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Books Fri Jun 10 2011

Q&A with Frances McNamara

Death at Pullman: An Emily Cabot Mystery
Frances McNamara
Allium, 2011

Death at Pullman is the third book in Frances McNamara's Emily Cabot series. Cabot, a heroine/detective in 1890s Chicago, finds herself in the center of the Chicago Pullman strike of 1894 when she goes to the Pullman factory town to run a relief center and ends up involved in the murder investigation of a striker. Based on the real Pullman conflict that took place nationwide, McNamara's novel weaves together fact and fiction to create a murder mystery that places the reader right in the midst of this important part of Chicago history.

GB: So, which came first - discovering the history of the Pullman strike or your idea for the fictional events/characters?

FM: The characters in Death at Pullman are a part of the series about a young woman who comes to Chicago to do graduate work in sociology at the University of Chicago and meets a police detective who mentors her. So the characters were there, and the stories are set against the backdrop of big things in Chicago. The first book has the Columbian Exposition, the second has Hull House and the smallpox epidemic of winter 1893. When I realized the Pullman strike was during the summer of 1894, and that Hull House helped with a relief station [in the second installment, Emily Cabot finds work at Hull House], it seemed the place for Emily to go.

How long do you spend researching a historical topic before you begin writing? And you may have to not only research the specific topic but also the era - in this case, the 1890s. It sounds like such a daunting task...

I work at the University of Chicago Library. Since the university was begun in the 1890s, and much of the architecture and institutional atmosphere I encounter every day are based on the plans and philosophies of the early members of the university, it's easy to be drawn in. For the Pullman story, I began researching by reading newspapers of the time on microfilm at the Chicago Public Library. Later, I was able to take advantage of subscriptions to digitized versions of the newspapers that we have at the university library. This is fiction. The research involved does not match up with the type of research a real historian does, but the combination of the continued existence of the physical places, memoirs, and newspapers of the time -- as well as access to all the resources of a great research library -- make it not such a daunting task. I have toured Pullman and gotten much useful information from the folks down there also.

Obviously, the language and the dialog were more formal during this time. Do you find it difficult to write this way? To "keep in character," so to speak?

It's a balancing act. If you use our common phrases and styles of speech, it really does not fit the time. On the other hand, if you really wrote in the style of that time it would be turgid. I think it is important to realize that some ways of thinking, impacted by psychology and technology, just would not be within the realm of thought for people at that time, so you shouldn't make them think, talk, and act that way. On the other hand, for the characters to be sympathetic and be considered people we can identify with, they can't be too strange in how they think and act. So I hope I have managed to balance that. The language is meant to give you the flavor of how people would think and act at that time. Just like the buildings and clothing would be different, so would the speech.

You grew up in Boston - and as the daughter of a police commissioner! I can only imagine that must have been exciting at times. What drew you to writing about Chicago history, rather than Boston history?

Living in Chicago drew me to writing about it. Note that my character comes from Boston. When you live somewhere you take it for granted. When you move somewhere new you learn about it. There are lots of things about Chicago that are like Boston, but it is a great city with its own character. I could definitely write about Boston, but living in Chicago and visiting places like Hull House and Pullman -- not to mention working on the campus of the University of Chicago -- makes you wonder what would it be like to live here at the time of the people who left such a mark on the city. That's a good start for a story.

I found myself more interested in the how the fictional drama played out than how the actual strike history progressed - I'd start skimming through the more informational portions because I found them a bit dry. Do you find it difficult to intertwine the real and fictional elements together to make a cohesive story? What is your approach to writing a work of historical fiction?

I was never a real history student, I think I was more interested in fiction. But the history of Chicago is really interesting, and it is when you get down to the details that it gets more interesting. Lots of people only think of Al Capone when they think of Chicago. But, in fact, there were lots of really interesting people and amazing things that happened. I found it rather astounding that Federal troops actually occupied parts of a major American city. I never knew that. There's lots of other things I never knew that I like to share. You have to watch out. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and there are things that have really happened that just sound too outlandish that people wouldn't believe them, so you need to leave them out. Some of the very dramatic things that happen in the book are based on real incidents, but I have changed the people involved to be my characters. It's a challenge to entwine the history with the fiction. The fiction does need to dominate, though. I like Steven Saylor, who writes about ancient Rome. I always think his stories are like a big painting of some big historical event or battle with his characters in the foreground. That's how it should come out if it works right!

Regarding Emily Cabot, she seems to have very conflicting qualities. I haven't read the other books, but I got the impression she's supposed to be a strong, independent woman, not to mention quick and clever when it comes to solving mysteries. She refused Dr. Chapman's proposal, she's irritated by the division of men and women's spaces at the Florence Hotel, and she's very intent on helping the workers get what they deserve. However, as I read, I began to see her naïvete and immaturity: not recognizing Raoul LeClerc's trickery when he feigned romantic interest in her; her jealousy over her perceived notion that Dr. Chapman was in love with Fiona MacGregor. I was especially disappointed when, at the end [SPOILER ALERT!], Emily fell into Dr. Chapman's arms and agreed to marry him and follow him to Woods Hole. Even strong heroines have their weak moments - they wouldn't be believable without them - but these seemed to be a bit overly dramatic and definitely not in keeping with the character that she was built up to be (and that I was hoping she'd be). What is the ultimate goal of Emily Cabot's character? Are these qualities intentional?

Emily Cabot is young. I sometimes think I'd like to have an older main character (she will age, as I can see some stories down the line when she is older). So she has things to learn, including things about men. I think Raoul is the type of guy who is attractive to women while men can't understand it. It's part of her learning to be wrong sometimes. We do learn by our mistakes. I suspect people who have read the other two books might not react quite the same as you have. In any case, the ultimate goal of Emily's character is that she lives, learns, grows, experiences some disappointments and some successes and that she changes over time. But you'll have to read more to find out the details. She is based on women of that time who faced a lot of obstacles but also experienced some new opportunities. I think things opened up for women around that time and later dried up for a while. So some women at that time remind me of feminists in the seventies. In the earlier books she meets Ida B. Wells, Jane Addams, and Florence Kelley who all demonstrate some of the achievements of women who took advantage of changing times to accomplish some things. Read the upcoming books to see what happens to her!

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