Karen Joy Fowler on Decentering John Wilkes Booth in a Novel About His Family
The Author of Booth Talks to Jane Ciabattari
Karen Joy Fowler has an idiosyncratic, genre-bending approach to storytelling, showcased in three short story collections (including two World Fantasy Award winners, Black Glass and What I Didn’t See) and six novels (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize; her first novel, Sarah Canary, won the Commonwealth medal for best first novel by a Californian).
Her fascinating new novel, Booth, a historic saga illuminating the complexities of the assassin John Wilkes Booth’s family life, was triggered by the “one of our American spates of horrific mass shootings,” she writes in an introductory author’s note. “…I wondered about the families of the shooters—how would each family deal with their own culpability all the if-onlys… What happens to love we the person you love is a monster?” Our email exchange took place as the pandemic lockdown continued in California (she’s in Santa Cruz, I in Sonoma County).
Jane Ciabattari: How have you managed during this tumultuous and uncertain past few years? Writing? Family? Location?
Karen Joy Fowler: Writers may be better equipped for isolation than many other professions. I have desperately missed the years with my children and grandchildren that I’ll never get back. But otherwise, I quite like a day when I wake up knowing there is nowhere I need to go and I’m just home with my husband, my dog, and my books.
But if you’re asking how I’m surviving the political situation, the MAGA crowd, the plague, the wars in Yemen and Ukraine, the continual assault on Black citizens here at home, I don’t have an answer. I listen to music medicinally. I walk to the ocean early to see the sun rise. I feed the crows on my street. I zoom with friends. And still I work from inside a constant swirl of anger and disappointment and grief. It could be such a beautiful world. Everything we need is right here if only we were smart enough to keep it.
JC: When did you first learn of John Wilkes Booth, the notorious assassin of Abraham Lincoln? What drew you to center your new novel on Booth’s family? And why did you decide this would not be a book about John Wilkes Booth?
KJF: I don’t remember when I first heard of JWB or of Abraham Lincoln, but it must have been back when I was quite small. I just knew what any American knows—that John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre while Lincoln was watching a play.
Then some years back, I was reading some time travel stories and I got irritated at how easily the travelers were able to pass—just a change of clothes and a new hat. It wouldn’t be like that, I thought. Time travel is a sort of tourism and I live in a tourist town; I think I can spot the tourists. I went from that thought to imagining that there would be popular historical destinations, package tours for time travelers, that was how I arrived at the Lincoln assassination. I wrote a story about all this and in order to do so, I had to research the conspiracy around the murder. While doing that research, I found John’s famous brother Edwin Booth and I wrote another story, did more research. By then I was completely hooked on the large and fascinating Booth family.
There has been a lot of attention paid over the years to JWB. I didn’t think he deserved mine. Just as a matter of principle, I don’t believe people who kill presidents are more interesting than people who don’t. I wanted to write a book about a bunch of people who didn’t kill a president. Of course, the assassin brother still looms over the whole book. There was simply no way around that.
JC: You begin this novel in 1822 when Junius Booth, an esteemed Shakespearean actor, and the London-born “dark-haired beauty” he swept off her feet move into a “secret cabin” in the Maryland woods. Junius is on tour nine months of the year; “Mother” stays behind, giving birth to ten children in sixteen years, four of whom die from illnesses like smallpox and cholera. What sort of research was involved in your setting of this scene in nineteenth century agricultural Maryland?
KJF: There is a great deal of material about the Booths. Tudor Hall, which Junius Booth, the patriarch built towards the end of his life, still stands on the old Booth farm and has been made into a small museum run by a lovely group of people. I made two visits there. I also had, courtesy of Terry Alford, the writer of a magnificent biography of John Wilkes, a manuscript written by a woman who later bought the Booth house. She was a wonderful writer and there’s a great deal of neighborhood gossip about the Booths and some excellent descriptions of the property. Asia Booth, the youngest daughter, also wrote a book about her brother John that contains descriptions of the inside of Tudor Hall—the furniture, the books and playbills and costumes—and the outside—the creeks, the plants, the fences, the family graveyard, the large cherry tree that the children used for the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Asia’s book also goes into some detail about the difficulties of wresting a living from what seems to have been less-than-fertile ground.
JC: Rosalie, the oldest Booth daughter and one of your primary narrators, seems to dominate the first half of the novel, describing the behavior of her parents and siblings and the natural world around her. In your afterward you mention that Rosalie, is the most fictional Booth sibling: “She left only a slight mark on the world—one or two letters, occasional references to her in the books and letters of her siblings.” Did that give you more leeway in envisioning her sections?
KJF: Absolutely. I knew the events of her life; I didn’t make up most of the things that happened to her. But I didn’t know her. This made it possible to give her more sympathetic attitudes and values. I would have loved to make Asia more lovable, but there she is, in her letters and books, condemned by her own words. I think she was the smartest of the Booths and clearly the best educated. I don’t mean to come down too hard on her. But what a tyrant she was!
JC: Edwin is another major character. At thirteen he is sent on the road with his father for five years to try to keep him sober and fulfilling his theatrical dates. Under his father’s gaze he starts out as a so-so actor. At eighteen, his mother sends him to California. Your description of his theatrical tour of San Francisco and the Gold Country in 1852, is fascinating, especially the scene in which he survives a blizzard and makes it safely to Grass Valley, only to discover his father has died only days before—he sees his first ghost shortly thereafter. What were the challenges of creating Edwin as a character?
