her last book tour, Amy Stewart served specialty
cocktails at her readings. It was only fitting for her
book, "The Drunken Botanist," a historical
tour of boozy plants. That was Stewart’s fifth work of
nonfiction; since 2001 she’s been hitting bestseller
lists with her quirky tales of the natural world with
books that include "Wicked Plants" and
had so much fun," she says of that tour. But it was
something of a farewell — for now, she’s leaving
nonfiction and gardens behind for an unexpected jaunt
through Paterson, N.J., circa 1915.
had become obsessed with the long-forgotten tale of the
real-life Kopp sisters. A century ago, when women hadn’t
earned the right to vote, Constance, Norma and Fleurette
stood up to one of the city’s wealthiest men and his
violent gang of thugs.
felt this very powerful sense of obligation,"
Stewart says. "Everyone forgot about them, and I
found them. I dug them up. I resurrected this story, and
I can’t not tell it now."
Kopps are the stars of Stewart’s new zippy, winsome
novel, "Girl Waits With Gun" (Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt; 416 pages, $27). Filled with historical detail
without being weighed down by it, the novel is a
cinematic story of the women, the siege instigated by
their powerful enemy, and their brave efforts in the
face of real violence.
fill in the gaps, Stewart wanted the tools available to
a novelist; the book is told from Constance’s point of
view. She’s the eldest, tall and solid — think
"Game of Thrones’" Amazonian Brienne of
Tarth minus armor and sword. After their mother’s
death, it falls to Constance to preserve the family
farm. Her sister Norma is capable and dour, a strong
agrarian with a flock of carrier pigeons. Fleurette, the
youngest, is a petite proto-flapper who would be flirty
if only her sisters let her get into town once in a
taking a trip into town is exactly what caused them to
cross paths with the local factory owner, and then their
troubles began. Using the threat of the notorious Black
Hand, his thugs stake out their house, break windows,
shoot at the sisters and threaten to kidnap Fleurette
and sell her into slavery. Unlike most who’d suffered
similarly, the Kopps allied with authorities to try to
prosecute them. The book’s title comes from a headline
about Constance, who showed up to meet extortionists not
with the promised cash but with a handgun.
I wanted was for other people to have the same emotion I
had when I found them … " Stewart says,
"that sense of fun and spirit and adventure."
the course of the book, Constance quickly picks up
investigative skills. In a subplot, she pursues a
missing child, largely by following her instincts and
understanding situations that men might not. That part
of the story was invented by Stewart, but most of it is
based on real events.
she was working on the book, Stewart went to Paterson
and found much of the 1915 scenery remains. "I
stood in the creek where Fleurette got shot at. I have
stood on the street corners, and I’ve been inside the
jail," she says.
lives in Humbolt County, so far north in California that
in late August, when we spoke by Skype, she was already
wearing a fleece pullover against the cold. There, she,
her husband and business partners own Eureka Books, a
bookstore in a Victorian-era storefront. Back then, the
store sold accessories for horses and carriages like
wheels, whips and tackle.
have a picture of when it was a buggy shop; there was
this big old fake horse that they would wheel out into
the street every day. A little ironic, when you consider
that it was replaced by cars, and here we are, a
bookstore," she says, acknowledging that
brick-and-mortar bookstores are considered an outdated
throwback. "But we’re hanging on and doing
had always loved writing, but in college at University
of Texas at Austin she found herself studying
anthropology and then getting a graduate degree there in
community and regional planning. She moved to Santa Cruz
and was working as an analyst and grant writer in the
public sector when she penned her first book, the memoir
"From the Ground Up: The Story of a First
Garden." It put her on a certain kind of nonfiction
publishing path — and 14 years later, she’s stepping
away from it, with plans to keep going.
Stewart is working on now is another novel with
Constance at its center. "I’m 46, and I think all
writers at some point in their lives start to say, ‘How
many more books do I get to write?’" she says.
"Fiction is what I read. What I really want is to
write the exact book that I want to read."
old habits die hard. On tour for this book, she’ll be
serving up the New Jersey Automobile, a cocktail she
adapted from a 1910s recipe in honor of the Kopp women.