Local Nonagenarian Author Speaks at BookPeople Sunday

Babette Hughes hosts an event for her Kate Brady mystery trilogy

Local Nonagenarian Author Speaks at BookPeople Sunday

The Hat, winner of 2011-2012 Texas Association of Authors' Historical Fiction Award, kicks off this murder mystery trilogy by local nonagenarian Babette Hughes.

The novel begins in 1931 and stars Kate Brady, a young working-class girl struggling to make ends meet in Depression-era Cincinnati. Her alcoholic mother, who loves Kate in her own flawed way, sets Kate's stage for a gloomy existence. Enter the debonair Ben Gold. He wines and dines Kate, takes her on trips and dresses her in the finest furs and gowns, showering her with luxuries she’d never even let herself imagine. When the honeymoon dust settles, however, Kate begins to witness glints of his cruelty. His dangerous bootlegging business – his obsession – becomes a prison trapping Kate in a lonely, gold-plated hell. Tragedy and violence shatter her resolve, but the novel takes an interesting twist when Kate finally begins plotting her own future.

Hughes built Kate and company from imaginative snippets of her own nine decades – and counting! – of life. Her father, a bootlegger during Prohibition, was murdered with her uncle by the mafia when she was just a toddler. We caught up with the spunky Hughes to talk about her characters and what she’s seen change in women’s roles over almost a century. Hughes will read and sign at BookPeople on Sunday, July 19, 2pm.

Austin Chronicle: You’re an Austinite, so how does it feel to launch your book series at BookPeople?

Babette Hughes: It's so exciting. It's just fabulous because that's such an institution in this city.

AC: At the end of The Hat, it says you took the words from your journals. So it’s fiction loosely based on your life – is that correct? It's not a memoir, but it's not totally fiction, so is it somewhere in between?

BH: Well, you know, I don't know if that's right. It's not conscious if my life is in there, it's not deliberate. It's my imagination. I just make up these people. I'm not Kate. When anyone writes anything that's fiction, some of it is from their life, but it's not conscious. It can't not be part of who you are and what your life experience has been and what your daydreams are and all that. But no, Kate is Kate.

AC: It also says a couple of the character names were changed. Is Ben Gold loosely based on someone you knew?

BH: Well, my father was a bootlegger. He was murdered with my uncle when I was two. He was in a turf war with the mafia, and they said they’d get him. He hid in the house because he knew they were after him. When my uncle and his family came to visit my parents, he thought he could go out if he had someone with him, that he'd be safe. But they just murdered both of them. So Ben Gold is a composite of all my imaginings about the mafia. I don't remember my father and I just know what I read when I researched him. There were newspaper stories in the old newspapers, and when I was 12 years old, I went downtown and I read about it because my mother had lied. She told me he died of pneumonia. He was a black sheep. We were an ordinary middle class family and then this craziness. I think, from what I've read, he was just a bad kid. He skipped school and he used to gamble. He was only in his 20s when he was killed. So, you know, I have a lot of imagination and a lot of life to draw on and then my imagination takes over.

AC: You've been writing a long time. You mentioned going downtown and researching when you were 12 and I read somewhere that's about the time you started writing.

BH: Well, you know, I was a kid. I wrote really when I was married and I could write full time. When I was single, I had to work, and you can't support yourself writing novels when you're on your own. I started writing really when I was in my 80s. I guess you know how old I am.

AC: I read that, yes. I would never, ever have guessed. Really.

BH: (Laughs) I used to lie about my age, but now I brag on it.

AC: I love that. So you started writing in your 80s. Was that something you always wanted to do and then just finally got around to? Did you have children?

BH: That's exactly what happened. I always wanted to. Yes, three children. It’s a great luxury to do what I'm doing now, which is writing full time. I love it. I love it, and I hate it.

AC: I think that means you're a writer. I love the part in the book when Kate says, “Writing was the best part of my day and I always saved it for last – like dessert.” What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

BH: I would say, “Do not give up. Do not give up.” Because when you have that thing in you, you've gotta do it. It’s almost like a compulsion. When you get to a time and place when you can write full time, you must do it. You need it.

AC: You're in your ninth decade on this planet, so what are some ways life is different – for better or worse – for women in Prohibition-era America versus today?

BH: Wow, that’s interesting. Well, I think the women's movement in the Seventies really revolutionized our society, even though, of course, there is still a lot of need for women's opportunity. But it changed everything. It changed families. It changed the country. This is a renaissance for women compared to then. I mean Kate had very few opportunities.

AC: I like that the book touched on that. Her options were pretty much to get married or maybe find a job, but it was during the Depression, so that might not have even been possible, right?

BH: That’s right. She almost had no other option – she thought – and really, in a realistic way, she didn't. As young as she was, she was glamorized by that time and place and those clothes and those trips. That’s very seductive.

AC: Plus, it must’ve been so different and shocking from everything she’d known. Especially compared to her mom’s struggles…

BH: That's why she was in such denial about her husband.

AC: She didn't want to admit it?

BH: No, not until she had to. I thought that giving birth and losing her child is what made her grow up, and I think that’s a very important, dynamic experience for many women. When you become a mom, boy, the world is changed. We don't even know before we have a child how it's going to change everything. When we give birth, we have to grow up. Men don't have that opportunity.

AC: I think some people would say they do, but it’s just not the same.

BH: No. It’s not.

AC: I guess I ought to ask you: What’s the magical secret to longevity?

BH: I'm asked that a lot. I don't know if this answers it, but I’ve found that our culture gives the wrong message to women – and to men, too, but women are more affected by it. That is that only youth has value, that age does not. And that’s just wrong. People buy into it because it’s just our culture, but it’s a lie. It’s just not true at all. Older people have so much wisdom and so much to give and enjoy in their life. It’s a good time of life, instead of what we’re led to believe – that it's something to fear.

AC: I love that. It’s also interesting the difference between American culture and many others. In Japan for example, older generations are celebrated, revered.

BH: They’re valued.

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Babette Hughes, BookPeople, Kate Brady series, nonagenarian, Mafia, bootlegger, Prohibition

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