Girl in Disguise: Q&A with Greer Macallister

Greer Macallister (Photo courtesy of Sourcebooks Landmark)

Several years ago, Greer Macallister’s debut novel, The Magician’s Life, was featured in the Bas Bleu catalog. Our reviewer was enchanted by Macallister’s imaginative tale of a famed female illusionist accused of murder, so we jumped at the chance to read her second novel, Girl in Disguise, as soon as an advance copy arrived in our office. Told from the point of view of the first female Pinkerton agent, Macallister’s novel offers a glimpse into what was an unusual trade even for a man—and a virtually unheard of life for a woman. Recently, we were fortunate to chat with the author about her trailblazing heroine, the challenges of making up stories about real people, and her film-adaptation casting dreams.

Bas Bleu: Your novel Girl in Disguise is a fictional account of the life of Kate Warne, the first female agent of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. How did you discover Kate? Why did you choose her to be the subject of your second novel?

Greer Macallister: I ran across a mention of Kate online while I was planning my second novel. Nothing big, just that she was the first woman detective in the United States, and that she’d been hired by Allan Pinkerton in 1856. Shortly after that, I was pitching ideas to my editor, and first I outlined a whole big complex novel based on another real-life woman that I’d already written some pages for, and then I said, “Or I could write something about the first female Pinkerton detective.” And she said, “Ooh! Write that.” Because the fact that Kate’s name isn’t better known is kind of stunning when you think about it. She fought crime and solved cases. She helped save Abraham Lincoln’s life en route to his inauguration. Not only was she the first known female detective, she was so good at it that Allan Pinkerton established a bureau of female detectives within the Pinkerton Agency and put her in charge. So I tell people now I’m on the Kate Warne Awareness campaign.

BB: What freedoms and limitations did you anticipate when deciding to write a fictional account of a real person? What unexpected challenges did you encounter during the research and writing stages?

GM: If I were a biographer, I would have been incredibly frustrated to find that the well of information on Kate was so shallow. Thank goodness I’m a novelist! I really didn’t anticipate that the information in the historical record would be so scant. Even in the Pinkerton Agency archives at the Library of Congress, I read everything there was on Kate in less than a day. A lot of their pre-1871 records were wiped out in the Great Chicago Fire. But for a novelist, those gaps turned out to be opportunities. Kate left no letters or diaries, so I gave her a voice. I gave her the personality I think she must have had to do the things she did. I still had a lot of research to do—what types of cases the Pinkerton Agency was working at the time, what it was like to live in Chicago then, what exactly was happening in the lead-up to the Civil War—but within that framework, I had an enormous amount of narrative freedom. It kind of felt like the perfect setup for historical fiction—a little bit of history and a lot of fiction.

BB: One of Kate’s ongoing challenges throughout the novel is her struggle to maintain her sense of self when her work requires her constantly to pretend she is someone else. Did you see some similarities with her situation and your work as a novelist? After all, you do spend your days creating new identities! Is it ever as isolating for you, a writer, as it was for Kate?

GM: It’s funny—when writing my first novel, The Magician’s Lie, I was constantly struck by the similarities between novelists and illusionists. While writing a book about a detective, I noticed just as many similarities between writing fiction and detective work! Creating identities and disappearing inside them is definitely a huge part of it. We writers don’t have quite as much riding on it when things go wrong, that’s the good news—we can always revise and do another draft, and get things to go right again. I do feel sometimes like I live a double life, though, like Kate! There’s my everyday normal life at home with my family, as a wife and mom, and then when I’m out on tour meeting readers, I feel a little like a rock star. On my first tour I met a woman whose boyfriend had surprised her by driving her three hours to meet me. Me! It doesn’t feel real, and in that way I identify with Kate when she doesn’t feel like the identity she’s put on quite fits her, but she lives inside it anyway.

Allan Pinkerton (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

BB: Allan Pinkerton, a native Scotsman, was a cooper (barrel-maker) by trade who—rather unexpectedly—went on to become one of the world’s most famous private investigators. His rise to fame is an impressive one, and yet we don’t hear much about him these days. Why not?

GM: He would be very sad to know he isn’t top of mind these days! He was a relentless self-promoter. In his time he was extremely well-known, and his origin story—stumbling across a counterfeiting ring in the woods while cutting down trees to make barrels—is really incredible. But for better or worse, the agency he founded and gave his name to has had an extremely long life—it even continues to exist today as a security firm. Although in their early history “the Pinkertons” were best-known for doing things generally recognized as positive, like saving Abraham Lincoln’s life and foiling train robberies, later on they got a bad name for strike-breaking and other violence. So his identity as founder of the agency is really inextricable from the agency’s long history, and not everyone has positive feelings about that history.

BB: Kate’s mother tells her “a woman’s family is her legacy.” And yet Kate is one of several female characters in the novel who does not have traditional families…or even traditional lives. So what do you consider to be Kate’s legacy? Or Mrs. Borowski’s? Or Rose Greenhow’s? (If you can answer while also avoiding spoilers!)

GM: I think now we generally recognize that women can make amazing, awesome contributions to society in a whole host of different ways, but that was simply not the case in Kate’s time. Kate’s legacy, the real-life Kate’s, opened doors for other women seeking careers like hers—it took time, obviously, but women were eventually welcomed into law enforcement as more than just prison matrons. And I think today Kate can be considered a role model, which is a huge legacy. The more of these extraordinary stories girls hear, I think the more they realize they, too, can be extraordinary. Mrs. Borowski is a great example of an elective mother figure—she chooses to be a mentor and a nurturer, without being a mother, and that’s a really important role in society we probably don’t recognize enough. Rose’s legacy is fascinating, and to avoid spoilers, I’ll suggest reading up on the real-life Rose, that’s all I can say.

BB: Your debut novel, The Magician’s Lie, has been optioned for the big screen. If you were in charge of casting the film, who would you choose to portray Ada? What about Virgil?

GM: When I was writing the book, I actually had photos of three actors on my computer to go back to when I needed to visualize those characters: Mia Wasikowska as Ada/Arden, Zach Gilford as Virgil, and Matthew Lewis as Clyde. Then someone in an online book club I was visiting mentioned they’d love to see Jessica Chastain as Arden, and a few months later – believe it or not—it was Jessica Chastain’s production company that bought the option! So I think she would be a fantastic Arden, if she decides she wants to play the role herself in addition to producing. Zach Gilford (better known as Matt Saracen from “Friday Night Lights”) would still make a great Virgil, but I recently watched the new Netflix adaptation of “13 Reasons Why”, and I think the actor who played Clay in that—Dylan Minnette—would also blow it away. He does so much with stillness, which Virgil absolutely has to do.

BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?

GM: I’m an eclectic reader and always have been. So Madeleine L’Engle’s books, especially A Wrinkle in Time, were a huge influence on me as a reader and writer – and so was the Sweet Valley High series of teen romances. I read sci-fi, fantasy, romance, classics, poetry, the works. I think there’s always something to learn from any book, regardless of genre. I was lucky to learn that young.

BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?

GM: In historical fiction, I’m a big evangelist for Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, by H.P. Wood, which is a really fabulous, sweeping book, full of lively, complicated characters in a turn-of-the-century Coney Island sideshow. I also really loved Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry and The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker—I guess I really love turn-of-the-century New York! I’ve also really gotten into audiobooks lately. Two that I can’t stop recommending are Not a Sound by Heather Gudenkauf, a great thriller about a hearing-impaired woman who discovers a body, and I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi, which is the most entertaining novel I’ve ever read about the experience of grief.

BB: What future projects can readers look forward to seeing from you?

GM: I’m working on my third book now, and the plan is for that to come out in early 2019. We’re keeping the specifics pretty hush-hush but I can tell you it’s set in San Francisco in 1888 and features another strong woman in extraordinarily challenging circumstances. Unlike Kate, who pretty much starts out fierce and stays that way, my new protagonist is really out of her depth and has to find her strength along the way. So I’m enjoying exploring another personality as well as another time and place. Really, I hope there will be many more books after this, and that my readers and I both have a lot to look forward to.

BB: Thank you, Greer, for your time and insight. We’ll let you get back to your writing…so your readers can look forward to your next novel!

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