Author Karen Abbott discusses her latest novel
From 2001 to 2008 author Karen Abbott lived in Atlanta, Georgia. She is originally from Philadelphia and had never spent any time in the south, nor did she spend a great deal of time thinking about the Civil War, but that soon changed.
“It was kind of a culture shock to go down there and realize that not only are these people thinking about (the Civil War) but it’s still sort of an ingrained way of life down there,” Abbott said in a recent phone interview.
One day while Abbott was stuck in traffic, she saw a bumper sticker on a pick-up truck that read “Don’t Blame Me – I voted for Jeff Davis,” the president of the Confederacy.
That bumper sticker would help plant the seeds of the book that would later become “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War,” which will be available in bookstores Sept. 2
“I thought there must be something there,” Abbott said. “Men were the ones who fought this war but what were women doing? I’m sure they had a hand in some devious and interesting things and sure enough they did.”
Through Abbott’s research she came across many women participating in the war but chose the four she did because she thought they represented different archetypes and different points of view. Their stories also intersected in various ways that Abbott wanted to have present in the book.
“There was a sort of cause and effect that I found interesting,” she said. “One woman’s behavior would affect another woman.”
One of the spies that Abbott both liked and found awful was Belle Boyd, who shot a Union soldier in her home and went on to spy for the Confederacy.
“I liked her because she was all id,” Abbott said. “This was somebody who was 17-years-old and sort of spoiled her entire life. She just took that entitled, childish viewpoint into the war and basically acted without thinking of repercussions. It was astounding to me how much she got away with.”
Abbott also admired Emma Edmonds, who dressed up as a man in order to fight in the war, because of the fact that she was able to pull off her ruse for so long and the strength she showed by doing it.
“I think they were all really brilliant in their own way,” Abbott said of the women spies in her book.
“Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” is the work of countless hours of research. But there are thousands of books out there about the Civil War and Abbott couldn’t expect herself to read every one.
“With any subject, I like to start with the broad books – the civil war histories, and then you start to hone in. Of course, I read all the women’s memoirs and letters and any piece of correspondence I could find that mentioned them,” Abbott said.
After that, is when the fun began.
“You start going into the archives and looking for boxes and folders and you never know what’s going to be in the next box or the next folder and it’s like a detective search. It’s the biggest thrill for me.”
One of her favorite bits of research that she came across was the fact that about 400 women disguised themselves as men in order to join the war effort.
“Just the way they were able to get away with it was astounding to me and basically the reason they got away with it was because nobody could fathom what a woman would look like wearing pants,” Abbott said. “The idea of seeing women in trousers was so unfathomable nobody could even believe it could be a woman. It was so telling of the time and a remarkable bit of history.”
When “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” hits book stands, Abbott hopes readers will be transported to the time period of the book.
“I want them to feel like they’re in the Civil War with these women and maybe sort of eavesdropping along with Belle (Boyd) as she has her ear to the floor listening to the war council,” Abbott said. “And also just appreciate the role these women had.”
While there were the memoirs and diaries written by the women spies and academic biographies of them that helped Abbott’s research, she hopes the book can bring a little bit more to this part of history.
“I think there was a good foundation but hopefully I added some color and some details and some intrigue to what’s already out there,” Abbott said.
What’s next for Abbott is still in the formative stages but she does have an idea that’s a little different from what’s she done before: a novel.
“It’s based on a true story so I can’t entirely let go of my love of history and fact, but it’s the story of a woman who was a fraud in New York society for years and how that catches up with her during the gilded age. I’m in the very beginnings of it but I like the idea of just trying something new.”