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Thomas Mallon: 2019 National Book Festival

Thomas Mallon: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Peter Vankevich: I want to introduce you
to Amy Argetsinger. She’s with the Washington
Post, one of the great friends of the National Book Festival. We’re so glad to have you. Welcome.>>Amy Argetsinger:
Good afternoon. I’m Amy Argetsinger. I’m an editor for the style
section of the Washington Post. Welcome to the Library of Congress’ 19th Annual
National Book Festival. I’m very pleased this afternoon
to be introducing Thomas Mallon, one of our most prolific authors
of literary historic fiction. Over the past 25 years,
Mallon has set the standard for what it means to be a
true Washington novelist. His books have gone
beyond political intrigue and social satire to
explore the emotion lives of the human beings
propelled or caught up in the machinations
of our federal city. Henry and Clara, with a deep
imaginative reconstruction of the lives of the little known
young couple who shared the box at Ford’s Theater with President
and Mrs. Lincoln, both before and after that tragic
night in 1865. Dewey defeats Truman
found an unexpected way to dramatize the political
tensions of 1948 by embedding into the small town of
Owosso, Michigan, the home town of candidate Tom Dewey,
exploring the lives and loves and personal dramas
of a community that fully expected its favorite
son to become President. Two Moons is a portrait of semi-corrupt Washington
bureaucracy but told through the story of a
love-struck astronomer at the U.S. Naval
Observatory in 1870s. Fellow Travelers dramatizes the
paranoia of the Joe McCarthy era with the story of a
clandestine love affair between two gay staffers
in the state department. In Watergate, a novel,
Mallon dove deep into the personal dramas of
a multitude of personalities in Richard Nixon’s White House, bringing to life lesser known
characters like Fred LaRue and Rosemary Woods, and he
accomplished a similar feet with Finale, a rich
multi-character saga of the second-term
Reagan administration. And now, with this
year’s novel, Land Fall, he presents the romantic
comedy-like relationship of two federal staffers
amid the drama of a Bush White House
grappling with both the chaos of post-invasion Iraq and the
debacle of Hurricane Katrina. The New York Times
called it smart, and knowing, and absorbing. Thomas Mallon lives
in Washington. He’s a former professor
in the English department of George Washington University. He will be dating your question
at the end of his presentation, and he will also be signing
books for you from 2:30 to 3:30 in line one of the
book-signing area. And here, I feel
the need to warn you that he will be seated
right next to Thomas Malone at the same time, so please
get a good look at him. Make sure you’re
in the right line. Accept no substitutes. I’m very please to
introduce Thomas Mallon. [ Applause ]>>Thomas Mallon:
Good afternoon. Landfall is the third volume in
an accidental trilogy of mine. I didn’t know that I was
going to be writing a trilogy when I started with Watergate. Had I known that the
volume that followed that about the Reagan years was
going to be the middle volume of the trilogy, I would not
have named it Finale [laughter], which caused some problems for
the marketers, but nonetheless, that’s what this is, and
it didn’t really start out, as I say, to be a trilogy,
but it turned into this sort of chronical I’ve become
kind of like the epic poet of republican catastrophe. It shows all of these Presidents at the lowest point
in their fortunes. Nixon, obviously, during
the Watergate scandal, President Reagan in 1986 when everything seems
to be going wrong. The Reykjavik Summit collapses. It looks pretty good
in retrospect. It didn’t at the time. The Democrats are
retaking the Senate. Iran Contra is bursting open and
a whole panoply of social ills like AIDS and homelessness seem
to have Reagan losing his touch. And this novel about President
Bush, the second President Bush, is set during 2005/2006, which
were probably the roughest years of his administration, the ones that contained Hurricane
Katrina, and the worst of the Iraq insurgency
that he would try to counter with the surge. I mean if you read George
W. Bush’s own memoirs, he talks about how after
Hurricane Katrina, he more or less knew that his presidency
was over, the chance really to accomplish something
bold was pretty much gone. This book, like all
historical fiction, is a libel upon the
people in it. I make things up. I insert characters
who didn’t exist. There are events that
didn’t take place, but I adhere pretty closely
to the public line of events. I don’t alter the public
chronology, where people were on a different day,
things like that. I don’t write alternate history
fiction, which is the kind of genre fiction, you know, where the South wins
the Civil War or something like that happens. I try not to write what
