By Leslie Lindsay
A modern-day historian finds herself enmeshed with the life of Annie Oakley, in a dual-timeline novel exploring the concept of revenge and changing one’s past/path.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
“2020 Best & Most Anticipated Historical Fiction” Oprah Magazine
“Most Anticipated Books of 2021” by Buzzfeed
Several years ago, I read and loved Andromeda Romano-Lax’s BEHAVE, about Behaviorist John Watson and his wife, Rosalie Raynor Watson, their inhumane ‘experiments’ on children and parenting, done in what they believed was what was ‘best’ for the children (withholding affection, etc.). When I discovered her forthcoming ANNIE AND THE WOLVES (Soho Press, Feb 2, 2021), I knew I had to get my hands on it.
Ruth McClintock is a historian in her early thirties and completely obsessed with Annie Oakley. For nearly a decade, she has been studying the show-stopping sharpshooter, convinced a tragic past is what elevated her status as one of the best shots in the land. But Ruth sort of loses it all–her book deal, her finance, her dissertation because her own mental health gets in the way. There’s a dark personal history she is wrestling with, a mystery of her younger sister’s last few days/months, and more. She ties both her past and her sister’s experiences together in a narrative that also links in Annie Oakley.
Plus, Ruth has managed to track down an elusive journal of Annie’s that suggests she was receiving psychoanalysis overseas, in Vienna, at the time Freud was working. Could this be patient notes penned by Freud himself? She’s not sure, but she wants to find out. In this journal (and subsequent found letters), Ruth discovers Annie was likely sexually (and physically) abused by the farm families she was ‘rented out’ to as a young girl between the ages of 9-11 years. Annie refers to these people only as ‘the wolves’ and no names are actually mentioned. That won’t stop Ruth from trying to find justice.
ANNIE AND THE WOLVES is an ambitious novel combining genres; it’s not wholly historic fiction, but a bifurcated narrative told in dual timelines, with elements of suspended belief, thriller, mystery, and more. It also has a strong #metoo theme about the plight of women trying to move beyond their dark pasts and into brighter futures. It might have the ring of a Jodi Picoult book meets Fiona Davis.
I absolutely loved the infusion of history with psychology, the Viennese psychoanalysts, and following along with Ruth as she pieced together these historical aspects of Annie’s life. Family history, memory, and dysfunction are a fascination and so this piece particularly intrigued.
ANNIE AND THE WOLVES is a complexly structured narrative, about revenge and justice, human fragility, and more. Romano-Lax’s research is to be commended.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Andromeda Romano-Lax back to the author interview series:
Andromeda! Welcome back. I am so thrilled to chat again. I understand ANNIE AND THE WOLVES was your most difficult book to date. I can see why. It’s ambitious but also touches on some personal history. Can you talk about your inspirations?
I had twin inspirations for the book, and I wouldn’t have started writing if these two events hadn’t happened at nearly the same time. First, I received an unexpected message from relatives that my father was dying, in Mexico, where he’d retired. We hadn’t been in touch since I was fourteen, when I cut off contact, having found out he sexually abused my two older sisters. Hearing he was dying, one of my sisters said she was thinking about paying him a visit—perhaps with a gun. She changed her mind later, but not before I had time to start imagining what it would mean if she—or anyone—actually sought revenge for what he’d done.
At the same time, completely by chance, I stumbled upon some mention of the abuse Annie Oakley had received as a girl at the hands of a couple she called “The Wolves.” I started imagining a story in which she would become obsessed with the idea of vengeance, much as my sister and I briefly were.
I think that for any piece of writing to come across as authentic, it must have personal meaning, passion. You were just as obsessed about Annie Oakley as Ruth McClintock, your character. Can you walk us through some of your research?
Like Ruth, who has her own personal reasons for becoming obsessed with a story about an American icon who experienced abuse and was shaped by it, I became not only preoccupied with Annie but also with the idea of a modern woman sublimating her own personal anxieties into the process of research.
