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June 29, 2020
A sponsored Q&A with the author of 'Naked Truth: Or Equality, the Forbidden Fruit'

The BookLife review of Naked Truth: Or Equality, the Forbidden Fruit states, “Fans of historical fiction featuring morally ambiguous women will eat up this tale of sisters determined to make their own way in Victorian New York”—an impressive takeaway considering Hayes learned about the existence of Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin relatively recently. Nevertheless, she dove into research about the first woman to run for president and published her debut novel about the Claflins this year.

How did you first hear about Victoria Woodhull and her sister?

While commuting on a bus into New York City, I read a library copy of Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith. It was the first time I had read anything about this woman who ran for president in 1872. The sisters’ extraordinary story just took my breath away. That was six years ago, and I have been in their thrall ever since.

Can you describe the kind of research you did to ensure historical accuracy?

A lot of the media from that time is available online for anyone to find. People then were voracious consumers of the news, devouring it in much the same way we do today. Chroniclingamerica.loc.gov and the hathitrust.org are both invaluable resources. The controversy, hearsay, and self-promotion that surrounded Victoria and Tennessee often became rabbit holes inside of which it was easy to get lost. But I was consumed with immersing myself in finding everything and anything that had been written about them. Copies of their paper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, are available at the New-York Historical Society, and the New York Public Library has excellent sources. Then of course there are brilliant and exhaustive biographies on some of the players that show up in my book. The list is pretty extensive, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the scholarship in the books by T.J. Stiles, Mary Gabriel, Myra MacPherson, Debby Applegate, Barbara White, Madeleine Stern, John Deveney, and Amanda Frisken, just to name a few. Lois Underhill’s book is superb. When I stumbled across Don Carlos Seitz’s book about James Gordon Bennett, Sr. and Jr., it was like receiving a gift. The journey of discovery was really fun. Making sense of it was something else altogether.

What responsibility do you feel to reimagine or change characters based on real people?

In the Paris Review, E.L. Doctorow said: “History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth. So, to be irreverent to myth, to play with it, let in some light and air, to try to combust it back into history, is to risk being seen as someone who distorts truth.” For me, Doctorow’s Ragtime is the gold standard. When it comes to reimagining, particularly those whom most folks have never heard of or who have been dead a century or so, the storyteller’s mandate is to bring those characters to life. The veracity of the relationships we imagine for them is less important. That they are interesting and vibrant is what is critical. However, if you do fool around with important details, it is only fair to let the reader know. It is fiction, but it’s also unkind to deceive.

What advice can you give other writers who want to write historical fiction?

Immerse yourself. Read everything, go everywhere, retrace as many steps as possible. Then tell the best story that you can.

Any more books on the horizon?

I certainly hope so. A Well-Dressed Lie is the sequel to Naked Truth and recounts the sisters’ lives in London.

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