Amy Stewart – Girl Waits With Gun
When Constance Kopp and her sisters, three unmarried women living alone in the country, request reparation after a 1914 automobile accident, they gain the enmity of a powerful local factory owner, Henry Kaufman, who mounts a campaign of threats and intimidation against them. Defying his expectations, Constance and her sisters arm themselves and refuse to be silenced by Kaufman’s increasingly violent tactics, earning the sympathies of a local sheriff and the rapt attention of the press along the way.
Inspired by true events and the tabloid coverage of the case, and with painstaking attention to historical detail, Amy Stewart’s novel GIRL WAITS WITH GUN (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) brings the story of the Kopp sisters’ battle with Kaufman to life through Constance’s dry and witty observations. We spoke with Stewart about her discovery of Kopp, the possibility of a sequel, and the pleasures and challenges of creating a vibrant fictional world from 100-year-old newspaper accounts.
KATE SCHWAB: Most of your books involve historical research, which I deeply appreciate as a librarian. What do you like about the research process? How do you know when it’s time to stop researching and start writing?
AMY STEWART: Usually I don’t stop researching until I’m up against a deadline and have to start writing. Fortunately, this is a series so I don’t really ever have to stop researching! Right now I have a stack of books from the library all about the history of venereal disease and “the girl problem,” all of which will only be a small detail in a future book. I love digging up weird old stories from the past. I use Evernote to catalog it all and I have thousands of notes, clippings, pictures—it’s endless.
KS: In reading Girl Waits With Gun, I could tell there must be a trove of research behind the story. It was so well grounded in its time and place but it never felt weighed down by historical detail. What techniques do you use to weave the various details and facts you uncover from different sources together to craft a seamless story?
AS: I try so hard not to over-explain everything. I try to think about how we talk about the world around us today, and to have Constance do the same thing. For instance, if you were telling somebody a story about a phone call you made, you’d just say that you made the call. You wouldn’t describe in detail what an iPhone is and how it works. It’s not relevant. So that’s what I tried to do—I pulled from old photos, old newspapers, magazines, mail-order catalogs, books written at the time—anything from that era that might give me a sense of how people at that time saw the world they lived in.
KS: There are so many interesting characters to discover when doing historical research. How did you find Constance Kopp? What did you learn about her that first made you think you had to write about her?
AS: While I was researching my last book, The Drunken Botanist, I ran across a story about a man named Henry Kaufman who was arrested for smuggling tainted gin. I thought I should do a little more investigation to see if Henry Kaufman went on to do anything else interesting. That’s when I found an article in the New York Times from 1915 about a man named Henry Kaufman who ran his car into a horse-drawn carriage driven by these three sisters, Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp. They got into a conflict over payment for the damages, and it escalated from there. The sisters received kidnapping threats, shots were fired at their house, and they were generally tormented for almost a year. I never did figure out if this Henry Kaufman was the same one who was arrested for gin smuggling, but I kept digging into the story of the Kopp sisters.
I think I liked Constance right away because she was kind of a misfit, and don’t we all identify with that? At the age of 35 she was unmarried, still living at home. She very much wanted a job but it wasn’t so easy in 1914. And she was a large woman–almost 6 feet tall, 180 pounds. She would have towered over most of the men at that time. She must have felt like she didn’t fit in in so many ways, but thanks to this accident with Kaufman, she found her calling.
KS: What books inspired you as a young reader? Would you have connected with the story of Constance and her sisters?
Well, you know, I read what every girl of my generation was reading. I read all of Nancy Drew and then Agatha Christie–there was the Summer of Agatha, where I think I went through every single one of her books. I read C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle and Judy Blume.
What I love about Constance in particular is that she’s such a misfit. She had no husband and no interest in one. She was 35, with no professional education and no career. She must have been wondering what on earth she was going to do with her life, when Henry Kaufman ran into her and really just blew her life up. I love the idea of somebody being sent in an entirely new direction because of one random accident. What if they hadn’t gone to town that day?
KS: It’s almost like that random accident allows her to fully come into herself. I imagine Constance was brave and bold before Henry Kaufman came along, but she didn’t have much opportunity to exercise those traits on the farm. What was it like for you developing Constance’s voice? Did her voice appear when you first read about her or did you have to get to know her?
AS: Fortunately, I had snippets of Constance’s real voice in the form of a letter she wrote to one of Heath’s deputies thanking him for his help with the case (provided by a family member) and in quotes from newspaper interviews. The quotes might have been highly doctored, but I liked her very forthright language. I also spent a lot of time reading novels written in those days, newspapers and magazines from those days, etc. One great advantage of living in this digital age is that all kinds of obscure things have been digitized. Google has scanned lots of transcripts of conferences, Congressional testimony, trials, and so forth. It’s great to read those because you get a word-for-word transcription of how people actually talked.
I wanted Constance to be very forthright, direct, and opinionated. I wanted the book to read as if she was speaking directly to the reader—in other words, I wanted it to read as if it was spoken, not written. So I also read the book aloud several times to get rid of any language that sounded too “written.”
But really, the first time I sat down to write in her voice, what came out is pretty much what you see in the book. I had a pretty clear idea of what she sounded like by the time I started writing.
KS: You’ve published memoir and nonfiction in the past. Girl Waits With Gun is your first published novel. Is this a big departure in your writing or have you been a fiction writer all along?
AS: I’ve been wanting to write fiction. Fiction is really what I read for pleasure, and in between several of those nonfiction books were attempts at novels. What was different this time was that I found this story and just didn’t want to let it go. I felt very obligated to the Kopp sisters. I really wanted to do right by them. Fiction gave me a way to tell their story more fully, and to tell it in Constance’s voice. That’s the big difference between this and nonfiction—I’m not writing in Amy Stewart’s voice. It’s Constance.
KS: You own a bookstore with your husband (Eureka books in Eureka, California). As a bookseller, you’ve probably had the opportunity to lead someone to their next book. What would you suggest as another great read for fans of Girl Waits With Gun?
AS: I would love to see people go back and rediscover some classics. If you love that era and you’ve never read Mary Roberts Rinehart, you’re in for a treat. I also love Megan Abbott’s noir novels Queenpin, Bury Me Deep, and The Song Is You, all of which are set around the 1930s and 1940s. They’re totally female-driven, with that classic noir feel. Really amazing. Sara Gran’s Dope is a later time period, and very dark, but absolutely wonderful. That book made my hair stand straight up on end.
KS: At the end of the book, Sheriff Heath makes Constance an intriguing offer but it’s left unresolved. I’m happy to hear it’s going to be a series! Can you share a preview of what’s next for Constance, Norma, and Fleurette? How far do you see their stories going?
AS: Yes, you’re right—Girl Waits With Gun is the first in a series based on their real lives. I don’t want to give too much away for people who haven’t read the book, but Constance goes on to do some extraordinary things, as do Norma and Fleurette. I have enough real information about what happened in their lives to keep me going for several more books—as long as readers stay with me!
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Amy Stewart is the award-winning author of seven books, including her acclaimed fiction debut Girl Waits with Gun (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and the bestsellers The Drunken Botanist and Wicked Plants (both from Algonquin Books). She and her husband live in Eureka, California, where they own a bookstore called Eureka Books.
Kate Schwab is a librarian in Portland, Oregon, a feminist, a comics lover, and she will talk to you about books for as long as you can take it. She’s been known to teach people to download library ebooks at parties. After nearly four decades on earth, she finally discovered that gardening is the best thing ever.