Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Reverse Q&A between me (Deborah Kalb) and Jamie Stiehm
[NOTE: Instead of interviewing myself about my new children's book, John Adams and the Magic Bobblehead, the sequel to George Washington and the Magic Hat, I asked my friend Jamie Stiehm, a columnist for Creators, if she'd take over as guest interviewer.]
Q: In your second book of the President and Me series, you show Ava looking for a bobblehead of Abigail Adams, the strong matriarch at the family home in Braintree, Massachusetts, now a historical park. She finds Abigail “completely fascinating,” and so is disappointed to see there is no bobblehead for Abigail at the visitors center. What are you hinting at with this detail in the narrative?
A: Much of the history of the 18th and early 19th century United States focuses on the men. Less attention is paid to the women who also played an important role, mostly behind the scenes. Abigail Adams was the one who advised her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” when the men were meeting to shape the future country.
John and Abigail wrote regularly to each other during the many years he was away from Massachusetts as a legislator and diplomat, and their correspondence provides a glimpse into the relationship between two strong characters.
Unfortunately, the correspondence between George and Martha Washington does not survive, so it’s much more difficult to know what Martha was like as a person and what their marriage was like. I wanted to be sure, in this second book, to focus on Abigail as much as on John.
Q: George Washington, your first historical subject, is known as the strong silent type, but you made the formal first president come across as quite human and open talking to your contemporary characters. John Adams was the opposite in real life, verbal with plenty to say on almost any subject. Did you find his talkative personality easier to capture or did you have to edit and restrain his nature and opinions?
A: I think John Adams was a lot more fun to write about because he had a quirkier personality that lent itself better to humor. Here’s a link to a piece I wrote for the website Women Writers, Women’s Books about that.
I did indeed try to make George come across as human and interested in interacting with my fictional modern-day young time travelers, but in the second book, the John Adams bobblehead is a character itself—in addition to the historical John Adams character—which lent itself to more of an exploration of John’s personality. I didn’t really have to restrain anything—I let him be himself, both in human and bobblehead form!
Q: A high point of the historical drama is the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776. Of course, Adams was in the room where it happened. He served on the committee charged with writing the document. Here you create a moment of reflection for Adams, who says it’s better for a Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, to author the document. Can you tell us what you intended by that nod to a rival?
A: Many years later, John Adams wrote that he told Jefferson: “Reason first -- You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second -- I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third -- you can write ten times better than I can.”
Over the decades, Adams and Jefferson had a relationship that ran the gamut, from deep friendship and affection to bitter rivalry. And then, after years of not speaking, the two of them rekindled their friendship as older men, and carried on a years-long correspondence. They both died on the same day, July 4, 1826—50 years after the first Independence Day.
John Adams had a great deal of respect for Jefferson, and I think the quote reflects that. He admired his work and his intelligence.
Q: Present-day Ava and J.P. come face to face and meet Adams’ children, Nabby (a nickname for Abigail) and brilliant John Quincy. You make the past lives seem as vivid and rich as the story taking place in our time. Why did you feel it was important to portray Adams as a head of a large family, compared to the more fragmented family in the present day?
A: I wanted to incorporate Adams’ family because I thought my modern-day characters, Ava and J.P., would identify more with the Adams kids than with the parents. So I set many of the time-travel scenes in the years around the Revolutionary War, when Nabby was about 10, the same age as Ava, and John Quincy was about the same age as 8-year-old J.P.
Ava is part of a blended family, and lives most of the year with her mother, stepfather, and stepbrother in the D.C. area. She spends vacations with her father and stepmother, in California. She and Nabby bond over having fathers who aren’t around that much, as John Adams was away on government business during much of Nabby’s childhood. And it was much harder back then to stay in touch with a geographically distant parent, as Ava reflects during her visits with Nabby.
Q: John and Abigail Adams were the first presidential couple to live in the White House. Through the dialogue across time, you reveal the mansion as still rough and in the making. Abigail says it requires more servants, as hardy as she is. You seem to want to show American history didn’t just happen, but took a lot of work? Are you interested in backstory and process?
A: When the Adamses lived in the White House, it wasn’t the imposing edifice we tend to think of in more recent times. It was definitely a work in progress. And Abigail did use the East Room to hang up her laundry, as we see in the book. Not something we could imagine today!
I try to balance the scenes I show from the past. Some of them are moments of great importance, such as George Washington being sworn in as the first president, while others are more of a day-to-day nature, as in Abigail and the laundry.
Q: In this book, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both appear in cameos. Your characters seem at ease with both, and notice Jefferson’s “fancy” clothes. Can you share with readers how you shifted cultural gears again when you took up the next book in the series, featuring the Virginian Jefferson?
A: Yes, I’ve been working on a third book featuring Thomas Jefferson and more of my modern-day creations. Thomas Jefferson’s personality is quite different from that of John Adams. The issue of slavery, which I discussed in the George Washington book, is front and center with Thomas Jefferson, especially given his relationship with Sally Hemings. I don’t want to say too much yet, but I hope to move on to James Madison soon!