Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Conversation with Amy Stewart - Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit

A Conversation with Amy Stewart
Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit

This is the fourth book you’ve written about Constance Kopp, a real-life deputy sheriff who worked in Hackensack in the 1910s. Is it also based on actual events, or have you run out of historical records?

I actually had more real-life cases than I could use this time around! This novel takes place in fall 1916. Constance had been a deputy sheriff for over a year, and many of the cases she worked on were written up for the papers, which gave me lots of material. I did shift the time frame around, moving cases from the spring to the fall so that I could put together a sequence that better suited the shape of a novel.

This novel takes place in the fall of 1916, which was an election season, both for Sheriff Heath and, on a national level, for President. Did you see any parallels between the politics of 1916 and 2016?

More than I would’ve liked! It was a complete coincidence that I started to write this novel the day after the election. That just happened to be the first day I was free to put aside my other obligations and begin a new book. After the election, I woke up to a very different world than the one I’d been expecting. I didn’t want to do any kind of work, but I thought it might distract me. I dragged myself upstairs to my office and sat down with all my notes about Constance Kopp's real life. Suddenly, those actual events looked very different. What I had before me was a true story about a woman doing a man's job who was the target of vicious, misogynist attacks during a contentious election year. I'm always thinking about the parallels between the Kopps' world a hundred years ago and today, but that was more apparent than ever this time. It’s subtle—you won’t have to re-live the 2016 campaign if you read the novel—but if you’re looking for the similarities, you’ll find them.

Was the title inspired by election year politics?

Believe it or not, that’s a real headline about Constance! But yes, there’s definitely an echo of “Nevertheless, she persisted” in that title.

One of Constance’s cases involves Anna Kayser, a woman who might’ve been wrongly committed to a mental institution. What kind of recourse did women have in a situation like that?

Very little. Most women in 1916 wouldn’t have had the money to hire their own attorney and fight a commitment, and even if they did, they might not have been able to find a lawyer willing to take the case. By the 1910s, the laws protecting the rights of patients were starting to change, but slowly.

What drew me to Anna Kayser’s story was one line in the newspaper article about the night Constance was sent to take her to the asylum: the papers reported that “some difficulty was encountered” when Constance showed up to take her away. I’m sure some difficulty would be encountered if the police showed up to take me to an asylum, too! That led me to speculating on exactly why Anna Kayser fought so hard to stay home. I don’t know the real reason for her commitment, but I used another real-life case of a woman in her situation to fill in the gaps.

Anna Kayser was committed to Morris Plains, which was later called Greystone, in Morris Plains, NJ. The building was just torn down a few years ago. What kind of research were you able to do about the institution?

Fortunately, the Morris Plains asylum was widely covered in the papers at the time, and several reports about the institution from those days have been digitized and are available online. I was also very happy to find the book Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, by Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews, which is filled with pictures and useful captions. My description of the women’s ward very much comes from photos of the place. That building was a stunning piece of architecture, and it’s such a tragedy that it was demolished.

Postpartum depression and menopause both come up as reasons why a woman might be put in an institution, but they are never mentioned by name. Was that true to the time period?

Yes, absolutely. Postpartum depression was called “puerperal insanity” and covered everything from psychosis to mild depression. Doctors weren’t in agreement on the diagnosis, much less the treatment. Women were usually sedated, force-fed, given enemas, confined to their room with no visitors (particularly their newborn baby, because doctors thought they might hurt the child), or put in asylums. Hysterectomies were also a common treatment. I found one instance of a doctor who routinely threatened to cut off women’s hair if they didn’t comply with his treatment. This was before the era of women bobbing their hair, so this would’ve been a massive humiliation.

In the case of menopause, there was really nothing in the way of treatment and no understanding of the symptoms. Doctors weren’t even sure when menopause began, or what exactly it was, other than the cessation of menstruation. Hot flashes, sleeplessness, anxiety, and an unwillingness or inability to have sex all looked like symptoms of mental illness. Even worse, most women didn’t know to expect it and didn’t understand what was happening to them. 

Constance also serves as a kind of probation officer, carrying out home visits to girls and women who were accused of very minor crimes. Was this a common job duty for women in law enforcement in the 1910s?

This was a very modern, cutting-edge idea for its time. Judges just didn’t know what to do with all the girls appearing in their courtrooms under charges of waywardness, incorrigibility, and moral degradation. In fact, what they were seeing was a very vocal and visible generation of young women who didn’t want to live under their parents’ control until the day they were married (and would then live under their husband’s control). Girls were being arrested for crimes like staying out late, going
on dates, or refusing to obey their parents. These cases were becoming so common that courts were overwhelmed. A few innovative cities, including Oakland, CA, created “girls’ delinquency courts” with women judges to figure out alternatives to jail. The Bergen County Sheriff’s Department gave me a photo of a 1915-era document that shows a count of girls who have been paroled, so on that basis I imagined Constance overseeing a program like this. 

