sisters, led in effect by Constance Kopp, became involved - in real life and in your novel - in this ever escalating, increasingly violent situation. And you described them getting into a blackmail situation. Money is demanded from them, and they're preparing to make the handoff with the assistance of the police. And I wonder if I could get you to read a bit of that.
STEWART: Oh, OK.
(Reading) I was sitting on Fleurette's bed, watching her search her wardrobe for the proper ensemble in which to rendezvous with a blackmailer. She produced a cape with a fur collar and red velvet lining and a hat that had a hidden pocket in the band. That cape would look ridiculous on me, I said, and besides, the sheriff wants me in dark, sensible clothes. It's going to be freezing tonight and who knows how long I'll be standing out there. Fleurette wrapped the cape around her own shoulders. I had to admit that it suited her. She looked like a woman of mystery, someone who might carry a thousand dollars to a lady in black and live to tell about it.
INSKEEP: OK, the first thing I have to tell you is I cannot listen to you read that passage without smiling.
STEWART: (Laughter) Wow, thank you.
INSKEEP: There's this kind of joy or glee in the details of what the women are wearing or thinking about wearing, and this is all the way through the book.
STEWART: Yeah, I have to say that I feel very close to Constance and to really to all three of them, but they're very much real people to me. And I have spent a lot of time really trying to be in their world. You know, I spend a lot of time just laying on the floor (laughing) thinking about what their world is like and trying to picture every little detail. I have a Sears catalog, and I've furnished their whole house from a 1908 Sears catalog. Like, everything...
STEWART: I have. Everything they have is something that I've gone out and found for them. And I've actually bought things for them. Like, I own things for them to own. I've bought magazines for Fleurette. I have a pigeon keeping manual for Norma, the other sister, because she keeps pigeons. They don't have a telephone in this book, but they will at some point. And I have a telephone of about that era that at some point will be Constance's telephone, so...
INSKEEP: You are turning into Constance Kopp.
STEWART: No, you know what? And somebody actually asked me if I was going to be showing up in costume on the book tour. And I would like to say for the record that that is not going happen. It is true that I feel really close to her. I can't tell you what it was like to go to her grave, for instance. It was - I cried. It's not like I didn't know she was dead, right? This stuff all happened a hundred years ago, but she's very much alive to me. And even other characters in the book, like Sheriff Heath, who I also kind of feel very close to and sort of have a little crush on (laughter). Sheriff Heath is buried in the Hackensack Cemetery and to - this person, who's a character in my novel, to get to go to their grave and to kneel down on the grass and put my hands on the stone that has their name and their dates on it - I don't even know how to explain what that's like. It was incredible.
INSKEEP: One other thing - I think you may have made some news a little bit earlier when you said that Constance Kopp does not have a telephone in this book, but she's going to have a telephone. Are you telling me there's another book coming with this character?
STEWART: (Laughter) Yes, there is in fact. You wouldn't believe the files I have on these women. I've been talked out of writing books before. This happens to writers all the time. You come up with an idea, you call your agent, you call your editor and they're all like, yeah, not so much. What else you got? And you're like, OK. By the time I put all this together, I thought I'm doing this, and I'm not going to let anybody talk me out of it. I'm going to write this book even if nobody wants to read it. And, yeah, there's more to come.
INSKEEP: Amy Stewart's latest book is the novel "Girl Waits With Gun," which, by the way, is an actual newspaper headline about the character on which the book is based. Thanks very much.
STEWART: Oh, thanks, Steve.