As for me, I love research—both when I’m trying to avoid some other duty or worry, and when I’m not! Having said that, this book was actually less research-intensive than my others, for two reasons. First, much more is known about Annie Oakley than about Rosalie Rayner Watson, the main character of BEHAVE. Whereas Rosalie was cut out of the historical record, Annie’s myth has been added to for over a century, not only by authors but also by Hollywood and Broadway. Second, I never intended this to be straight historical fiction. That would have been an easier book to write. I actually had to be careful not to let the historical Annie take over the book. She is only one of about five main characters, and while half of the story I tell about her is based in fact, the other half is completely invented—and fantastical.
In the case of Rosalie, I had to work for every detail—for example, getting access to her Baltimore home, visiting Vassar to better imagine her college life, communicating with scientists to get fresh insight. In the case of Annie, it was more a sculpting process—paring away some common and mistaken ideas about Annie Oakley, avoiding being misled over and over by inaccuracies, and choosing not to write scenes from her life that would be too familiar to those who read biographies of her. (The best one is by Glenda Riley.)
Aside from reading about Annie, my research led me in search of everything from Holocaust records to how one does or doesn’t put down a lame horse properly. But I didn’t let myself rely too heavily on notes or continue digging beyond a certain point. I wanted to focus on a few events and contexts, and I had to remember that I was creating a fictional character. I also made use of serendipity. I never expected to discover, for example, that Annie Oakley’s 1901 train accident happened on the same day that Leon Czolgosz, the black-sheep ancestor of another of my characters, was electrocuted for his assassination of President McKinley.
I’m pretty sure I saw a live outdoor summer performance of ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ growing up. This ANNIE AND THE WOLVES is a very different book than that 1946 play. Can you talk about those differences, please?
I just can’t make myself interested in the screen and stage version of Annie Oakley (sorry, fans of those musicals!) but I recently had to review some storyline details from the various iterations, beginning with a 1935 movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, then continuing with the 1946 Broadway musical and then the movie made from it, in 1950. Seeing how all three handle the issue of the famous cute-meet between Annie and her husband Frank Butler (even if he’s called by another name) says more about each era than about Annie herself. In that way, a comparison is fascinating.
In real life, Annie and Frank first met as competitors in a shooting match, and Annie—possibly only 15 at the time—won. Frank didn’t mind. He even gave her family tickets to his upcoming show and started slyly courting Annie by sending her letters signed by his poodle, “George.” Later, recognizing she was the greater talent, Frank set aside his own career in order to help manage hers.
In the movie and musical versions, Annie either throws the match to ensure “Toby” (based on Frank) doesn’t lose his job—a nod to 1930s anxiety about unemployment. Or, in the ‘40s-‘50s versions, Annie wins—but Frank is a sore loser—a “big swollen-headed stiff”—who shows little interest in her at first. She joins the Wild West show out of love for bratty Frank, not because she is dedicated to her sport and career.
People have fond memories of those musicals, I understand. But if, because of the backwardness of the 1950s, we allow them to be the only thing we know about Oakley—a clever businesswoman who married a man who fully supported her and actually stepped out of the spotlight to let her shine—then I think we’re losing nearly everything that matters.
I was particularly drawn to your research into Annie’s old journal, the psychoanalysis, and the Viennese psychology. I wanted to know more! Like, was it Freud? Who is Herr Breuer?
I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that it’s not Freud, but close. Josef Breuer (1842-1925), a real person, was Freud’s mentor and the doctor who treated Bertha Pappenheim, a.k.a. “Anna O.,” in what is now considered the first of “talk therapy” and the foundation for psychoanalysis. Breuer didn’t share Freud’s insistence on tracing mental illness to early sexual conflicts. His thoughts about trauma were more varied and subtle. Freud smeared Breuer’s reputation later, unfortunately, and most of us don’t recall the mentor who was eclipsed by his protegee. I knew little about Breuer before writing this novel.
As for how I created the journals and letters, which are fictional, I did consider everything from Annie Oakley’s real handwriting, level of education, and likely mental state. But I used plenty of dramatic license in terms of what I had her (and her analyst) reveal.
