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Interview with Gerald Kolpan, author of Etta

January 9, 2009

When author Gerald Kolpan contacted me after I posted my review of his debut novel Etta, I asked if he’d be willing to do an author Q&A for the blog. He graciously (and speedily!) agreed, and some of his answers made me quite literally laugh out loud.

Etta will be released by Ballantine Books on 24 March 2009.
Read my review, and then pre-order your copy on Amazon!
Take it away, Gerald!
You’ve said that the idea for Etta came from watching a documentary about the Wild Bunch – has the Wild West always been an interest of yours? What draws you to that particular period of history?

It’s not like I go on cattle drives for fun or anything. Basically, I’m a city guy. But I’ve always loved western films and I think the Western is America’s greatest contribution to world film. I loved Zorro on TV. That said, I wouldn’t know Zane Grey from Billy Zane. I just got what I thought was a good idea for a book and it just happened to take place partly in the West 100 years ago. It could just as easily been a knights in armor story in the 1100’s.

Did anything about writing Etta surprise you – either in the writing/publishing process, or something about the story itself?

EVERYTHING surprised me. The characters would go off and do things I hadn’t expected. The outline was just a pale shadow of the final story. People like Hantaywee, the Indian girl and Eli Gershonson, the peddler and Chappie, Etta’s husband, showed up pretty much on their own. I never thought it would take seven drafts to get right. I always thought Etta would be published, but believe me, I never thought a big agency like ICM would handle it or a huge publisher like Ballantine, which is part of Random House, would end up putting it out. And then there was creating the web site, the blogs, Library Thing…whew! It was all new to me.

What inspired you to write Etta in “scrapbook” format (i.e. including newspaper clippings, letters, etc.), instead of as a single narrative? Did you have actual documents from the time that you were using as sources?

The form just seemed to make sense. And since I’d never written a novel, I figured if part of it was in journalese, which as a reporter, I’m used to, it wouldn’t be so hard to write. So much for that. I read things like dime novels and telegrams to see how they were constructed. The only actual documents I had to go by were the internal Pinkerton memos, which I used as a guide. Some of those are almost word for word. I called The Harvey museum in Leavenworth, Kansas to see if they had a copy of a Harvey Girl contract. They didn’t, so I made up the one in the book. My agent asked me if I had the rights to use it! This is the first place I’m saying this in print, but Eleanor Roosevelt’s wedding announcement from the New York Times is the only completely real document in Etta. It’s exactly as it appeared in the paper, only missing the guest list.

What’s your favorite scene from the book? Or, if you don’t have a favorite, which one has changed the least since you first came up with it?

I have a few favorites. Harry’s goodbye to Etta in Yellowjacket; Eleanor and Etta in Eleanor’s aunt’s house; Etta’s first meeting with Buffalo Bill and the excerpt from Colonel Custis’ Weekly, which is a completely bogus dime novel version of Etta’s New Jersey Train “robbery.” The book is fairly serious, but I tend to like the funny stuff most.

What are you reading now? Any recent “gotta-read-it” books to recommend?

What I “gotta” do is make my way all the way through Team of Rivals.

If you were transported back to the late 1800s, what would your outlaw alias be, and what do you think you would you be famous (infamous?) for?

I’d love to be a masked avenger and protector of the people called “The Eagle” or something. But I’d probably be some cowardly owlhoot who shoots people in the back in a drunken rage with a name like “Bisky” or “Packy.”

If you were limited to eating food from one particular type of cuisine for the rest of your life, what would you pick?

That question is obscene and I refuse to even consider answering it.

Anything else you want readers to know about you, or your book, but you never get asked the right question?

