Kate Alcott is the author of the novel The Dressmaker, which takes place during and after the sinking of the Titanic. She worked for many years as a reporter, she lives in Washington, D.C., and she is the author of many books under her real name, Patricia O'Brien.
Q: What is it about the Titanic that continues to fascinate people, and why did you decide to write about the Titanic story in The Dressmaker?
A: I think the sinking of the Titanic is one of history's universally understood tragedies - it was not immediate, it took time. Choices were made, stories emerged. People who hear and listen to these stories wonder in their hearts: what would I have done? It was a tragedy that encompassed bravery, cowardice, human frailty; you name it. It still grips everybody. And that is why I wrote about it - for years, it gripped me.
Q: How did you first become interested in Lady Duff Gordon, and how many of the other characters in the book are actual historical figures?
A: I wanted a real person at the center of the story who was an example of how decisions were made. Did Lady Duff Gordon really save herself at the expense of others? Did her husband bribe crewmembers on the life raft to keep quiet about the fact that their lifeboat - which could have held about 50 people - was launched with only a handful of survivors? I introduce into the story a number of real people who sailed on that ship, including John Jacob Astor and his pregnant young wife. She survived, he did not.
Q: The New York Times has written about how you used the pseudonym Kate Alcott to help get The Dressmaker published. Is this a common phenomenon, and what has it been like to have a literary alter ego?
A: Writing under a pseudonym is very common, something many readers don't realize. For me, it has been liberating, although I must confess, I wondered how I would feel when I saw "Kate Alcott" on the cover of my novel. The answer? I was thrilled!
Q: Who or what inspired your main character, Tess?
A: Tess was inspired by the story of my mother, who immigrated from Ireland to the United States. She, too, was a young housemaid in a wealthy home, yearning for a better life - and the first scene of The Dressmaker is a true story. My mother, hands full of laundry, caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror at the end of a long upstairs hall and knew immediately she couldn't settle for this. And, in truth, she tore off her servant's cap, threw it at the mirror, and marched out of the house and down to the docks to book passage to America.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My new book, The Daring Ladies of Lowell, will be published in February, 2014. It tells the story of a young farm girl drawn to the cotton mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1830s - and how her life is forever changed by the brutal murder of a friend. The ensuing scandal draws her into the life and heart of the mill owner's son, opening a window......ah, you'll have to wait and read the book!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Kate Alcott will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival April 19-21, 2013. For a full schedule of events, please click here.