Sunday, July 1, 2007

Author Interview: Karen Abbott

Interviewed by Heather F.

A chance mention of her friend Karen Abbott on Joshilyn Jackson's blog led me to seek her, and her new book, out. Much to my delight, she readily agreed to be interviewed! She is just as fascinating as her book. She is the delightful author of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul, due out July 10th. I'll let her tell you all about it.

HF: Please tell us a little bit about what your book, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul, is about?

KA: Sin in the Second City is about two cunning sisters, Minna and Ada Everleigh, who ran the world’s most famous brothel at the turn of the last century. The Everleighs were ingenious businesswomen and fantastic liars, which of course aren’t mutually exclusive, and attracted the elites of the world to their opulent double mansion in Chicago’s Near South Side. Everleigh “butterflies” named Brick Top, Doll, and Suzy Poon Tang devoured raw meat to the delight of Prince Henry of Prussia and recited poetry for Theodore Dreiser. While lesser madams pocketed most of a harlot’s earnings and kept a “whipper” on staff to mete out discipline, the Everleighs made sure their girls dined on gourmet food, were examined by an honest physician, and even tutored in the literature of Balzac. But the sisters’ success also brought them considerable trouble. Rival madams hatched numerous schemes to ruin the sisters—including attempts to frame them for murder—and reformers used the Everleigh Club to launch a national culture war. Ministers and politicians whipped the entire country into a frenzy with lurid tales of “white slavery”—the allegedly rampant practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels. It was a furor that shaped America’s sexual culture and had repercussions all the way to the White House, even leading to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The battle against the Everleighs wasn’t only about sex, but also about urbanization, immigration, religious fundamentalism, and the changing roles of women. Before my editor came up with Sin in the Second City, I was calling the book “Whores at War,” which is actually pretty fitting.

HF: Some of the most fascinating nonfiction reads, in my opinion, are about the people you never learn about in regular history books. How did you find out about the Everleigh sisters and their story and what led you to want to research and write about it?

KA: It’s actually a very personal story. My great-grandmother and her sister immigrated to the United States from Slovenia in 1905. One weekend, the sister took a trip to Chicago and was never heard from again. I was always intrigued and haunted by this bit of family lore, and when I began researching Chicago, and learned all about the “disappearing girls” around the turn of the century, those tales really captured my imagination. Chicago was a fascinating city at the time but also very dangerous. There were entire guidebooks that warned visitors about which streets and establishments to avoid. They had these vivid, melodramatic titles: “Chicago and Its Cesspools of Infamy,” “The White Slave Hell: With Christ at Midnight in the Slums of Chicago,” etc. It was easy, especially during my research trips to the city, to imagine my relative falling victim to some nefarious force. Of course I also imagine that she might have become a “sporting girl,” so to speak. And I would hope that she was Everleigh Club material!

HF: How long did it take you to research your book? Where did you have to go and who did you talk to? I imagine the Everleigh sister's many name changes and the fact that they moved around a lot made it hard to track them. Did you hit any roadblocks and if so, how did you get around them?

KA: I worked on Sin for three years, writing and researching included. My background is in journalism so I’m used to talking to live people, listening to them, figuring out what they’re saying in their silences. This was an entirely different kind of research to me; it was like learning a foreign language. But I really loved digging through the musty old archives in Chicago’s libraries. Dead people don’t always say what you want them to, but if you learn how to read what’s there—and read into what’s not—you can really bring them back to life, or at least try to. It’s part of what I love about nonfiction, about piecing together a million little facts to create a larger truth, and hopefully an entertaining story. If I had written a novel and included a character like Vic Shaw, my editor would have rightfully told me to tone her down or cut some of her antics. I mean, I could not have made her up. Same thing with Everleigh Club clients like the Gold Coin Kid—who knew people were so kinky back then?

I did get to talk to a few people who had a direct connection to the sisters, including their great niece. It took months and months of sending out letters to addresses and having many of them returned. But finally, her son called me, and said a relative had forwarded my letter. The Everleighs’ great niece was 80 years old when I spoke with her, and still feisty. It was 10 in the morning, and she was eating caviar—she made a point of mentioning that to me, which I thought was very Everleigh-like. She also was very adamant about calling the sisters “ladies”—she was proud of them, and proud to be related to them.

HF: Many would feel that the fact that they ran a brothel to be immoral and sordid in the extreme, but they took such good care of their girls; feeding them gourmet food, dressing them in couture gowns, providing them with the best medical care, to name a few of the things they did for their girls. How did you come to feel about the Everleighs? Did you find your feelings got in the way of the story? Was it hard to balance that out?

KA: In a way, theirs is a classic story of the American dream. They had a very difficult past but were determined to be successful, and they were incredibly inventive in their approach. They rewrote their own histories and presented themselves as these two aristocratic debutantes, women of social standing and grace. These personas were just as vital to their business as their décor and the beauty of their girls. And their unique bond was one of my favorite things about the sisters. I don’t think they could have become who they became if it weren’t for each other. These are two women who never lived apart from each other, who watched several family members die, who vowed to die for each other. They shared both their painful truths and their pretty lies. And I think it was their pasts that made them so protective of their girls, which I really admired. They helped these girls when everyone else was merely paying lip service to the idea. So I came to not only admire the sisters, but to love them. I’m not a very sentimental person—I don’t really cry at movies or books or at Major Life Events—but when I typed the last sentence of my book I bawled like a baby. I felt like I was living with the sisters every day for a very long time, learning everything about them there is to know, and now I miss them horribly. I hope that my affection for them is apparent in the story—I want the reader to love them as much as I do. That said, I didn’t want to dismiss the reformers; I wanted to present their ideas and actions in a way that shows just how threatening they were to the sisters’ livelihood. I wanted that tension and conflict to be evident throughout.

