Author Q&A with Susan Holloway Scott

Remember my gushing review of I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott? Well, we ended up chatting on Twitter and Instagram so much that we decided an author Q&A post was necessary! This book releases TODAY and I am so excited for Hamilton and history fans to get their hands on it! Also, don’t forget to check out the author’s blog – it’s a treasure trove for history buffs and has a ton of great expanded material on this book.

From Susan: These photos are of portraits that you do not usually see; they’re pastel profile drawings, drawn by the English artist James Sharples around 1794. The Hamilton family thought they were both good likenesses. Alexander is in the collection of the New-York Historical Society, and Eliza is in a private collection.

Here we go with my questions and Susan’s answers ~ enjoy the conversation!

How long has this story been in the works? I know that you told me you were already writing it before the musical came out – is that correct?

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when an idea for a book appears. Stories tend to take root and grown in my imagination long before I’m entirely conscious of them, and certainly long before they’ve earned a file on my computer. I grew up in the New York metropolitan area, in the thick of Revolutionary War history, so it feels as if I’ve always known about Eliza and Alexander Hamilton. I do know, however, that I’ve been considering Eliza’s story since at least 2011, because I recently stumbled across an old blog post that I’d written about them. So yes, Eliza and I have been acquainted for some time.

How did you decide on Eliza Hamilton as the subject of a novel?

Sometimes I’m drawn to a historical person because there’s a wealth of information about them – letters, diaries, journals – but with Eliza, it’s quite the opposite. There’s almost nothing left of her side of her younger life, when she was married to Alexander Hamilton, and most likely that was intentional.

While the idea of Eliza burning her letters after the Reynolds scandal resulted in one of the loveliest songs in the Hamilton musical, I don’t think it happened then, but much later, after Alexander’s death. This wasn’t unusual among 18thc women living in the public eye. Martha Washington destroyed her correspondence with George, and Abigail Adams considered doing the same with John’s letters, but in the end couldn’t. It was the only way a widow could be sure personal letters would never fall into unsympathetic hands. Destroying the evidence, she could preserve her privacy, and protect her late husband’s reputation as well as her own. (I’ve also wondered if it wasn’t Eliza who destroyed her letters, but her son, John Church Hamilton. While organizing his father’s papers for publication and writing a biography, he did his share of “editing”, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided his by-then-saintly mother’s earlier letters might have revealed an uncomfortable degree of emotion and intimacy that he judged unseemly for posterity.)

Still, it was the fact that Eliza’s voice wasn’t there that attracted me to her. She must have been such a strong woman, especially in the face of almost unbearable tragedy. I wanted to know her side of the Hamilton story: what she thought, believed, felt – despite her having left so little record of herself. I know I’m not alone among writers who feel that some characters choose us, rather than the other way around. That was definitely the case with Eliza.

This is an incredibly detailed book, covering a large swath of early American history – can you explain a bit about your research process and how you go about researching this time period?

I have to admit that I didn’t start from scratch with this book. Eighteenth century America has always fascinated me, and it’s a time and place that feels very comfortable for me. I didn’t have to research all the little details of daily life – such as clothing, hygiene, food, transportation – because I’d already absorbed that somewhere else along the line. I try to write about the past as my characters would have experienced it, and not stop the story for the dreaded history lectures. I’ve spent as much time in living history museums like Colonial Williamsburg as I have in libraries, hunting for the little things that will help bring the past to life.

But while I might have already had the 18thc world in my head, I did have to do considerable research to populate it. Eliza’s letters may be lost, but Alexander’s still exist by the thousand, as well as letters from Eliza’s older sister Angelica. Not only did I read these, but I also traveled to historical societies and libraries to read the originals whenever I could. With handwritten letters, there’s just so much more that can be learned from an angry, sputtering slash of ink or an extra flourish than the words alone can express. And how much I love reading original letters – especially Alexander’s earlier love letters – knowing both he and Eliza held that same sheet of paper in their hands! That said, however, I’m not among the historical fiction writers who choose to incorporate parts of letters into dialogue (it always sounds stilted to me), but I do try to absorb the style and spirit of the letters, and be inspired that way.

Eliza and Alexander lived primarily in New York and in Pennsylvania, crossing back and forth over New Jersey. I’m fortunate to live outside of Philadelphia, and so was able to visit nearly all of the surviving places that were important to them. It wasn’t just being able to describe these houses and public buildings; I also was hunting for whatever essence of Eliza and Alexander might still remain in them. Yes, I know that sounds very woo-woo, but in many ways writing fiction is a completely illogical, woo-woo process.

I know you have already shared with me your thoughts on historical fiction and the integrity of maintaining accuracy, but can you share this with our readers here as well?

Sure. I take writing historical fiction based on actual people very seriously. IMHO, I owe it to their memories to try to make my interpretation as accurate as I can. If another writer wants to make the British win the Revolution, or invent a Hamilton sister, that’s fine, but readers deserve to know up front that the story is more of a fantasy or alternative version of the past. Don’t pretend that it’s otherwise. Of course, none of us were “in the room where it happened,” so all fiction is going to have its share of, well, fiction. But I try to stick as closely to the facts as possible, as a matter of respect for the people who’ve become my characters.

What are your thoughts on our nation’s current obsession with Alexander Hamilton – does he deserve all of this fuss?

It’s been great for me – without the buzz from the show, no publisher would have been interested in Eliza’s story. 🙂

More seriously, I love how the musical has created a renewed interest in early American history, particularly among young people. When I’ve been visiting places with Hamilton connections – Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge, or Independence Hall – I’ve overheard kids in school groups spontaneously start singing songs from the show. They’re really excited to be there, and to be visiting a part of their history, and that’s all thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s personally responsible for inspiring an entire new generation of history lovers.

As for whether Alexander Hamilton deserves the fuss: yes, he was a brilliant, innovative man who was a crucial part of the founding of America. But like every one of the Founders, he wasn’t perfect, and he wasn’t always quite as heroic as he appears in the play. But the play is making people seek out more information about him (I’m sure Ron Chernow never expected his Hamilton biography to become a bestseller all over again), and learn for themselves what a complex man he was. And that’s great.

I really still can’t get over Alexander’s affair – how much evidence of this did you find in your research about Eliza’s reaction to it?

Very, very little. There is, of course, the reaction from Alexander’s friends – most of it of the “What WAS he thinking?” variety – and a great deal of pity for Eliza, but as to what she thought when she read the Reynolds pamphlet, or even how or when she read it, there’s nothing. It does appear that right before it became public, she retreated to her parents’ house in Albany to avoid the inevitable public scrutiny, but whether he sent her away, or she fled, or gave him some sort of ultimatum isn’t known.

Unless some forgotten letter turns up (which is always possible), Eliza’s initial reaction – and her inevitable shock and pain –  will always remain a tantalizing mystery. In time she returned to their home, bore more children with him, and fiercely defended him against his critics for the rest of her life. Ultimately she must have forgiven him, despite the inevitable pain of his very public infidelity. The story of their marriage may have begun like a romance, but it became a more serious story of love tried and tested that somehow survived, and grew stronger.

What are some of the most fascinating things you found during this research? I know you have had the opportunity to actually see many artifacts of Eliza’s!

Ooh, I did! Thanks to the generosity and assistance of a great number of curators, historians, and archivists, I was able to see some truly wonderful things connected to Eliza and Alexander. (See my blog for lots more Hamilton-inspiration.) As a writer, I found a genuine connection to Alexander’s small, worn, portable writing desk – the desk on which he wrote so many of his most important papers and letters, and the 18thc counterpart of my own laptop. As a needleworker myself, I was touched by the surviving examples of Eliza’s embroidery, especially the pieces she worked while waiting and praying for Alexander to return from the battlefield to marry her. Imagine what must have been going through her thoughts with every tiny stitch she took!

But most emotional of all for me was seeing Eliza’s wedding ring. It’s called a gimmel ring: two separate gold rings that fit together like a puzzle. One ring is engraved with her name, and one with his, and when properly aligned, the two rings come together to make a single band. It must have been a costly war-time purchase for an impoverished young officer like Alexander. The ring is tiny, thin from all the years Eliza wore it and a little misshapen as well, and yet I can’t think of a more perfect symbol of her love, and his.

And yes, when I touched it, my eyes filled with tears.

Thank you, Susan! Happy release day!

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