Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Interview with Nora Titone About Her New Book My Thoughts Be Bloody

On Friday, October 22, 2010, Nora Titone visited Tudor Hall to talk about her new book My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy, In anticipation of Ms. Titone's visit, Dinah Faber asked the following questions, which Ms. Titone graciously answered at some length.

Please see post below for more information about My Thoughts Be Bloody and Ms. Titone's appearance at Tudor Hall.
How did you first become interested in the story of the Booth family?

I first read Edwin Booth’s name in an 1864 diary kept by Fanny Seward, daughter of William H. Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Edwin came to Washington in 1864 to give command performances of Shakespeare for the President during celebrations of the third anniversary of his inaugural. Lincoln, along with members of his Cabinet and the Diplomatic Corps, attended six gala performances by Edwin Booth; Secretary Seward even hosted a private dinner for the star the night he played “Hamlet.” Fanny recorded every detail of Booth’s visit to her family’s house. The magnitude of Edwin Booth’s fame—and the epic achievements of his actor father, British star Junius Brutus Booth—prompted me to ask what role these family members had played in the life of John Wilkes Booth. When I began the project, I knew very little about the Booth family.

What did you learn during the course of your research that surprised you?

So many things were startling and revealing. But to name a few, I loved discovering that John Wilkes's father, Junius, had been an associate and disciple of the scandalous British poet Lord Byron, and a longtime drinking partner of Texas hero Sam Houston. I was fascinated to learn that Edwin Booth and Laura Keene, the actress on stage the night Lincoln died, had previously shared a romantic relationship, followed later by an acrimonious copyright battle in the courts over whether or not Edwin's brother-in-law, John Sleeper Clarke, had the right to perform Laura's play, "Our American Cousin." Edwin's close, lifelong relationship with Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," was also news to me.

Where did you do your research? What archives did you visit?

Since 2005, I have been touring research institutions across the map to document the family story. My work started in Harvard University's vast manuscript archive, Houghton Library, where the 19th-Century American Theater Collection is housed, with its staggering amounts of Booth material. From there, I proceeded to other repositories of Booth material: the Hampden-Booth Library at The Players in New York; the Folger Shakespeare Library; the Library of Congress; the Boston Athenaeum; the Billy Rose Theater Collection at the New York Public Library; the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; the Free Library of Philadelphia; the Chicago History Museum; and the various Rare Book and Special Collections Departments of the University of Rochester, Princeton University, University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and University of Tampa--among other places. It was a wonderful experience.

How was the title of your book chosen?

The Booths were a family of Shakespearean actors. Junius Brutus Booth and his sons Edwin, John Wilkes and Junius, Jr., spent so much time performing tragedies that it made sense to delve into the plays of Shakespeare for title material. In the fourth act of "Hamlet," before the play's bloody climax, the hero (a part enacted frequently by both Edwin and John Wilkes) finally resolves to take violent action against his enemy, and to set his plot against Denmark's King in motion. Hamlet pushes aside the lingering doubts he had about his existential purpose, and resolutely picks up a sword. "From this time forth," he declares, "my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth." I originally selected the line as a title for one of the concluding chapters, loving how it captured the moment of dramatic tension when Shakespeare's greatest character resolves his inner conflict and seeks revenge. My wonderful editor at Free Press then pounced on the line, suggesting we use it as the title of the book itself.

The subtitle for your book (The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth That Led to an American Tragedy) sets up some fairly high expectations for potential readers. Do you feel satisfied your book meets those expectations?

Absolutely. We can all agree, beyond question, that John Wilkes Booth was motivated by his deep-rooted loyalty to the Confederacy and by his strong identification with the people of the Southern states. At the same time, his exceptional family history made him entirely unique among recruits to the Confederate Secret Service, setting him apart, in so many ways, from the rank and file of men who followed that cause. My intent in writing this book was to re-examine the life of John Wilkes Booth--particularly his youth and the many years he spent as a struggling actor--through the lens of his famous theatrical clan. Many of the rare Booth letters, papers, and diaries I employed to write this book had not been previously explored by Civil War historians. My five-year search through those materials revealed new elements to the assassin's personal story, adding another dimension to my understanding of his character and formative experiences. It was clear that Junius Brutus Booth and Edwin Booth had been central figures in John Wilkes's life.

Here's a question I just realized I probably wouldn't ask if you were a man: How do you balance the demands of researching and writing a book with the demands of homemaking and young motherhood? Don't answer this question if you feel it's inappropriate.

I think this is an entirely appropriate question. It took years to write the book, and the work was often all-consuming. My son, Nick, was a toddler when I started, and it was important to me that he join me on all research expeditions. My husband, my parents and my in-laws, eager to help make this possible, would take turns traveling with us on the road, so that the research work became very much a family affair. My husband pitched in heroically at home, helping with housework and cooking, so I could have time to write. The book is dedicated to these two great guys, my husband and son, in gratitude for their generous support. One of the best moments came recently, when Nick, who is now in elementary school, was able to see an advanced copy of the book and read aloud the dedication paragraphs in which I thank him and his dad for all their help.

A similar question authors are often asked: What is your writing routine like? Do you write at the same time everyday? Is there a certain place where you do your writing? Are there any rituals you engage in as an author?

My writing desk is my favorite piece of furniture: it's where I go after I take my son to school. Simply sitting at it puts me in a good mood for work. I do wish, however, that writerly inspiration came at the same time every day. Too often while working on this project, an idea would come in the middle of the night, forcing me to get up and go to the desk in the dark to scribble it down!

Who are your favorite authors and what are your favorite books?

Doris Kearns Goodwin is my all-time favorite author--I love her WWII history of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, No Ordinary Time, and of course her monumental Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals. Goodwin is a presidential historian, with a PhD in Government, yet I am inspired by her intention to portray all facets of the lives of our leaders, so that their records take on fresh meaning and significance. She has a tremendous gift for integrating the private and public identities of the greatest Americans, thereby illuminating their characters and revealing new truths about their experiences, and about our history as a nation. She is also an extraordinary prose stylist, writing with clarity, grace and precision.

For more info, visit Nora Titone's brand new website:

Be sure to click on "Older Posts" below to read more about Spirits of Tudor Hall. 


A. Carper said...

I just saw Ms. Titone at Ford's Theater. She's a great speaker and I'm eager to read her book.--A. Carper, Washington, DC 2.7.11

Spirits of Tudor Hall said...

We're glad you found the Spirits of Tudor Hall blog and left a comment on Nora Titone's recent appearance at Ford's Theatre. Please visit the blog again for news updates on Tudor Hall and all things "Booth."