Nobody asks what the role of an editor is. If it’s done right, editing is crucial to a good novel. I was lucky enough to have two great editors on Etta. First, there was Robin Rolewicz, who had just come off Tom Brokaw’s book, Boom! She was terrific. When Robin went on maternity leave I was lucky enough to get Anika Streitfeld who edited The Time Traveler’s Wife, among other books. Also great. They made suggestions and I kept an open mind and at least tried most of what they suggested. They never told me WHAT to write, just pointed out what could be better or what didn’t make sense and then told me to solve the problem. They also made cuts. That can be painful, but as a reporter, I was used to having my work cut. Judicious cutting is absolutely essential. Most books and movies are too long. Anyway, Etta is a much better book now than it was when Robin bought it.

Okay, last question, and I ask this of everyone: Who do you think would win in a fight, pirates or ninjas?

Ninjas, no question. Pirates are drunken, lazy reprobates who say ARRRRRRR!!!! all the time. Ninjas are super disciplined fighters trained to be invisible. Plus, they have cooler swords.
GERALD KOLPAN was born in New York City and grew up in New Rochelle, NY.

Gerald received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from The Philadelphia College of Art (now The University of the Arts). After college, Gerald’s career path took him in many different directions. He was an illustrator for books, magazines, and advertising for over a decade and later became an advertising copywriter and art director. At the dawn of the punk era, he even fronted a rock band.

Gerald then embarked on a writing career. Beginning as a freelancer, he wrote articles for newspapers nationwide, including the Los Angeles Times, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Miami Herald and both the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. He also wrote the column “Fulminations” for City Paper, Philadelphia’s leading alternative weekly.

In 1979, he turned to radio. Beginning as a volunteer at the University of Pennsylvania’s radio station, he eventually gained national notice as a contributor to National Public Radio’s news program All Things Considered. He was also a commentator for the WNYC radio series Future Forward.

In 1987, WTXF television hired Gerald as a features reporter. He is currently the station’s longest-serving reporter, with over twenty-one years on the beat. His work has been featured on the Fox News Channel and CNN. He is also fast becoming an internet favorite.

Gerald has earned numerous honors for his work, including 7 Middle Atlantic Emmy awards in such categories as best feature story, best feature series, best health and science reporting and best television news writer. He has won Philadelphia Magazine’s “Best of Philly” award and was chosen as a member of the Daily News TV News Dream Team. He has also won awards from the Radio and Television News Directors Association and the Associated Press.

Gerald Kolpan lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Joan Weiner. Their daughter, Kate, is in graduate school and their son, Ned, is in his senior year of college.

Etta is his first book.

Visit Gerald at

7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2009 8:48 am

    Great interview! I got a chuckle out of it.

  2. January 9, 2009 10:34 am

    I love your interviews…you always have me hooked!

    And I just love to see the reasoning when people answer the pirates or ninjas question!

    I loved watching Zorro as well, but I really don’t like reading westerns…this sounds different, more doable for me though. I may have to check it out. I’m intrigued by the scrapbook format.

  3. January 9, 2009 10:44 am

    bermudaonion – Me too! “Owlhoot” is my new favorite word.

    Serena – So far, my author interviews are tied at 2-2 in favor of pirates vs. ninjas, with one write-in vote for them learning to live in peace. :)

  4. January 9, 2009 12:02 pm

    Oh great interview! I am looking forward to reading this one at some point. Thanks!

  5. January 9, 2009 3:53 pm

    I loved this book (waiting for release date to publish a review). I thought Kolpan did a fabulous job and can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

    Thanks for the interview!

  6. Bobbie Crawford-McCoy permalink
    January 10, 2009 4:28 pm

    Great interview! :-)

    I just wanted to let you know that I have awarded you The Butterfly Award! :-)
    I really like your Blog Fyrefly.

    Have a super weekend!


  7. January 11, 2009 2:51 pm

    Amanda – Thanks! I hope the hardcover version retains the author interview that was included at the back of the ARC – lots of interesting stuff in there!

    Michele – Agreed! Kolpan definitely goes on my “will read his next book, just on principle” list.

    Bobbie – Wow, thank you!

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