Kate Moore Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Kate Moore

Kate Moore

An interview with Kate Moore

Kate Moore discusses The Woman They Could Not Silence, and shares some of the challenges - and pleasures - in writing a book closely based on historical facts.

How did you first encounter Elizabeth's story? When did you decide that you wanted to write about her?

Before I even knew her name, I actively went looking for Elizabeth's story. The background to that quest: In the fall of 2017, the world was set ablaze by the #metoo movement and I wanted to write about some of the issues being raised. Namely: Why hadn't women been listened to—and believed—before? Too often, it seemed to me, women had been silenced and discredited with the claim that we were crazy. Was there any woman in history, I wondered, who had been declared insane by a patriarchal society for speaking her mind, but who had somehow, against the odds, proved her sanity and prevailed? (Because I wanted a happy ending for my book!) I went in search of this mystery woman—only hoping she existed. And on January 15, 2018, after having fallen down a rabbit hole of internet searches about women and madness and insane asylums, I first read about Elizabeth Packard in a University of Wisconsin essay that I randomly found online. That first reference was just a single paragraph in length, but a few google clicks later, having learned a little more about her life, I was hopeful I had found the central protagonist of my next book. (I noted in my diary she looked "promising.") Yet it wasn't until I had completed my due diligence, reading the other books about her that existed at that time so as to be sure that my vision for her story—a work of narrative non-fiction—hadn't already been published, that I knew for definite she was "The One."

Elizabeth's story relies heavily on her personal tenacity. How do you think she cultivated that strength? What resources do you draw on when you feel like giving up?

I think Elizabeth's strength is absolutely remarkable. Ultimately, I think the bedrock to it was that she knew she was in the right, but even more remarkably, she maintained the confidence to insist on that truth—something with which some of us struggle. Her faith clearly helped too. What resources do I draw on? Hope, knowledge that things will always get better (because nothing lasts forever), and sometimes (i.e. when writing a book!) the knowledge that you have to put the hard work in to enjoy the outcome. Nothing worthwhile is easy.

Elizabeth is a great role model for standing up for yourself and always following the truth. Who are your role models, historical or modern?

My role models are the radium girls, who I wrote about in another book. These incredible women are, to me, inspirational beacons of courage and strength. Whenever I'm anxious, I always think of how they might have responded to a situation, or simply of what they went through, and they give me the strength to carry on.

You aptly note the ways that our public discourse hasn't changed when it comes to denouncing opponents by calling them "insane." Why does that technique have such staying power? How do you think we can combat it?

I think it has staying power because it's so dismissive. The accuser isn't even trying to engage with or debate their opponent—probably because they fear they may be bested. I think part of combating it is actually already happening: demystifying those who are genuinely mentally ill and treating them with love and understanding, and with an appreciation that either we or someone we know is likely to suffer with mental health issues. With that changed approach, the former "slur" of being called crazy has less power. And the accusation itself is revealed to be fearful and hollow in nature.

When writing nonfiction, you can't always expect events to be "story-shaped." What kind of work do you do to make a cohesive narrative out of complicated true events? What's the hardest part of that process? The most fun part?

The key thing for me is to complete my research before I write a word of the book. Doing so not only enables me to see the big picture, from which I'll craft the narrative, it also often throws up intriguing twists that enhance the book's plot. I first plot all my research into a chronological timeline, and only after that do I plot the book itself, which is different, because for dramatic purposes you may want to include "reveals," etc. Even as I'm researching, though, I've got an antennae quivering for possible end-of-chapter slam-dunk quotations and potentially dramatic scenes. The hardest part of the process? Two answers. One, because I'm writing non-fiction, at times the historic sources simply don't exist to tell you exactly what happened. That can be really frustrating. Two—almost the opposite problem—the act of sifting through the sources and the data that you do have and deciding what—or perhaps more importantly, what not—to include. It's essential to know the story you want to tell from those sources and to stick to it, but that's often easier said than done. I find the editing process is usually essential to help truly distil the narrative you're crafting.