Constance’s sisters, Norma and Fleurette, are both eager to visit a Plattsburg camp for their own reasons. This part of the story is fictional, but what drew your interest to those camps?

The so-called “Plattsburg camps” were amateur training camps for men who wanted to join the military as soon as the United States entered World War I. Before the war, we were operating with a very small army and navy. The camps were seen as a way to give men a general introduction to the idea of military life, and to build a list of eager volunteers who could be called upon when needed. 

The Kopp sisters make a brief excursion to one of these camps, led by Fleurette, who wants to perform there. In real life, a vaudeville manager named Freeman Bernstein, who readers will recognize from earlier books, was booking acts at these camps, so that’s my excuse to get them there. I’m also setting up the fifth book in the series, which takes place in the final month before the United States enters the war. 

What’s coming next for the Kopps?
By the end of Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit, you’ll know! Unfortunately, I have very little information about what they were up to in 1917, so the fifth book relies much more on fiction. But I’m putting them in a real environment, and I’m introducing another real-life character whose story is so fascinating that she threatens to take over the entire novel. Her story happens to have some parallels to the #MeToo movement, so once again, current events are working their way into a novel set a century ago. 

About the Books
Girl Waits with Gun
Constance Kopp doesn’t quite fit the mold. She towers over most men, has no interest in marriage or domestic affairs, and has been isolated from the world since a family secret sent her and her sisters into hiding fifteen years ago. One day a belligerent and powerful Paterson, New Jersey silk factory owner runs down their buggy, and a dispute over damages turns into a war of bricks, bullets, and threats as he unleashes his gang on their family farm. When the Bergen County sheriff enlists her help in convicting the men, Constance is forced to confront her past and defend her family - and she does it in a way that few women of 1914 would have dared.

Lady Cop Makes Trouble
After besting (and arresting) a ruthless silk factory owner and his gang of thugs in Girl Waits with Gun, Constance Kopp became one of the nation’s first deputy sheriffs. She's proven that she can’t be deterred, evaded, or outrun. But when the wiles of a German-speaking con man threaten her position and her hopes for this new life, and endanger the honorable Sheriff Heath, Constance may not be able to make things right.

Lady Cop Makes Trouble sets Constance loose on the streets of New York City and New Jersey - tracking down victims, trailing leads, and making friends with girl reporters and lawyers at a hotel for women. Cheering her on, and goading her, are her sisters Norma and Fleurette - that is, when they aren't training pigeons for the war effort or fanning dreams of a life on the stage.

Based on a true story, Girl Waits with Gun introduced Constance Kopp and her charming and steadfast sisters to an army of enthusiastic readers. Those readers will be thrilled by this second installment - also ripped from the headlines - in the romping, wildly readable life of a woman forging her own path, tackling crime and nefarious criminals along the way.

Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions
Constance Kopp is back - with a badge and a taste for justice. She has finally earned her deputy sheriff’s badge and is ready to tackle a new kind of case: defending independent young women brought into the Hackensack jail on dubious charges of waywardness, incorrigibility, and moral depravity. Such were the laws - and morals - of 1916.

Constance uses her authority as deputy sheriff, and occasionally exceeds it, to investigate and support these women when no one else will. But it’s her sister Fleurette - who runs away from their sleepy farm to join the glamorous world of vaudeville - who puts Constance’s beliefs to the test. Is there a wayward girl in her own family.

Set against the backdrop of World War I and drawn from the true story of the Kopp sisters, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions is a spirited, page-turning story that will delight fans of historical fiction and lighthearted detective fiction alike.

Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit
After a year on the job, New Jersey’s first female deputy sheriff has collared criminals, demanded justice for wronged women, and gained notoriety nationwide for her exploits. But on one stormy night, everything falls apart.

While transporting a woman to an insane asylum, Deputy Kopp discovers something deeply troubling about her story. Before she can investigate, another inmate bound for the asylum breaks free and tries to escape.

In both cases, Constance runs instinctively toward justice. But the fall of 1916 is a high-stakes election year, and any move she makes could jeopardize Sheriff Heath’s future - and her own. Although Constance is not on the ballot, her controversial career makes her the target of political attacks.

About the Author
Amy Stewart is the New York Times best-selling author of ten books, including Girl Waits with Gun and the rest of the Kopp Sisters series, which are based on the true story of one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs and her two rambunctious sisters. The books are in development with Amazon Studios for a television series. Her popular nonfiction titles include The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential. While they have not been adapted for television, there are a few bars around the world named after The Drunken Botanist, which is even better.

She lives in Portland with her husband Scott Brown, a rare book dealer. They own an independent bookstore called Eureka Books, which is so independent that it lives in California while they live in Oregon.

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