WomensHistoryReads interview: Thelma Adams

So pleased to welcome Thelma Adams to the blog today! I happened upon her book The Last Woman Standing -- inspired by Josephine Marcus, the real-life paramour of both Wyatt Earp and his rival Johnny Behan -- shortly after reading Epitaph, a much more Earp-centric version of the same events. Putting a woman at the center of the story changes it quite a bit, as you might imagine. And Thelma's insights and answers below are consistent with the desire to bring women back to the center of their own stories, especially the quote she cites as her mantra: "Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter." Welcome, Thelma!

Thelma Adams

Thelma Adams

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Thelma: Yes. I have the degree to prove it – a BA from UC Berkeley where I studied Early Modern England with a turn at St. Andrews in Scotland studying Medieval History. I loved being buried in the stacks at Berkeley in Doe Library up twisting stairs to sit and pore over The Gentleman's Quarterly and other musty periodicals. I learned the beauty of primary sources and a skill at skepticism and what has become my mantra: "Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter." We can follow the story of queens but what of the lives of the people, the schleppers -- the women like me and unlike me?

However, I did not pursue academics as a career although I am the daughter of a history PhD and a history professor – perhaps that is one reason why not. Rebellion! But the logistical reality was that as a woman in the early 1980s, my male mentor Robert Brentano strongly discouraged me from continuing toward a PhD because there were no jobs. My foolishness: I listened. Where were there jobs, anyway?

My joy: I spent years in the world, reading the literature I wanted to read (Balzac, Flaubert, Sand, Wodehouse, Waugh, Greene, Austen), watching movies as I had done since my first memory of The Sound of Music and How The West Was Won in Cinerama and, funnily enough, establishing myself on another impossible career path as a film critic. Life wanders. We make mistakes and meet our most cherished friends in the unlikeliest of places. This is something I try to say to my college-aged children but they are, like I was before, only half-listening to what elders have to say.

As a historical novelist, I draw from my background: scrupulous research, digging for primary sources where available and honoring the people of the past. As a contemporary historical novelist, sitting now in a room at the august New York Public Library as I write this, I realize, as I head into my third novel set in the past, that there are so many more resources currently available within this building and online. When I can, and when my budget allows, I love to walk the streets of my characters, stopping under the on-ramp to the Williamsburg Bridge, for example, and wondering how I might have been afraid walking in those shadows at two a.m. in 1935 when the wind bit and my coat was too thin and a man stood under the streetlamp with his hat pulled down over his eyes. And it's that leap, channeling emotions if I can, that takes me away from my academic background – and into the thrill and chill of what we do.

Greer: Beautifully put. What's your next book about and when will we see it?

Thelma: My next book, Bittersweet Brooklyn, is slated for November 6, 2018. Set in New York from 1905 to 1935, it illuminates a Jewish immigrant family and how their poverty, loss and life-force set them on different paths: one a criminal, one a decorated soldier, one a striver and the central character: the widowed little sister, the runt of the litter, who struggles to find love and joy in their wake. The current tag line in progress for the book jacket copy is this: In turn-of-the century New York, a mobster rises – and his favorite sister struggles between loyalty and life itself. How far will she go when he commits murder?

From the beginning my goal was to flip the script of familiar narratives like The SopranosBoardwalk Empire or The Godfather, and explore the shattering impact of mob violence on the women expected to mop up the mess. The result is a heavily researched family saga spanning three decades that puts the perspective of a forgotten yet vibrant woman at its center.

Greer: Can't wait to read it! Last question: what book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?

Thelma: Here's a crazy one: Trailer Park Boys. My college-aged son turned me onto the Canadian comedy. It's about two schleppers, Ricky and Julian, who are in and out of jail – and their faithful bespectacled pal Bubbles. They live in a ratty Nova Scotia trailer park, drinking and doping and plotting get-rich-quick schemes, surrounded by a plethora of loser characters and feral cats. It's on Netflix and goes on for many, many seasons. It's my go-to pick-me-up (with a scotch on the rocks) after a dispiriting day. It has no redeeming value and is rudely funny. I'm also addicted to Spiral, the hard-boiled French female-driven crime show that's heading into its sixth season streaming on MHz.    

My question for you, Greer: What are your secret hacks for researching historical fiction – and when do you (or don't you) allow yourself to fudge?

Greer: I always pictured myself digging for facts among yellowing, leather-bound tomes in labyrinthine stacks that stretch sky-high, but to tell the truth, I often find much of my information on the internet. For The Magician's Lie, I did look at old theater programs and 19th-century magicians' biographies to find the names of many of the illusions performed at the time, but I discovered that many of today's illusions are still variations on the same basics. So in order to be able to describe and explain the illusions, I watched modern magicians performing them on YouTube! And for all of my books, I make sure my research accounts for all five senses. What did Chicago smell like in 1856? What could you see from San Francisco's Telegraph Hill in 1888? What would a celebrating couple order at Delmonico's in 1903? Menus, maps, fashion magazines, everything can add to my understanding, and by extension, the picture I draw for my readers.

Fudge-wise, I try to keep any event dates close to the historical record, though I certainly understand when authors need to collapse three years' worth of events, for example, into one. And I'm very comfortable combining historical figures with completely fictional ones or making a composite character -- as long as I account for it in my Author's Note to make it clear for the reader who's been drawn from history and who I've imagined into existence.

High Res TLWS Cover smaller.jpg

Thelma Adams is the author of the bestselling historical novel The Last Woman Standing and the O Magazine pick Playdate. She co-produced the Emmy-winning Feud: Bette and Joan.  Additionally, Adams is a prominent American film critic and an outspoken voice in the Hollywood community. She has been the in-house film critic for Us Weekly and The New York Post, and has written essays, celebrity profiles and reviews for Yahoo! MoviesThe New York TimesO: The Oprah MagazineVarietyThe Hollywood ReporterParadeMarie Claire, and The Huffington Post. Adams studied history at the University of California, Berkeley, where she was valedictorian, and received her MFA from Columbia University. She lives in upstate New York with her family.

You can connect with Thelma on social media at the links below: