#AuthorInterview: Libbie Hawker on Mercer Girls

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Libbie. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about Mercer Girls.Thanks for having me!

Mercer Girls is my 2016 novel from Lake Union Publishing. It’s set in the mid- to late 19th century, during the final years of the Civil War and just after. But it’s not about the Civil War; it’s about the early days of the city of Seattle. Seattle has a wild and crazy history, full of all kinds of memorable characters and unusual events. It’s really a hoot to learn about, and I had a great time writing the book.

My novel focuses the women who left their east-coast homes and traveled all the way out to Seattle in search of new prospects. At the time, Seattle was more logging camp than city, and it was home to astonishing amounts of vice (liquor, gambling, and… * ahem * ladies of the night.) Even with all those ladies of the night, there were still about ten men for every woman. Some of the city’s founders put their heads together and decided that the best way to take their new town from “den of iniquity” to “respectable” was to encourage all those men to marry and settle down. But with very few women—and most of them not what the 19th century considered good marriage prospects—that was a tall order. So one of the founders, Asa Mercer, traveled all the way to Massachusetts and convinced several respectable women from good families to come to Seattle to help tame the frontier.

It wasn’t a bad idea, but many of those women had plans of their own, and in some cases, those plans did not include marriage.

At risk of sounding impertinent, where did you find this story? Did it strike like lightning out nowhere or was it an idea that grew over time?
My husband Paul and I used to live in Seattle, and at the time, he was hoping to start a career as a historical archivist for the city. He fell in love with Seattle’s strange, rowdy history long ago and he knows just about everything about it. So Paul planted the seed in my head—for this book about early Seattle, and a few more. But the book didn’t come to fruition until the spring of 2015.

I was having lunch with my editor at Lake Union, Jodi Warshaw, and she was lamenting that she hadn’t found exactly the type of book she was hoping for just then. She really wanted a historical novel about a groups of adventuresome women who swoop into a memorable setting and really just make the whole place their own, with plenty of humor and uplifting themes… the kind of book that just makes you feel good when you’ve finished it. I immediately thought of the real-life Mercer Girls and pitched the idea on the spot. The rest is history! I’m happy to say that Mercer Girls went on to become a finalist for the 2017 WILLA Award for Historical Fiction.

Josephine, Dovey, and Sophronia are dramatically different personalities. Why did you feel compelled to throw three such different women into the same story?
The Mercer Girls were real women, although I created Josephine, Dovey, and Sophronia as fictional characters. The ladies who attached themselves to Asa Mercer’s expeditions (he actually pulled off his cross-country mail-order-bride scheme twice!) all had varied reasons for doing so, and individual goals and interests. Seattle was also a unique place at the time. It was a booming city on the very edge of the continent, one of the last frontiers in North America. Being so far away from the old, established cities of the east coast, it offered chances for intrepid women to step far beyond the standard roles available to most American women at the time. So I wanted to create characters who reflected the realities of womanhood at that time and in that place. One character is very tight-laced and “proper,” which of course was a common experience for many women back then. Another is contending with some pretty serious oppression and trying to remake an acceptable life for herself as an independent person, which was quite difficult for women to do back then. And the third is highly ambitious, but ambitious women had very few opportunities in the 19th century, even in a place like early Seattle. I wanted to show the struggles each kind of woman would have faced so the reader could gain a broader understanding of what specific struggles women faced then, whether they were prim and proper, or gunning for their own interests, or hiding dangerous secrets.

What resources proved the most useful in researching the real Mercer Girls and their
experiences?
Definitely the work of Peri Muhich, a historian who specializes in Asa Mercer’s two expeditions and the women who helped settle Seattle. Peri had so much excellent information, which she had painstakingly gathered over many years, and she was kind enough to share it all with me. She was just amazing; I owe so much to her for all her help! She allowed me to check out old journals, newspaper articles, and photos she had rounded up and transcribed or preserved. It was a fascinating collection!

