tv Overheard With Evan Smith PBS May 23, 2018 12:30am-1:01am PDT
- [female narrator] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart. and by claire and carl stuart. - i'm evan smith, she's the acclaimed author of come to me, a finalist for the national book award and the new york times best sellers away and lucky us. her new novel is white houses. she's amy bloom, this is overheard. she's amy bloom, this is overheard. let's be honest is this about the ability to learn or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa and... you could say that he made his own bed but you caused him to sleep in it. you saw a problem and over time took it on... let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak. are you gonna run for president? i think i just got an f from you, actually. this is over. (applauding) amy bloom, welcome. thank you it's nice to be here
thank you very much for being here, congratulations úon this book which i really enjoyed enormously, and one thing was, many things were in my head when i was reading it, but one in particular was why historical fiction? those of us outside the world of writing books like this, civilians, might think if you're going to write about something that happened, even if you're going to add things to it, that maybe didn't happen, why not just write non fiction? why not just go the whole way and tell the story, as opposed to telling your story? - well i guess this is like they said to willie sutton, "why do you rob banks?" he said, "that's where the money is." (laughing) i wrote this because i'm a novelist. i'm not a historian, i'm not a journalist. my folks were journalists, so i can tell the difference, my folks were journalists, so i can tell the difference, and i didn't really know it was historical fiction, i just thought, oh this is such and interesting story, i would like to write about this love story and i would like to write about this period and i would like to write about what it's like to be in this complicated triangle, especially in middle age when it is less glamorous and more complicated
and so i thought well, i'm a novelist i'm allowed to do that. - you could have written about a fictional first lady and a fictional reporter oh i could have. in the white house press corps as opposed to identifying i could have. these particular characters who we actually know a fair amount about at this point, lorena hickok, we know quite a bit about eleanor roosevelt, the fact is we know so much about eleanor roosevelt one of the great things about this is book is i feel like i get a better sense of eleanor roosevelt from your novel than i do from some of the non fiction descriptions of her. - i hope so. ed doctorow once said to me and then sort of publicly "if you want to understand russia, what would you read, "a text book or war and peace?" and i feel that that's really the answer, that you write a novel, you choose not to do history because the historians can do that and i chose to do a novel because i can do things with imagination and empathy whereas they're stuck writing those terrible sentences like, one can only imagine that, or perhaps one could have
overheard, and i'm just thinking oh that must be so unpleasant to have to write like that. just do that, just make it up. - just do it. and it's not as if in the course of writing this particular work of historical fiction, which i do want to talk about in specifics, you turn eleanor roosevelt into batman or something. - i don't turn her into batman, i don't turn her into a vegas showgirl. she is who she is. i work from the facts, and i think that there's always that choice that you have in a novel. you can either work from the facts of chronology, i mean i could have set the depression in 1957. i work from the facts of the known world but that doesn't mean that i am not free to fill in all the things that are not known. - and the best thing i can say about this is that when you disappear into the way you've told the story you forget that it's fiction which i hope was the goal. i'm so glad. - i hope was the goal. so let's go back to the very beginning. the origin story of the book is what? why this book? - well i had been actually researching the 30s and the 40s for lucky us. - for lucky us that's right, exactly. - and you can't research the 30s and the 40s in the united states of america without falling over
the roosevelts all the time. they're everywhere, all of them, everywhere, tons of them. they're everywhere, all of them, everywhere, tons of them. there are even roosevelt roosevelts which is their name for the roosevelts who married other roosevelts and they had their own social circle. and so they were very compelling, interesting people. and so they were very compelling, interesting people. it was a fascinating time in america, it was a not unfamiliar to those of us now, a life or death struggle for the nature of america, what kind of country we were going to be, what kind of country we thought we were. - we thought we were in chaos then, right? - we thought we were in chaos then, right? stipulated. - stipulated and then i will also say we have not yet had a scene of the president of the united states ordering the united states army to fire on army veterans on the national mall and set fire to the encampment that they had set up for 17,000 army veterans. so we haven't had that yet. - yet. just pointing out. - hasn't happened yet. what time is it? we've been here before. we've been here before. - the work that had been done on the roosevelts again,
biographers doris goodwin-- everybody. everybody that has written about the roosevelts. my view of it, looking over my shoulder, is that it was really more about him than her, even though she's a dominant character in all these stories and she is someone who looms large in the imagination. really it was about him. - always. and i think that, historians are people. and i think that every historian, i mean, unless you were violently opposed to fdr and his policies, every historian fell in love with franklin delano roosevelt. and it's hard to blame them. and so the story is always franklin. and so the story is always franklin. he marries eleanor, it's lucky eleanor although at the time nobody thought lucky eleanor, all of the social circle thought oh, lucky franklin to be marrying up. - yeah. - yeah. hard to imagine these days roosevelt marrying up. right? he seems like the elite of the elites in the mind's eye. - he was, but he was kind of a dweeb at harvard. he didn't get into the best clubs, he wasn't an athlete,
he wasn't a scholar, he was kind of a schlep and arrogant, to boot, and eleanor was tall and slim and had been educated in english boarding school and teddy roosevelt said she was his favorite person in the world. so lucky franklin, and then he goes on to become assistant secretary of the navy and he becomes governor and he breaks her heart, is how the narrative goes, and she never recovers, and in her broken heartedness she goes on to do good deeds for which we are all grateful. - she channeled her energy into that, right? - yes, as people like to think women do. - yes, as people like to think women do. i mean, she wasn't baking cookies, but she was certainly doing good deeds. - well again, i have to step away from this and say that the concept of the american first lady over time is really an interesting construct. the eleanor roosevelt version of this is so vastly different than the conversation we have now. - oh gosh, yes.
