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Monday, September 30, 2013
An Author Responds
1:22 pm edt
One whole upper shelf of one of my larger bookcases in my upstairs
library is dedicated to the novels of Jennifer Chiaverini. One reason is because she is "tops" as a writer, another
is because she is so prolific! Her Elm Creek Quilt series alone tops twenty volumes--with more to come, I understand. And
that doesn't include all the associated "how-to-books" so treasured by quilters around the world. Each one of her
works, both fiction and non-fiction, is a collectable master work of erudite, enjoyable writing. In the past year, however,
Jennifer has branch out, up, and away from the world of quilting into the genre of "hardcore" historic literature,
gracing it with her first entry, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel , which hit the best seller lists this summer and which I had the honor of reviewing both for this blog and for www.authorexposure.com.
Tomorrow, her second major historical novel, The Spymistress, will be released to and, I hope, received by a reading audience just as eager as I was to read this exceptional rendition
of the life of an exceptional woman authored by an exceptional writer. While reading this story about Unionist spy Elizabeth
Van Lew, I posed a few questions to Jennifer. Extracts of the interview are included in my review on www.authorexposure.com, but I wanted my followers in order to get a better feel for the novel to "hear" all her responses.
LB: What has drawn you to writing about historical figures from the Civil War
JC: The Civil War era was a tumultuous and transformative period for our nation, showing
the best and worst of humanity in stark contrast. Looking back, we discover great moral failings alongside true heroism in
the struggle for justice, equality, and freedom. My personal heroes are people who face adversity with moral courage and dignity,
whose hunger for justice and compassion for others lead them to stand up for what is right even at great risk to themselves.
My favorite characters to write about either possess similar qualities, or are given the opportunity to summon up these qualities
and do what is right but fall short. What the Civil War says about our country—that we are capable of both great moral
failings and tremendous goodness—resonates strongly even today, and as a creative person, I am drawn to explore and
try to understand that conflict.
LB: The Spymistress is a straight-forward,
candid approach to the life of Elizabeth Van Lew. She certainly comes across as a woman who was quite willful and had a lot
of “true grit” and spunk. How did you discover her and what attracted you to write about her?J
JC: I first discovered this remarkable woman while researching an earlier historical novel, The Union Quilters. One of my characters, a regimental surgeon in the Union army, was captured at Gettysburg,
and when I investigated where he likely would have been taken, all paths led to Richmond and to Libby Prison. Every account
I read of that notorious prison mentioned Elizabeth Van Lew and the astonishing, audacious risks she took on behalf of the
Union captives there, and I was compelled to include her in The Union Quilters,
and although her appearance was brief, she played a significant role. Even as I wrote her chapter, I was convinced that she
was so remarkable, so heroic, that she really deserved an entire book of her own. I’ve wanted to write her story ever
LB: It is evident that you did extensive research. How much
of this novel is fiction? How much of the actual facts have you embellished? For example, hiding the Van Lew’s
beloved horse--as I mentioned--in the study was a stroke of genius. Your idea or Lizzie’s? How do you decide what events
in a person’s life to fictionalize?
JC: I relied upon period newspapers,
journals, memoirs, and other primary and secondary sources for my research, but by definition, a novel is fiction and should
not be considered history or biography. I like to say that The Spymistress
is a work of fiction inspired by history. For the sake of the narrative, I’ve omitted some events and people from Elizabeth
Van Lew’s wartime years, even though they appear in the historical record. While many characters appearing in the novel
are based upon historical figures, in some cases two or more individuals have been combined to form a single composite character.
The account of hiding the Van Lews’ horse in their study to save it from conscription appears in Elizabeth Van Lew’s
“Occasional Journal,” an intermittent diary and scrapbook she kept of her wartime experiences.
LB: I really enjoyed how you interwove the historical elements/progress of the Civil War throughout
the book--as if the conflict was also a character in the book. I learned a lot of historical details, especially about
the treatment of war prisoners in the South. Please comment on how you designed the plot line to accommodate these facts...Or
did it just naturally flow from the events in Lizzie’s life?
JC: I structured
the plot of The Spymistress to follow Elizabeth Van Lew’s wartime
experiences, the events of the war, and circumstances within wartime Richmond, but as I mentioned earlier, for the sake of
clarity and flow, I omitted some historical events from my novel. It was simply impossible to include all that Elizabeth Van
Lew did during those tumultuous years within the framework of a single novel.
LB: Is there one major thought, response, item that you wish your readers to come away with after reading The Spymistress?
JC: Readers familiar with Elizabeth Van Lew may wonder why I don’t refer to her as “Crazy Bet,”
as the vast majority of authors who have written about her have done, or why I haven’t portrayed her feigning mental
impairment to divert suspicion. I made this choice because nothing in the historical record during the Civil War and its aftermath
supports this characterization—not her wartime “Occasional Journal,” nor the memoirs of the Union soldiers
she assisted, nor even the writings of her numerous critics. The concept that Elizabeth Van Lew succeeded in her espionage
work because of her ability to disarm her enemies by acting daft first appeared in a Harper’s
Monthly article published in 1911, written eleven years after her death by someone who had never met her. The
author was heavily influenced by a man who had met Elizabeth Van Lew after Reconstruction, when she was in her late sixties
and age, poverty, political troubles, personal heartbreak, and isolation had taken their toll. Unfortunately, the “Crazy
Bet” myth has long overshadowed the truth about Elizabeth Van Lew’s intelligent, deliberate, and dangerous espionage
work, but I hope my novel will help correct that misunderstanding.
And...might I be so bold as to ask what your next novel is about? Whatever it is, I am eagerly looking forward to reading
JC: My next novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival,
will be published in January 2014. It is the story of Kate Chase Sprague, the daughter of President Lincoln’s Secretary
of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase. Beautiful, intelligent, regal, and entrancing, Kate served as her thrice-widowed father’s
official hostess and was his partner in his driving ambition to become president. Soon after they met, Mary Lincoln recognized
in Kate her strongest challenger for the role of the most prominent woman in Washington society, and an intense rivalry was
born. Unfortunately, although Kate and Mary held much in common—political acumen, love of country, and a resolute determination
to help the men they loved achieve greatness—they could never be friends, for they believed that the success of one
could come only at the expense of the other.
Thank you, Jennifer!
J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is
an author, poet, and librettist. Her currenty published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations,
volumes of poetry, stories
for children (of all ages) and
a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville
during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members
of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A
Collection of More Spiritual Poems
We Three Kings
Beauty and the Beast
Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding
Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She
is currently working on her fourth novel.