Interview with Alexis Coe, Author of Alice + Freda Forever

I’d like to say that I got to sit down with Alexis in a lovely little diner somewhere, drinking coffee as we chatted about vicarious menstruation and murder, but alas, I only got to email her my bizarre questions, but the answers are fabulous, and I appreciate her being a good sport about my admitted weirdness. Here we go!Alice+FredaForever_9781936976607 Alexis Coe_Alice and Freda Forever_1Julie: One of my favorite details in Alice + Freda Forever was that Sarah Bernhardt was trying to get an opera written about the couple–I think that would have been amazing.  Do you think your book might spawn a movie which will then become a musical which will then become a movie musical? And who would you cast as Alice and Freda? 

Alexis: I like this question so much—you clearly read the endnotes! Fortunately, my literary agent is at William Morris Endeavor in New York, and their LA office is handling the creative rights, so we might just see AFF the movie->musical->movie musical. I’ve only seen one of her movies (“Hanna”), but I can see Saoirse Ronan playing a wild-eyed Alice. I’ve got no idea who would play Freda, but I imagine she’d be very pretty and flirtatious. I’ve been on a serious “Good Wife” kick, so I picture Julianna Margulies as Alice’s mother, Isabella Mitchell.

Julie: I’m now fascinated by vicarious menstruation and erotomania. Are there any other esoteric and/or antiquated diseases that you are particularly interested in?

Alexis: This is going to seem morbid, in addition to writing a book that opens with a gruesome murder, but when I worked at the NYPL I spent way too long perusing a log book about causes of death in the 1820s. That’s where I was first introduced to “bad blood,” which is syphilis, and the many ways people died by horses hooves. They were most often kicked in the face, but children crossing the street were trampled by buggies, too. Memphis had a series of Yellow Fever outbreaks that devastated the city, and there were reports of “black vomit,” which was vomiting old black blood.

Julie: The story of Alice and Freda has been compared to the Parker-Hulme case in New Zealand (upon which Heavenly Creatures was based). What do you make of these comparisons? Are they apt?

Alexis: Although Alice was never tried for murder, I can see how the Mitchell-Ward case reminds some readers of the Parker-Hulme case. In both instances, media coverage was sensational, and same-sex love was linked to insanity. Issues of morality were at the forefront. But from there, I think their stories and lives were quite different.

Julie: As a librarian I love how well-researched your book is, with great citations and list of sources. Once you’ve researched a topic, how do you transition into writing the narrative so its engaging to readers while still adhering to the facts?

Alexis: Thank you! That’s high praise from a librarian. I write a very dry first draft in order to lay a solid foundation. It could probably pass for a graduate thesis, and is by far the most agonizing part. I then rewrite as often as I can. If I take a break to walk my dog, I think about what I’m writing, where I’ve been and where I need to go. I worry. I get upset. I laugh. I get angry. That’s when I know the historical actors have become real people to me, and that shows in the writing. If I’ve got a lot of time, which almost never happens, I’ll try to take a few days away from the project. That’s the ultimate luxury.

Julie: I loved Alice + Freda Forever so much, I’m already curious about what your next book might be. As a farmer’s daughter I’m hoping it might come from one of your Modern Farmer articles. Can you tell us anything about possible future books?

Alexis: You’re so kind! I know what you mean. When I finish articles, I often think, this should be a book! People need to know about this! Alas, saying that and starting the process of researching is quite different. There have been a lot of ideas that I thought about often, bemoaning how little time I had to explore them, and then, when I finally do, they never get past the first day of research. As far as the next book, I’ve been researching an economist who had been blacklisted by McCarthy, but then AFF came out, and it has taken up all my time since October 7th. I’m still the Toast’s history columnist, so you can find me there, and check out my Author Facebook page or twitter for the latest. By the time this goes up, Vice may have posted a personal essay I wrote about AFF.

Thanks, Alexis! When that essay goes live, I will link to it here.

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Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis

Publisher’s information:

Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis
In 1892, America was obsessed with a teenage murderess, but it wasn’t her crime that shocked the nation – it was her motivation. Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell planned to pass as a man and marry seventeen-year-old Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden to ever speak again. Desperate and isolated, Alice pilfered her father’s razor, and on a cold winter’s day, she slashed her ex-fiancée’s throat. Now more than 120 years later, their tragic but true story is being told. Alice + Freda Forever, by historian Alexis Coe and with illustrations by Sally Klann, is embellished with letters, maps, historical documents, and more. (Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis by Alexis Coe / Published by Zest Books and distributed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / ISBN-13: 978-1-936976-60-7 / $16.99 Hardcover; 224 pages, Ages 16+)

Alice+FredaForever_9781936976607I have to say I love this book. Like many I go through reading phases, including but not limited to: YA Fantasy and Sci-fi, YA Romance, Adult Fantasy and Sci-fi, Comfort Rereads, Biographies, Radiolab-esque nonfiction, and the genre that Alice + Freda Forever falls under, True Crime. One of my favorite true crime stories is that of Juliette Hulme and Pauline Parker, which, while a different story, does contain a couple of similar elements (which is something I asked Alexis about in my interview with her, which you can read here), so when the chance to read Alice + Freda Forever came up, I quickly took it.

In my work as a youth librarian who works closely with educators, I often think about how the books I read could be used by teachers, and I can see a lot of ways that Alice + Freda Forever could be used in high school classrooms and even in college classrooms, in addition to just being a great, high-interest read. Pair it with Orlando and discuss gender identity, or with In Cold Blood to compare and contrast murder narratives. Assign it in a course about civil rights along with reading the works of Ida B. Wells. Include it in a reading list about obscure and outdated diseases. The possibilities are endless and that is, for me, a mark of quality nonfiction.

Although this book is definitely aimed at an older audience, with upper high school at the low end, I am really, really happy to see the copious amount of research that was done, and the list of sources that were referenced. Nonfiction for youth, despite being an in demand property, is, in my opinion, often lacking in references and source material, and the authority of the author is often questionable (have you noticed how many former lawyers write children’s nonfiction these days?). This is not the case with Alexis Coe, I am glad to say.

I also thought the design of this book was beautiful, and spot on for its audience. I can see teens who enjoy graphic memoirs easily embracing this beautifully illustrated title, and reluctant readers being pulled in by the striking red cover.

AliceFreda_parting
Alice and Freda parting.

One final note about this book and its imprint, Pulp. Ever since the term “new adult” appeared on the scene, I’ve scorned it. It seemed silly, redundant, and none of the books bearing that stamp seemed at all fresh or interesting to me. But then Pulp gave me a definition of new adult that I could accept and even support:

At Zest Books, we’ve been publishing nonfiction books for teens and young adults since 2006, but we’re growing up a little bit in 2014: Today we’re proud to announce our launch of Pulp, an imprint for “new adults.” Like our previous Zest titles, the books in the Pulp imprint will include contemporary and narrative nonfiction books, specializing in memoirs, graphic novels, and art and humor books, but for a slightly older audience. […] We’re looking forward to taking even more risks with these books, especially in terms of how we cover our topics. Many of our Zest authors were coming to us because, as readers, they appreciated our honesty and curiosity, but that sensibility is something that has value for adults as well. In fact, that sensibility is already being reflected at sites like Rookie and The Toast, where some of our current authors now publish. Additionally, the issues that we’re now covering for teens—such as sexuality, health, behavior, and relationships—shift significantly as young adults mature, and the Pulp line allows us to expand both what we can cover and how we can cover it. Some of our Pulp books will have immediate appeal to teens in the same way that our Zest Books titles often sell into the adult market. We embrace that fluidity, while at the same time recognizing a need to let booksellers and librarians know how our respective books are intended. (Emphasis added. Via Zest’s website).

Anyway, this book is a great read and belongs in most public and academic library collections, and could certainly see some applications in upper high school courses. Highly recommended.

Daisy to the Rescue: Book Review

Daisy to the RescueTrue Stories of Daring Dogs, Paramedic Parrots, and Other Animal Heroes

By Jeff Campbell and illustrated by Ramsey Beyer, with a foreword by Dr. Mark Bekoff / Published by Zest Books and distributed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / ISBN-13: 978-1-936976-62-1 / $17.99 Hardcover, 320 pages, Ages 12+)

Daisy to the rescue

As a single woman with two cats, I’m always interested in a good “animal saves human” story, especially ones involving animals other than dogs. Cats are more known for their propensity to eat your corpse if you die at home alone (although I recently learned that cats will mostly eat only your face, so as a “green burial” strategy, corpse removal via cat is not your best option) so I’m always on the lookout for a cat hero story to make myself feel better about the beasts who occupy my home.

Campbell’s book meets this need of mine and then some. Not only do cats save lives in this book, so do parrots, potbellied pigs, ponies, and kangaroos. I was personally greatly comforted by the tale of Inky, who saved his owner from being crushed by a fallen door. I hope my cats show the same heroic spirit should I ever become trapped under my refrigerator. Not that I think about that. No.Inky Card front

Campbell divides his tales into four parts to cover a variety of animal stories, including my favorite part, Legends and Folktales. This section includes a story of feral girls in India who may or may not have been raised by wolves, and whether or not a priest was trying to spin their story into an elaborate hoax.

The tale that sticks with me most, though, is the story of Kabang, the Filipino street dog. In the Philippines, street dogs (referred to as aspin) are often raised for meat rather than kept as pets, and live short, brutal lives before being slaughtered. Before this could happen to Kabang, however, she saved the lives of two young girls in the family who had been destined to kill her for food.

Kabang jumped at a motorcyle that was bearing down on eleven year old Dina and three year old princess, knocking the bike over in time to save the girls. In the process, Kabang had her lower jaw torn from her face. The family, despite her ugliness, regarded her as a hero, and treasured her as a member of the family for the rest of their lives.

This is being listed as 12+, and I can definitely see it having wide appeal for advanced elementary school readers through high school students. The stories are short and vividly told, and could even be used as read alouds for a class. I also love that the design of the book will appeal to younger readers without being overly childlike—no older kid will be embarrassed to be seen reading this book, yet the beautiful illustrations will still draw in younger readers.

Share with readers who enjoyed Nubs : The True Story Of A Mutt, A Marine & A Miracle, Alex & Me : How A Scientist And A Parrot Discovered A Hidden World Of Animal Intelligence–and Formed A Deep Bond In The Process, fans of Jon Katz’s books, or people who have read the entire James Herriott canon and are hungry for more animal tales.

This post is part of Zest books True Stories blog tour. I have to say that Zest is now one of my favorite publishers, and I am loving the titles that they are putting out. I’ll be writing about another one of their newest titles on Monday!ZestBooksTrueStories2014