might have happened instead, but what might have
happened in addition to what we already know. So, during this period, Ann
Richards, if you’re quite young, you may be forgetting
who Ann Richards was, but Ann Richards had been the
very flamboyant democratic governor for Texas
for four years. She was very quick witted,
was famous for saying about President Bush’s
father that he was born with a silver foot in his mouth. She served one term, and then
she was ousted from office by the very young
George W. Bush in 1994, which was really the beginning of George W as a
national figure. And by the time this book
takes place, she has been out of politics for
quite a while. She operates in this book sort of the way Alice
Roosevelt Longworth did in my Watergate novel. She’s a kind of one-woman
witches’ chorus, commenting on the
action with a great deal of jaundice to perspective. But, she was a favorite guest
of Larry King on his program. She was on a number of times. He’d like to have her come
on and talk about things. So, I have her on with Larry
King on February 2, 2005. She is in the green room,
getting ready to go on. They’re going to do commentary
on the President’s State of the Union address that night. Bush has been inaugurated for
a second term a few weeks ago. She was never on the
program that night. None of this ever happened, but
it sort of could have in the way of historical fiction. I’m going to read this, and
then I’ll talk a little bit about things that were
tricky in writing this book, and then I’ll be happy
to take questions. Ann Richards, now
71, and 10 years out of politics took
a sip of iced tea. Are you sure you don’t
want something else, a pretty young network
assistant asked. We’ve got some wine
coolers in the fridge. Oh, honey, replied the
former Texas, governor, I’m as dry as Shrub there. She pointed to the TV image
of G.W. Bush making his way down the aisle of
the House chamber to deliver his fourth
State of the Union message. A bit more tangy, I
hope, but I’ve got just as firm a seat on the wagon. Larry King opened a
can of cream soda. You’re not off salt
too, are you? I’m supposed to watch my intake. He took a handful of pretzel
nuggets from a little bowl. Richards had accepted a
booking on a special edition of Larry King Live to be
broadcast late tonight. After the speech was delivered and the networks regular
commentator had had their say about it. King occasionally did his show
from New York instead of LA and had taken advantage of his
East Coast presence tonight to schedule Ann, who had
lived over new Lincoln Center for a few years and
still did a lot of political consulting
for a firm up here. She’d agreed that the two of them would watch
the speech together since viewers would
expect it to be a big part of their later conversation. Larry, honey, when we’re
on the air, you’re going to ask me some actual
questions, right? Not just say, Ann, your take. I will strangle you with your
suspenders if you don’t get at least a little specific. Plenty of questions, I
promise, plus your phone calls, the phrasing he always
used at the top of the hour had just popped out. I mean, you know, the
home audience’s calls. Richards looked at
the TV screen. This damned event always
seems longer than the Oscars. That’s good, King responded. Say that when we’re on. She sips some more tea as
Bush mounted the rostrum and shook hands with
the rounded forms of Denny Hastert
and Dick Cheney. They looked like two of
those Russian nesting dolls, like they’re waiting to
see which one is going to be asked to encase the other. I do hear that old Denny behaves
as if Cheney is his boss. Interesting, said King,
before he and Richards and the assistant fell to listening quietly
for a few minutes. The President was soon praising
a rise in home ownership, and after that, the way
his administration had “prosecuted corporate
criminals.” “I always kind of liked
Kenny Lay,” said Richards, recalling the disgraced
boss of Enron. “He was pretty square with
me, so don’t ask me about him when we’re in the
studio, Larry.” “Point taken,” said the host. Bush proceeded to
talk about the success of the No Child Behind
Act and after that the wonders of ethanol. King couldn’t understand why he
was bothering with the latter since he would never again have
to face the voters of Iowa. “But his brother might,”
Richards explained, “or some tiny Shrub
that’s still a seed.” Maybe little brown ones, she
added, using 41’s awkward term of affection for his
half-Mexican grandchildren by Jeb. “This dynasty business
bother you, Ann?” asked King. She ignored the question,
listening to Bush make his pitch for immigration reform. “What’s all this domestic
stuff,” she finally asked. “Wasn’t he saddling up for the
crusades just two weeks ago. “It does seem like
a change of pace.” “So, we must join
together to strengthen and save social security.” This is Bush on screen. “Oh, dear God,” said the former
governor, almost in a whisper. “Here it comes.” “Is that disgust I’m
hearing,” asked King. “Aw. They say social security
is the third rail of politics. Here he is, not afraid
to touch it.” “Oh, Larry, he could piss on it
and not have enough brain cells to feel himself get
electrocuted.” “By 2033, the trust fund’s
annual shortfall will be more than $300 billion. By the year 2042, the entire
system will be exhausted and bankrupt.” “He’ll be 96,” Richard hollered,
“and still getting a check from his grandpa’s trust fund.” “Quick math,” phrased King. The two of them could
hear boos coming from the democratic
side of the aisle. “Turn it up, sweetie,” Richards
commanded the assistant. “I could swear there’s
hissing too.” “I will work with
members of Congress to find the most effective
combination of reforms. I will listen to anyone who
has a good idea to offer.” “Wasn’t that pretty much how he
governed in Texas,” asked King. “He never governed. Bob Bullock did. Richards embarked
on a fast tutorial about the peculiar
legislative power reserved to that state’s lieutenant
governors and how it had been Bullock,
a democrat, who succeeded in pushing Bush’s programs
through the ledge in Austin. “Bullock started out as a mean
old segregationist and ended up with even more
regrets than ex-wives. By the time Georgie
came to the town, Bob was a self-pitying
wreck who hit on the idea that respectability
would descend on him if he made this boy
a state-wide success and then helped him
become President. He could imagine the medal of
freedom dangling from his neck as easily as I can feel
this thing around mine. She raised and let
go of the silver and turquois lavalier
she was wearing. “Of course he up and died
a year before Shrub made it to Washington,” her
voice began to trail off. “Bullock was all right to
me when I was coming up.” But the President was now
setting forth the intricacies of personal retirement accounts, which he promised would take
the pressure of social security. “Put this damn thing on mute,”
said the former governor. The assistant obeyed. “How are we going to do
our prep,” King wondered. “Just a little break,”
said Richards, who swallowed some more tea
in the now silent green room. She regarded the televised
image of the President who seemed somehow cut in half, separate from himself
by his dark red tie. “How’s Molly,” King asks softly. “Not good,” Richards
informed him. “The cancer is back.” The Texan columnist, another
of Larry’s prized guests, had a tongue as sharp
as Richard’s own. “Rough,” said King. “She’s been battling
it for years. Still smoking, drinking too.” Richards looked away from
the screen, shifting her gaze to an unwatered plant
not far from the TV. “She and Bullock liked each
other even though he called her a hairy-legged liberal.” Her expression had
turned wistful. She extracted a compact
from her purse and looked at her own still
beautiful, deeply lined face in the little mirror,
which was too small to include her formatively
beehived white hair. “Did you ever think he’d
get so far,” asked King, eager to change the
subject back to Bush. “Was it mostly because of Rove?” “You mean turd blossom. That’s what Bush
calls him, you know.” Richards thought of how the
two men, callow candidate and soulless consultant
had quite to her astonishment
maneuvered her out of the governor’s
mansion ten years before. She had never succeeded in
rattling Shrub, who had no more to offer than ownership
of a baseball team as his outstanding qualification
for the state’s top job. She pummeled him by the hour,
even taunted him in the elevator on the way up to
their one debate, sure she could break his
drugstore cowboy stride. But nothing had worked. “You know the reason
Rove’s office in Austin had no
windows,” she asked King. “So, he could concentrate? It was an environmental measure
for the protection of the public so they wouldn’t be
downwind of him.” King laughed. “Remind me who it was
you beat the first time.” “In ’90? Clayton Williams,
the richest rancher and most ridiculous
fool you ever met. He won his primary by out
good ole boying his opponent. And you know who that was? Little Kent Hance, the only man
who ever beat Georgie way back when he ran for Congress in ’78. Needless to say, Hance
had turned republican. All that part of the state
did during Reagan’s time. Shrub even moderated a GOP
debate between Hance Claytey. You know, Larry, Texas is really
just a small town that happens to be the size of France.” “I got to bring us back
to the present Hand.” King unmuted the TV. “For the good of families,
children, and society, I support a constitutional
amendment to protect the institution
of marriage. Richards remained silent. How was she supposed to
listen to this anti-gay gov without remembering
the dike rumor that Rove had floated
past the electorate and her four grown kids when
he was running young George against her in ’94. He had knocked her so badly
off balance that even tonight, ten years later, she
thought it better not to tell Larry she had plans
for a ginger ale nightcap with half-in, half-out
of the closet, Liz Smith, the New York Post
gossip columnist. “Taking on gang life will be
one part of a broader outreach to at-risk youth, and I
am proud that the leader of this nation-wide effort will
be our First Lady, Laura Bush.” “Oh, that’ll stop
them, Richards cried. Those crypts are going to be
clamoring for library cards from Watts to the
south side of Chicago.” In a lower, more peevish tone,
she told King, “You know, I executed 48 people and had two
times as many folks in prison when I left Austin
as when I got there. But Shrub made me out
to be soft on crime, and the voters bought it.” The President seemed ready to
switch back to foreign affairs. “There are still regime-seeking
weapons of mass destruction but no longer without attention
and without consequence.” Richards lifted her
seat cushion. Did you lose something,
the assistant asked. “Just checking for WMDs. Any in your chair, hon? King noticed how a pin she
wore glinted when she shifted. Richards could see
him peering at it. “Yeah, it’s a silver foot,” a
commemoration, she explained of the jibe at Bush’s father that had made her
famous back in ’88. “Poor George, he can’t help it, he was born with a
silver foot in his mouth.” “Did you have it
made,” asked King. “Hell no. It was a present from
George Herbert Walker himself.” “Classy guy,” said King. Richards dismissively
flicked her wrist. “Up to a point. You can bet that the
missus didn’t sign the card. She’s meaner than Bullock was with a quart of booze
inside him. Look around her neck, and you’ll
find all the pearls of wisdom that didn’t go to her son.” “Funny stuff,” said King. “But believe me, she
is his mother’s son.” I think I’m going to stop there. [laughter] [ Applause ] So, I can– thank you. Since I can, I’ll just talk
a bit before we do questions. I always debate with myself
when I’m doing something for this book, which
scene to read from. Sometimes I read this one. There’s also a scene, the
one that was remarked upon by every single reviewer of
this book, which was a scene that takes place much later in
the novel in September of 2006, between Condoleezza Rice and
the Canadian foreign minister, Peter MacKay. Condy Rice went up to Nova
Scotia where this young, strapping, handsome
Canadian foreign minister, who had been voted Canada’s
sexiest male MP five different times, where he was from,
and they had a commemoration of the people in Nova Scotia who
had helped with all the planes that were diverted on 9/11. There’s a musical in New York
about this you’ve probably heard of called Come From Away. And so Condy was up there to
make nice with the Canadians. She and Peter MacKay
had hit it off from the moment he
had taken his new job as foreign minister
early that year. And the press were there
for a press conference at a lodge in his home town. She’d come up the night before. She’d had dinner
with his parents, had stayed at the lodge, and so they were having this
very friendly news conference, and it was reported on the
next day in New York Times, and it said in the
actual news dispatch that the foreign minister
said I’m just delighted to have Condoleezza Rice,
the secretary of state, here in my home town and talking
about how well they got on and how many things the United
States and Canada still saw eye to eye on, and so
forth, and he says, and it’s a pleasure
to be in her company. I’m learning so many
things about her. And one of the reporters
said, well, like what? What’s something you’ve
learned about the secretary? And he said, I’ve
learned that she likes to sleep with the window open. [ Laughter ] Now, if you’re a historian,
you have to treat that fact with a certain caution,
skepticism, whatever. If you’re historical
novelist, your duty is to be somewhat irresponsible
with the facts that you have researched and to
turn them to your own purposes. I mean really, if you’re
not going to run with that as a novelist, you have no
business being a novelist. You should just be
a historian instead. So, there is a chapter
in this novel about sort of the after-glow
moments for Condy Rice and foreign minister MacKay. The business of historical
fiction is very strange. As I say, it calls for a
certain irresponsibility, and yet there’s always
a fine line. Did you go too far? Did you change something
implausibly to the point where the reader
won’t believe it, and the reader may be
entertained but say, oh, well, you know, I can’t
really buy that. I can’t enter into it and find that the allusion
has been killed. So, it’s always walking
that sort of slippery sloped between fact and fiction that historical novelists
participate in, and this book, the end of this accidental
trilogy, presented some particular
unusual circumstances for me. For one thing, it was so close
to us in time that it felt still like the news more than history. I mean it said 2005, 2006. I was writing the book in
2016, ’17, for the most part. So, there was that. One good feature from my point
of view of the Watergate novel and Finale about the
Reagan years was that most of the principals, the
principal characters and so forth were either dead or
had long since quit the scene. Whereas in the Bush
novel, in landfall, a lot of the people were
still very much on the scene. So, that was on peculiar
set of circumstances. Another was that in a
strange peripheral way, extremely peripheral way, I
had been a part of these events and this administration. I was the deputy chairman
of the National Endowment for the Humanities for a while. Laura Bush was a
reader of my books. I think despite what
Ann Richards says, I think enormously
highly of Mrs. Bush, who founded the National
Book Festival back in 2001. The first one took place
three days before 9/11. I mean, as a power center
within any administration, the NEH is sort of roughly
beyond Pluto, you know. But, you know, you
get invited places. You see things. You hear things. You get to know people who
actually are participating in some of these
things, and this book in many ways is a very dark
book about Iraq, about Katrina, about political failure,
and so forth. But one of the things
I did was draw on my own experience
for this book. One of the things we did
at NEH was we had a series of emergency grants
for New Orleans and the Mississippi gulf coast. We got a lot of money
down to Louisiana and Mississippi very fast so that they could
keep mold off books, paintings, things like that. I went to Afghanistan
for a week. We were trying to help
the old cobble museum, which had been scarred
by war with the Soviets by the occupation
of the Taliban. We were trying to help them
get back up on their feet. And so there were bits and
pieces of my own experience that found their way into the
novel for other characters. I mean this was the only time
I have ever written a novel where I’ve consulted my
own diary, and you know, took down the one where I
had been in Afghanistan. And another difficulty
was I had known, gotten to know Mrs. Bush
slightly, really very slightly, but thought well of her and felt
uncomfortable about having her as a character in the book. And this was a dilemma for me because the first ladies
have always been characters in this book. Pat Nixon was major
character in Watergate. Nancy Reagan is a raw nerve
walking through Finale, and I thought, I feel kind of
uncomfortable with Laura Bush. So, she has a small role in the
book, but I remembered luckily, ah, this was the rare President who also had a mother
who was First Lady. So, I kind of off-loaded
the First Lady duties more to Barbara Bush in this. I’m delighted to take questions
about this, but I’m going to answer what I know will
be the first question, because it’s always
the first question when I talk about this book. And I figure I will just answer
it without its being asked. Am I going to write about
the current administration? [laughter] And my answer is
to quote King Lear, “never, never, never, never, never.” In fact, I write for the
New Yorker pretty often, and in 2016, they had me writing
an essay about how I might go about turning the 2016
election into a novel. And so I pondered this at great
length, and I thought, oh well, Hillary would be a bonanza to a
novelist, terribly conflicted, compromised, started out
with a great deal of ideals, getting her turn at things
rather late in the game. We’ve seen Hillary
in fiction before. She’s Carol Kennicott in Main
Street by Sinclair Lewis. She’s Sue Bridehead
in Jude the Obscure. She’s a rich character
for a novelist. And then I contemplated what
one would do with her opponent. I believe that one of the
kinder lines in the piece was that a novelist would
have trouble with him because he lacks even the
two dimensions required of a sociopath. [laughter] As you may have
guessed, I occupy the smallest and unhappiest political niche
in Washington, DC, the more or less extinct,
never Trump sliver of moderate conservatives. So, I am leaving that
to somebody else. In fact, one of the people who
said, oh, he’ll probably take on Trump next was the reviewer
in the Times, and I got an email from my friend, Christopher
Buckley, the novelist son of William F. Buckley, the
day after the review ran, and the subject line
was Don’t You Dare. He says, I’m 25,000 words in. And I think it even
comes out this Fall, and Christopher’s working title
is Make Russia Great Again. [laughter] So, perhaps
he’ll be here next year. Anyway, we’ve about ten minutes. I cants see any, oh, now I can
see anybody if I shade my eyes. Anybody with questions? [ Inaudible Comment ] Okay. [ Inaudible Comments ]>>Go ahead.>>Oh, hey. Oh, yeah. Thank you. I have your book right here, and
I’m just– this is the question, because you mentioned about
the, there’s a fine line with historical fiction. So, about the, you know,
