When Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit ended, the Kopp sisters were getting ready for World War I. What have you learned about their wartime activities?
This is the first novel that departs entirely from their real lives. In fact, I don’t know what the Kopps were doing during the war. They mostly disappear from the historical record in 1918 and 1919, and then we see them again quite a bit starting in 1920. But I didn’t want to skip over the war years. No matter what they were doing, the war would’ve changed their lives just as it changed everyone’s lives. Also, I’ve become fascinated with women’s roles in World War I, so I had some interesting stories I really wanted to tell.
The Kopps attend a National Service School, which was a training camp for women who wanted to serve in the war. The camps were real—but the Kopps’ attendance at the camp was not?
That’s right. I’m taking my real characters and putting them in a real place—the only difference is that they did not, as far as I know, ever attend a National Service School! But I wanted to set a book here because it was such a fascinating moment in our history. As the United States made ready to join the war, men were already attending voluntary training camps called Plattsburgh camps. But there was nothing like that for women. So a committee of women—many of them wives or daughters of military leaders or politicians—went to the War Department and insisted on some kind of preparedness activity for women. They were rebuffed, but they went ahead and created these camps anyway. Women lived in tents, conducted military-style drills, and took classes. There was even debate over whether they should wear pants and learn to fire guns. (They didn’t.)
I thought this was an amazing story that few people have heard. There’s plenty of good documentation: the Library of Congress has a collection of photographs from the camps, the newspapers reported on every aspect of camp life, down to the breakfast menu, and a few historians have written academic papers on the camps.
How did women want to serve in the war? They weren’t planning to fight, were they?
No, not really. The most progressive activists were still talking about women playing a support role. Even the arguments in favor of women learning to shoot a rifle had more to do with women defending their homes or patrolling the coastline to watch for an invasion, as women did in England. For the most part, women were talking about more traditional roles like cooking, nursing, and sewing. But as technology changed, so did women’s roles. Women worked in factories, drove ambulances, and operated switchboards during WWI.
And some women wanted nothing to do with war work. They wanted life to go on as it had before. Others were pacifists and strongly opposed our joining the war. I tried to write characters at this training camp who represented many points of view.
Are there any other real-life characters in this novel?
There are a few. Maude Miner makes an appearance again. She was one of many women working with the War Department to advocate for women having a role in wartime. I’ve become very interested in her, because she was, on one hand, advocating for more independence and opportunity for women, but on the other hand she was involved in policing women’s behavior and enforcing Victorian morality standards. She’s just an interesting, contradictory figure of the time, so I keep writing her into my books.
The other main character in this novel is Beulah Binford. I discovered Beulah while I was writing the third Kopp novel, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions. I don’t want to say too much about her history or about her real-life connection to my characters, because it will spoil the story. But I will say that she was involved in a shocking scandal that took place in Richmond, VA in 1911. Her name was known nationwide. For decades after, newspapers could simply say “A Beulah Binford-style scandal” and everyone knew what that meant.
The case itself is fascinating. I did all the same research about Beulah that I did for the Kopps—newspaper clippings, court documents, genealogy—and I do tell Beulah’s real-life story in this novel, through flashbacks. I was particularly interested in how she managed to live with her very notorious name. It reminded me of what Monica Lewinsky went through. How do you go through life with a name that everyone associates with a scandal? Their stories are entirely different, but that particular similarity really stuck with me. That’s what I wanted to explore.
Is it true that there are certain striking similarities between Kopp Sisters on the March and a popular movie from the 1980s?
It’s true! You know, it would be sort of hip and literary to say that your novel was influenced by Groundhog Day, but my novel was influenced by another Bill Murray movie—Stripes. That movie was on TV all the time when I was a teenager. I probably saw it a hundred times. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but when I sat down to work out how I wanted to structure this novel, I came up with an opening scene that seemed very cinematic. On one day, Beulah Binford loses her job, her apartment, and her boyfriend. Then I thought, “Wait. That’s the opening scene of Stripes.”
And of course, my characters are going off to this military training camp, which is very much like basic training. So then I started to play around with it. What else was going to happen in my novel that could be similar to Stripes?
I knew Constance was going to get interviewed, in the same way that Bill Murray and Harold Ramis were interviewed by the Army recruiter. I knew something was going to happen to the commanding officer—some sort of accident or mishap. I knew there were going to be a couple of attractive MPs (male, in this case). And I knew there would be a rather dramatic graduation ceremony.
So—yeah, I couldn’t help myself. There’s no mud wrestling in my novel, and no Urban Assault Vehicle, but there are a few parallels. Absolutely no one will notice those similarities unless you point them out, but it kept me entertained. I did go back and watch the movie again, for the first time in over thirty years. I couldn’t believe how much of it I still have memorized. I’ve never read Faulkner, but I can quote Stripes. I should be embarrassed to admit it, but that’s the pop culture diet I grew up on.
What was the biggest challenge in writing this novel?
It wasn’t a challenge, exactly, but a change: I switched point of view again. Most of the Kopp Sisters novels have been told in the first person, in Constance’s voice. But in the third book, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, and in this new novel, I wanted to get inside the heads of some other characters. So this one is told in the third person, alternating between Constance’s point of view and Beulah Binford’s. It was fun to do, because Beulah’s voice, even in the third person, is quite southern. Richmond, VA is a long way from Texas, where I grew up, but I enjoyed having a familiar southern voice in my head.
What’s coming next for the Kopps?
The book ends just as the United States officially joins the war. At the end of Kopp Sisters on the March, all three sisters have ideas about what they’d like to do in the war. Once again, this next novel will have to be fiction, because I don’t know what they were doing in real life. But I’m putting them in real-life situations. I’m sending one of them overseas, which is great, because I’ve been twice to the village where this particular Kopp will go. And believe it or not, one of my own family members will get a cameo. He was quite a high-profile government official at the time—but I’ll save that story for the next book.