* You write that Queen Isabella was neither saint nor sinner. Is that your approach to all of your characters or are some truly saints or sinners? What would one have to do to be a saint or sinner to you?
I used that that terminology simply to streamline an understanding of Isabella of Castile, to help readers quickly grasp the contrasting images that have been attached to that queen throughout history --- as saint, sinner, and visionary. None of my books - including the biography on Queen Isabella - categorize people in such narrowly defined terms. Each human being has both good and bad qualities, sometimes weighing more heavily on one side of the spectrum than the other, but rarely is anyone all good or all bad. I don't see people in those terms. If I did, I guess I would characterize "sinners" as people who routinely put their own needs ahead of others, are destructive to loved ones, acquaintances, and to society as a whole. A saint, I suppose, would have the opposite traits, that is, would always put the needs of others and of society ahead of his own.
* Any incidents in childhood that presaged your career?
I've been told that I was a creative child. My parents certainly fostered that by giving me art, piano, and ballet lessons. By early adolescence I was a skilled enough ballerina to perform professionally and continued doing so until I entered college. My real loves though, were reading and writing. By the time I was nine I wrote a little collection of stories about our dog which apparently impressed my teacher. Still, it wasn't until I was in college that I realized I wanted to be a professional writer.
* When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I really wasn't sure but I thought it would be something in the arts, perhaps choreography, something involving the theater, or writing.
* What crowd did you hang out with in high school?
I was "unusual" I guess you would say. I was not part of the "cool" crowd, the cheerleaders and football players, or the crowd that had wild parties on weekends. Frankly I had little time because I was dancing professionally most weekends or in rehearsal. During the week I took daily ballet classes, studied hard, participated in school clubs and served on the yearbook. Most of my friends were a scattered collection of students, but not part of one particular crowd.
* Is there a particular book of yours that has the most meaning to you, is your favorite, or the one you recommend to people to read first?
That's a tough call. To see where I began as an author and where women were twenty-five years ago, I'd suggest The New Suburban Woman: Beyond Myth and Motherhood published in 1982 at a time when feminist ideas were just taking hold in the suburbs. That book grew out of my work as a contributor to the New York Times and is a snapshot of an era when the suburbs were predicated on cheap fuel and free woman power, an illustration of just how far women's lives have evolved in a quarter of a century.
Another option is American Empress: The Life and Times of Marjorie Merriweather Post, a biography of the romantic life of the philanthropic breakfast cereal heiress. That book depicts the life of a beautiful woman whose vast wealth, pluck, and brains enabled her to live far more independently than other women would or could for another fifty years.
* How do your kids react to your work?
My daughters seem to be proud of my work and marvel at the difficulties women of my generation encountered in suburbia juggling careers and child-rearing. Of course being my daughters, what else could they say? Let's face it, kids continue to see their parents as powerful figures even in early adulthood and it's often not until they are middle-aged themselves that they begin to assess their parents' contributions more objectively. So in that sense the jury is still out.
* How has your choice of work affected you and your life?
Being a writer has enabled me to live widely, to travel through time and space in ways that most people don't experience, to interview others ranging from first ladies to the disenfranchised, to delve into social, historical and political situations with depth, and, ultimately to understand the world and how my own life fits into it. For me, being a writer has been a great alternative to living just one brief life. That's not to say that being a writer is easy. It isn't. You work alone and do so daily for long hours; you don't collect a regular paycheck; people perceive the time you spend in your home office or study as not " real work" which can be interrupted for a chat, an errand, lunch or simply postponed. Most of your satisfaction is private - the turn of a good phrase, the digging out of an important fact, the completion of a chapter - these are the things that really matter to me, as I think that do for most writers. Oddly enough while we're always pleased with the publication of a book or article, it's the writing process itself that is most exciting.
* How do you decide whether or not to use a particularly juicy (factually true and confirmed) anecdote about a character? For instance, would you out someone as gay?
I am not a tabloid or sensationalist writer. By that I mean one who exploits or distorts " juicy" facts to create a best - seller. Instead I try to make an honest assessment of those I'm writing about, albeit while still including those salacious facts if they are important to an understanding of the subject. Perhaps that reflects my newspaper background. In any case, my usual working method is to uncover the relevant facts of a story line and use them to support, enlarge, or dramatize the narrative in order to make it that character or his story as realistic as possible. As it happens, one character in American Empress: The Life and Times of Marjorie Merriweather Post turned out to be gay - a fact that was reported in several newspapers, in photos, and even mentioned in a previously-published book. Since that character was key to Mrs. Post's life, he and his sexual orientation had to be mentioned. To do otherwise would have been irresponsible.
* Have you liked all of your protagonists? If not, which ones?
