As part of Bas Bleu’s 2016 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
We’ve been fans of author Amy Stewart for years; when Bas Bleu featured her book The Drunken Botanist, she even created a cocktail just for us—the delicious Bluestocking’s Crush. So of course we snatched up her debut novel, Girl Waits With Gun, as soon as it hit our shelves. A fictional take on the true story of America’s first female deputy sheriff, this novel has it all: nuanced characters, family secrets, mystery, gangsters, humor, danger…and, yes, one amazing girl with a gun. Recently, Amy took a break from her busy national book tour to talk about her heroine Constance Kopp, separating fact from fiction, and even her take on the 1910s cocktail the Automobile.
Bas Bleu: How did you meet Constance Kopp?
Amy Stewart: It started when I was researching a gin smuggler named Henry Kaufman for my last book, The Drunken Botanist. I wondered what else this Henry Kaufman might have gotten up to when he wasn’t smuggling gin, so I poked around in the New York Times’s archives until I found a 1915 article about a man with the same name who was convicted of harassing and threatening three sisters: Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp. The trial capped a year-long ordeal in which the sisters faced kidnapping threats, had shots fired at their house, and survived an arson attempt.
I couldn’t leave those sisters alone. Before long I found lively headlines, fabulous photographs, and a dashing sheriff who came to their aid. He issued revolvers to the Kopps, taught them to shoot, and enlisted the help of the oldest sister, Constance, in catching and convicting their attacker. This was not ordinary behavior for a woman of 1915! I knew right away that I’d found an amazing story, and that I’d have to write a novel about these women.
BB: Your previously published books have all been nonfiction. Yet you chose a real person as the protagonist of your first novel. Why? How do you decide when to chase down the truth and when to create a new truth? Were there any facts from the Kopps’ story you elected not to use in the novel?
AS: Well, I didn’t choose the Kopps in the sense that I was not just looking around for a subject for a novel and chose them from among several candidates. I stumbled across this story and wanted very much to tell it. I knew right away that it should be a novel, and not just one novel, but a series, all based on their many amazing real-life adventures.
Part of my reason for wanting to tell it as fiction is that I wanted to write this book in Constance’s voice, not in Amy Stewart’s voice. I also wanted to fill in all the gaps in the historical record. I don’t know what they talked about at home, or what they thought about what was happening to them, or why people did the things they did. There are months that go by when I don’t know what happened. Fiction lets me answer those questions.
Also, I wanted this to be a genuinely fun read. If I’d written it as nonfiction, people would have felt like they were reading a biography, or something a little more serious and history-driven. I wanted this to be that book you’d absolutely love taking on a plane for a long flight. I wanted it to be all about entertainment.
BB: Why do you think the real-life Kopp case was so sensational? It made the New York Times!
AS: I wondered about that too, and then I read enough newspapers from that era to realize that anytime a woman did anything at all unusual, it made the papers. I found an article about two women who were going to run a foot race. Seriously, two women decided to go outdoors and run really fast, and that was interesting and unusual enough to make the papers!
There was a little bit of mockery implied in some of these stories. Anytime newspapers ran a story about a “lady cop” or a “lady photographer” or anything like that, there was always a bit of subtle sexism, a tone of “Oh, look at what this silly woman is doing.” I don’t hit that note too hard in the book, but it’s probably obvious to readers that the Kopp sisters were moving around in a world very different from ours.
BB: If Constance’s mother was still alive when the accident happened, do you think the sisters would have responded to Kaufman in the same way?
AS: Actually, in real life, Constance’s mother was alive. I included a section in the back of the book where I let readers know what I changed about their real story. In this case, it was honestly too hard to figure out how to write four female characters under one roof! It was above my pay grade. I killed their mother off a few years early to make my job easier. Sorry, Mrs. Kopp!
I know from actual interviews with Constance that her mother definitely did not approve of Constance pursuing an education or a career, so I have to assume that she would not have been happy about what was going on.
BB: Kaufman’s treatment of the sisters is pretty frightening. Yet his reign of terror serves to release Constance, introducing her to possibilities within herself even she may not have been aware of. Could Constance have “broken free” in a less dramatic situation, say if Kaufman had been more quickly cowed by law enforcement?
AS: I wonder about that. I don’t want to give too much away about the ending, but as you know, Constance’s life went in a completely new and different direction thanks to this dramatic year she had, and the way she stepped up when her family was attacked. Remember, this is 1915, and World War I is coming. A lot of women’s lives changed as a result of that war. For the first time, women were out of the house, working, and living on their own as single unmarried women. Maybe that shows that it does take something pretty dramatic to change women’s lives.
BB: If you could sit down at the kitchen table with the Kopp sisters, what would you all talk about? What burning questions have you been harboring that you’d love to ask them?
AS: Well, there is a family secret at the heart of this novel that I don’t want to give away. But obviously, I’d like to ask Constance about that! I know some of the facts because I uncovered them during my research, but there is so much more I’d like to know about exactly what happened.
And I’m very interested in Constance’s relationship with Sheriff Heath. He saw something in her that no one else saw. But I also think—and you’ll see this in future books in the series—that their relationship was not always easy. I’m having to fill in a lot of gaps there, and I’d love to know what really happened.
BB: We know from experience that you’re something of a whiz with a cocktail shaker. Any chance you’ve whipped up a stiff drink inspired by Girl Waits With Gun?
There is! When I was on tour for The Drunken Botanist, I found that book tour events and book club meetings are a lot more fun when cocktails are served! So I decided to create a cocktail that pairs perfectly with Girl Waits with Gun.
The Automobile is a cocktail dating to the 1910s that combines equal parts Scotch, gin, and sweet vermouth. Honestly, it’s a bit hard to take, as were most automobiles in the 1910s, judging from the Kopps’ experience with them. I swapped the Scotch for applejack to give it a New Jersey attitude, added jam for a little sweetness, and topped it off with Champagne, which I believe Fleurette would have been very much in favor of if only Constance would’ve allowed it.
The New Jersey Automobile (Serves two)
½ oz applejack
½ oz gin
½ oz sweet vermouth
½ oz blackberry jam
4 oz sparkling wine
Combine first four ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake well over ice. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and divide between two champagne coupes. Top with two ounces sparkling wine.
To mix for a crowd, combine equal parts of first four ingredients ahead of time and stir with ice, then strain through a fine sieve to remove the ice and bits of jam. When guests arrive, pour one ounce of the mixture into each glass and top with two ounces sparkling wine.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?
AS: I love all of Sara Gran’s books. Her Claire DeWitt series, about a seriously messed-up young female detective, is so thrilling and wonderful. And her novel Dope made my hair stand on end. I’m also a huge fan of everything Megan Abbott does, particularly her female-driven noir novels like Queenpin and The Song Is You.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
AS: You know, I read all the books everybody read if they were a kid in the seventies: Judy Blume, Madeleine L’Engle, Nancy Drew, and Agatha Christie. I did read a lot of poetry when I was a kid (and wrote poetry), so I probably memorized more Byron and Wordsworth than the average sixth-grader. Other than that, I was just a voracious reader, reading all the same books all the other voracious readers my age were.
BB: What future projects can readers look forward to seeing from you? Will we encounter Constance again? (Fingers crossed!)
AS: Oh yes! Much more to come from the Kopp sisters, all based on their real lives. Stay tuned!
BB: Our thanks to Amy for chatting with us today…and for bringing a dame like Constance back to life!