Interview with NYTBS Author Karen Abbott: Why She’s a Better Writer Than Lifeguard

I’ve been hinting at it for weeks now.  And the day is finally here!  I’m so pleased to welcome New York Times Bestselling Author Karen Abbott as a Featured Writer on the Happiness Project.

Karen is author of the historical nonfiction hits, Sin in the Second City and American Rose.  Now, I’m a big fan of history as it is, but if you ask me, Karen has some of the coolest stuff around illustrating her research and her passion for this genre!  Her websites are some of my all time favorites!  There’s KarenAbbott.net, SinInTheSecondCity.com, and AmericanRoseTheBook.com.  Just look at her book trailer for American Rose!  She’s got blurbs from authors Kathryn Stockett (The Help) and Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.)

Before I reach total fangirl overload, I better let you meet Karen for yourselves.

*****

Describe yourself in three words.

12th House Pluto (it’s an astrological aspect in my natal chart–I’m a bit of an astrology buff). But if you read the descriptions it’s very fitting… 
Tell us about your first job.

I was a lifeguard for a small pool at an apartment complex when I was in high school. I was easily the worst lifeguard ever–more interested in reading and tanning than in potentially saving lives. I got fired after a resident called to complain that I was “rotating with the sun.” My first real job (in journalism) was as a listings editor at a weekly newspaper in Philadelphia. 
What led you into journalism?
I’d always wanted to be a lawyer, but during my junior year I got an internship at Philadelphia magazine, and fell in love with journalism. I worked as a journalist in Philly for six years before trying my hand at book-length narrative nonfiction.
How’d you come across the story of Ada and Minna Everleigh?  
As a journalist in Philadelphia, I wrote about crime, murder, sex, shady politics, and plenty of characters with charismatic sleaze—but never about history. My interest in the past began with a piece of family lore: in 1905, my great-grandmother and her sister emigrated to America from Ljubljana, Slovenia. One weekend the sister boarded a train for Chicago and was never heard from again. On a whim, I began going through that year’s archives of the Chicago Tribune, and stumbled upon the murder of department store scion Marshall Field Jr. When I read the rumor that he’d been shot in a luxurious brothel called the Everleigh Club, I forgot all about my missing relative and started researching the Club’s enigmatic proprietors, sisters Minna and Ada Everleigh, and the national culture war that erupted when a motley crew of reformers tried to shut them down.

Ada and Minna Everleigh

You must have had an amazing time doing research!  What kinds of fun places did you go?

One of my favorite collections was at the University of Illinois at Chicago–it’s called the “Lawrence J. Gutter Collection of Chicagoana,” and it includes the “Vic Shaw Family Album.” (Vic Shaw was another madam in the Levee district and the Everleigh sisters’ greatest nemesis; she tried to frame them twice for murder.) The album features a picture of Vic Shaw’s “whipper”–the person in charge of disciplining the prostitutes. Her name was “Lil the Whipper” and she looked more like a prim headmistress than a savage enforcer: hair in a bun, horn-rimmed glasses, thin, tight-lipped smile. But the caption beneath reads: “Lil the Whipper: Beat 1,000 prostitutes bloody.” Apparently it was a badge of honor. 
I’m convinced the Everleigh sisters were feminists of their day!  What do you think made them so successful?

I think both the sisters and Gypsy Rose Lee tapped into a fundamental element of human nature: we’re always going to want most what we can’t have. The sisters, for example, were the first cathouse proprietors to apply the inverse formula for success: The more difficult it is to gain entry to an establishment, the greater the number of people who vie to do so. And Gypsy, of course, because famous for being the “Intellectual Stripper” whose act was more tease than strip. I first became intrigued by Gypsy from a story my grandmother told me. Her cousin went to see Gypsy perform in 1935. “She took fifteen minutes to peel off a glove,” the cousin reportedly said, “and she was so damn good at it I would’ve gladly give her fifteen more.” Who else but Gypsy could make the simple act of peeling off a glove so compelling that one would be willing to watch it for a full half hour? 

Gypsy Rose Lee

You made the city of Chicago just as much a character as the Everleigh sisters.  How did you go about defining place so descriptively in your book?

I’d never been to Chicago before I began researching Sin in the Second City, but I fell in love with the city right away. I spent countless hours in the historical society and the library, going through archives and old newspapers. I also walked around the city, looking for locations I mention in the book. The former address of the Everleigh Club is now the site of the Hillard Homes, a public housing project.
You’re also a contributing writer for the Smithsonian.  How’d you get involved with them?

They approached my friend, author Mike Dash, who writes really fantastic, incredibly researched historical narrative nonfiction. They needed another blogger, and he very kindly suggested me. I really enjoy writing for them. It gives me a chance to explore little pockets of forgotten history that would probably never work as a full-length book. 

Your newest book tells the story of burlesque sensation, Gypsy Rose Lee.  You were able to actually connect with both her son, Erik Preminger, and her sister, June Havoc.  What was that like?  (See full story here.)

Erik was really generous with his time and insights, telling me anecdotes that had never been published before. For example, Gypsy’s memoir contains a scene in which her mother accidentally shoots a cow while they’re camping. Erik implied that it wasn’t actually a cow at all but someone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time… And talking with June Havoc was like time traveling back to the 1920s. The first time I met her she was 96 and had been bedridden for years; I couldn’t imagine how frustrating it must’ve been for someone who had been dancing since the age of two to lose the use of her legs. She had her white hair done up in these little pigtails and was eating her favorite snack of Oreos and milk. She was still gorgeous but fierce; I had the feeling that, if she were so inclined, she could leap up from that bed and strangle me with her bare hands. She shared many stories about her relationship with Gypsy–they were sort of death bed confessions. I was the last person to interview her before she died, and it was truly an honor. 


Were you nervous to write about such legendary women – the Everleighs and Gypsy?


There are always moments when I feel like the project is impossible. I think it’s inevitable for any writer. Some days you just wake up and feel like a fraud.
What was most rewarding about depicting these women’s prodigious lives?

Bringing them back to life, even for just a little while. I wish I’d been able to live their lives, but writing about them is the next best thing. 
You’ve achieved every writer’s dream – New York Times Bestselling Status! What was your first thought when that happened?

My editor immediately called me and just said one word, “Bask.” I tried to do that as best as I could, but I’m not a natural bask-er. I did have some champagne, though–before noon!–and got the page framed.
 
How do you stay up to date on our rapidly changing industry?

When I’m in the midst of drafting a book, I try to unplug from that as much as possible. If I get too caught up in the business aspect of publishing, I just end up obsessing over things I can’t control. The book is the only thing I can control. 
What writers/bloggers are you currently following?

I’m immersed in Civil War material–just finished 1861 by Adam Goodheart. It’s a fascinating, multi-layered perspective of the first year of the war. 
What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

This, from novelist (and fellow former Philly journalist) Jennifer Weiner: Write to please yourself. Tell the story that’s been growing in your heart, the characters you can’t keep out of your head, the tale that speaks to you, that pops into your head during your daily commute, that wakes you up in the morning. Don’t write something just because you think it will sell. Tell the story you want to tell, and don’t give up. 
What writers have you met on your career that have been the most inspiring?
Probably Erica Jong. She’s brilliant, a feminist icon, and also so warm and supportive and generous. The Everleigh sisters and Gypsy would’ve loved her. Also Erik Larson. Knowledgable about journalism, history, and the best way to make a martini. 

What do you feel has been your biggest accomplishment to date?


Professionally, hitting the printed New York Times bestseller list. Personally, managing to keep my husband (and college sweetheart) around for 16 years…
What’s next on your goal list?

Currently I’m trying to polish up a draft of the year 1862. One of my spies has just been arrested. Another, disguised as a man and serving in the Union army, is falling in love with a fellow soldier. 
What’s the best joke you know?

I found this joke while researching American Rose. When NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia called burlesque “entertainment for morons and perverts” he was referring not only to striptease, but also to burlesque comedy. Here’s an example of a typical burlesque joke (warning: it’s neither lewd nor funny!) 


MAN: Baby, when are you gonna marry me? 

WOMAN: I can’t marry you–it’s Lent!

MAN: Well can’t you get it back for a few days? 

*cue groaning* 

In the 1980s, shortly before he died, burlesque impresario Morton Minsky wrote a letter to the New York Times saying he wished LaGuardia had lived to see what happened to Times Square in the 1970s: the live sex shows, the open prostitution, the general seediness, etc. He said the mayor might have then reconsidered his complaints about burlesque. He had a point…
Any lasting words of advice?

Get out of your own head as much as possible.
 
*****
Karen Abbott is the author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose, both New York Times bestsellers. She is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine’s history blog, Past Imperfect, and also writes for Disunion, the New York Times series about the Civil War. A native of Philadelphia, where she worked as a journalist, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots, Poe and Dexter. She’s at work on her next book, a true story of four daring (and not entirely scrupulous) Civil War spies who risked everything for their cause.
It ain’t over till the fat lady sings!  Karen is offering one lucky commenter a FREE copy of

American Rose!  

Leave a comment before Thursday, 5pm CST, and winner will be announced on Friday’s post!

Oops, there’s Vic Shaw, guess the party’s over!  See you in the comments section!

For more fun, check out Karen’s interview with Beauty and the Book owner, Kathy Patrick!  They go vintage shopping together!  Learn how to make your own Gypsy Rose Lee outfit!

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37 responses

  1. Coleen Patrick | Reply

    I’m still thinking about the advice from the editor–“Bask.” Sounds far too tame for hitting NYT list!! 🙂
    And I really like that book trailer!

    1. But it’s such a true story!

      I agree the trailer is awesome. Whoever picked the music is brilliant.

  2. Amazing. I love history and seeing how one does research helps a lot for my own research. And she knows Mike Dash! I love Dash, his historical narrative is brilliant! Thank you Jess for bringing us Karen Abbot.

    1. Karen is amazing and has been a joy to work with! I want her to hire me as her assistant so I can help do all the research!

  3. The roaring twenties is a fascinating era – I’ve set my series there and am (gasp!) loving the research. I will definitely pick up American Rose. Great interview, it is always interesting to get a back stage peek at a writer’s novel. Thanks for the introduction, Jess.

    1. If I could go back to any time period I’d pick the 20’s. I loved reading F. Scott Fitzgerald as a kid. We should host a flapper party! 20’s themed blog hop, Sherry? What do you think?

      1. Sounds Razz-a-ma-tazz to me, Jess.

  4. I think most lifeguards are more interested in tanning. And possibly ogling babes, as well. Glad you didn’t let anybody die on your watch and then made it to the top of the NY Times bestseller list. I’d love to bask there with my book, No Time For Kings!

    1. I hope you do get to bask there someday Mark!

      You’d get a kick out of a local lifeguard we have. He looks kind of like Crocodile Dundee but with longer bleached hair and he’s so tanned his skin truly looks like leather. Plus the sand is normally SUPER hot and this guy can just stand on it like it’s nothing. How’s that for descriptive? Hahaha

  5. Jess! Fabulous interview! What a pleasure to get to know Karen Abbott and have her share such a personal side of her publishing experiences. I love the ’20’s too and was a Fitzgerald, Hemingway, et al, nut when I was your age. I’m off to download Karen’s books right this minute. Thanks to both of you for such an engaging post!

    1. Enjoy her books! I read Sin in the Second City last summer for my library’s book club, and I’m starting American Rose now! I also recommend getting the audio book. It’s fun to hear the stories too, but the books have all the cool vintage photos!

      I’m telling you guys, when we plan our writers retreat, we should have theme nights and one of them should be a roaring twenties. Do you think we can convince Karen to come up and go vintage shopping with us all?

  6. Sin in the Second City was pretty awesome. Thanks Jess for making me aware of such a great book!

    1. See! You should let me pick out our audio books more often! I pick good stuff.

  7. Bette lee Crosby | Reply

    Awesome article – so interesting & inspiring. BASK is truly what Karen should do! Thanks for the great story Jess

    1. I think bask is the perfect word because to me it implies that element of disbelief and then joy.

  8. I just added this to my TBR pile! Love burlesque and the naughty years of the American underbelly…so naive and genteel by today’s standards. Wonderful interview – thanks for sharing so many fun details. I particularly loved the fierceness of June Havoc. I’ve met women like that and they’re delightful and alarming at the same time.

    1. Did you check out the link about the behind the story? There’s an even a rare old video of June dancing!

  9. Fabulous interview! I love learning about the past. We all get so caught up in our present that we forget those who have made it what it now is. My TBR list just grew. 🙂

    1. Put these books at the top of the list! They are great audio books too, which I love for multi tasking.

  10. Marcia Richards pointed me to this post, and I’m glad she did! What a fun interview. Great lifeguard story, btw 🙂

    1. You wish you could go to a show by Gypsy don’t you, Fabio?! 😉

  11. Great interview, ladies! Thanks!

    1. Thanks Diane! And congratulations on your book success!

  12. Jillian Dodd - YA Author | Reply

    What a great interview, Jess! I love her advice about writing the story in your heart.

    1. Me too! I feel an Anne of Green Gables twinge coming on.

  13. What an interview! Very intriguing author and topic . . .

    1. I loved Sin in the Second City and am equally happy with American Rose.

  14. The comment bugs ate my comment! I love Sin in the Second City and look forward to reading American Rose. The research would have been too much for me. I saw that video at Kathy Patrick’s–so fun! The book trailer is awesome, too! Fabulous interview Jess and Karen!

    1. I know you’d be down for a roaring 20’s themed party. You’re in charge of the desserts. I’ll bring the accessories!

  15. I love that Karen got fired for rotating with the sun, yet she has the kind of work ethic to put her on the NYT bestselling list. 🙂 Very interesting interview, Jess. I’m definitely picking up American Rose!

    1. I love learning about the things people did before they were writers. James Rollins was a veterinarian. Karen was a lifeguard. And someday I will tell people how I washed dishes and bussed tables for my parent’s restaurant. So exciting!

  16. […] is my fangirl dreams came true when New York Times Bestselling author Karen Abbott agreed to do an interview with me on my blog!  I would love for you guys to pop over and meet her; she’s been fabulous to work […]

  17. What a great interview!! It’s nice to meet you, Karen! I love what you said about writing to please yourself and getting out of your own head. I recently published my first YA mystery novel on Amazon… and if I had kept questioning my story and listening to every single piece of criticism from my Beta readers (other writers), I would have never published. Bottom line, everyone has their own opinions when it comes to story, POV preferences, etc. Tell your story! Write for you! And so far, I don’t have any horrible reviews from readers. 🙂

    1. I’m so pumped for you Tiffany! Football Sweetheart is now in my kindle!!! I wish you much success!

      Good for you for following your gut and getting your book out there!

  18. […] York Times Bestselling Author Karen Abbott, an expert in unruly women of history!  Check out the author interview because Karen is AMAZING!  I thought it would be fun today to discuss famous, or rather infamous, […]

  19. […] Rose:  A Nation Laid Bare, The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee.  Some of you remember that Karen did an interview with me, and I must say, this book is just as great as the last one!  WOW!  I had no idea Gypsy’s […]

  20. […] Abbott, author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, is no exception. Odd jobs come first. In her case, it was being "the worst lifeguard ever,” fired for “rotating with the […]

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