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Writer muses on N.J. history, trailblazing woman

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Updated on September 10, 2017 at 7:03 AM
Posted on September 10, 2017 at 7:00 AM

By Jacqueline Cutler

Writer muses on N.J. history, trailblazing womanAmy Stewart has been fascinated with the Kopp sisters, who lived in Bergen County a century ago.Picasa Delightful Eye Photography 

Fearless and compassionate Constance Kopp was a New Jersey trailblazer. Known as a “lady sheriff,” one of the first in the country, Kopp was real, exciting and largely forgotten.

That changed when author Amy Stewart started writing about Kopp and her family. Based on history, the novels “Girl Waits with Gun” and “Lady Cop Makes Trouble” are exceptionally well written.

When “Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26) hit this week, touching on how women could be arrested and jailed for waywardness – for working at a grim job and living the life of a nun doing penance – it was time to check in with Stewart. What follows is an edited version of that interview.

How did you first learn of the Kopp Sisters?
I was doing some research for the “Drunken Botanist,” the one that came out before these and was writing about a gin smuggler, Henry Kaufman. I found this story of Henry Kaufman, who ran his car into the horse and buggy driven by the Kopp sisters. I never did know if it was the same Henry Kaufman who ran into the Kopp sisters. I was so fascinated I could not stop digging into the story. It sent their lives into this incredible trajectory. I was amazed no one had written anything particularly about Constance, a pioneering woman in law enforcement.

What interested you?
I spent the rest of that particular day trying to find out what I could. When my husband came home from work that night, from the bookstore we own, he said we can look them up on ancestory.com. As I was finishing “The Drunken Botanist” I was trying to put this story together. I have hundreds and hundreds of newspaper clippings about them and hired a genealogist named Maria Hopper who lives in Bergen County. She starts getting into courthouses and getting the documents then I eventually came to New Jersey.

Where have you worked in New Jersey?
I have been coming back every year. Where I need to be is in Bergen and Passaic counties. Hackensack and Paterson have quite good microfilm departments, and I have been to all of the places where events happened and where they lived.

Writer muses on N.J. history, trailblazing womanThe third novel in a series of five planned books that tells the stories of the Kopp sisters of Bergen County, including the formidable Constance, famed as an early “lady sheriff.”
Jim Tierney 

How many Kopp Sisters books will there be?
I am officially signed on to do five; it could be 10 books if people keep reading.

Can you see this is as TV series?
It has been optioned for TV. Elizabeth Banks has a production company and two talented screenwriters assigned. “Veep” writers are out pitching it to networks.

What are you reading?
In general when I am writing I am reading a lot of books written at the time. I read a lot of Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Mary Roberts Rinehart, who was very prolific and popular and did journalism — women writers writing novels at time. In the short period of time, when I am not trying to keep my head in 1915, I am frantically trying to keep my head in what has come out.

Where did you get your first library card?
I grew up in Arlington, Texas and that’s where I got my first card. The main library seemed huge to me as a kid. I am sure if I went back now , it would not be as huge. I got an adult card very early. I burned through the kids’ section very quickly. I do love libraries. I depend on them heavily because I live in a small town.

Have you talked with any of the Kopp sisters’ relatives?
I tracked down Fleurette’s (Constance’s daughter born out of wedlock) son before I started writing. Fleuertte’s son is in his 80s, and a grandson has been in touch with me. After “Girl with a Gun Came Out,” I head, “Would you like to talk with Sheriff Heath’s grandson?” Of course I would.

He is such a hero. Of course his grandsons didn’t know him until later. So this is a very different era in their grandfather’s life than what they remember. And I had photographs of their grandfather they had never seen and I did the family trees very extensively so I have a lot I can give the family members and they have all been supportive of the books.

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