Author Amy Stewart discusses Dear Miss Kopp, the latest addition to her bestselling series of historical novels!
For her interview with Reading Group Choices, Amy Stewart talks about how she captures her characters’ voices on the page, her family’s historical connection to the FBI, what Constance Kopp would think about gender equality and law enforcement if transported to our times, and more…
Reading Group Choices: Dear Miss Kopp is an epistolary novel, which is so fitting because letter writing was how so many people kept in touch during WWI. Each character has their own manner of expressing herself in letter form: did that individual style surprise you at all, or reveal something about their personality that you may not have realized before?
Amy Stewart: I’m glad I didn’t attempt an epistolary novel until the sixth installment, because I know the characters so well by now. I expected Constance to be very forthright and forthcoming, to tell the whole story, to put everything out there. Of course, she was often writing to her boss about her intelligence work and the cases she was pursuing, so she’d be expected to explain herself and provide all the details.
Norma was incredibly busy in France—I know from reading women’s wartime letters that nobody had a minute to write a note—and she had a brusque and businesslike personality. She’s no poet, Norma. Also, her letters would’ve been censored and there would’ve been very little of substance she could have shared. This was something else I saw in the wartime letters I read: you could see how the people stationed in France struggled to come up with anything at all they’d be allowed to divulge. I created Norma’s roommate, Aggie, in part so that someone else could take over the pen and say a little more about what life in France was like!
Fleurette’s voice was the one I worked on the most. Here’s someone who will be in her twenties during the 1920s. She would’ve been very different from her older sisters. So I thought, “Well, who was a great woman letter-writer from the 1920s?” Of course, Dorothy Parker came to mind. But believe it or not, very few of her letters have been collected and published. I read all the ones I could find, and tried to channel this very witty, opinionated, intimate voice. I thought Fleurette might be more willing to reveal herself to her close friend Helen and might hide quite a bit from her judgmental sisters, so you see how the tone of the letters can change depending on who she’s writing to.
RGC: You have mentioned that your great grandfather was an Interim Director of the FBI. Did you know that prior to writing Girl Waits With Gun? If so, is his history part of why you were drawn to Constance Kopp’s story? If not, how did learning about your great grandfather’s history affect your approach or feelings about the story?
Oh yes, everyone in my family knows about my great-grandfather’s work. He was only running the Bureau for about six months in early 1919. This was before the Palmer raids and before the J. Edgar Hoover era. I went to the National Archives and found a great deal of his correspondence, and I did a lot of research into his predecessor, Bruce Bielaski, who actually hired my great-grandfather.
I knew that Constance, in real life, did some sort of intelligence work during the war. So it made sense to put her with the Bureau. Adding my great-grandfather in was really just pure entertainment for me—he basically gets a cameo near the end, it’s not a big role—but it was intriguing for me to think about how he and Constance were contemporaries. It’s not entirely implausible that they could have met.
RGC: Do you personally identify with one of the sisters more than the other, or find that a particular sister’s story stays in your head more often when you’re not writing? And does that identification/allegiance/interest change depending on the book?
Well, in a way, these have always been Constance’s books. She’s the one who had this life-changing job as a deputy sheriff that went on to change the lives of both her sisters. And I think there’s a lot to identify with in Constance. She had big ideas about what she wanted her life to be, but she was thwarted by the society around her. At six feet tall, weighing 180 pounds, she must’ve felt like a misfit, especially back then when very few men were that size. She didn’t want to get married or run a household, which also made her out of step with her era. I think we can all identify with those feelings in one way or another.
RGC: Is there a specific question left unanswered from the documentation of the sisters’ lives you wished you knew the truth about?
Oh, there’s so much! But in terms of this book, I just wish I knew more about what they were really doing during the war. For some reason, they just dropped out of sight for a year or two. Apart from this one tiny clue about Constance doing some type of intelligence work, I just have no idea. I usually feel like my novels must fall short in comparison to whatever was really going on in their lives, but for this one, it’s quite likely that I gave them far more interesting wartime duties than they really had. I have no reason to think that Norma went to France or that Fleurette got to tour with a well-known vaudeville act, and I’m pretty sure Constance’s job was not as prestigious as the one I gave her. I hope they would approve of the lives I made up for them!
RGC: Some of the gender treatment at the time of the novel shares many similarities with contemporary national service and how women and minorities are treated. What do you imagine Constance and Norma would think if you dropped them back into their service fields today?
I think about this a lot—or really, what I wonder about is just what they would think of our lives generally today. To be honest, they might have pretty old-fashioned reactions to our world. I can imagine them being rather horrified at the way we all dress, for instance. I can imagine that we might not seem very courteous to them—that it might seem that we’ve forgotten our manners. And you know, they might have a hard time catching up to our egalitarian society today. Now, we’re all quite aware that we don’t live in a very egalitarian world. But I think it would absolutely make their heads spin to try to catch up to where we are today, and then to step back and try to understand how far we have to go.
In terms of law enforcement specifically, our legal system back then was rudimentary in so many ways. For instance, our Miranda rights—the right to remain silent—only date back to 1966. That’s fifty years after Constance was a cop. In some ways, law enforcement back then wasn’t something you could call a “system,” and there was really no understanding of systemic bias in the way we understand it today. So there again—Constance would have so much catching up to do! It’s hard to imagine her processing the changes that have already happened, and then having to grapple with how much more change is needed.
I do know one thing that would not surprise her. Only about twelve percent of sworn officers today are women. Women are grossly underrepresented in law enforcement, in spite of the fact that we make better cops: Women officers are far less likely to fire their weapons or be involved in any kind of complaint of violence. We tend to be better at the skills required of the job: de-escalation, crisis management, negotiation, communication, and grappling with highly nuanced situations. Hiring more women should be a top priority for any law enforcement agency today, and Constance would agree with that wholeheartedly.
RGC: The ending of Dear Miss Kopp provides glimpses of possible futures for each sister. Did you know when you started writing the book where you wanted each sister to be headed? And more globally, especially since there are more books to come in the series, how far in advance do you plan future installments?
Since I know what they were doing in real life, it’s easy for me to plan out their futures. The historical record picks back up again in the 1920s and I want to stick to their true story as much as I possibly can. So yes, I know where each sister is headed! I’m generally thinking 2 or 3 books ahead, but I often have ideas for many more books than that. I have literally thousands of records from my research into the Kopps and the world they lived in, so there’s no shortage of material for future installments!