i mean, the first lady is an interesting job, because it's entirely shaped by the woman who occupies the role. who occupies the role. she wept on election night when he was elected president, because she thought her life was over. that she would not be able to teach anymore, she wouldn't be able to do her political good works and it broke her heart. - so an unfulfilled heart is susceptible and vulnerable to hick. to hick. - sure. even maybe a happy heart would have been vulnerable to hick because they liked each other so much. - but it occurs to me though, of course, and the genuine affection and the genuine nature of their relationship comes across and stays in this book. but i guess my point is that the pre-condition of eleanor roosevelt's heart having been broken and the pre-condition of her being to some degree looking to channel her energy into something or someone makes this a much more likely or logical-- - oh absolutely. this is not a lady who would have been sort of this is not a lady who would have been sort of in our modern age saying, oh i'm all for polyamory.
i mean, she was like a very straightforward, straight-laced person. but there's no doubt that the marriage was in a certain way an open one. his, not the great love of his life, but his mistress for many years, missy lehand, was picked by eleanor. eleanor saw her at a democratic party office and thought, eleanor saw her at a democratic party office and thought, oh you, you'll be fantastic. and she became the junior wife and that was not a secret. - where in the course of your research of that period of time did you decide not just the roosevelts were interesting, but this particular relationship was interesting? - well missy lehand is an interesting relationship. it also is a heart breaking relationship and i really set up missy lehand, who is a real character and parker fiske who is a fictional character, based on several real people who were closely involved in the roosevelt administration, to be sort of the other possibilities as lorena saw them. so one is to pretend that the relationship doesn't exist
and build your life around the roosevelt as missy lehand did, and died of a second heart attack as missy lehand did, and died of a second heart attack at her sister's house in somerville, massachusetts, having not had a visit from franklin for five years. having not had a visit from franklin for five years. and parker fiske is somebody who's a closeted guy, very successful in the government whose life is destroyed by being in the closet, and for me, i thought that lorena would look at both of these lives and go, not for me. - a very different time in terms of the idea of a relationship within a gender, right? i mean, you've said, in the course of talking about this book, "it's not as if lesbians didn't exist "back in that day." but your kind of straight forward almost matter-of-fact embrace of the nature of their relationship, which has been the subject of some discussion and speculation, over time, right? people have hinted it, they kind of walk around it, but you're kind of going right there. your belief from having done the research, from having spent time at the roosevelt library,
from having read the thousands of letters that lorena hickok left, for all of us to read long after she's gone. you have no question about what this relationship was? - well i don't. i feel like i'm a grown woman and i know what love looks like. and i know that if you write to somebody, "darling, it broke my heart when i spoke to you last night "on the telephone and i could not say to you "'i love you and i adore you' the way i always do "at the end of our conversations "because little jimmy was standing next to me" i think to myself, that is not something i would write to a pal. - or i want to kiss you on, there's a line that i thought was so great about i want to kiss you on the southwest corner of the-- - "i long to kiss you on the southeast corner of your lips "and lie beside you" and i thought again, not what i've written to a pal. - what am i not understanding about this? exactly right, yeah. - and so the idea that people were hinting around and there were rumors after the letters emerged which was in the late 70s i kept thinking, how, what? - what part of this don't you get? - which word, lips you don't understand?
corner you don't understand? - southeast? maybe it's southeast. - maybe it was southeast really threw them. - let's go into the hicks story for the benefit of people who've not yet read the book. so, born in wisconsin, grew up in the dakotas, in-- - [amy] south dakota. - south dakota. became, and difficult early childhood, right, upbringing. difficult circumstances. becomes a reporter and is working for the associated press in the white house when she and eleanor become acquainted? in the white house when she and eleanor become acquainted? - well she's actually covering eleanor as a possible first lady when franklin is governor of new york-- - pardon me it was prior to that, yes, - running, and she has just come off the lindbergh baby kidnapping and been a top reporter for that. and is frustrated because she sees a fair amount of corruption and malfeasance on the part of the police and the fbi and finally her editor says, "you've gotta stop "with this, why don't you go cover eleanor roosevelt. "the worst thing that'll happen is you'll be bored." and she goes and she meets her and they really hit it off. they are, their values are very similar politically
and i think they were really charmed by each other. and i think they were really charmed by each other. i think for somebody like lorena who grew up not, she's often described as sort of working class. she's not working class, her family aspired to be working class. - working class would have been an improvement. - yes, it would have been a vast improvement on her life. and to be with somebody who she really regarded as a lady, and often referred to her, even directly, i mean one of her terms of affection for her was lady. her terms of affection for her was lady. and i think for eleanor roosevelt, here was this unbelievably scrappy woman, entirely self-made, and a really successful writer, which she admired tremendously. greatly, right, yes. it was really the influence of lorena that made her start writing her my day column which she wrote six days a week for many years, and she turned out books. given that she was otherwise engaged in being first lady she turned out books like crazy. and again, with lorena's tremendous encouragement
and often with her editorial guidance. - so talk about the point at which the relationship goes inside and how that effects lorena's work and how remarkably the perception of that relationship from the outside is a little bit cloudy because again, in a time like today where the scrutiny of the white house and the scrutiny of the key actors, the drama of the white house, you could never imagine the scenario like the one you describe in this book ever coming to pass. - no you can't really imagine it. also one of the pleasures of the book is writing about the white house itself, which was a boarding house. it was a run-down boarding house. people would be appalled when they went in it. there were torn drapes and there were stained carpets, and the food was terrible and the, what everybody said about the white house is, "it's lovely to be invited to dinner, just make sure you have dinner first-- have eaten first, right? because the food was so terrible. because the food was so terrible. as she's covering eleanor at fairly early on in 1932,
as she's covering eleanor at fairly early on in 1932, after they've moved into the white house, it's clear to her that she can't be a journalist. she sat with franklin and listened to his inaugural speech four days before the inauguration, and they could have scooped every newspaper, and she understood that she was in fact betraying her employer by not scooping the other newspapers and she had a choice between betraying the newspaper of betraying eleanor roosevelt. - and she does the honorable thing and she goes back to her employer and says, "i can't do my job anymore." - she does do the honorable thing and that's one of the things that made the book hard for me as a writer because she gives up a terrific career and never reclaims it. and it is only later on, much later in her life that she goes back to being a successful writer. but there's a long period where in the public eye she is literally first friend. she is kind of a nanny, and kind of a sheep dog, and gets mrs. roosevelt to her appointments, and is mysteriously always in the photographs
except when the white house clips her out crops her out, right. crops her out because she is there so often. and i thought, oh that must have been hard. she goes back to working. she becomes the head of pr for the world's fair, she's an investigative reporter for the federal emergency relief, she never stops working. - in fact that was the job that she took in, and franklin was involved in his, right? - yes, basically franklin and eleanor go to harry hopkins harry hopkins. and say, "you could use somebody like this," and who is he to say no to eleanor and franklin? - i love the scene of harry hopkins agreeing to take her on the way that he stood with his back to her. the way that you described it in this book, it was just fantastic. - well, thank you. i think again i assume that he did it because he was told to-- he was told to do it - that's exactly right, and the body language that you described told you everything you needed to know about that. - and it turns out she was great at it. they have all of those reports are now cataloged in the library of congress and they're brilliant reports because she was a very good observer. - but come back to this idea, though that
it was unfortunate from your perspective as a novelist that she stopped working as a reporter. i feel like i've seen that movie 15 times, right? you know, the reporter is having a secret affair with the person in, you know, high in power, and, you know, we're not supposed to know about it out here in the world but of course we see it as somebody watching the movie. in some ways i think this is more interesting this way. i think because it fleshes her out more as a character and the challenges that she has rebuilding her life after she quits journalism is, i think that's sort of the stuff of this book. - well i think it is the stuff and it's also the stuff that made it hard, because i just found it so sad. - i want to ask you, if i had michael beschloss or bob caro here and they were talking about a presidential biography, they would talk about the research they did. we spent time at the library, and this, that and the other. you essentially approached the work on this book the same way that a presidential historian might have. you spent time at the roosevelt library. - i did. - this was your base of operations. not the only base, but it was a base. - oh, absolutely. once you have the 3000 letters and the 18 boxes you have a lot of material to look at.
and then there were all those biographies. i mean, i was happy to have anybody tell me anything. on the page, or in person. and also, part of what began to emerge for me was that it really always the franklin narrative. - yeah, back to the point we were talking about earlier. - that this relationship was always, it was always sort of the eleanor and lorena relationship was like the tug boat following the steamship, and i just thought, well what if it was not the tug boat? what if it was for them the central event of their adult lives? - was there enough in the letters to tell the stories? what other work-- oh my goodness, sure. who else did you talk, can you give us a sense of what work, the outer rings of this that you did. - well the blanche wiesen cook biography of eleanor was the first book to really say, look, people, there are these letters. there are these sentences. it seems reasonable to assume that this was a very important relationship. and that certainly set me off in search.
there was also what i think of as sort of, there was also what i think of as sort of, counter histories, which was when there was a lot of conversation about the possible relationship between lorena and eleanor they would say, the alleged relationship. the alleged relationship. there's correspondence between joe lash, who wrote a pulitzer prize winning biography of eleanor roosevelt, and elliot roosevelt, in which basically elliot said to joe lash, we have to do something about this. and joe lash indeed produces a volume of letters called love, eleanor, whose entire purpose is to demonstrate that she was a wildly effusive to demonstrate that she was a wildly effusive victorian lady who wrote in terms of great endearments to everybody and the answer is she did write a lot of endearments to everybody but she never wrote to a single other person "i long to kiss the southeast corner of your lips." - in the way that she did to hick. true, but not accurate. let me ask you, in the remaining time that we have, amy, two questions unrelated to this book specifically. you have a background training as a psychotherapist,
as a, social work degree, right? as a, social work degree, right? it occurs to me thinking about you as a novelist, that that must be an enormous weapon in your arsenal. the idea that you have a perspective on how people think and who people are, and human behavior as you're trying to craft characters in your books. it seems like almost everybody who does this work should have that background, that it would be a benefit to them. that it would be a benefit to them. - well, sure, that would be fine. i mean, i do always say to young writers you should have a day job, and it's been great to have a day job. you know i was also a bartender for a long time and nobody ever asks me about that. - well honestly i'm not sure that bartenders know less about human behavior than psychotherapists do, right? bartenders may know more. i mean you could be a barber, we could just go the whole way, actually. - right, and what i think is that people who find people interesting do these kinds of jobs. you tend bar, you're a shrink, you like to read about other people because what's interesting, the only thing that's interesting to me
is people, and the gap between what they say and how they feel and what they think and what they understand, and that's what's interesting to me. and i think the answer is that's why i became a psychotherapist, i don't think being a psychotherapist made me interested in those things. it's like, that's it for me, that's what's interesting. - but you have access to the inner, i mean, for lack of a better phrase, you have access to the inner monologues of people, as a psychotherapist, which i think again, is an interesting element if you're crafting what are equivalent to inner monologues for characters in the books that you write. l ofnoveyour short stories, the magazine work that idone ofead ours, everything that you've done, the characters are so perfectly crafted and so multi-dimensional, and i just can't help but think that that experience has something to do with it. - well i don't think it doesn't. i mean, when i as a graduate student, i went to smith for social work, and this was 1000 years ago,
and so all of the faculty were german refugees and so insofar as i understood what they were saying, which was not all the time, it was basically keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. and i thought, that i have just learned what my training is supposed to be. - it's a great strategy, isn't it? - it's a great strategy and it's one that really serves a novelist, more than anything else. more than sort of the exposure to people's inner monologue. anybody has access to people's inner thoughts. all you have to do is ask them. - all you have to do is ask, right. that is, and listening, true. let me now roll that forward to the sort of last academic conversation to the next academic conversation. you teach-- - [amy] i do. - creative writing. - creative writing. are the students of today, the students you teach, materially different than the students you might have taught ten or 20 years ago? has technology ruined everything as the rumor would suggest? - yes. technology has ruined everything. we're all doomed. (laughing) - thank you for confirming that. - you're welcome, you're welcome. - you're welcome, you're welcome.
i didn't teach 20 years ago. i didn't teach 20 years ago. but yeah, kids' attention spans are shorter, but you know i don't allow cell phones in my class, i don't even allow laptops in my class. i don't, because as i've pointed out to them, if you have the opportunity to go on facebook while i'm talking why shouldn't i have the opportunity to go on facebook while you're talking? i don't have the discipline not to do that, so we don't have laptops in the class and we don't have cell phones. and we don't have cell phones. - and you discuss the principals of writing and you encourage them to make some kind of creative expression but without the benefit of technology in front of them, to execute. - well, technology has never actually helped anybody execute a thought. execute a thought. i mean there are a lot of great things, i write on a computer. how do you write? - do you write on a computer? - i absolutely write on a computer, i mean i will also write long hand. - so it's do as i say not as i do. - no no no no no, because they're not doing, they're usually not writing in my class. we're talking in class.
and then they write at home and i don't have any problem with people writing on a computer, and the one thing that it does that's really much better is it encourages you to rewrite because it's so easy to delete and change the sentence. i mean, i remember typing and cutting and pasting on the-- - [evan] actually on the typewriter, yeah. - cutting and pasting on the kitchen floor so that it went from my kitchen all the way out to the front door. that was a lot of work and i'm an older person now, so it's nice not to have to crawl around on the floor with a cut and paste. with a cut and paste. in that sense i don't think there's a problem with the technology. it's, the problem is always human beings. it's, the problem is always human beings. - in any era. - people thought the world was ruined when we had telephones, not cell phones. there were editorials in the new york times about how the barbarians were entering our homes, unbidden. - boy did they not know. - they didn't know what unbidden looked like. - if someone comes to you, as i'm sure it occasionally happens, and says i have aspirations to be a writer
and i'm looking for the one best piece of advice. something that you might be giving your students now, what would you say? - well there's a certain amount of sighing that goes on before i answer. before i answer. - are you encouraging? generally speaking? generally speaking? - i'm not discouraging. also i think it doesn't really matter what i think. what i say is, "if want to write, write." and they say well, do i have to go to an mfa program and i say, "no you do not." first of all, i didn't, but also, if you want to be a writer, then you have to write, and you can't let anybody stop you. and if my discouragement stops you then we understand what we should conclude from that. - right. you were not really serious about this to begin with. - right, and every once in a while, well first of all it has very little to do with talent. well first of all it has very little to do with talent. i mean, there are students who i wish to discourage and i hope that they would take up embroidery or woodworking-- short order cook. and it doesn't matter what i think they are so convinced of their talent. but every once in a while i see somebody
who i think is really, this has happened maybe twice in 15 years of teaching, who i've taken aside after class and i have said to him or to her, "you can write." - you've got it. - "you should really keep doing this." - right, the hand of amy bloom tohes yo that's pretty good, i like that. we're gonna wrap here. any thought about this becoming a movie? i actually, the other thing i thought at the conclusion of this was, this would be a fantastic basis for a film. if it were true to the novel as written. - well, i think we are going to make it into a tv mini series. we have a group put together and i start writing the script in about two weeks. - that's magnificent and i had no idea, there you go. and the strong narrative voice of lorena hickok is to my mind, the very best thing that suggests that it has another form other than the novel. it's a great book and i wish you great success with it and everything else, and it's a pleasure to get to see you. - thank you. thank you, amy bloom. thank you so much. take care. - all right, thanks, thanks. (applauding) - [male announcer] we love to have you join us in the studio.
visit our website at klru.org/overheard to find invitations to interviews, q and a's with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes. - you have to enter characters from the inside, not from the outside. and that's one of the real things that's difficult, i think, often for historians, which is how do you feel what this character felt without, you're not looking at them. so when they always say in writing, show, don't tell, what they mean is, make it happen right in front of the reader. don't just describe it. - [female announcer] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by claire and carl stuart. and by claire and carl stuart.
and by cl[soft music]l stuart. - (male narrator) memphis, tennessee. it has been written, if music were religion, then memphis would be jerusalem, and sun studio its most sacred shrine. - (male singer) ♪ days when my life seemed ♪ far behind me, don't let it find me ♪ - and you are here, with reid anderson and chris kearney. - ♪ nights when the lights they made me wonder ♪ ♪ the thunder seemed far away ♪ ♪ i was just a child ♪ we were children running wild in the rain ♪ - (british accent) hi, i'm reid anderson from liverpool, i have just played a session at sun studio with my new friends chris kearney, chris milam, lanita smith, and susan marshall. - ♪ we would have noticed the moon shine down ♪ - we would have noticed the moon,