Q&A: Jennifer Chiaverini on Her Novel About the Women in John Wilkes Booth's Life

Jennifer Chiaverini, the author of 26 novels, is known for her “Elm Creek Quilter” books, many of which have become bestsellers. Recently, she has been writing historical novels based on the lives of 19th century women, like Mrs. Grant and Madam Jule, which tells the story of Julia Grant, the wife of President Ulysses S. Grant, and her slave, Jule.

Chiaverini’s novel Fates and Traitors: A Novel of John Wilkes Booth, just published by Dutton, takes as its subject one of the great villains in American history.  She focuses, however, on the women surrounding Booth — his mother, sister, sweetheart, and eventually his fellow Confederate Mary Surratt —and through them weaves a fascinating historical tale.  

Chiaverini answered questions from the National Book Review on the process of researching and writing about the lives of these women, who were connected by one of the most reviled men in American history.

Q: How did you decide to write about the main women in the life of one of the nation's most infamous assassins? Did you start with Booth and then figure out the women in his orbit?

A: In my other novels set in the Civil War era — including Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, The Spymistress, Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, and Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule — President Abraham Lincoln either has appeared as a character or has played a significant off-stage role, and so I’ve often reflected upon his assassination and how his death dramatically changed the course of American history. As a result, I’ve been curious about John Wilkes Booth for many years. He’s often portrayed as a shadowy figure, a violent loner whose single murderous act made him the most hated man in America, but I wanted to understand him beyond this simple two-dimensional rendering. Who was he, really? Was he motivated by politics, madness, or something else?

When I first began planning Fates and Traitors, I envisioned it as a first-person narrative from the perspective of Lucy Hale, the staunchly Unionist, abolitionist daughter of New Hampshire Senator John Parker Hale — and, according to some historians, John Wilkes Booth’s secret fiancée. As my research continued, I discovered that Lucy and Booth knew each other only very briefly, for less than a year before the assassination of President Lincoln. Also, because Booth concealed so many of his beliefs and activities from Lucy, her perspective was too limited for the novel I wanted to write. As I delved more deeply into Booth’s history, and especially after I learned that his dying words were for his mother and that he had left his last written manifesto with his sister, I realized that telling the story from the perspectives of Mary Ann, Asia, Lucy, and one of his co-conspirators, Mary Surratt, would allow me to offer a richer, more detailed understanding of who Booth was and how a bright, beloved son could have turned into the country’s most notorious assassin.

Q: What was it like to spend these years with such a villain?

A: In Fates and Traitors, readers see John Wilkes Booth through the eyes of four women who loved him very much, whether as a son, a brother, a sweetheart, or a comrade. They cared deeply for him, even when his beliefs and actions shocked, upset, or horrified them. Since my four narrators’ perceptions shaped how Booth appeared as a fictional character, for most of the time I was working on the novel, I was writing about John the beloved son, the favorite brother, the alluring lover, and the inspiring comrade. Only later did John Wilkes Booth, the infamous assassin, take the stage.

Q: What do you think of the fate of Mary Surratt, the woman executed for conspiring with Booth?

A: Of my four women narrators, Mary Surratt was the one whose beliefs and values were most antithetical to my own, and that made hers the most challenging perspective to explore, as well as the most intriguing. Even today historians debate how much she knew about Booth’s plan to bring down President Lincoln and when she knew it. I weighed many different, often contradictory sources to come up with what I believe to be the most plausible explanation. When I imagine Mary Surratt awaiting her execution, the fear and apprehension and anguish that must have tormented her, my heart goes out to her even though I could never condone what she did.

Q: As you focused the narratives on the women in Booth’s life, did you find yourself empathizing with all of them, or one in particular?

A: All four women are fascinating characters and compelling narrators, but if I had to choose the one I would most like for a friend, I’d pick Lucy, the staunchly Unionist, abolitionist daughter of New Hampshire Senator John Parker Hale. Her contemporaries described Lucy as charming, pretty, intelligent, and very popular in social circles both in Washington, DC and in her hometown of Dover. She had a great sense of humor and a mischievous streak — which I enjoyed bringing out in Fates and Traitors — but she was also devoted to her family and worked tirelessly to support the Union cause by organizing fundraisers, sewing and knitting for the troops, and visiting wounded soldiers in military hospitals. And anyone who has ever fallen in love with someone who is completely wrong with them, only to find out too late that they’ve been deceived and betrayed, would find it hard not to empathize with Lucy.

Q: You’ve clearly done a great deal of research for Fates and Traitors, and you mention in particular the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society and the digital newspapers at the Library of Congress. What surprised you about the newspapers of the day, and were they reliable sources?

A: I’ve been working with historic newspapers for many years, so I wouldn’t say that they surprised me in and of themselves, because I’m familiar with their quirks by now. Individual news reports certainly do surprise me from time to time, such as the widely reprinted story that came out twenty-five years after the assassination in which an Alabama woman insisted that John Wilkes Booth had not died in 1865. Citing as evidence a letter she claimed he had sent her in 1867, she contended that Booth had escaped, that the body identified as his had been one of his fellow conspirators, and that the authorities had concealed the truth out of concern for “the excited and clamorous condition of the public mind.”

Then as now, some newspapers were more reliable than others. Some had a very specific political bias, all sometimes had to go to press before all the facts were known. But even when they aren’t factually accurate, newspapers can be very useful for understanding how my characters would have learned about significant events as they were unfolding, as details were trickling in from distant regions.

Q: Did you ever literally walk the paths of your characters and visit the places they lived, or did you let your imagination do the walking?

A: Whenever I can, I like to visit preserved historical sites that relate to the people and events I include in my novels, because that greatly enhances my understanding of the nature of a place and its people. While researching Fates and Traitors, I benefited from the work of organizations such as the National Park Service, the Surratt Society, and the Junius Brutus Booth Society, who maintain the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, the Surratt House Museum, and Tudor Hall, respectively.

Q: There’s a marvelous work of non-fiction, the best-selling Manhunt, by James Swanson, which chronicles the search for John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Lincoln. Fates and Traitors seems less interested in that part of the Booth story. How did you decide on your focus?

A: Fates and Traitors was never intended to be a detailed analysis of the pursuit and capture of Booth. As you point out, that has been done very well elsewhere. Of course my four narrators were very interested in the manhunt, but in a very different, more personal way than the men hunting him. My focus was on these women, on how they experienced this relentless pursuit of the man they loved, the man whose actions had left them reeling.

Their concern, dread, and fear as they followed the manhunt at a distance by piecing together harrowing reports in the press surely must evoke our sympathy even as we repudiate the crime that caused it. At the same time, the four women — Lucy to a lesser extent than the others — had come under suspicion because of their ties to Booth, a fairly obvious consequence of his actions that I doubt he fully considered.

Q: Is there anything to be learned from John Wilkes Booth’s story, and is his anger resonant at all today?

A: Before I began my research, I assumed that Booth came from a zealously Confederate family. I was surprised to discover that he had actually been raised in a rather progressive, egalitarian, abolitionist Maryland household, and that he was the only member of his immediate family who sympathized with the South. I could imagine his family’s increasing dismay, and in some cases outrage, as they watched the son and brother they loved turn his back on their most cherished values. Perhaps they hoped that after the war, his anger would subside and he would return to being the cheerful, optimistic brother and son they had always known. I doubt they ever imagined that his new passions would compel him to kill.

Today, what resonates more than Booth’s anger, I believe, is the outrage, suspicion and condemnation that the public brought down upon Booth’s family and friends. Even now, when someone commits an act of senseless violence, people ask, “Where were the parents? Where was the family? Why didn’t friends warn anyone? Why didn’t they do anything to prevent this?” What we can learn from those who loved John Wilkes Booth is that a person determined to do wrong can be very skilled at concealing their intentions even from those closest to them. Often the glimpses they inadvertently revealed form a complete picture only in hindsight.

This interview was edited for publication.