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Interview: April 26, 2002

April 26, 2002

Paulette Jiles' new novel, ENEMY WOMEN, blends Civil War history with fiction in a compelling and emotional story. In this interview with's Roberta O'Hara, Jiles reflects on her transition from memoirist to novelist and what motivated her to weave a story around women prisoners of war.

BRC: When in your research did you come across real life tales of women like Adair Colley? And how long after your discovery before deciding there was a fictional story here to be written?

PJ: The accounts I read of women in prison during the Civil War were very brief, sometimes only an entry in a Provost-Marshal's report, or in a prison journal. I had been trying to write about the Civil War in southeastern Missouri for a couple of years already when I found that women were sent to prison and immediately changed to make that the main plot element.

BRC: How did you conduct your research for this book? Did you complete research prior to writing the novel, or did you continue researching as you were writing?

PJ: Research continued all during the writing of the book.

BRC: Was the transition from memoirist to novelist difficult for you? What did you find most challenging? What did you find most rewarding?

PJ: The transition from memoirist to novelist wasn't much of a problem. The advantages were that you could make things up, and the challenges were that you still had to tie what you made up to historical fact in some way.

BRC: In your research did you also come across tales of true love between Union and Confederate citizens? How likely is it that such unions occurred?

PJ: In my reading I found several instances of love between a southern woman and a Union soldier. In Griffin Frost's CAMP AND PRISON JOURNAL a Union officer helps a woman prisoner get released and they become engaged, that was the one that influenced me the most.

BRC: There does seem to be a parallel between Adair's diminished spirit and the Confederacy's weakening. Was that intentional on your part?

PJ: It wasn't deliberate that Adair and the Confederacy seem to diminish together but it worked out well as a metaphor.

BRC: Was Adair based on any particular woman you found in your readings, or more of a composite?

PJ: Adair was originally based on a cousin of mine but she quickly became her own person, which is what has to happen if a character in a novel is to become real to the reader. The character becomes independent of any model.

BRC: You've quoted many books, letters, and journals in ENEMY WOMEN. How did you decide to include these passages, and why? And on that same subject, in the light of the recent plagiarism charges levied against historical novelists Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, are you being even more diligent in your quoting of sources?

PJ: No, plagiarism is using whole phrases and paragraphs, reproduced exactly, of someone else's work without attribution. As a novelist, I would not have needed to copy or plagiarize from someone else's historical work, in which the writing tends to be fairly pedestrian anyway. They report facts, we make things up. Historical novelists of course use real incidents in the past to base things on, as Frazier based an event in his novel on a book of historical research called VICTIMS in which a Confederate recruiting crew massacred some prisoners, but that isn't plagiarism, it's just getting an idea for an event. The quotes were to add texture and so many of them were unusual and interesting.

BRC: Why are there no quotation marks in the dialogue?

PJ: I liked the rather dreamy feel of the page when quote marks were eliminated.

BRC: Which historical novelists, or novelists in general, have inspired you?

PJ: Cormac McCarthy, all of his work.

BRC: Will you return to poetry now? Or is there another novel planned?

PJ: Another novel.