Q&A With Katherine Howe

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Q&A With Katherine Howe 

My latest Q&A this week is with the New York Times Bestselling author of historical fiction and non-fiction. Some of her novels are The House of Velvet and Glass, Conversion, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, & Vanderbilt the Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty which Katherine co-wrote with Anderson Cooper. Katherine also co-wrote Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune.  She is also the author of the forthcoming novel A True Account; Hannay Masury’s Sojourn Amongst The Pyrates which is now available to preorder. What’s impressive is Katherine has appeared on “Good Morning America,” “CBS  This Morning,” NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” the BBC, the History Channel, and the Travel Channel, and she hosted “Salem: Unmasking the Devil” for National Geographic. 

Q: So Katherine, when did you realize that writing was your calling in life and that it was something you enjoy doing? 

A: I actually discovered that I loved writing when I was in fourth grade. My language arts teacher had us all write journals in class, and that’s when I learned that writing was a way for me to focus, to clear my mind, to organize my thoughts. I’ve written nearly every day since then. 

Q:  What is it about historical fiction and non-fiction that you enjoy writing so much? 

A: I think I’ve always enjoyed trying to think my way into different periods of time. We have this tendency to assume that individuals are transhistorical constructs, but we’re really not. We are, all of us, creations of our cultures and our specific moments in time. I like trying to think my way into different sets of assumptions about the world. I also like thinking about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Fiction is wonderful because you can invent a person who belongs in a given moment in time and see what they do. Nonfiction is wonderful (and challenging) because you can observe what a person has done in their given moment in time, and from their choices try to extrapolate what is knowable about what kind of person they were.

Q: What is your advice to anyone on writing great historical fiction and non-fiction?

A: From my perspective, you have to be really serious about your research. Spend a lot of time in the period in which you are writing. Read secondary sources, which tell you big picture accounts of what happened, but spend real time in the primary sources too. Those are original documents from a given period, whether they are newspapers, or letters, or trial transcripts, or whatever you can find. Those kinds of sources will tell you how people talk, what they think about, what their worries are. Even what the weather was like. 

Q: What was it like co-writing Vanderbilt the Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, with Anderson Cooper? How did you two come to an agreement about writing about the Vanderbilt’s? 

A: Anderson is an amazing colleague. I was so impressed with his work ethic, and the seriousness with which he took the project. And I give him a lot of credit – I think most of us, if we were writing a book about our own family, would have a hard time being even handed about them. It helped too that we were interested in many of the same things, the social history side rather than the business history side. We loved reading about all the crazy Gilded Age parties the Vanderbilt’s threw. 

Q: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to co-author a novel with someone else? Would you ever co-author a novel with Anderson Cooper again? Who else would you co-author a book with in the future?

A: Anderson and I have co-authored two books of popular history. Novels are works of fiction, when co-writing it’s important to leave your ego at the door, to some extent. That’s true with any publishing endeavor really – you have to be able to take feedback, and really take it. That can be very hard to do, because oftentimes writing feels like such a personal endeavor. When I used to teach composition, I would urge my students to regard their writing like a recipe they were experimenting with for the first time. Some recipes are delicious. Some don’t really work. Some can be made to work with a lot of tweaking. It doesn’t mean anything about the chef as a person – the challenge is to regard the writing as something separate from you. 

Q: If you’re writing a new project now, are you allowed to reveal any details?

A: I have a novel coming out on November 21 called A TRUE ACCOUNT: HANNAH MASURY’S SOJOURN AMONGST THE PYRATES, WRITTEN BY HERSELF. I’ve been obsessed with pirates for a long time now. It starts in Boston in 1726 when a girl witnesses a pirate hanging (that really happened, incidentally) and then is forced to flee for her life. A professor in 1930 discovers Hannah’s story and has to solve a mystery at the center of her true account. It’s a fun, exciting adventure story about women taking risks, while also asking questions about the nature of authorship, and whether something can be emotionally true while being factually false (as all fiction is). I’m very excited about it.

Q: Does Hollywood have any interests or rights to your work? Hollywood is lacking in the creative department and is long overdue for new ideas. It wouldn’t hurt Hollywood to have more great books! 

A: Ha! I’m flattered. I’ve had projects optioned in the past, but as often happens, nothing came of them. But rights for A TRUE ACCOUNT are available! I’ll even write the script! Marty, call me!

Q: What was it like appearing on “Good Morning America,” “CBS This Morning,” NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” the BBC, the History Channel, the Travel Channel,  & hosting, “Salem: Unmasking the Devil” for National Geographic?  Which famous people have you met on all those programs? It’s all so impressive! 

A: Aw, thanks. I show up pretty often as a talking head on cable programs, usually talking about Salem witchcraft, because I’ve written so many books about that. Though I suppose my days as a talking head about pirates might be yet to come. I still get very nervous going on television, even though I’ve now done it pretty frequently. Back in 2009, when the car pulled up in front of Good Morning America, my first novel had just come out and I was completely green and overwhelmed. I asked the driver, all panicky, “Are you sure this is where I’m supposed to go?” And he turned and looked me in the eye and said “This is where you’re supposed to be. You have to get out now.” I did, and I happened to be getting out of the car just as Kelly Ripa was getting out of her car behind me. Somewhere there are 15 year old paparazzi photos of Kelly Ripa looking amazing while I’m cringing in terror in the background.