Tuesday, October 21, 2014

True Stories Blog Tour: Interview with Alexis Coe, Author of Alice + Freda Forever!

Welcome! I'm happy to be today's *bonus* stop on the True Stories Blog Tour from Zest Books! Today I have an interview with the author of Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, Alexis Coe! Be sure to thank her for dropping by Bitches n Prose and feel free to leave questions on the comments below! But first, a bit about the book...

Title: Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis
Author: Alexis Coe
Format: 208 pages, Hardcover
Release date: October 7th 2014
Publisher: Pulp/Zest Books

Book Description:

In 1892, America was obsessed with a teenage murderess, but it wasn’t her crime that shocked the nation – it was her motivation. Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell planned to pass as a man and marry seventeen-year-old Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden to ever speak again. Desperate and isolated, Alice pilfered her father’s razor, and on a cold winter’s day, she slashed her ex-fiancĂ©e’s throat. Now more than 120 years later, their tragic but true story is being told. Alice + Freda Forever, by historian Alexis Coe and with illustrations by Sally Klann, is embellished with letters, maps, historical documents, and more.

Advanced Praise:

“This is a captivating account, and readers will quickly become absorbed in the suspense surrounding Freda’s murder. Additionally, the book provides a foundation for discussion of sociocultural themes, such as how LGBT relationships have historically been viewed by society, gender and femininity, and even journalism.” –★ School Library Journal [Starred Review]

"The murder was a national sensation at the time, but is little known today. Alexis Coe....retells it here with the color and liveliness of a novel." - The New Yorker

Buy it here:
Amazon | B&N | IndieBound | TBD | Zest Books


I found your book fascinating! When did you first learn of the story of Alice and Freda?

Thank you! That means a lot to me. I first read about Alice and Freda when I was in grad school, and I soon exhausted the handful of works on them. I continued to try and hear their voices and their story, but it was drowned out by competing cases or dense academic speak.

What inspired you to delve deeper into their tale?

I kept thinking about their story, and felt uncomfortable with how little we knew about them personally, and yet their legacy can be found in medical literature and in the parlance of opponents of same-sex marriage. For about five years, I carried their story around like a talisman I was trying to get everyone to touch, but no one really got it. I started collected articles after work and on weekends, and reading books around the subject. At a certain point, it got ridiculous! I decided I was complicit in silencing them—because I like to take it easy on myself—and started pursuing their story in earnest.

It's no doubt that a significant amount of research went into creating this book. What's the most interesting or weirdest fact that you learned?

Where to begin! Let’s just go ahead and dive into one of my favorite takeaways from the Mitchell-Ward case, made by Richard von Krafft-Ebbing’s 1894 Pyschopathia Sexualis:
He believed these kinds of same-sex relationships were “partly owing to novels on the subject, and partly as a result of excessive work on sewing-machines, the sleeping of female servants in the same bed, seduction in schools by depraved pupils, or seduction of daughters by perverse servants.” Oh, those moments of wry humor really helped me get through the more heartbreaking research!

But there’s so much throughout the book! I think saying someone is insane because they’re left-handed is pretty good, too.

You certainly must have come across some wonderful Victorian-era terminology in your research. What was the strangest word or phrase that you "Googled" for Alice + Freda Forever?

I think I tweeted out more than I googled, but let’s just say I love calling people “cranks” and “fiends,” and I’ve yet to see blood rush out of anyone’s nose, but you better believe that the moment it happens I’m going to start yelling, “Help! He/she is vicariously menstruating!” Of course, Victorian era doctors only believed women could vicariously menstruate. You say you’ve seen it happen to men, too? Don’t be silly! That’s called a nosebleed.

Why do you think this particular case is one most people haven't heard of?

On a local level, the Mitchell family wanted it to be forgotten, and the city was sympathetic to them. The big urban dailies quit Memphis after that, and replaced Alice and Freda with the next big story. The same month that Alice entered the asylum, Lizzie Borden murdered her father and step-mother with an axe, and was soon tried and acquitted. By then, Alice was out of sight, out of mind, but as you no doubt noticed, we see their legacy all around us, just not by name.

How would you describe Alice + Freda Forever in just five words?

