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Karen Joy Fowler paints the unlikely life path of John Wilkes Booth in novel 'Booth'


I did not want to write a book about John Wilkes, Karen Joy Fowler says in an author's note to her new novel, which is "Booth," as in John Wilkes Booth. This is a man who craved attention and has gotten too much of it. I didn't think he deserved mine. But she persisted because Booth had nine siblings and because events in America kept drawing her back to thoughts and perplexities presented by the man who fatally shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Karen Joy Fowler, author of the bestselling "The Jane Austen Book Club" and other books, joins us now from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAREN JOY FOWLER: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: What is it in our current world, especially current America, that kept drawing your back to John Wilkes Booth?

FOWLER: I don't think the parallels between that time and this time were as clear to me when I started writing the book. Obama was president. But since the Trump presidency, I feel that it is more visible to me that the issues surrounding the Civil War - the issues that led us into war - have not been resolved and are unlikely to be resolved. So it just is much easier for me to see a straight line from that period of upset and partisanship and rancor and family feuds to this one.

SIMON: And gun violence.

FOWLER: And gun violence, yes. John Wilkes Booth is probably the most famous man with a gun in all of American history.

SIMON: How does somebody who was raised in a large family of freethinking abolitionists, vegetarian parents and siblings grow up to shoot the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation?

FOWLER: This is the mystery about John Wilkes Booth. And I don't think it's a mystery that I have made much progress in solving, that he just doesn't fit whatever you might imagine the profile of an assassin to be. He was much loved by his parents and his siblings. He was handsome. He was successful. It appears that he had everything to be happy about, but he was a passionate white supremacist, very, very much in favor of slavery and deeply moved by the suffering of white people in the South during the Civil War, although seemingly indifferent to the suffering of Black people before, during and after.

SIMON: And tell us about the Booth family growing up in a family on a farm not far from Baltimore. I mean, first, we must note, they all didn't reach adulthood, did they?

FOWLER: No, and I think that this is a significant factor in the way the family operated, that they were completely deformed by the deaths of four of their children, that the parents never recovered. The father, who was a incredibly successful Shakespearean actor, often considered to be the greatest Shakespearean actor in America, was famous not only for his acting but also for bouts of public insanity. And these became much more pronounced after the death of his children.

SIMON: We should mention, of course, this is Junius Brutus Booth and a great actor, magnetic personality, could be a terrible drunk, too, couldn't he?

FOWLER: Yes, he was a terrible drunk. And, you know, for a man who would not allow an animal to be hurt on the farm in any way, he appears to have often been quite abusive to his wife, who I think was quite frightened of him.

SIMON: Yeah. The Booths didn't want their children going into the theater, did they?

FOWLER: Well, Junius Booth, their father, really didn't. They weren't allowed to come to see him act. He picked out other careers for them and tried to force them into other pursuits and is the case with parents and children everywhere. They paid no attention to him at all, and 3 of his 4 surviving sons became actors.

SIMON: How do you balance your writing as a historian and a novelist in a work like this?

FOWLER: This is actually not my first historical novel, but it is the first one in which I dealt with actual people. I've written novels before that had historical settings, but the stories were fictional, the characters were fictional. So this was a whole new endeavor for me and one I'm not entirely comfortable with even having done it, that, you know, to use famous names and attribute to them thoughts they might have had, but they also might not have had, I enjoyed it. You know, I loved the research that I did. I loved writing the book. But I do feel a bit uncomfortable with the whole project in that way because, of course, I am only pretending to know them well. I'm making my best guesses.

I did have a lot of information. The family has been fascinating to many people over many, many years. There's a huge wealth of material about them. The trick is that a lot of it is mythology. And so if you are interested in the actual facts, figuring out exactly which those are is quite tricky. One of the things that really surprised me, given how famous they've been and how many people have looked at them, is the fact that new things are still being discovered about them. The fact that John Wilkes' grandfather was part of the Underground Railroad and helped a handful of slaves flee from Baltimore to Philadelphia, that's fairly new information.

SIMON: You read this book and think this is an interesting and affecting family, with one major exception.


SIMON: And then once again, you're left to reflect on the fact that it's somehow - I mean, you titled the book "Booth," and there can be very little confusion as to who you mean. That seems something unfair.

FOWLER: It does. You know, as you said at the very beginning, the last thing I wanted to do was to give more attention to John Wilkes Booth. And so I tried really and I believe with all my heart that people who don't murder presidents can be just as interesting as people who do and that actually John Wilkes was not the most interesting member of this family. So I tried to keep the focus on his brothers and sisters. But, you know, we all know I wouldn't be writing about them if John Wilkes Booth hadn't murdered Abraham Lincoln. So he's sort of simultaneously somebody I'm trying to keep from absolute center stage and the whole reason we're interested in this family.

SIMON: Karen Joy Fowler, her novel, "Booth," thank you so much for being with us.

FOWLER: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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