Interview with an Author: Judy Alter on Writing Historical Fiction

judy

Judy Alter

An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of several fictional biographies of women of the American West—Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Jessie Benton Frémont, Lucille Mulhall (first Wild West Show roping cowgirl), and Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend. In the Gilded Cage, she turns her attention to the late nineteenth century Chicago to tell the story of Potter and Cissy Palmer, a high society couple with differing views on philanthropy and workers’ right.

Alter is also the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, Danger Comes Home, Deception in Strange Places, and Desperate for Death; the Blue Plate Café Mysteries—Murder at the Blue Plate Café, Murder at the Tremont House, and Murder at Peacock Mansion. With the 2014 publication of The Perfect Coed, she introduced the Oak Grove Mysteries.

Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame.

TabbyTheGildedCage-BigJudy: Tell us a bit more about The Gilded Cage, your latest historical novel. 

Judy A:  Here’s a brief synopsis: Born to society and a life of privilege, Bertha Honoré married Potter Palmer, a wealthy entrepreneur who called her Cissy. He built the Palmer House Hotel, still famed today, and became one of the major civic leaders of the city. She put philanthropy into action, going into shanty neighborhoods, inviting factory girls to her home, working at Jane Addams’ settlement Hull House, supporting women’s causes.

It was a time of tremendous change and conflict in Chicago as the city struggled to put its swamp-water beginnings behind it and become a leading urban center. A time of the Civil War, the Great Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Riots, and the triumph of the Columbian Exposition. Potter and Cissy handled these events in diverse ways. Fascinating characters people these pages along with Potter and Cissy—Carter Harrison, frequent mayor of the city; Harry Collins, determined to be a loser; Henry Honoré, torn between loyalties to the South and North; Daniel Burnham, architect of the new Chicago—and many others.

The Gilded Cage is a fictional exploration of the lives of these people and of the Gilded Age in Chicago history.

Judy: There must be a tremendous amount of research involved with your books. Can you tell us a bit about your process?

The Palmer Mansion

The Palmer Mansion

Judy A: The Gilded Cage was a work-in-progress for almost ten years. It began with my children’s book on Bertha (Cissy) Palmer who fascinated me because she was one of the first women to believe that great wealth carried an obligation to philanthropy.

Even though I was writing fiction, I had to do a tremendous amount of research. My fiction had to be set against an authentic background of Chicago history, which meant I had to know every detail about early Chicago, the eastern disdain for that flat city on a flat prairie and Chicago’s determination to prove itself sophisticated, the Great Fire, the Civil War when southerners were imprisoned in rough camps, the strife between workers and business moguls, the Haymarket Riot, and, finally, the Columbian Exposition where Cissy was president of the board of lady managers.

My novel is fiction with relationships, even romantic, that never existed, scenes and characters that I could only imagine. I had to balance the structure of a novel against the harsh realities of history. A list of sources is included in my Author’s Note at the back of the book. Conventional wisdom is that you never use everything you learned in your book or you’ll bore our readers with a treatise—but you have to do that research so that you are comfortable in the time and place.

Judy: Who inspired you to be a writer?

Judy A: I inspired myself. I was read to a lot as a child and became an avid reader, spending summers at a Chicago public library branch. Every author whose books I read inspired me. By the age of ten I was writing short stories. College and graduate studies interrupted my writing, but I soon made my way back to storytelling. And I’ve been writing ever since and reading for inspiration.

Judy: What are you currently reading?

Judy A: Right now I’m reading Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert and thoroughly enjoying it. One of the all-time favorites that I re-read from time to time, always finding something new, is Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. It’s a wonderful example of turning a real life into compelling fiction, although he was criticized for taking liberties with reality for the sake of fiction. It’s a fine line to balance.

Judy: What’s next for Judy Alter?

Judy A: More mysteries, another historical novel, subject to be determined.

Thank you Judy.

Find out more about Judy Alter at www.judyalter.com.

PS: I’ve been having problems with the comments section — techy people can’t seem to fix it — if you want to leave a comment, and it doesn’t work, please use the Contact Form or email me at judy at judypenzsheluk dot com. I apologize for the hassle, and hope it won’t deter you from having your say!

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5 responses to “Interview with an Author: Judy Alter on Writing Historical Fiction

  1. Thanks to Judy for hosting me, and, yes, Joanne, I’m looking forward to being your guest. Victoria, I’m in search of a new topic–I’ll look at some other philanthropists. Interesting to think how interesting backgrounds can shape people into philanthropists.

  2. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks for stopping by Joanne. I’m looking forward to it too!

  3. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. It is a fascinating story, isn’t it?

  4. Hi Judy, Excellent post! I’m looking forward to featuring you on my blog. 🙂

  5. vweisfeld.com

    The people who became the great philanthropists in this country all have fascinating personal stories. Thank you Judy A (and Judy PS!) for bringing this one to attention!

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