Five! Is there a run on words?! You’re a cruel mistress. A heartbreaking same-sex love murder in 1892 Memphis. Ugh, too many words. Let’s try again. A heartbreaking same-sex love murder. Meh. Someone called it “a gateway to nonfiction,” which I love but also tells you absolutely nothing about the story. Erotomania & Murder in 1890s Memphis. Too sensational! How about you just say, “the book you should order!”

What do you hope your readers learn or take away from this book?

I love hearing reader’s original reactions! You can figure out what’s important to me by what I placed the most emphasis on. I provided primary sources and wrote it in such a way so that people might draw their own conclusions. In other words, if you come up to me at a signing and say that AFF sparked your interest in, I don’t know, steamers or Mark Twain or tribadism or even, gulp, true womanhood, I’ll be very happy.

That being said, let me veer off for a moment…I’m surprised, and a little sad, when people try to make AFF about just one thing, or say it is for just one group. Yes, it is about a same-sex relationship, but also about being young and in love, history, gender, marriage, women’s rights, violence, crime, politics, society, paternalism, family, the south, the medical community, racism, misogyny, class, justice, and so many other things.

I’m going to continue to veer. We can’t call Alice or Freda a lesbian, and not just because the term was still forty years in the future. Alice never expressed feelings for anyone besides Freda. We don’t know if she exclusively loved women, and we can’t assume it. Freda loved Alice and a few other men far before people started debating the validity of bisexuality. Now, this isn’t (totally) about me being a persnickety historian, but rather to ask, what happens when we can’t fit everything into a single category, because the categories don’t exist, or can hold many things? We know a lack of names and words can be harmful. If you can’t identify something, how can you begin to understand it? At the same time, the application of labels can do a lot of damage, too. They come with a lot of exclusivity and assumptions, and blind us to other things. For example, everyone assumes I must be a lesbian, because why else would I be interested in this case? History has shown us that the world becomes a very scary place when groups only care about their own interests.

As a historian, one always hopes people will make connections between the past and the present. I was touched to see the LGBTQ youth in Memphis took so much away from the story. They were saddened by the similarities, of course, but made thoughtful comments about the importance of community and access to information. They wondered how Alice would have fared if she knew that there were other people in the world who felt this way, or if someone had recognized Alice’s many threatening episodes leading up to the murder as abuse…

What gave you the most trouble with the story?

I was suspended in a perpetual state of heartbreak and dread and outrage. I kept reliving Alice and Freda’s relationship over and over and over again, and it was often harrowing. I spent a really long time being close to a story that had no heroes. I found relief in the work, in exhausting the research materials and making connections. I was determined to give Alice and Freda a fair account, which was a massive undertaking—and that was just the writing process!

The editorial side wasn’t easy, either, but I was blessed with four brilliant second readers: Mary Klann, Daniel Jacobson, Emily Clement and, most of all, Avi Steinberg, did all the heavy lifting. They edited my second draft as if it was their own, and all of this was in their “free time,” after they’d put in long days at their own demanding jobs. They saved me from myself, made crucial suggestions, and offered me support when I was being challenged on something that seemed fundamental to the story.

Can you tell us about any other books or projects that you have brewing?

I’m working on the proposal for my next book about an economist who was blacklisted in the 1950s and bunch of little projects, but I think your readers might enjoy my history column at the Toast, and the site in general. It is a haven for smart, funny, weird ladies of all ages. For the latest on me, you can always visit my website and my Facebook page, or follow me on Twitter.

Let’s not forget about my illustrator, Sally Klann! If you liked her art in AFF, you’ll be really floored by her portfolio. She’s amazing! Sally for President!

Thank you so much for being here!

About the Author:
Alexis Coe is a columnist at The Awl and The Toast. She has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, The Millions, The Hairpin, LA Weekly, The Bay Citizen, Mission at Tenth, The Paris Review Daily, Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications. Before moving to San Francisco, she was a research curator at the New York Public Library, where she co-curated the most popular exhibition in the library's 101 years, and a project-based oral historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Check out the rest of the tour here!

Be sure to check out my four and a half star review of Alice + Freda Forever by clicking here!


  1. I was so bummed that I didn't win a copy of Alice + Freda Forever, I'm so interested in it and already invested in the story. I absolutely love this interview as well, and quite honestly it makes me want to read the book even more!