Writing a biography is somewhat akin to having a close friend or a life mate. By and large you admire them, but there are certain aspects or characteristics that you are bound to find offensive. So it has been with my protagonists. One of the most difficult things about writing biographies is that you have advance information about the lives of your protagonists and know when they are about to make a mistake, act badly or make a poor decision. "Stop! Don't do that!" you desperately want to tell your protagonist . Yet you can do nothing to prevent them. Then, shaking your head with disapproval, you as writer are compelled to describe that behavior or decision and ultimately, its consequences.
* How do you know when you've done good work?
It feels good when I've completed it. On a second read, it still feels good. On a third read, I'm still pleased with the work. What have you sacrificed to be a writer? A steady income, benefits, colleagues with whom you work every day - and most of all, uncertainty about how each book will be received.
* What do you do best and worst as a writer?
I think that I'm adept at bringing characters to life, organizing a story line and painting physical descriptions of scenes. My worst work as a writer? Finding a subject that will coincide with the latest trends in the popular culture.
* What were the biggest fears you had to conquer to accomplish what you have?
The simple answer is that I won't be good enough. There is always the fear that I will leave something important - a fact, a relevant historical event, an analysis - out of a book I am writing. As a young writer coming from a journalistic background, I remember one editor constantly telling me to be less objective, to "write in my own voice." To this day, it's the balance between those twin shoals of subjectivity and objectivity that remain my biggest fears in non-fiction work.
* Was your neutrality about the claims of spiritualism a reflection of your views or a professional writing decision?
Both. The truth is that no one can "prove" those claims even today.
* I assume your emotional attitude to your protagonists is expressed on the page? For instance, you seem to adore Marjorie Post? Could you devote a book to somebody you hated?
I actually did not adore Marjorie Post. There were times I wanted to scold her. Perhaps I should have criticized her more in her biography. I believe that it is possible for an author to write a book about someone they hated, although more commonly they are likely to be intrigued or curious about that character than to hate them. Certainly there were aspects of Queen Isabella that I despised from the start, but by researching her life and writing her biography, I was able to understand how a queen so seemingly filled with compassion for her subjects and so concerned with widows and orphans could start the Spanish Inquisition and heartlessly kill or exile the Jews and Moors (Arabs) of Spain who refused to convert to Catholicism.
* How much room do you give yourself to speculate in your books?
That's another set of shoals through which the nonfiction writer must steer his narrative. In the purest form of nonfiction writing, such as in newspapers and certain magazines, just the facts are to be expressed. Even the mere act of shaping that news story, however, requires that the writer has an angle or point of view, which he later "proves" with the facts he has collected.
A case can be made that biographies are expanded news stories, which the writer, using facts, must shape into an interesting narrative. Inevitably, no matter how thorough the research, every aspect of that life cannot be explained by facts. Consequently, if all evidence points to X in a biography but is not directly stated, I will speculate. At the same time, I make sure to let the reader know that I am speculating by using words or phrases like " perhaps," " in all likelihood," "probably," etc. "
* The Reluctant Spiritualist. In what sense were these women proto-feminists? In what sense are you a feminist? Would it have been a better read if you had built to a conclusion? Did that tempt you? In the war between fact and story, where do you come down? What techniques do you use to try to pull together a coherent story out of such contradictory facts as in Maggie's story?
The early spiritualists embraced the concepts of sexual equality and the brotherhood/sisterhood of all souls, just as did the first suffragists. Many women who were early spiritualists were also the first suffragists, most famously, Susan B. Anthony, Victoria Woodhull and Isabella Beecher Hooker. The same factors that prompted a liberalization of traditional religions and attitudes towards women in the early nineteenth century also led to the abolitionist cause. Yet by the 1870s the suffragists had broken with many of the tenets of the American spiritualist movement -- especially after Victoria Woodhull's unsuccessful bid for the U.S. presidency.
Having said that, I agree that some of the first spiritualists were proto-feminists. Paradoxically, my protagonist, the dependent Maggie Fox, never really was. Others who embraced the movement were. Many of the female mediums who imitated Maggie Fox and her younger sister Katy were unusually " liberated" for that age. Freely and without hesitation they often "spoke" in public before mix-sexed audiences, albeit in a trance state; they collected money for their spiritualist services; many achieved financial independence; they traveled on the circuit alone or at least without men ; some of them divorced or selected "soul mates" for their lovers in lieu of their wedded husbands.
Were they proto-feminists? The evidence described above and in The Reluctant Spiritualist says yes. If, however, you look at the "official" genesis of the suffragist/women's history movements, especially around the time of Victoria Woodhull's rise to prominence, spiritualism was ultimately marginalized from that history.
You've asked if I was tempted to connect the two - spiritualism and women's rights - and build that to a conclusion in my book. Of course I was, but there were two reasons against that. First, the book depicted the strange life of Maggie Fox and was not primarily focused upon the relationship between spiritualism and women's rights. Secondly those two movements initially paralleled each other but were not necessarily or ultimately intertwined.
I am a feminist. That is why I often write about women and their lives. I believe that unless the lives of important women are recorded and preserved, they will be forgotten.
