Elise Hooper is the author of the new novel Fast Girls, which focuses on three women who competed for the United States in the 1936 Olympics. She also has written the novels Learning to See and The Other Alcott. She lives in Seattle.
Q: You write that part of the inspiration for your new novel came from your daughter's report on swimmer Gertrude Ederle. How did you learn about runners Betty Robinson, Louise Stokes, and Helen Stephens?
A: Ha, that’s a good question that I’d need to back into my Google search history to figure out! Honestly, I don’t remember the exact path that led me to them, but I remember first discovering the story of Betty Robinson and thinking, “How in the world have I never heard of this woman?” Her comeback story is so inspiring and amazing!
As much as Fast Girls could have been written only about Betty, I wanted to show a range of different women and their experiences in making it to the Olympics. Helen and Louise provide such different stories that I knew I wanted to figure out a way to weave these three remarkable experiences together.
Q: What did you see as the right mix between the actual historical figures and your own fictional version of their lives?
A: I tried to stay focused on the heartbeat of the story—three women working hard to overcome obstacles and succeed in a field that wasn’t completely welcoming to them. Sometimes it was tempting to let all of the interesting things that I learned during research creep into the book, but that heartbeat—the characters and their journey—was important to keep at the center of it all.
Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: I started off reading a few biographies about my Olympians and also a few nonfiction books about the Olympics with a focus on the 1936 Games, because there’s so much to understand about these parts of the story. I also read quite a few articles and books about the history of women’s athletics.
After I understood the basics of the story I wanted to tell, I started reading old newspapers from the 1920s and ‘30s so I could get a feel for the language of the times; I read the official Olympic reports so I knew details from weather to venue capacity; I studied maps and read menus; I interviewed people who knew these women and I traveled to where they had lived so I could get a feel for the places.
All of this helped me build the characters and story in my mind’s eye.
The biggest surprise came in learning about the boycott movement against the Olympics of 1936. Many people were saying that the United States shouldn’t have sent a team to Berlin because they didn’t want to enable Hitler more, but FDR and Avery Brundage defeated the boycott advocates, but only by a few votes.
It’s fascinating to consider if history would have been different if the 1936 Olympics hadn’t taken place.
Q: What do their stories say about the role of women athletes in the 1920s and '30s, and what are their legacies today?
A: Very few people took women athletes of the 1920s and ‘30s seriously. I hope readers see that while a lot of progress has been made in women’s sports, there are still a lot of parallels between then and now. There are important advances that need to happen around pay, sponsorship, coaching opportunities for women, and how the media discusses and depicts women athletes.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I recently discovered that some of my neighbors are the descendants of Gertrude Wilhelmsen’s, one of the secondary characters of Fast Girls. I’ve been able to visit with them and view Gertrude’s scrapbooks and letters and it’s been thrilling to learn more about another trailblazing woman athlete from this era.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Elise Hooper.