Your book, John Brown’s Women , sounds fascinating. Can you share with me what the first idea was that made you decide to write this story? It might be very different from how the story ended up being, but I am curious, if you don’t mind sharing. And, if the story is very different, would you mind sharing the process by which you ended up with your current novel?
For example, my current book started off after watching an old Pathe TV show about making motorbikes and sidecars and has ended up as a 1940s mystery involving an unidentified body!
As a writer of biographical historical fiction, I seldom think up an idea for a novel out of the blue. Rather, something I read triggers me to learn more about a historical figure. In most cases, my curiosity having been sated, I move on, but in others, the character latches on to me and won’t give me any peace until I write about him or her.
My interest in John Brown was awakened when I moved a few years ago to a town in Maryland that’s just a few miles from Harpers Ferry. (Sadly, John Brown appears to have passed it by.) I dug out the family copy of Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz’s gripping account of the Harpers Ferry raid, and was struck by one figure in particular—Annie, John Brown’s fifteen-year-old daughter, who served as her father’s lookout at the Maryland farm that Brown rented in preparation for the raid. Although most accounts of the raid touch on Annie’s role, Horwitz gave her more sustained attention, and I determined to learn more about her. Fortunately, Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz has written a study of the Brown women, The Tie That Bound Us, and that led me to more information about Annie. Though Annie never published an account of her activities, she was generous in responding to Brown’s biographers, and her reminiscences and letters made for fascinating reading. Annie had an opinion on everything and a talent for pithy observations, and I was captivated by her. Writing to researcher Katherine Mayo in 1909, Annie spoke of her need to get off by herself in natural surroundings: “I always come back refreshed and with a better feeling towards God and the human race, for I do really sometimes get out of patience with Him and wonder why he created so many people that (it seems to me) would have been better left unborn. I have never been able to understand, why so many things, that ought not to be, exist.”
But as I began to research Annie’s story and to read more family letters: two other women intruded: Mary, John Brown’s stoic, strong wife, and refined, progressively-minded Wealthy, married to John Brown’s oldest son. They too wanted their stories told. Moreover, giving them leading roles would allow me to give a fuller view of John Brown. Mary had shared personal tragedies and financial setbacks with her husband, and Wealthy had been with the Brown men during the violent “Bleeding Kansas” years that set the stage for the Harpers Ferry raid. I ended up framing the novel so it begins and ends from Mary’s perspective, which I think worked artistically.
So Annie, no doubt to her chagrin, ended up having to share her story with others, as did Frances Brandon in my Tudor novel, Her Highness the Traitor, who found herself narrating alongside Jane Dudley. But Annie supplied me with the epigraph, giving her the first word, if not the last.
Thank you so much for sharing. I love it when characters have such a strong mind of their own. Good luck with the new book.
Here’s the blurb:
As the United States wrestles with its besetting sin—slavery—abolitionist John Brown is growing tired of talk. He takes actions that will propel the nation toward civil war and thrust three courageous women into history.
Wealthy Brown, married to John Brown’s oldest son, eagerly falls in with her husband’s plan to settle in Kansas. Amid clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers, Wealthy’s adventure turns into madness, mayhem, and murder.
Fifteen-year-old Annie Brown is thrilled when her father summons her to the farm he has rented in preparation for his raid. There, she guards her father’s secrets while risking her heart.
Mary Brown never expected to be the wife of John Brown, much less the wife of a martyr. When her husband’s daring plan fails, Mary must travel into hostile territory, where she finds the eyes of the nation riveted upon John—and upon her.
Spanning three decades, John Brown’s Women is a tale of love and sacrifice, and of the ongoing struggle for America to achieve its promise of liberty and justice for all.
Deaths of young children through illness or accidents (not graphically described); implied heavy petting involving a willing minor.
Meet the Author
Susan Higginbotham is the author of a number of historical novels set in medieval and Tudor England and, more recently, nineteenth-century America, including The Traitor’s Wife, The Stolen Crown, Hanging Mary, and The First Lady and the Rebel. She and her family, human and four-footed, live in Maryland, just a short drive from where John Brown made his last stand. When not writing or procrastinating, Susan enjoys traveling and collecting old photographs.
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