Jerome Charyn is the author of the new novel The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt and His Times. His many other books include Johnny One-Eye and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. He lives in New York.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on Teddy Roosevelt in your new novel, and what was it like to capture his voice?
A: I was first drawn to TR when I understood the relationship between him and his father. He would be invisible today if it had not been for the extraordinary pull of his father, who was as great a man as TR, even if he remains unknown.
Born into wealth, TR’s father was interested in poverty. He built a shelter for newsboys, because they were vagabonds who were preyed upon by the police and neighborhood tuffs.
TR senior did not believe in the superiority or the advantages of wealth. If he found a stray cat, he would immediately bring it to the little shop on second avenue, run by two women who took care of strays.
If we look for one key into understanding TR, it was his desire to never disappoint his father, to fight for equality and fairness, and to protect the unfortunate. He did not really take advantage of his own wealth.
And the sadness in TR’s voice comes from the fact that he mourned his father every day of his life.
Q: How did you research the book, and how did you choose the episodes in Roosevelt's life on which to focus?
A: I read everything I could on TR, and it was my wonderful editor, Robert Weil, who suggested that I not write the Gone-with-the-Wind of historical novels, but stop at McKinley’s death, just as TR was about to become president.
Therefore, I could concentrate on his time in the Dakotas, as a deputy sheriff, at his years as police commissioner of NYC and all the mythology surrounding his charge up San Juan Hill.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: I saw TR as a kind of Manhattan cowboy – as a Rough Rider who did not believe in eastern gentility, but was willing to fight against corruption whether it be in New York or on the plains of Dakota. He was a deputy sheriff wherever he went and wherever he lived.
Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Roosevelt nowadays?
A: Many of the historians see him as a childlike man, who had tantrums and remained a juvenile all his life. He was much more complicated than that.
With his father’s ghost in the background he was able to take two warring nations, Japan and Russia, who would have fought on forever, and soothe them into making peace. In doing so, he was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve always loved Louise Brooks, and I am researching a novel that will be called Lulu: a love story. It will take place in 1947 or ‘48, when she was a sales clerk at Saks, completely forgotten as an actress.
And I will have her fall in love with the hoodlum lawyer who is in charge of the affairs of Owney Madden, the crime boss of Manhattan, who was forced to retire to Hot Springs, Arkansas. The action of the novel will shift between Hot Springs, the town of gangsters, and Manhattan, another gangster haven.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I find myself, in my old age, entering politics, by becoming a member of the board of managers of my own building - I am trying to bring peace to the building, let’s hope I succeed.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a link to Jerome Charyn's blog tour.