* To what extent do you want to psycho-analyze your protagonists?
I would never want to psycho-analyze my subjects any more than I would want to psycho-analyze a friend or my husband. One of the delights of being a writer is becoming sufficiently intrigued or excited about a character to want to research his life and learn more about him. If I were a shrink, my psycho-analysis would be far more clinical and dry than the story I would hope to craft about him or her from a literary perspective.
Many thanks for the interview, Luke. Having answered your questions, I feel that you've psycho-analyzed me!
* What does your choice of subjects says about you? For instance, what do all your protagonists have in common? For instance, they all sought power and attention and the limelight?
Your question implies that since I write about powerful and prominent women I must long to be one. I understand that's a common assumption among those who interview writers.
Before embracing that assumption, though, consider the question that all publishers ask before agreeing to give a writer a contract. Who is your audience? How interested would your readers be in the life of an ordinary person, someone who simply lives, loves and dies, who, in other words, leads a perfectly normal life? Does anyone really care? On the contrary, readers like to be excited and intrigued, to hear about those people who have lived such special lives that they deserve to have an entire book devoted to them.
I think you understand my point. Biographies are written about extraordinary people, those who are unusually good, bad, talented or powerful enough to make a difference.
Does that mean since I write about those subjects, I must be like them too? Or does it simply mean that I'm a creative person who is fascinated by those who have made a difference?
* "Free woman power"? That's a bit bold? Do you believe that life/marriage is tougher on women than men? Surely there's no free lunch in love or elsewhere?
No, I do not believe that marriage is necessarily tougher on men than women. Men, after all, are still supposed to be major breadwinners as well as be more involved as fathers than were earlier generations. The second set of expectations add stress for men who already work long hours and hope to rise in their careers.
The context of The New Suburban Woman, however, is the late 1970s and early 1980s when most women were not gainfully employed outside the home and when they made 69 cents for every dollar collected by a male worker.
At the time that I wrote that book, the marriage contract that expected women to be full-time homemakers and child-rearers was still operative. As subsequent divorce statistics indicated, many of those homemakers were later displaced and having dropped out of the work force for ten or twenty years, found themselves financially straightened in after divorce. Local, state and charitable organizations even sprang up to help the "displaced homemakers" of the 1970s and 1980s.
Today, it is far more acceptable for women with young children to work outside the home. Many women do so, not only to help pay the mortgage, but as a "hedge" against a sudden loss of income through divorce. New day care centers for the middle class have appeared around the country and so have after-school programs - both practically unheard of in the 1970s and early 1980s. Meanwhile, volunteer organizations, once staffed almost exclusively by at-home mothers, have more difficulty filling their ranks as do many daytime PTA associations. Even today, suburban mothers who remain at home with their children often claim they do more than their share for the children of working mothers either by hosting more play dates or doing "favors" for working mothers.
Increasingly "free womanpower" as I defined it in The New Suburban Woman, has become a vanishing commodity.
* American Empress: "That book depicts the life of a beautiful woman whose vast wealth, pluck, and brains enabled her to live far more independently than other women would or could for another fifty years." A bit bold? If that statement is true, who's Marjorie's first successor 50 years later? Is living independently good? An island never cries.
At the risk of labeling anyone, I would just like to point out that thousands of less well known women have become "Marjorie's successors" for decades, certainly since the late 1970s or early 1980s. A comparison of the Who's Who directories today with those a generation ago indicates just how many more women are independent today than they were a generation or two ago - including many who were not born to wealth or privilege.
You ask if independent living is good. I believe that is a highly personal question. Historically, the American Revolution "proved" that people want to decide their own fates and think for themselves. So did the suffrage and feminist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Just how independently a woman decides to live is her choice. Some women are perfectly happy to be traditionally dependent on men. Others chose to remain independent career women. I have friends in both camps. You probably do as well.
* Why is it irresponsible to out someone as gay (as long as it is true)? Why is that more or less irresponsible than outing something else (of equivalent punch) about a person?
Is it not irresponsible to "out" anyone on the basis of their race, religion, culture, or sexual orientation or culture? Writers are supposed to examine all types of people, after all, and try to understand them and their lives.
* Would it be fair to characterize your approach to your protagonists as a sympathetic friend? You seem to want good things for them?
To write engagingly about a character requires some empathy for them, I suppose, but disapproval is also inevitable. One of the most fascinating aspects of writing a biography is knowing that the protagonist will make certain poor decisions and/or mistakes in his life. Yet the writer can do nothing about it! The upshot is that all a writer can hope to do is reflect the lives of their characters as accurately as possible and that includes the " bad things" they do as well as the good.
* Do you believe there are important lessons to be learned from your protagonists? Yet you do not spell these lessons out?
Readers are smart. They don't need the writer to hammer home the " lessons" learned from reading about a life. If a book is well written, the reader will inevitably come to his own conclusions. That, at least, is my goal when writing non- biographies.