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Monday, September 30, 2013

An Author Responds
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 era?
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 since. 

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. 

LB: 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 it!
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!
1:22 pm edt          Comments

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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Miss Elmira's Secret Treasure: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
Colonial Theatre: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Roarin' 20s 
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Columbia Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill 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

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast


Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood



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 sixth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,