the recent portrayals of George W. Bush
like in Vice or W, which one of those do you
think does a much better job at your own definition of your
historical fiction though, right there.>>Thomas Mallon: I’m
sorry, I missed, which, between two things to choose?>>W and Vice, the two movies. Which one of those do–>>Thomas Mallon: Oh,
I have not seen Vice. I’ve read about it. It sounds pretty out there. This is the movie that
centers on Dick Cheney. I’ve not seen it. I’ll probably catch
it at some point, so I feel wrong to
comment on it. I do remember he in a
speech even once ventured into the whole notion
of historical fiction and its possibilities. One of the things I used to think historical fiction
could accomplish, particularly in these really at our
throats political times, is I thought it could
give readers and insight or a familiarity
with the psychology of people they did
not like politically. I mean I over the years had
many people say to me, you know, I never thought I could
stand reading anything from Nixon’s point
of view, or God, you made me somewhat
sympathetic to Reagan. I mean, I see him a little
bit from both sides now. I don’t have that much
faith in this genre anymore because I think our political
times are so dark right now. But one time, Cheney said
that he asked his wife, does it bother you that I’m so frequently compared
to Darth Vader? And she answered him,
no, it humanizes you. [laughter] And I’m sure that
was a joke that was written by a speech writer for him, but
you can sort of see the point. In a way, the displacement
of real people into fiction, and the chance to see
them from the inside out, as what are called point
of view characters. Does offer something, I think, that maybe even biography
doesn’t, that biography has to stop short of offering. And so that would be my higher
hopes for historical fiction. Okay, somebody else, yes?>>Yeah, I had a question
about the research that you do for your characters. I recently read Waterfall,
sorry, Watergate, and I thought that you perfectly
captured Alice Longworth. I’d read Hissing
Cousins, and that gives such a great portrayal of her
an Eleanor, and I wondered with ancillary characters in
your books, do you dive deep into them or do you, because
it’s historical fiction, do you kind of glaze the
surface of their public persona and kind of run with it?>>Thomas Mallon: I really
try to get my hands on just about everything I can. Watergate was full of characters
who were briefly famous like Fred Larue, you know,
who testified for a couple of days before the
Irving committee. And they would have had
profiles written about them in the newspapers for
a day or who, and then, unless you were a
real Watergate buff, you didn’t know much
else about them. But Watergate was, it was one of the two events
I’ve written about. The other was a small
nonfiction book that started as a long New Yorker profile that involved the
Kennedy assassination. The two events that I
lived through as a boy, I was 12 when President Kennedy
was killed, and as a college and graduate student,
the Watergate scandal, those were the two
most chronicled events of my lifetime, and
with Watergate, you had these enormous
stretches of transcript from legal proceedings, from
the Irving committee hearings, from the House judiciary
committee hearings. You also had a bookshelf
full of memoirs. Everybody involved in Watergate
a memoir, sometimes only to pay their legal bills,
but it say this great sort of literary production. The other one time incomparable
resource for that novel was of course the tapes,
where you can hear Nixon, not so much the tapes in
the office, but the ones that were recorded off the
telephone, sometimes late at night when he’s venting, you can states hear the ice
cubes tinkling in the glass over the phone, and it’s
a matchless candid look into everybody. But, I mean, I think that
unless you do a lot of research, you won’t get anywhere. The more small things that
you get right and accurate, the bigger, the more
you’ll be allowed to get away with the big things. The reader is less
likely to notice them if the reader has confidence in
the surface texture of the book. John Updike one time
described fiction as a tissues of microscopic accuracies. It seems odd to apply the word
accuracies to a definition of fiction, but he meant
if you get things wrong about how people
dressed, how they spoke, what music they were
listening to, things like that, the reader will lose
confidence in the bigger things, like the psychology
of the characters, the themes, and so forth. So, there was a lot
of stuff in that book.>>Thank you.>>Thomas Mallon: Um-hum. Somebody else?>>So, following on,
following on that question, with your research
process, what’s your signal that it’s time to stop that and
start writing, and do you end up going back an
researching more?>>Thomas Mallon:
One thing I learned, and I think I learned this when I was writing a