KJF: There is so much that has been written about Edwin, and a fair bit written by him—many of his letters survive. He was quite famous in his time and a superfan in Boston went to see his Hamlet often enough to record every gesture and intonation, so that we can still get a sense of how he performed it. There is a place on the internet where you can hear, though much interference and crackling, him performing a speech from Othello. It gives me chills. Talk about your ghosts.
So, unlike Rosalie, I felt I knew a lot about who Edwin was and how he saw the world. Like his sister, Asia, he’s quite a good writer. There is a real charm in his letters, much humor and self-deprecation. But I also think he was rather cold. And then, he had such an eventful life.
JC: Edwin’s debut as Hamlet is lauded by a San Francisco critic, who writes that, “in concept if not in polish, Edwin has already surpassed his father;” this launches a theatrical career that ultimately equals his father’s and even survives his brother John’s assassination of the sitting president, as you make clear with the scenes at Edwin’s funeral in New York in 1893. How were you able to retrace the theatrical steps of Booth and his sons who became actors, especially Edwin?
KJF: Scholars with better gifts than I have compiled detailed itineraries for the Booth actors. You can see day by day, month by month, year by year, where they were performing and in what roles. There are great biographies about Junius Sr. and about Edwin. Many, many reviews remain along with first-hand accounts from people who attended the plays and saw the Booths onstage. They had a number of childhood friends who, having apprenticed in the amateur productions of the Booth children, went on to have theatrical careers and left their own accounts. There is no shortage of material.
And Asia wrote three books. The first is about her father, focused on his triumphant acting career. The second is about Edwin, again, very much a theatrical account. The third is about John. The book about John is much more intimate, much more a family recollection than the first two. You can see how close Asia and John were and how much she loved him. She knew as she wrote it that it couldn’t be published, but she left it in the hands of a friend, hoping the day might come. Putnam, my own publisher, finally brought it out in 1938.
JC: There are multiple disruptions in the Booth family. Four of the ten siblings die during their childhood, which, you point out, “so deformed this family.” The family move from a rural farm into Baltimore in 1840. In 1846 Booth’s wife Adelaide arrives from London with his son Richard “hell-bent on destroying them all,” calls into question the legitimacy of his marriage and American family. Booth’s drinking drastically affects his theatrical career and their income. How might these disturbing elements of family life affected John Wilkes Booth?
KJF: It would take a smarter person than I to tease apart the impact on JWB of all the family disruptions. I will mention only a couple things. The years of Edwin’s adolescence were spent in a lonely, harrowing time on the road with his father. At 13, Edwin’s job was to save his family. During this same period, John, was living a cossetted life at home in the warmth of his adoring mother.
But John’s adolescence was spent trying to make the farm produce. At 14, John’s job was to save his family. Meanwhile, Edwin was off larking about California. So both of them faced a desperate and unachievable responsibility at quite a young age and both of them had cause to think the other was getting off easy.
For whatever reason, John ended up a much angrier person than Edwin. He had less exposure to his famous father, which protected him from his father’s cruelties, but also insulated him from his father’s values—anti-slavery, an extreme level of compassion for fellow creatures. His father wouldn’t even allow the picking of flowers. My third short story about the Booths is an account of a funeral Junius Booth once held for passenger pigeons.
Family was extremely important to all the Booth children. Their father’s well publicized bouts of insanity and the shock of learning that he was a bigamist, that they were not his legal heirs, seems to have created an outsized need for each of them to burnish the family name, erase the taint, honor their father’s genius. The fact that they were Booths was tremendously important to them.
It does appear that John believed the killing of Lincoln would be heralded as an act worthy of Shakespeare’s Brutus, a moment of greatness. He’d always had a sense of himself as a man with a destiny.
JC: In Baltimore, Edwin, who is four years older, and Johnny follow opposite paths: Johnny “runs with a gang of young toughs who call themselves the Baltimore Bully Boys. He’s good with his fists. Edwin, by contrast, studies violin. He excels at his dancing classes.” Do you see this as a key moment for the assassin-to-be?
KJF: I see his later years at boarding school as key. Although he attended St. Timothy’s Hall only briefly, he interacted there not with the young toughs of Baltimore but with the upper crust, the sons of plantations, of wealthy slave-holders. Here, I think, is where he picked up his white supremacy, his explicitly stated belief that slavery was the best thing to ever happen to Black people. When the father of one of his schoolmates was killed in Christiana, Pennsylvania, having gone there to recapture some run-away slaves, John felt an outrage that lasted the rest of his life.
JC: Abraham Lincoln appears at various points in the novel, usually at the end of a section, chronologically: Lincoln’s first major speech, in which he warns that the gravest peril to the republic is if “the mob and the dictator unite”; his first response to the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which left the question of slavery to each state; the 1856 “lost speech” which predated his “a house divided cannot stand” by two years; Lincoln’s attitudes toward John Brown (privately he considers him insane), Lincoln and the final act. How did you decide which moments to include?
KJF: I just included what interested me, what I didn’t already know. When I read a historical novel, I don’t want to see the things I know, but rather the things I don’t, things that surprise, amuse, amaze, or horrify me. When I write a historical novel, I have all those same needs. Those needs guided me through the book, but through the Lincoln sections in particular.