Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Meet Karen Abbott!

Today's guest is Karen Abbott, author of the New York Times bestseller, Sin in the Second City, described by the Chicago Tribune as "the most engaging, thoroughly researched work to be published on its subject… a rousingly racy yarn.”

Sin in the Second City provides a meticulously researched yet highly entertaining portrait of the most famous brothel in American history: the Everleigh (pronounced ever-lay) Club. The book takes us back to early 20th century Chicago, where we meet the famous and the infamous, the prosperous and the poor, the scandalous and the straight-laced. It's a trip well worth taking, and Abbott is a phenomenal tour guide.

I read Sin in the Second City as part of my research for It Happened in Chicago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am delighted and honored that Karen Abbott accepted my request for an interview.

Q: How old were you when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer?

I began writing as soon as I learned to read, at age four, but I never wanted to “be a writer.” Simply put, I didn’t think that was a job someone could grow up to do. It seemed unfathomable to me. I majored in English in college with the intention of going to law school. Around junior year, I realized that a) I was sick of school, and b) I couldn’t afford to add law school debt to my already daunting student loans. On a whim, I applied for a summer internship at Philadelphia magazine, and got it. Within a week, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I was 21 years old and I found that atmosphere incredibly intoxicating, even though I spent a good bit of my time running errands and fact-checking rather mundane bits of information. I was lucky enough to work as a journalist in Philly for six years before trying my hand at book-length narrative nonfiction. I feel badly for current college students who are interested in newspaper and magazine jobs; they’re just not there anymore.

Q: Describe one of your earliest works. Who or what inspired you to write it?

I started with fairy tales—witches that melted and shape-shifting creatures, that sort of thing. Then I became obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe and tried to write poems that “answered” his. (I’m still a rabid fan; one of my African Grey parrots is named “Poe,” and the other is “Dexter,” after the novelist Pete Dexter). When I was thirteen I took a mystery writing class, and afterward I began sending awful short stories to Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock featuring murderous matrons and cross-dressing grandmothers and all sorts of sordid, sick cameo characters. I’m surprised my mother didn’t put me into therapy. Then again, I spent my entire life in Catholic school, and I guess she thought the nuns would straighten me out.

Q: Whose encouragement made a significant difference as you developed into a writer?

Two of my favorite writers also happen to be two of my best friends: the novelists Sara Gruen and Joshilyn Jackson. I honestly couldn’t write books without them. Not only are they invaluable readers and critique partners, they also sustain me on a daily basis. Writing is an incredibly solitary and lonely job, and if you don’t have people to yank you out of your own head and force you to engage with the rest of the world, you’ll go insane. I can literally go eight hours without saying one word out loud, to anyone, and most of the people I do “talk to” have been dead for a very long time. So we check in with each other during the day, help each other set goals, let each other rant. A few times a year, we have a writers’ retreat at Sara’s house. We each hole up in a different room, and only after we achieve our predetermined goals are we allowed to “play.” And by “play,” I mean drink enormous filthy martinis and eat yummy bad things. It’s great fun, and I’m so lucky to have them both.

Q: Obviously you have written a book about Chicago. What other ties to Chicago do you have?
I had never been to Chicago before I began researching SIN, but do have an oddly personal connection to the city. In 1905, my great-grandmother and her sister immigrated to the United States from Slovenia. They settled in Pittsburgh, but one weekend the sister took a trip to Chicago and was never heard from again. I was always intrigued and haunted by this bit of family lore, and as I began looking into stories of “disappearing girls” at the turn of the 20th century, these tales really captured my imagination. Chicago was a thrilling but dangerous place to be during that time; there were even guidebooks that warned people about which streets to avoid and which establishments to be wary of, and many young women did, for whatever reason, end up working in houses of prostitution. I never did find out what happened to my missing relative, but I do hope she would’ve been Everleigh Club material…

Q: What was easy about writing Sin in the Second City? What was difficult?

I was so intrigued by the characters and the setting and the story that I could’ve happily researched that book for the rest of my life. So the research was easy. I’d say the hard part was assembling all of my endnotes. I’d never had to compile endnotes before, and I stupidly failed to keep track of many facts during the writing process; I was too interested in telling the story to be bothered noting where various pieces of it came from. I paid for that, dearly, when I stayed up nearly a week straight in a coffee-fueled panic to hand them in by deadline. I learned my lesson for the second book.

Q: Of the places mentioned in Sin in the Second City, what is one of your favorites?

The Everleigh Club, absolutely! I spent a thrilling day at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s special collections room, where they have one of the original advertising brochures that Minna Everleigh mailed out across the country. It was amazing just to hold a piece of history like that in my hands. The Everleigh Club looked so fantastic to me, so magical and gaudy and over-the-top, that at times I could scarcely believe it existed. It’s why I included so many photographs in the book; words couldn’t do the place justice. Although I think the Chicago Tribune put it well when they called the Japanese Throne Room “a whore’s idea of what a Japanese parlor might look like.” I would give anything to jump into a time machine and spend a week at that brothel. Hell, even an hour.

Q: Of the people mentioned in Sin in the Second City, choose one you would like to meet and tell us why.

I’d have to say Minna Everleigh, of course—she was the heart and soul of the whole operation (sister Ada, I think, was the brains). And I’d love to get to the bottom of the sisters’ numerous secrets and hear more about the wild things that went on behind the Club’s doors. But the sisters’ main nemesis, Madam Vic Shaw, would be a close second. I’m really interested in women who make their own lives, who aren’t fortunate enough to have lives handed to them, and I understand exactly where Vic Shaw was coming from, and why she hated the sisters. She scrimped and clawed and scraped to became Queen of the Levee (dubious though that title may be) and she was not about to let a pair of haughty, aristocratic sisters saunter in and steal it without a fight. Her schemes to dethrone the sisters were both ridiculous and hilarious, and I'd love to chat about them with her.

Q: What is one of the most surprising pieces of information you uncovered in your research for Sin in the Second City?

I was really shocked by the findings of the Chicago Vice Commission. This was a detailed, graphic compilation of exactly what a street-level prostitute in Gilded Age America had to endure just to survive. One girl charged five cents for intercourse, and had nearly $5,000 saved up in the bank. You do the math. It was horrifying, and it really made me appreciate the reformers’ point of view.

Q: Anything else you'd like to share?

I just turned in the manuscript for my second book, American Rose, a portrait of the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee and Depression-era America. Gypsy was a fascinating, immensely complex woman, by turns tragic and triumphant, and her life story really is a microcosm of America through the 20th century. Gypsy was brilliant at adapting to changing times and reinventing herself, and managed to remain relevant long after she stopped stripping off her clothes. She’s a true American icon, and the famous movie and Broadway play are fairy tales that have little to do with who she really was and how she became that person. I’m having great fun with her, and I look forward to spilling all of her secrets. You can get a sneak preview of some of them on twitter:


  1. The questions were superb--open-ended and thoughtful, resulting in answers that arouses interest not only in Karen Abbott's book, but about the author herself. Enticing subject matter in "Sin" that would appeal to a broad audience.

  2. I've heard a lot of things about Karen Abbott, author of the New York Times bestseller, Sin in the Second City, I can say that she's so talented that's why I've follow her carrier, by the way I didn't know she likes to drink a lot, that's perfect because it means that she's so naughty.