In April 2020, the Official Future Female Leaders Book Club was launched, and we loved connecting with so many readers over that book, American Royals, and talking to the author, Katharine McGee, about the writing process, American history, and more!
Now, our May pick, American Princess, is here, and today we’re talking to the author, Stephanie Marie Thornton.
Thornton is a writer and high school history teacher who loves to retell stories of history’s forgotten women. She lives with her daughter and husband in Alaska and has also authored books on Genghis Khan, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Theodora of Byzantie, and the Pharaoh Hatshepsut.
How did you first learn about Alice Roosevelt? A lot of our readers are really learning about her for the first time with this novel.
I first encountered Alice Roosevelt’s story when I was chaperoning a student trip to Washington D.C. and stumbled upon a picture book called Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt. As a high school history teacher, I’ve always been a huge fan of Theodore Roosevelt and this children’s book I bought for my then-toddler was my first introduction to his hellion of a daughter. Any woman who lived ninety-six years and personally knew every president from William McKinley to Gerald Ford was someone I wanted to know about!
What is your favorite fun fact about Alice Roosevelt?
There are so many! Rather than calling cards or lace fans, Alice was renowned for carrying in her silk purse a little garter snake named Emily Spinach. (She named her pet Emily for an aunt, Spinach for the snake’s green color.) Sometimes Alice let the snake slither free during state dinners at the White House, which certainly caused a ruckus!
What was the best historical resource for you in the writing of this book?
My go-to biography source was definitely Stacy Cordery’s Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker. However, I was able to make a couple trips to Sagamore Hill to visit the house where Alice grew up, which was invaluable.
Some of the world events Alice lived through are explained in detail in the book, and others are skipped. How did you decide which events to show Alice reacting to and which to mention? Did the historical record on Alice and her thoughts influence this?
Many world events left their fingerprints on the arc of Alice’s life: her father becoming president, her goodwill tour of the Far East at his behest, the election of 1912, World War I, and World War II. Those major events were necessary and deserved a scene—or sometimes several—as her own story was unfolding. However, other events—like the Great Depression—had less of an impact on her and therefore, warranted less of a mention in the story. I was also able to use Alice’s autobiography as a guide, given that she spent a fair amount of time speaking of certain events and less on others. However, there were personal events in her life that she studiously avoided discussing in her autobiography, probably because they were too painful.
Did you get a chance to interview anyone who knew Alice? How did they talk about her and her life?
I wasn’t able to interview anyone who knew Alice personally, but I did read every interview Alice gave during her lifetime that I could get my hands on, especially Mrs. L: Conversations with Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Also, Alice’s granddaughter granted me access to Alice’s collection of personal papers and diaries that are housed in the Library of Congress. Reading those (sometimes more like deciphering—her handwriting is best described as a scrawl) was like getting a chance to peer inside her mind. And Alice’s acerbic wit shone through in each one of those diaries, letters, and interviews!
How do you know when you want to write a historical fiction novel about someone? Is there a moment in their life that draws you in at first, or is it the general aura around them?
It really depends on the woman. My first novel, The Secret History, is about Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire and I was inspired to write about her after reading the lone sentence dedicated to her in a history textbook. It said that she saved her husband’s throne by giving a speech during an uprising—I knew there had to be more to her story, and boy, was I right! For Alice Roosevelt, I was gobsmacked when I realized that no one had written about her—she witnessed firsthand the majority of 20th century politics and history, knew everyone who was anyone in Washington (there’s a reason she was called the Other Washington Monument), and had plenty to say about all of it. I knew I absolutely had to write her story!
You’ve written several historical novels about women. Who was your favorite to write about, ultimately, and was that different than what you expected going into the process?
I’m going to sound like a parent or a teacher here, but I’ve loved all the women I’ve written about. (I spend at least a couple years working on each book, so I have to love these women before I start writing!) That said, writing Alice Roosevelt was a hoot because that woman always said what everyone else was thinking, no holds barred. You definitely didn’t want to get on her bad side!
What women in American history do you want to write about in the future?
My next novel, (tentatively titled Clever Girl), is about Elizabeth Bentley, an American who spied for Russia during World War II and then became the FBI’s biggest informer during the early days of the Cold War. And I have a few more American women I’m side-eyeing in the hopes of writing their stories!
If you had to be locked in isolation with three forgotten women from American history, who would you choose and why?
It goes without saying that Alice Roosevelt would be on that list! Although she’s not forgotten, I’d have to invite Jackie Kennedy too. (Parts of her story have started to gather dust, so I don’t think that’s cheating too much. Plus there’s a few scenes from And They Called It Camelot that I’d like to ask her about!) For my third, I’m going to choose Alice Paul—I have a fascination with both the British and American suffragettes and she was involved with both movements!
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