Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing Amy Bloom, who is a New York Times best-selling author and National Book Award nominee, has written a new novel entitled “White Houses.” The book, which came out on Feb. 13, charts a love story between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok, whose real-life relationship is documented through the thousands of passionate letters they exchanged, even while Roosevelt was living in the White House. The Argus spoke with Bloom about the process of writing her book, future book readings, and new literature she’s looking forward to reading.
The Argus: This book is based off of this fairly well-documented relationship between Lorena Hickok, the journalist, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Amy Bloom: I think it probably depends on who you ask, but yes.
A: So what was the process of researching for this book?
AB: The process of researching the book was to read pretty much—not every, because it’s a pretty big category—but most of the biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt, of Franklin, of Lorena. And then, to read the 3,000 letters between Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt, which are at the Roosevelt Library, which represents a portion of their correspondence over 30 years.
A: How informative did you find each of these sources? Did you draw most of your material from the letters, or was it in combination with the books?
AB: The biographies were certainly very instructive, and useful for information and timelines and various correspondences, but the letters were the thing itself. The letters were the communication between the two central figures, and so those were enormously illuminating and interesting, and passionate, and heartbreaking, all those things, as you hope they will be.
A: Where did you get the idea for writing the book?
AB: For my last novel, I researched the ’30s and ’40s, and you can’t really research the 1930s and ’40s in the United States without coming across the Roosevelts all the time, because they were fascinating and complicating people. Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt talks about her relationship, writes about her relationship, with Lorena Hickok and that caught my attention. Then I went and read the letters, and then I thought, “This is this extraordinary love story, lost to history.” And not only lost to history, but in fact, torn out of history. I thought, “I would like to tell that story.”
A: So you haven’t come across any literature, other than the biographies, that talks about this narrative and this relationship?
AB: No, there are, I think in the last few years, there have been I think one or two books that have come out about Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt—non-fiction books.
A: Is this the first fictional piece [about this relationship] that you know of?
AB: It is certainly based on facts, but I do try pretty hard to emphasize that it’s a novel—that my wish is not to argue the facts. It’s not an alternative history. It’s a novel. It is my imagining of these characters, and my imagining of things that no one is ever going to know, because no one else is in the bedroom.
A: To that end, because this is based on two historical figures, what liberties did you feel you could take with the characters?
AB: I felt like I could take pretty much the liberties that one would take when writing a work of fiction, which is enormous liberties, if one wished. But in fact my wish was to build from the facts. My wish was not to say, “How about if Eleanor Roosevelt was a sexy blonde Vegas showgirl who happened to marry Franklin Roosevelt.” And you can do that in a novel! But I didn’t choose to do that in this novel. I chose to work from the facts of chronology, and the known facts of their characters, and the known facts of time and space.
A: Do you have any book readings planned, or general [events] for the future of this book?
AB: I’m in the middle of a book tour as a matter of fact. I’m going to be in Massachusetts, then I’m going to be in Washington, D.C., then I’m going to be in Dallas, Houston and Austin, then I’ll be in Brooklyn, at Books Are Magic, at the end of next week. Then reading at the Roosevelt House with Blanche Wiesen Cook, the historian, which I’m very much looking forward to, and then the Westport Public Library, and then I’m wrapping up the book tour.
A: Great! So diverting to your reading material, what books are currently on your bookshelf?
AB: Well, there are a lot of books, but the truth is, at the moment, I’m reading a mystery by P. D. James when I get a chance, because I’m doing a lot of traveling. And I’m re-reading a book of poetry by Jane Hirshfield called “Given Sugar, Given Salt,” which I love. I wish I was reading more contemporary fiction right this minute, but I think I’m going to need a week or two to settle in.
A: What are your favorite books that you’ve finished recently?
AB: My favorite book that I’ve finished recently is “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones. We read each other’s work, and I think it’s a terrific novel. That is the most recent book I’ve read.
A: Is there anything in your docket that you’re looking forward to reading?
AB: Yes, although honestly, I think I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a title for everything. There’s quite a recent Roddy Doyle book that I’m looking forward to reading, and I’m looking forward to reading Zadie Smith’s collection of essays. Those are the two that are at the top of my list right now.
Emmy Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacelover20.