From Joy Callaway, author of The Fifth Avenue Artists Society, comes an unforgettable historical novel based on the founding of the country’s first sororities. On August 31st, join Main Street Books in conversation with Joy Callaway on her newest novel, Secret Sisters.
It's 1881 and Whitsitt College sophomore Beth Carrington has two goals to fulfill by the time she graduates: obtain a medical degree, and establish a women’s fraternity, Beta Xi Beta, that will help young women like herself to connect with and support one another while attending the male-dominated Whitsitt.
Neither is an easy task. The sole female student in the physicians’ program, Beth is constantly called out by her professors and peers for having the audacity not to concentrate on a more “fitting” subject like secretarial studies. Meanwhile, secret organizations are off-limits, and simply by crowding together in a dank basement room and creating a sense of camaraderie, she and her small group of fraternity sisters risk expulsion.
As Beth fights for her beloved Beta Xi Beta to be recognized, she uncovers deep secrets about the college and those who surround her, and has to put both love and friendship on the line so that history can be made.
Between the Lines: Joy Callaway Interview with Main Street Books
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Why this story, and why this story right now?
JOY CALLAWAY: This story had an interesting origin. Another author friend of mine emailed me one day saying she had a dream about me in a sorority and thought to tell me in case it prompted any writing. She didn’t know it, but I’d been in a sorority for a time in college--Alpha Xi Delta--and had always been fascinated by the founding of the country’s first sororities. Outside of Greek chapter rooms, the origin of these organizations is relatively unknown by the general population and it shouldn’t be. The women that started sororities, really women’s fraternities, were pioneers. In the Gilded Age only one percent of the female population attended college, and so these women were charting unknown territory mostly alone--until they banded together to form women’s fraternities.
I think this story is incredibly important now. Sororities, at their core, are about friendships, about taking a stand for what’s right, about the idea that striving for achievements together make them all the more possible. In a world that seems to be so filled with divisiveness and negativity, I think this novel is needed to remind us that regardless of differences, we’re stronger together.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Both of your novels, The Fifth Avenue Artists Society and Secret Sisters are historical. In fact, they are set within a decade of one another, the former in 1891 and the latter in 1881. What allure does this time period hold for you? Will your novels continue to rewind time in 10-year increments?
JOY CALLAWAY: I am absolutely dazzled by the Gilded Age. I’ll admit that I was lured to the time period first by the glitz - the exorbitant wealth of families like the Vanderbilts and Astors, the elaborate costumes and parties - but when I looked a bit deeper, I was struck by the disparity. In fact, Mark Twain coined the term "Gilded Age" in his novel A Tale of Today, which referred to the era as a time of vast social problems masked by thin gilding. With The Fifth Avenue Artists Society, I was able to explore that stratification by living both in the circles of glamor and in typical Gilded Age life. Additionally, I’ve always felt that the Gilded Age teeters on the cusp of great societal change. Even when looking at fashion, you can see it: in the 1920s, the costume requirements of society begin to alter drastically and, along with them, the rigid social structure.
I’m sure I’ll write another novel set in the Gilded Age at some point - I think it’ll always be my favorite era. However, right now I’m writing a book set in 1908 and 1942.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: For the protagonists in both of your books, gender plays a pivotal role in complicating their pursuit of careers and other ambitions. Why does this battle resonate with you?
JOY CALLAWAY: To be honest, I never set out in either book to make gender an issue, but as I dove into research, I realized the protagonists´ gender-based struggles were both necessary to the narrative and true, and to omit these complications would be historically inaccurate.
Just last night, someone asked me if I’d ever felt that being a woman complicated my career, and I answered honestly: no. I know that wouldn’t be the answer for every woman today, unfortunately, and that society still has quite a way to go, but I was able to say no because of the women who fought for equal rights before me. I think, as a woman, it’s important to recognize that generations before us were fighting for this generation, and it’s only because of them that we’ve come this far. We also owe it to our daughters and granddaughters to keep pursuing our dreams so that they will be even more empowered than we are.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Which do you enjoy more: the research or the writing process? Why?
JOY CALLAWAY: I love both, so this question is tough. Research is always where the story begins for me. I thoroughly enjoy collecting photographs, newspaper articles, and journal entries and dropping myself into a time period. But writing is where I get to “live” the story, and it’s like getting to go back in time. So, it’s impossible to choose which I enjoy more.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Can you tell us about a detail originally written into one of your books, but later removed after an editor or reader identified it as anachronistic?
JOY CALLAWAY: Yes! The original car owned by John Hopper in The Fifth Avenue Artists Society had to be changed. I can’t even recall what I’d selected at first - I believe it was a Benz - but I had to find another car to use in its place as that particular car wasn’t manufactured until the following year. This was a challenge as there were only one or two automobiles in existence at the time.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Best historical nonfiction book you’ve read or documentary you’ve seen?
JOY CALLAWAY: This is tough. Most recently, I’d say The History of the Greenbrier: America’s Resort by Robert Conte.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: What song is stuck in your head right now?
JOY CALLAWAY: Cages by Needtobreathe. Anything by Needtobreathe is just incredible.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: Beach or mountains?
JOY CALLAWAY: I love the beach, but I’d have to go with mountains. There’s just something wild and free and lovely and ancient about being in the mountains. Most of my family is from West Virginia, and I can’t get enough.