June 18, 2008

A Conversation with Karen Abbott

My friend Karen Abbott and I are both gonna be supporting the Margaret Mitchell House by attending the Georgia Author Book Bash with a BUNCHA other coolio writers---You can see the whole list by following the link. You come, too.

You remember Sin in the Second City right? Hee. It is Karen's first book, the New York Times best-selling tale about the Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history. And it is now fresh, hot and delicious out in paperback. The book follows the twisty lives of Ada and Minna Everleigh, the clubs, ahem, proprieters, and culminates in a dramatic last stand between brothel keepers and crusading reformers. WHEE. The New York Times Book Review said, "Delicious... poetic... Sin in the Second City is a lush love letter to the underworld."

I tried to do three questions with her, but could not shut up. SO. Here is the conversation:

Joshilyn: I remember going to one of your FIRST events on tour, and there was this PERVY and rather MOIST looking fellow sitting front and center who looked like he spent your entire presentation – even the SLIDE SHOW--- praying to the dark gods to give him EYE STALKS so he could pop those google-y objects out and jam them right down the front of your shirt. And then when you took questions, his hand came ROARING UP, and he said, “How did you research prostitution? Books and Google? Or did you, you know, go under cover, you know, and EXPERIENCE anything, like, you know, have EXPERIENCES where you would actually …experience things?”

I was sitting with Anna and I started jabbing my elbow into her and hissing, “ZOMGAH, Did he just ask her if she was a HARLOT? DID HE? DID HEEEEE?” And indeed, he had!
You were VERY collected about the whole thing. You said something like, “This is historical non-fiction sir. It takes place about 100 years ago, so in order to do what you are suggesting, the first thing I would need would be a time machine…” Anna and I were DYING.

But, his pervy ARE YOU AN ENORMOUS TROLLOP? CHEAP? OR SPENDY? DO YOU TAKE AMEX? implications aside, one of my favorite things about the book is the way you make these long dead people and places come alive. How DID you do the research?

Karen: My background is in journalism, and this is the first time I ever wrote anything historical-based. I’m used to interviewing live people, trying to coax answers to questions they don’t always want to answer, picking up clues in the pauses. For SIN, with the exception of one interview with the Everleigh sisters’ great niece, I did all of my research in musty old libraries and historical societies.

It was like learning a different language, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Ernest Bell, a minister who wages war against the Everleigh sisters, has an amazing collection at the Chicago History Museum. There are hundreds of letters, minutes from meetings, pamphlets warning people about the dangers of prostitution (including gruesome images of men suffering from advanced syphilitic infections) and really personal effects: wallets, leather diaries, medicine bottles. It was a visceral, personal thing, like I was rummaging through his pants pockets.

I especially loved Madam Vic Shaw’s collection at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Vic Shaw was the Everleigh sisters’ main rival, and one of my favorite characters in the book. She’s so over-the-top wicked, a caricature in many ways, and I can’t believe she actually existed.


Joshilyn: What do you think of your cover? I wish I had those lace lounge pants…

Karen: I ADORE this cover. I know the cover can make or break a book, and I felt really lucky getting something that so clearly represented SIN not only in subject matter, but also in tone and mood. The woman is a true-life prostitute from the turn of the century, so it’s an image of someone who actually lived the things I’m writing about: beatings from professional “whippers” kept on staff at many whorehouses, exams from charlatan doctors, shady costumers, scheming madams, crooked politicians, all of it. I love the expression on her face: it’s knowing and wise, a bit salacious, but with a whiff of vulnerability. I look at her and wonder how she ended up where she was. I wondered that often about the Everleigh sisters themselves, and those questions drove me to try to find out the truth behind those mysterious madams.

Joshilyn: Can you talk a little about the significance of your title and how you came up with it?

Karen: My original title was WHORES AT WAR—

Joshilyn: Oh! Wait! Is that because of that CONCIERGE in San Francisco?

Karen: No. What? What concierge in San Francisco?

Joshilyn: YOU REMEMBER! Me and Jill met him when I was out there for gods in Alabama, and this concierge told us another writer was staying at the same hotel. I asked him what her book was about and he said, “It’s about the whores of war.” And I said, “The whores of war?” And he said, “Yes, you know, the whores of war.” And Jill started giggling and I was like, “You mean she writes, like, "World War II's Greatest Tricks????" And Jill lost it and gasped out, “HORRORS, Joshilyn. THE HORRORS of War.” But he was a native Californian and they talk funny.

Karen: People in glass houses, Georgia.

Joshilyn: I suggest you set down that STONE you are about throw, PHILADELPHIA.

Karen: Touche. But no. Completely unrelated to that concierge, I called it Whores at War in my head. I can't imagine why the marketing people at Random House nixed it!

Joshilyn: Me either! Why, it’s almost as marketable a title as… “40 Dead Horses.” Yish,I am LIVING in a glass house.

Karen: My editor came up with SIN IN THE SECOND CITY, which I think is really fitting and has the right cadence—always important with regard to titles, both fiction and nonfiction. I consider SIN a national book, though. The action originates in Chicago, but has immediate and serious repercussions across the country. The Chicago politicians during this time period changed American history, basically spurring the FBI to become the massive federal legal arm it is today.

Joshilyn: Remember for a while in writing group we were calling it “Getting Everleighed.” HEE.

Karen: Yeah. Random House nixed that, too.

Joshilyn: I can’t IMAGINE why…

ANYWAY, it is an AWESOME book…You can get it all the usual places—I linked to one place above---but if you want a signed copy, you can call my friends at the ALABAMA BOOKSMITH. SHe was just there and they have some signed stock.

TO ORDER: (205) 870-4242

Posted by joshilyn at June 18, 2008 6:18 PM

FABULOUS book. Absolutely DELICIOUS. Get one today!!

-Sara Gruen

Posted by: Sara at June 18, 2008 6:40 PM

i saw and sampled the hardcover, can't wait to read it now that it's in pb

Posted by: becky at June 18, 2008 6:55 PM

your first interview question had me blowing repressed laughter out my nose.... i really should not read this blog on work time... :-)

Posted by: eden at June 18, 2008 8:04 PM

I LOVED this book. It puts you so up close and personal with the Everleigh Sisters that you'll wish you'd had the privilege of knowing them. Do you think your publisher would have nixed the title "Sex in the City"? Funny how anything is possible with some big stars and a little marketing!

Posted by: Kim at June 18, 2008 10:27 PM

Y'all (or youse) are too kind. Thank you...

Posted by: Karen Abbott at June 18, 2008 10:32 PM

THANK YOU for the reminder. I hear about so many books I want to read, and I'm constantly making lists and losing them.

And thanks too for reminding me about that "Whores of War" story. *snort*

Posted by: Aimee at June 19, 2008 10:39 AM

I JUST bought the paperback on Saturday and am thoroughly enjoying it at the moment! Coincidence? I don't THINK SO!

Posted by: Marlaroo at June 19, 2008 11:35 AM

The writing is so vivid that you can almost smell Chicago and picture the people walking along the streets. It makes me wonder if Karen used a time machine to do her research.

Posted by: Elizabeth at June 20, 2008 11:46 AM

I have far too many Whores/Horrors moments in my life being a native Californian now living in North Carolina. It's always good for a giggle once you figure out what they're trying to say down here.
I'm flying to Alabama tomorrow. Off to Quail Ridge Books to pik up Sin in the Second City. Not only will it be great reading - but should cause quiet a stir within the small-town bible-belt thumpers I'll be visiting. Wheee!

Posted by: Mittany at June 21, 2008 9:13 AM

Hi Joshilyn!

Thanks so much for your mention of GABB. We look forward to seeing you and Karen this Sunday at the Margaret Mitchell House.

BTW, I LOVE your blog!!

Sarah @ MMH

Posted by: Sarah Dollacker at June 23, 2008 10:44 AM