11/02/2011 02:38 pm ET | Updated Jan 02, 2012

An Interview With H.W. Brands on The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield

Two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and NY Times bestselling author H.W. Brands is perhaps best known for his presidential biographies. But with his new book The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield, the first in his "American Portrait" series intended to bring attention to "forgotten chapters of American History," Brands makes an exhilarating departure, telling the Gilded Age story of Josie Mansfield, a young woman living in Chicago who becomes the mistress of Wall Street tycoon Jim Fisk. Her alliance with Fisk allows Josie Mansfield to live a glamorous life, but when she falls for the dashingly handsome Edward Stokes, the resulting blackmail and lawsuits culminate in Stokes's murder of Fisk in broad daylight in the Grand Central Hotel in New York City. Brands uses newspaper accounts and trial transcripts to recreate Stokes's emotionally charged murder trial.

The creative, entertaining book gives insight into the way Josie Mansfield -- and women like her -- navigated a world where only men could be taken seriously on Wall Street, but where women could be just as capable of cunning self-interest.

The Kirkus Review calls the book, "A wonderfully creative beginning to what promises to be a revitalizing history series."

I met with H.W. Brands to talk about The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield and his new "American Portrait" series.

What about Josie Mansfield made you want to tell her story?

I've been writing American history for a long time, and I've had a hard time finding strong, interesting female characters. There are women, of course, in American history, but they're hard to write about because they don't leave much of a historical trace; and they're not usually involved in high profile public events. You could find someone who had kept a diary of her home life, but I wanted somebody-some woman-who was mixing it up in the central issues of the day.

Josie Mansfield was this woman who found her way into the middle of Wall Street at the most notorious and interesting time, in the years just after the Civil War. And she hooked up with Jim Fisk, who was the Donald Trump of his day and was quite a flamboyant character. Josie had to make her way in the world and the way she did was to ingratiate herself to wealthy and powerful men; so she was a fascinating character and I thought I would try to tell her story. And the fact that she drove one guy to murder somebody else made it all the better.

I think a lot of readers will be surprised by the drama and immediacy of this book, which is written in the present tense and reads more like a novel than a typical history book. What made you decide to write what is essentially a work of history in such a fresh and daring way?

Some years ago I read Thomas Carlyle's history of the French Revolution and I was very taken by the way he told the story; and it seemed as though I was right in the middle of things. And it took me awhile to figure out how he achieved that effect and one of the ways was to write it in the present tense.

And I thought a lot about this and I also thought about something else I read years ago about Berry Gordy who was the head of Motown, the Detroit music business, and he would tell his songwriters, "Don't write 'My baby left me,' write 'My baby's leavin me," because if you write in the present tense, the future is still uncertain, you don't know how this thing is going to turn out; but if you write in the past tense then maybe the reader may not know how it turned out, but they know it turned out.

When the future is unknown, you become more emotionally engaged, so I thought I'd try this. And I had to wrestle with my editor about it. She never liked the idea, even after two books she still doesn't like the idea. And I'm not sure I'm going to write all the books I'm going to do in this [American Portraits] series in that way. But I think it certainly does create this effect of, "I don't know how this is going to turn out so I think I'll stick around and see."

I wanted to give it a try; I liked how it read. Another thing that drew me to it is, I dabbled in writing screenplays and screenplays are written in the present tense. And there's just something about when you tell a story that way. It tends, I think, to put your reader right in the middle of it and that's what I wanted to do.

The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield is the first in your "American Portrait" series being put out by Anchor Books. What are you hoping to achieve with this series?

I don't know that I'm trying to achieve anything in particular except to give me an excuse to write little stories. I've been writing big stories of history but there are a lot of fascinating little stories. And when I was writing the Jim Fisk book, and with the next one in the series, The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr [to be released May 2012], I kept being pushed by my editor to take it bigger, to tell us what the significance of Josie was. Was she one of a kind of people? But I resisted, because I have been trying to make these true historical stories read like novels; and novelists by and large don't feel obliged to say what the larger significance of the story is. If it's a good story, it's a good story, and it draws readers in.

And I wanted to operate on that principle, and it was the same thing that initially made me resist including photographs. Because you don't see photographs in novels. In fact, the photograph detracts from what the writer is trying to do. I want to describe Josie; I don't want to show a picture of her. Because if you have a picture of her, then my description of her is either wrong or redundant. In fact, it's more interesting to me to describe a character like Josie in sort of suggestive terms rather than specifically so readers will then invest something of what they know, some woman that they knew about, "Ah that's the kind of Josie character." But I lost that battle with my editor. Pictures are included [in the book].

In terms of telling the bigger story or the smaller story, I included more of the big story, more of the historical significance, than I intended to. And maybe it's a good idea because readers are going to come to this [American Portrait] series at least initially, I suppose, because they are looking for history. If they were looking for a novel, they'd be reading a novel. But still I'm going to try to nudge them in the direction of -- Here's this interesting story that happened in the past, and just take it for an interesting story and leave it at that. So it's an ongoing battle.