Beyond the Elegant Veneer: Talking with Greer Macallister


Greer Macallister’s latest novel, Woman 99, takes place in 1888 when a young lady’s independent streak could land her in an insane asylum. That’s what happens to protagonist Charlotte Smith, and her intentions are decidedly noble—she gets herself committed in order to save her sister who’s been locked up at the cheerful-sounding Goldengrove. The reality is decidedly less than cheerful, though, and Charlotte encounters shocking conditions and treatments.

This historical thriller includes the surprising twists and fierce characters we’ve come to expect in a Macallister novel. Her previous two, The Magician’s Lie and Girl in Disguise, feature the first illusionist to saw a man in half and the first female Pinkerton detective.

Macallister and I corresponded recently via email about what can be learned from faking madness, how appearances can be deceiving, and why she likes to “write intelligent women into extraordinary circumstances.”


The Rumpus: Early in Woman 99, Charlotte reflects on a childhood experience that showed her how risk and reward are linked. How did this theme of rebellion—what it means to be a rebel—influence the novel?

Greer Macallister: In my experience, siblings tend to settle into their roles within a family, consciously or unconsciously. Charlotte has always been the compliant, cooperative child, partly because she has a sister who has always been the risk-taking, more unpredictable one. So she’s never been the rebel—until her sister is suddenly removed from the situation. Then she enters this institution, Goldengrove Asylum, where everything is very regimented, very locked down (often literally) and she has a lot more to rebel against. And she’s surrounded by women whose relationship with rebellion is different from hers. That gives us so much to explore.

Rumpus: The world of this story is populated by outcasts, people who for one reason or another have been sent away to a mental institution in the 1880s. What drew you to these characters?

Macallister: The constant struggle of writing historical fiction is creating characters who are recognizable and sympathetic to a modern audience without making them modern characters! They have to be products of their time. I always, always go back to something I heard Mary Doria Russell say at a literary festival once: “The past is not just now, with hats.” It really cracked something open for me when I realized that the women Charlotte meets in the asylum would be more, not less, recognizable and sympathetic to us than their 1880s high-society counterparts. Because they were sent away for wanting things that modern society largely encourages us to want: love, independence, self-determination, equality, education.

Rumpus: A magician, a Pinkerton detective, and now someone who gets herself locked into an asylum to save her sister—your protagonists are unique and uniquely situated in their times. What do they have in common?

Macallister: I write intelligent women into extraordinary circumstances that they are then challenged to overcome. All three are dealing with the inherent sexism and inequality of their times—the 1900s, the 1850s, the 1880s—though they do so in very different ways. They all want to be happy and they all believe they deserve to be happy even when the people around them don’t agree or approve. And all three gave me the opportunity to explore the question of whether society’s expectations and assumptions around womanhood have really changed as much as we’d like to think in the past one hundred and fifty or so years. Some of what they dealt with then, we’re still dealing with today. Historical fiction is never just about the past.

Rumpus: You embody your protagonists so fully that I feel compelled to ask about what it feels like when you finish a project. Do you miss these women?

Macallister: I have an odd relationship with my books after I finish them. I spent five years writing and rewriting and rewriting my debut, The Magician’s Lie. Now I love to revisit it, but right after it came out, I’d spent so much time with it I couldn’t look at it anymore. So the books themselves I’m generally glad to step away from, at least temporarily, but the women? Yes, I miss them desperately. I get email from readers asking, “What comes next for Arden? What comes next for Kate?” And I’m asking that, too. I end each book in a particular place because it’s what makes sense for the arc of the book, but those women’s stories are still going on in my head. They’re still with me.

Rumpus: At the beginning, Charlotte is the most pliable of your heroines, the most obedient, which makes her actions even more shocking. Was the experience of writing her different than the experience of writing Kate Warne or the Amazing Arden?

Macallister: Absolutely! Kate and Arden have a lot more in common with each other than either of them have in common with Charlotte. Kate and Arden are both self-made women who come from more hardscrabble backgrounds. They both have to repeatedly reinvent themselves—Kate as a detective and spy, Arden as a dancer and magician—to successfully make their way through the world. Charlotte starts from a place of great privilege and wealth. She’s young. She’s so naïve because she’s always been protected. Then when all that is stripped away, that’s when things get interesting, and she starts to dedicate more energy to the question of who she really is and what she really wants. She’s the only one of my protagonists so far who goes through a real transformation and then finds herself back in the environment where she started—how does she deal with that? In many ways it’s easier to write someone who never looks back. Charlotte has to move forward, look back, and try her best to reconcile the two.

Rumpus: You’ve mentioned that it was difficult to find information about Warne, the first woman to work for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Were there any unexpected challenges in research for Woman 99?

Macallister: For the asylum portions, mostly it was a question of just how deeply I wanted to get into the real, practical ugliness of how institutions like this often utterly dehumanized their residents. I didn’t want the book to be unpleasantly bleak or inauthentically rosy, and it’s not, but that took effort. I had to craft Goldengrove Asylum to neither reflect the best nor the worst of what nineteenth-century asylums had to offer. For the San Francisco portions, I happened to be in San Francisco during my research period, and it wasn’t as helpful as one might think. I got some really great information on what the wharves were like at that time, but as far as seeing what my characters would have seen? No chance. I think there’s only one mansion on Nob Hill that made it through the 1906 earthquake. Just another fun way historical fiction makes everything just a touch more difficult.

Rumpus: What surprised you the most about these late nineteenth-century asylums?