The most fun part? Hands down, actually writing a scene after you've done your research and know all the intimate details that will bring it to life. For example, what the weather was like that day, what clothes the person might have been wearing, the nature of their surroundings and what they looked like, etc. All those details may have come from many different sources and to combine them as the scene flows out from your pen is a wonderful feeling: you can see this historic scene so clearly in your own mind, brought to life by the collected facts.

Both The Woman They Could Not Silence and your previous book, The Radium Girls, required extensive research. How do you work with archives and other sources for primary texts and historical data? What recommendations do you have for other researchers and writers?

I have to give a shout-out to librarians and archivists across the country here: they're always so knowledgeable and helpful. The how of how I work probably boils down to knowing the story I want to tell and how I want to tell it—so I'll mine a source for descriptive details, for example. Staying focused helps you to sort through what is always a mass of data. That said, it's critical to remain open-minded too because until the research is finished, you don't necessarily know what is important!

As for tips, I would say, be inspired by those who have come before you down a research path. When you're taking your own first steps, it can be useful to consult bibliographies of other books in order to find out what archives even exist. Some of them may prove useful to you too. Secondly, relish pursuing the various serendipitous trails that pop up along the way, whether that's "following the money" to discover corruption and influence, or simply saying yes to opportunities for further research that, for example, those wonderful librarians may suggest!

Speaking of research, were there any surprising facts that didn't make it into the final book? What was the most interesting thing you discovered but weren't able to include?

There was so much that didn't make it in! I had to cut an entire part as the first draft was too long. (It was the original part one, which I'd written as a Crucible-esque witch-hunt, as Elizabeth's religious community tightened the noose of alleged insanity about her neck until she was committed to the asylum.) Similarly, at the other end of the book, I did a heap of research into twentieth-century facts around the book's themes. Here, a surprising fact to me was that it wasn't until 1974, with the passing of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, that independent women could get credit cards themselves. Until then, a single, divorced or widowed woman had to get a man to cosign any credit application before it would be granted.

Black people face increased prejudice when it comes to alleged insanity. Statistics show that Black women are institutionalized far more frequently than white women with exactly the same symptoms, and they're also disproportionately affected by extreme "treatments"—such as, in former times, involuntary sterilizations. Black women made up 85 percent of those legally sterilized in North Carolina in the 1960s; in other operations, Black children as young as five were lobotomized. These things occurred after Elizabeth's time, however, and I wasn't able, in the end, to find a place for them in the postscript (they had featured in my first draft).

What does your writing space look like? How do you keep all your research and drafts organized?

I have written books all over my house so I don't have a dedicated writing space as such; I wrote The Radium Girls at my kitchen table. For The Woman They Could Not Silence, I wrote in our very newly decorated, tiny study. It was all very minimalist as our furniture was still in storage from the renovation. I literally just had a desk, a chair, and a side table with a CD player on it so I could listen to music while I wrote (for this book, generally Ludovico Einaudi's Eden Roc or the soundtrack to The Mission, composed by Ennio Morricone). The study walls are painted a cream color—for the interest of readers of The Radium Girls, it is a shade named Ottawa—and I wrote with four pictures of Elizabeth stuck onto them, so that she was always with me. It's a very tidy space. I just have one A4 printout beside me—my book plan—which I check off and annotate as I go along. My research and various drafts are all stored on my laptop, so there are no piles of paper. On that laptop, the research is organized to the nth degree. Every source has a unique reference number that I've given it, which is plotted into my chronological timeline. All that time-consuming, painstaking preparation means I can locate a specific quotation from a source in seconds. This also enables me to write fluidly and fast.

What are you reading these days?

I haven't had much time for reading lately—rightly or wrongly, when I'm deep in the writing and editing process I tend not to read, so that I only have the one story in my head. But the best non-fiction I most recently read was Karen Abbott's The Ghosts of Eden Park. And I have Margaret Atwood's The Testaments waiting for me on my bookshelf once this book is done

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Woman They Could Not Silence jacket The Radium Girls jacket
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All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Kate Moore but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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