dissertation 45 years ago, whatever it was. You have to start writing
before you stop researching, and I think that’s
true of a novel as well as something like
a dissertation. If you fall into that trap of
thinking, I can’t write a word on this subject until I’ve read
every word that’s ever been written on it, you
really never get started. So, I do kind of about six
months of macro research, to be jargony about it, where
I get the basic plot line in my head, a basic sense of
the events I want to cover, and then I try to start writing
and then to research on a kind of need-to-know basis. Many years ago, I wrote a
novel called Henry and Clara, which was mentioned in the
introduction, about the couple who were in the balcony
with the Lincolns on the night of the
assassination. And, I remember I had to
stage a wedding in the 1840s when the woman, Clara,
Clara Harris, her widowed father was
marrying her fiancé Henry’s widowed mother. I mean this was a
wonderful story. There was a whiff of incest
around the whole thing aside from all else, and I
thought, well, okay, I’ve got to stage a wedding that
a widow is having in the 1840s. What would a widow wear, that sounds like a tongue
twister, to such a wedding? And I found an 1840’s
book of etiquette, and it said that frequently
the choice of color for a widow’s dress at that
time at a wedding was maroon. Who knew? But that
was the kind of thing where I had been writing
steadily up to that point and then just said, okay,
now I need to stop and find out the things I need to
know just for this chapter. Okay. I think we got
time for one or two more. Five minutes. Yes?>>Hi, Tom.>>Thomas Mallon: Hi. I don’t know who you are. I can’t see you, but
I’m happy to see you.>>Yeah, Peggy Blair. I’ve interviewed
you in the past.>>Thomas Mallon: Oh, hi, yes.>>Hi. Now that you’re
writing about people who are still alive
or, you know, at least their immediate family
is still alive, are you worried about being sued or are
your editors worried about your being sued, and
if so, how does that kind of hamper your creativity?>>Thomas Mallon: These
books, when you’re writing about Presidents, cabinet
officers, things like that, you’re writing about
people which operated at such a high level of
family that they were then and forever after
public figures. American libel law is
extremely generous, much better than the
British version of it, as my late friend, Christopher
Hitchens, who is a character in this book would
be happy to tell you. I think you have to be
relatively uninhibited, and I mean I, this book tries to
see people from the inside out. I don’t, nobody is
especially villainous. There were many, many things
I liked about President Bush. I like them more all the time. [laughter] And I’m
proud to have served in the administration
and so forth. I hope I’m still on the
Christmas card list after this. But the book, you know, it
tries to see him with a level of understanding, a kind
of affection and balance and so forth, but
I think mostly– Evan Thomas last night was
talking about all the things that editors do for writers, and
one of the things that’s helpful when I’m writing is I’ve
had the same editor for more than 25 years, Dan Frank, at
Random House, the pantheon in print, and I sort
of think, you know, Dan is my first reader,
or my partner, Bill, what are they going
to think of this? And I just try to block out what
the characters themselves will think about the book
once it’s done. I think, I have, I think
as you probably can sense, although this is in many
ways a very sad book, things that happen in, but I have essentially
a comic sensibility about politics and so forth. I’m losing it month by month, but I think that softens
what might be the sharp or potentially unpleasant
aspects of the book too. One more?>>Yes, we have one–>>Thomas Mallon: Yes?>>So, [inaudible].>>Here’s the microphone, sir.>>So, if you’re not going to tackle the current
administration next, what is next? What’s the next historical
novel?>>Thomas Mallon: Well, as
Ronald Reagan might say, I’m sort of pulling
a reverse Reagan. I’m forsaking politics for show
business, at least for a while. And I’m at the beginnings of a
novel about a real-life actor, a fairly obscure actor, who was
murdered in New York in 1980. And, so, I mean I just made
a research trip a while ago to California to
interview an actress, who was an absolutely
pistol and sounded exactly like Ann Richards growing up in
Texas, an actress who had worked with this fellow many years ago. So, I’m kind of taking
a breather, and maybe when we all come back
to our senses, I’ll, you know, come back to politics. But, I think that’s probably
a good idea for me anyway. A lot of the same methods
and so forth will operate with this book even
though it’s far removed from the subject matter I’ve
been at for really ten years.>>Thank you.>>Thomas Mallon: Thank
you very much, all of you. [ Applause ]

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