Macallister: If you read Nellie Bly’s 1887 account of feigning madness to infiltrate Blackwell’s Island, the notorious asylum in New York City, it’s striking how easy it was for her to accomplish her goal of getting committed. She basically just moved into a poor area of town and acted weird enough to make everyone around her concerned, then followed it up with some fake amnesia. I think it only took her a day or two. Her chilling quote started me on the path to writing this novel: “The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”

Rumpus: Many of the Goldengrove inmates do not suffer from any mental illness, but the protagonist’s sister seems to have bipolar disorder and others have delusions and bouts of violence. I’m wondering if any of the treatments of this era were successful?

Macallister: Some of the treatments did make sense—fresh air, daily exercise, a simpler life. Some of the private institutions were offering the same experience we’d pay handsomely for today at an upscale mountain hotel or yoga retreat. Removing people from a stressful situation can certainly help relieve stress, if only temporarily. So it wasn’t all restraints and drugs and pulling teeth. Unfortunately a lot of these patients were sent to institutions less for their own well-being and more for the comfort of relatives who didn’t want to deal with them on a daily basis. But I like to think some of them, like some of the characters in Woman 99, found what they needed in the last place we’d think to look.

Rumpus: Charlotte’s friend Nora sums up the horror of these places when she says, “It only takes two things to make a woman insane: the word of a man who stands to benefit and a doctor willing to sell his say-so.” Would you call this a feminist novel?

Macallister: Oh, definitely. Men in this period were certainly committed against their will too, but not nearly in the numbers women were, and not for the same reasons. It’s a profoundly inequitable system and I choose to have my characters question that inequity. But not all the men in the novel are villains, no more than all the women are heroes. That’s an important aspect of writing feminist work to me. Every character in my books, male or female, deserves a point of view, a justification that makes sense to them, a complexity that makes them more than just good or just bad. I want all those voices heard.

Rumpus: Why did you choose to name the different wards after muses?

Macallister: It puts kind of an elegant veneer on something that is not at all elegant: classifying and containing human beings against their will. That was very authentic to the era.

Rumpus: I was interested in how the women adapted to their bleak new environments. Do you think in some ways the restraints of society trained them to be adaptable?

Macallister: I think they’re forced to adapt, really, whether they’re prepared to do so or not. The institution itself does much of the work. They’re entering this environment and seeing other women complying, so that pushes them toward compliance. And they’re instantly rewarded for compliance and instantly punished for non-compliance. What comes after that—at what level of compliance do they settle in? do they figure out how to game the system or just give up?—is where I think you really see the women’s different personalities come out.

Rumpus: There are a few references in Woman 99 to men’s institutions, and I’m curious about how they differed from the women’s asylums?

Macallister: I didn’t delve nearly as deeply into men’s asylums of the day as I did into women’s, but my impression was that men’s labor was more frequently monetized, in the same way prison labor is today. Some of the women in Goldengrove work in ways that bring money into the institution, but it was more common for residents to work in an asylum’s farm or garden to produce things that other residents of the asylum would then consume. I’ve read more than one novel set in a co-ed institution, but I don’t have a good sense of how the numbers really break down in terms of institutions that were mingled vs. just men vs. just women.

Rumpus: Charlotte notes “how far the reality of the asylum and its literature diverged.” How does that theme of appearance versus truth function in the novel?

Macallister: Very few characters in my books are who they seem to be at first glance, and that goes double for this one. And especially because you’ve got the high society angle here, you have a lot of people who are way more concerned about how things look than how things actually are. That’s why Phoebe gets sent away. That’s why… well, I don’t want to get too deep into spoilers, but if there’s enough at stake, people will do pretty dark things to keep up appearances.

Rumpus: Can you tell us why you selected the Dickinson epigraph, which begins “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—”?

Macallister: That epigraph truly found me. It was just good fortune. Paula McLain posted it one day on Facebook, I don’t at all remember why, and as I soon as I read it I went into my Word file of the novel and typed it on page one. In this context, to me, it’s about the power of the mind being stronger than anything else, no matter where you are. Charlotte’s imagination is key to this whole novel. It’s how she gets through. And of course there’s that hint—”and You beside”—at the importance of a particular You in her life. Even though he’s not physically present, he’s incredibly important. He’s not there, but he’s there.

Rumpus: Let me ask you about one more conclusion that Charlotte draws in the novel: “Freedom was an illusion, it seemed, no matter where I went.” What do you hope readers gain from mulling over this question of freedom?

Macallister: Inside the walls of an institution that literally locks her and her fellow inmates in, Charlotte is in many ways freer than she was in the Nob Hill mansion where she grew up. And they all—well, most of them—want out, but freedom from the institution doesn’t mean freedom from expectation, freedom from constraints, freedom from consequences. Every woman in Goldengrove has some kind of limit holding her back. Freedom means something different to each of them. That’s what I want readers to explore—the experiences of these varied women, how they strive to find their own happiness, whatever happiness means to them. There’s a beautiful line in the Publishers Weekly review that I think captures so well what I was trying to do with the cast of characters: “Macallister gives voice to a motley crew of women who, at the mercy of male whims, hide multitudes.” Not everyone gets there by the end of the book, but ultimately, I want every woman of Goldengrove to be able to live her multitudes.

Erica Wright's newest crime novel The Blue Kingfisher was released in October 2018 from Polis Books. Her debut The Red Chameleon was one of O Magazine's Best Books of Summer 2014. Her followup The Granite Moth was a 2016 Silver Falchion Award Finalist. She is also the author of two poetry collections, Instructions for Killing the Jackal and All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned. She is a senior editor at Guernica as well as a former editorial board member for Alice James Books. More from this author →