HF: What writers have influenced your work the most? What is it about those particular writers that you admire?

KA: I think Pete Dexter is one of the most brilliant writers alive today. I am such a rabid Dexter fan I named one of my parrots after him, sad to say… His sentences are so powerful without being gratuitously show-offy. His dialogue and sense of place are flawless: who else could get South Georgia and South Philly equally right? He’s dark and violent but also very funny (often in the very same sentence). He understands that humor is a natural byproduct of human conflict. Paris Trout is one of my favorite books, though I have to say I like his journalism more than his novels. He wrote a piece about LeeRoy Yarbrough, a famous but troubled 1960s NASCAR driver, that haunted me for weeks. I also love Gary Smith, Susan Orlean, Erik Larson, Tad Friend. They’re superb journalists but also really talented stylists.

HF: Do you read a lot? Do you read most contemporary books, classics, or a mix?

KA: I read for pleasure as often as I can. When I’m researching, I have to focus on books germane to my subject matter. For Sin in the Second City, I read dozens of books about the Progressive Era and Chicago and the “moral panic” over white slavery, some of them fairly dry and academic. But if my eyes glazed over I could also reach for Upstairs at the Everleigh Club and learn some more about Suzy Poon Tang. Never a dull moment with Suzy Poon Tang!

HF: Do you ever re-read your favorite books? If so, which have you re-read most often? Why does that work appeal to you so much?

KA: I do re-read. In high school the emphasis seemed to be on memorizing and regurgitating facts rather than critical reading and thinking, so lately I’ve been on a classics kick, re-reading all the books that got short shrift back then. As for more recent books, one of my favorites to re-read is Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy. It’s stunning on so many levels, and even surpasses the movie, which I thought was stellar. Also Don DeLillo’s Libra, James Dickey’s Deliverance, Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. I think it’s his best—definitely better than The Road.

HF: Which writers writing today do you think will endure?

KA: Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Russell Shorto, George Saunders. I think Alice McDermott’s prose is relentlessly gorgeous. I know nothing about writing short stories but I love Matthew Klam’s work. And Sara Gruen and Joshilyn Jackson are favorites, and not just because they’re friends. Both of them are very smart storytellers—there are layers and nuances woven throughout fast-paced plots. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, and they both do it consistently and very well. I’m lucky to have them as readers. They told me when I was committing “information dumps” while drafting Sin, and I went back and interspersed what I needed to say in a way that didn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative. Every narrative nonfiction writer can learn from novelists.

HF: Do you have a favorite place to write? Do you have any writing rituals?

KA: My townhouse is pretty tiny—I don’t have an office so much as an alcove adjacent to my bedroom. It’s about the size of a decent walk-in closet. I have at least a half-dozen file boxes piled around me, holding all of my research, organized as best as a scattered right-brainer can manage. I am an incurable slob, so I really have to stay on top of that. When I was working on Sin, I listened to ragtime every morning just to get me in the mood, but when I actually sit down to try to fill the screen, I need perfect quiet. I live in the city, so it can get loud, and then I stuff in the earplugs. I also have to unplug my Internet connection or I’ll procrastinate and surf The Superficial. My parrots have these spiral perches that suspend from the ceiling, so they’re usually with me. Once in a while, when I’m leaning over to read something, Dexter will stretch down and peck my head just so I remember he’s there. They’re pretty smart; they know they go back in their cages if they don’t stay quiet while I’m drafting.

HF: Aside from writing, what are your favorite pastimes?

KA: I love antique furniture. There’s a place up the street from me called Paris on Ponce, and they have fabulous, gaudy, outrageous stuff. It’s like strolling through the Folies Bergére. I can’t afford most of it, but it’s fun to look. I’m also a complete jock. If I hadn’t busted up my knee years go I’m sure I’d be playing in some neighborhood softball league. My husband appreciates the fact that I watch football on Sundays in the fall (go Eagles!) I can still rollerblade about 50 miles a week—something about it helps me think through problems in my work, frees my mind to consider different approaches. And I’m lucky I don’t live up the street from a casino. My husband and I have developed a tag-team strategy for blackjack; we just got back from New Orleans and did pretty well. I think it’s in my blood—my parents and my 88-year-old grandmother hit Atlantic City at least twice a month. Plus the people watching is sublime. Where else can you see an octogenarian in a wheelchair, dragging his oxygen tank behind him, while chain-smoking menthols?

HF: What can we expect to see next from you? Are there any new books in the pipeline?

KA: I recently signed on to do a second book for Random House, which I’m just thrilled about. It’s about Gypsy Rose Lee and the Depression-era New York that made her a legend, with a cast of characters that includes H.L. Mencken, Condé Nast, Lucky Luciano, Abbott and Costello, Fanny Brice, and Fiorello La Guardia. It was a really dynamic time in New York’s history. Tammany Hall was about to fall, F.D.R. was jockeying to run for president, prohibition was in full-force, the literary scene was flourishing. I’m really fascinated by how cities are shaped, and I hope I can make New York as much a character in this book as Chicago is in Sin. I’m also drawn to women who make their own lives, who aren’t privileged enough to have their lives handed to them. In that respect, Gypsy Rose Lee is very much like the Everleigh sisters. I can’t wait to get to know her.

Many, many thanks to Karen Abbott for taking the time to answer my questions so throughly. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. And don't forgot to go snap up a copy of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul, a fascinating, engaging read in the style of Erik Larson. You can visit her website here.

No comments: