Monday, June 10, 2013

Q&A with writer Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon
Thomas Mallon is the author of eight novels, including Henry and Clara, Fellow Travelers, and, most recently, Watergate; four works of nonfiction; and two essay collections. He writes for The New YorkerThe New York Times Book Review, and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications, and he is a professor of English at the George Washington University. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel based on Watergate?

A: I think it mostly began with Nixon himself. Nixon himself has sort of obsessed me since I was 8 or 9 years old, when he ran against Kennedy. [Of all the public figures], he has dominated my whole life. My college years coincided with his presidency. He himself, his defeats, his comebacks, his victories, his overreachings, it always interested me.

He shows up in little cameos in a number of books of mine. He was always very much on my mind….James Atlas, who used to edit the Penguin brief lives, approached me after I had written Henry and Clara about writing about Lincoln. It seemed overwhelming [and I didn’t do it], but I said, “Don’t give away Nixon without calling me.” I remember talking with my editor about a nonfiction book about Nixon.

[The idea for this book] really was all at once. It was some time around 2007 or 2008, and I was walking between my office at GW and my house, which is right across from the Watergate, and just knowing I would write a book about Watergate.

I came across an interview I did years ago, I think it was with the Atlantic, and I said I thought there probably was a good novel to be written about Watergate. It was quite a number of years before I set out to write [Watergate].

I would not underestimate the value of looking out at the building.

Q: How was it writing the book and looking out at the building every day? Did it feel like pressure or inspiration?

A: Closer to the latter. I don’t think it felt like pressure. It gave it a certain reality. What surprised me—I was an avid follower of Watergate at the time it happened. When I started researching, it felt as if I were reviewing it rather than studying it; it was familiar. I was in my early 20s when it was happening.

One thing that was new to me was how many of the principals actually lived in the Watergate. I had known that the Mitchells lived there, but it was only when I started digging into it [that I learned that] Fred LaRue was in the Watergate, Rose Mary Woods was in the Watergate, some minor figures [in the book] such as Senator [Edward] Brooke [R-Mass.] were in the Watergate.

I originally thought that I, like the burglars, would be in and out of the building only once, but in fact the novel returns to the building a number of times. The title of the book refers almost as much to the physical entity as to the scandal.

Q: You said in a Washington Post interview last year about Richard Nixon, “He was the central public figure of my life.” What are your feelings about him?

A: Wildly ambivalent—I guess that’s not that uncommon. I guess I was more sympathetic to Nixon than many people of my generation and milieu, people who have spent time in publishing and academe. My father was a passionate Nixon man. In 1960, I was a little boy off to school with a Nixon button. In 1968, I was 17—I remember staying up late at night with a transistor radio when he was in yet another thrilling close election.

There was something in him that I identified with, much more than with Kennedy. Forget Irish, forget Catholic. Maybe it says something about how money and class, even in the fluid United States, trumps everything. Or maybe it’s some elemental psychological thing. He was real to me in ways that many politicians were not. I could see him struggling in his own skin in ways I couldn’t with others.

His record was so phenomenally mixed. He was very ambitious for his presidency. Clinton was also very well [suited] to be president, but he never saw himself as a transformational figure; he [worked in] small, incremental ways. If [Nixon’s] fall had not been so spectacular, more of the focus would be on the real improbability of his comeback. …

He is forever referenced; there has been more reference to Nixon in the past month since the [Obama] administration has run into trouble than there has been in a long time…I look at the overreaching going on, and can’t help thinking of ’72. But it’s a very different set of circumstances. One enormous difference between the two is that the default mode with Nixon is to think the worst of him, and with Obama, it’s to think and expect the best of him.

I said to somebody that up until when I wrote this novel, I couldn’t understand the whole Robert Caro business. It seemed excessive, [so many] years writing about Lyndon Johnson, although he’s the same kind of juicy character [as Nixon] and produces the same kind of ambivalence. Now I sort of get it. I don’t feel finished with Nixon.

Q: Are you writing about him again?

A: I’m writing a book now that’s set in 1986. It’s really about Reagan, although I can’t get into his head. But Nixon is very much a character. He’s living in New Jersey, with an office in New York City; he’s traveling the world. And he’s very much in touch with Reagan. Reagan was on the phone with Nixon quite frequently.

Nixon was an exemplary ex-president. I don’t know if penance was involved or not, but when you look at his presidency compared to the ones since, the ex-presidency has become a gross money-making machine.

Nixon very much wanted to be in the game. He had ambivalent feelings toward Reagan. He thought he was a pretty boy. He thought he was lucky. But he was impressed with the things he was able to get done. The book in some ways is similar to Watergate. [Nixon] is one of my point-of-view characters. It feels a little like a sequel.

Q: How much license do you give yourself to make up scenarios for your real-life characters, for example, Pat Nixon in Watergate?

A: I took more liberties with her and with Fred LaRue, to the point that in their cases there’s a significant fictional character [associated with them]. Tom Garahan didn’t exist, and I feel pretty certain that [an affair like the one in the book] didn’t happen. Clarine Lander, she’s an invention. You have to be willing to do some of this, or there’s not much point to writing a novel; you might as well write history.

I find myself, as the years go by, more inclined to invent and less tied to the literal than I did at the beginning of this. When I look at an early novel—Aurora 7—I took such pains not to attribute any thought or action to [astronaut] Scott Carpenter, a real-life character in the book, or Rene Carpenter, his wife.

As the years go by, I’ve become more fluid. I still would not have put Nixon in some city he wasn’t in on a given day. But there’s clearly more fluidity to what I do. The notions of these things change. People say, Define a historical novel. How far back does it have to be set? Is there a set of rules? As I write in the [acknowledgements] to the Watergate book, there’s a sliding scale; you never really know it….

I’ve never felt that using real-life characters in fiction is a kind of cheat….It doesn’t make sense to me. People say, He had this ready-made Richard Nixon, he had this ready-made Alice Longworth. In fact, you do change things. And the vast number of characters [in fiction], non-real people, they’re always in fact somebody’s mother, somebody’s girlfriend, somebody’s ex-husband. These characters are composites or refractions.

Q: What first got you interested in writing historical novels?

A: In a way, it was part accidental. When I started Aurora 7, I don’t think I thought of it as a historical novel. I was very conscious that I was trying to replicate 1962 [twenty-some years later]; the book was replete with brand names and pop music, but I don’t think I consciously set out to write in that genre.

Henry and Clara originally started as nonfiction. What I started to write was a biography of John Wilkes Booth. While I was researching that, I discovered that another biography of
Booth was in the works [so I changed my plans].

In the course of my research, I kept coming across references to the Rathbones, and I realized that this was a very good story. I thought I would write a nonfiction story, but I discovered too many gaps in the story…. [and thought that] this would make a very unsatisfying nonfiction narrative. I then decided to write a novel. I thought insofar as I can find out the information, I will stick to it, and where I can’t, I will make it up.

That was the book that in some ways became the template for me. I found myself writing about minor characters, either real or invented, who were on the fringes of great historical events. I would tell history from the point of view of bystanders.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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