The Women’s Rights movement comes to the forefront in the latter chapters of the narrative. Why did you choose to pair it with the story of the Mercer Girls? In short, because it really happened that way! Washington Territory was the third portion of the United States to grant women the vote. (Wyoming and Utah Territories were the first.) The Suffragists understood what great opportunity for their cause lay in the far western territories. Way out west, life was far more difficult than in the older, established cities of the east and Midwest. The men of the Territories really had to rely on women to get things done, and tended to see them as more tough, capable, and sensible. Men in the States were very attached to an image of womanhood that was all about softness and meekness; they tended to view women as needing constant protection and guidance, as would a child. The Suffragists saw that men in the West would be more likely to listen to their assertions that women were equal partners in society and therefore deserved equal access to and control over their government.

Susan B. Anthony and Abigail Scott Duniway both made frequent visits to Seattle—and other parts of Washington Territory—to campaign for the vote. Anthony became great friends with several of the real Mercer girls and assisted them in securing the vote.

Of course, after the women of Washington Territory won the vote in 1883, it was promptly revoked again in 1888. The reason: women voted to outlaw vice—and unfortunately, by that time, vice was the whole of Seattle’s economy. Outlawing gambling, hard liquor, and sex work immediately crashed the young city’s fragile economy. The men, who were still in the majority, revoked suffrage in Washington, and it wasn’t restored again until women gained the right to vote federally in 1920.

Do you have a favorite scene in Mercer Girls?
I really like the scene where Dovey goes out collecting taxes. She’s a fun character. One of the real Mercer girls really did become a tax collector, too!

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing Mercer Girls?I would have enjoyed going into greater detail about Susan B. Anthony and Abigail Scott Duniway. They were both such fascinating women, and so important to the national suffrage movement. And the way they networked with Seattle’s women was really fascinating and smart. But something had to be sacrificed!


If you could sit down and talk with a member or members of the cast of Mercer Girls, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you invite and why?
Believe it or not, I’d like to talk to Sophronia, the rigid, tight-laced character. I think I’d like to pick at her edges a little bit and see if I could get her to loosen up. I’ve always suspected that freer spirit was hiding under all her layers of propriety. Sophronia does make an appearance in the sequel to Mercer Girls—Madam, published this year—and she’s older and wiser. She has definitely changed her stance on many important subjects by 1888, when Madam begins.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big screen adaptation of Mercer Girls, who would you cast?
Oh my gosh! I’ve never thought about this before. Hmmm…

I think Mara Wilson would be my Dovey, when she was about 18 or so, but with her hair curled. Mara has the right kind of snappy attitude for that role.

Cate Blanchett in her early 20s definitely reminds me of Sophronia. That imperious, icy beauty and the pale blonde hair! Can Cate do a Massachusetts accent, do you think?

And I think Meryl Streep in her mid-30s would be perfect as Jo. She definitely has the range to pull off Jo’s complexities and to convey her sense of keeping secrets.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of this story?
I hope they gain some understanding of how broad and strategic was the fight for women’s suffrage. And how it was such an important topic, and so influential in all women’s lives, that it managed to reach all the way to the far edges of the frontier. Most of all, though, I hope they have fun with it! Ultimately, Mercer Girls is a cheerful, feel-good book about female friendship and the ways women can overcome their differences to develop a sisterhood. I think that’s something we all can appreciate!


PRAISE FOR MERCER GIRLS

“I found that reading more of the true history enhanced my enjoyment out this excellent read!”—Marie Z. Johansen, Goodreads Reviewer

"A beautiful piece of literary fiction that I hope one day makes it to the silver screen as well."—Megalion, Goodreads Reviewer

"Historical fiction that sets the scene, reflects disparate elements of society, and represents the major issues of the times.”—Linda Donaldson, Goodreads Reviewer

RECOMMENDATIONS: FANS OF LIBBIE HAWKER




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