There’s another piece of ANNIE AND THE WOLVES that speaks of recent events: that of NRA gun-toting folks. There’s even a museum in Springfield, MO (that’s my birthplace, by-the-way!), and also this passage from the book about civility being in short supply these days…school shootings, and gosh…tragically the event at the U.S. Capitol. Can you talk about that a bit, please? And how might Annie have responded to these times?
Thank you so much for bringing up the subject of guns and violence, which is a major theme of the book, though it may not be apparent in the first chapters. Annie Oakley started hunting as a way to feed her impoverished family, especially after the death of her father. She made the most of her skill because it was the only thing she knew how to do, and as a performer, she focused on honesty (no use of illusion), professionalism, civility, and kindness to others—which is how she ended up becoming a friend of Chief Sitting Bull. She continued to champion training other women to shoot, as self-defense, and she even believed women should serve in the army and volunteered to train them, personally. (The president didn’t accept her offer.) But the values Annie Oakley stood for most were self-control, discipline, truth and justice—even when it had to be slow. As you know from the novel, she took William Randolph Hearst to court 55 times over six years, winning all but once—and she did so because she refused to stomach his tabloids’ “fake news” stories about her. (Strangely relevant to today, don’t you think?) She would have been horrified by the Jan. 6 insurrection and by the very idea of school shootings. Her abhorrence of senseless violence is the very reason she would have been so bothered by her own suppressed anger or desire for “rough justice.
Andromeda, this is so fascinating and I could ask questions all day. In the end, I think ANNIE AND THE WOLVES is about revenge and justice, trauma and resilience, but also reshaping the course of history. Do you see that as the overall message?
I agree that it’s about all those things—thank you, Leslie!—especially trauma and resilience, and the power of the present moment. If I can add one other theme, it’s also about public history versus private history, and how the first can be easier to study and contemplate than the second. And yet they’re connected. What is done to women, children and anyone without power has always been done. What we refuse to see and face in our houses and our communities today will continue to shape the world tomorrow. Only by being honestly engaged with the dark sides of our public and private histories can we deal with the predators and bullies who exist in every generation.
Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten…or anything you’d like to ask me?
I love books that play with genre and include mysterious or unreliable documents, in the form of old diaries and letters. I also love looking over the shoulders of historians. My hope for this novel is that it will appeal to readers of A.S. Byatt (Possession), Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin) and Erika Swyler (The Book of Speculation).
And speaking of Erika Swyler, she and I are doing a virtual event on Feb 8 at Magic City Books. I’d love to “visit” with some of your readers there, if they’d like to drop by!
Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Let’s be social! Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay #alwayswithabook #bookstagram
For more information, to connect with Andromeda Romano-Lax, or to purchase a copy of ANNIE AND THE WOLVES, please visit:
Amazon | Bookshop | IndieBound
I was reminded, in part, of Amy Shearn’s UNSEEN CITY (Red Hen Press, September 2020) in terms of female historian/mystery meets the work of Fiona Davis , along with elements of Christina Baker Kline (particularly her ORPHAN TRAIN book and also A PIECE OF THE WORLD). But also, the work of Erika Swyler in both THE BOOK OF SPECULATION and A LIGHT FROM OTHER STARS.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in Chicago and now a resident of Vancouver Island, Canada, Andromeda Romano-Lax worked as a freelance journalist and travel writer before turning to fiction. Her first novel, The Spanish Bow, was translated into eleven languages and was chosen as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, BookSense pick, and one of Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her next three novels, The Detour, Behave (an Amazon Book of the Month), and Plum Rains (winner of the Sunburst Award) reflect her diverse interest in the arts, history, science and technology, as well as her love of travel and her time spent living abroad. She currently lives with her family in British Columbia.
ABOUT YOUR HOST: Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Mary Kubica to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Soho Press and the author and used with permission. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Image of Annie Oakley flatlay from Rock Island Auction Catalog from L.Lindsay’s personal archives 1.18.21. Let’s be social! Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay #alwayswithabook #bookstagram]