My acquaintance with Thomas Mallon began about twenty years ago when I discovered his novel Henry and Clara, his riveting novel about the couple seated next to Abraham Lincoln when he was assassinated at the Ford Theater. And so began our small literary friendship that has resulted in my continued interest and appreciation of his novels and thus a number of interview/ conversations. This latest chat was occasioned by his newest novel, Finale. Suffice it to say , that as usual, he and I digress from fiction to films to politics to the aging process. No doubt (given the obvious proviso for two geezers) we will be conversating again in a few years.
Allow me to quote from my previous talk with Thomas:
Given the deplorable state of historical literacy in the greatest country in the world, I have long held that if I were allowed to teach history, there are a number of novels I would include in my lesson plans—in addition to the eye-opening, ground-breaking People’s History by Howard Zinn. Thomas Mallon has written a number of those novels—
Robert Birnbaum: Onward and upward (as he readies the recording device).
Thomas Mallon: I’m just very aware of how in the midst of all of the changes in the industry that the essentials for me have stayed very old-fashioned.
Robert Birnbaum: Your publisher is remarkably stable. They have editors that have been there for years at all the various imprints. The publicity people have been there years and years. They’re slick—slick in a good way. They’re decent, they’re efficient, sweet; they know the stuff. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine.
Thomas Mallon: A lot the processes of my writing life have changed dramatically, but the personnel of it have really been stable: Dan[Frank]; the people I write for at the New Yorker, for instance. I have been writing for Dan [at Pantheon] for nearly 20 years now. The Times Book Review, whatever. I’ve moved around a little bit with agents but I’ve been with [Andrew] Wiley now for the last 8 years, so it’s been very happy for me. I’ve been sheltered from the storm.
Robert Birnbaum: Which may or may not be responsible for the fact that you’ve written some pretty creditable books, on a regular basis.
Thomas Mallon: I’m hoping to retire from teaching next year. I will be 65. Nobody in my-
Robert Birnbaum: No! No, you’re lying.
Thomas Mallon: Next year, sure. Can’t tell, right? As I creep along. I’ll keep writing… I don’t know how many of these [novels] I have left in me.” I think I have a couple more; in fact, I’m signed up to do a couple more and I think I can bring everything in for a soft landing. If novel-writing seems to become too much, I’d like to think I could have a dignified closing act with essays and reviews and things like that.
Robert Birnbaum: You’re not going to do something as ostentatious as announce your retirement —like some other authors.
Thomas Mallon: Oh, I know who you’re thinking of[Philip Roth], but he was 80; for God sakes.
Robert Birnbaum: Do you believe him, is he absolutely … Are we sure there won’t be another novel.
Thomas Mallon: I don’t know. My God, if I could go to 80, I’d be thrilled. I’m hoping to get past 70 doing it.
Robert Birnbaum: Joseph Epstein wrote a very funny piece when he turned 70— a spoof on producer Robert Evans’s memoir. Epstein’s was called The Kid Turned 70. The brilliant thing I thought was that he announces “You know what, I have a birthday, I just want 10 more years. I don’t want to live forever I just another 10 years,” “A happy amount of time to aspire to wherever you are.”
Thomas Mallon: He says that whenever he has a birthday.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, 10 more, 10 more, 10 more.
Thomas Mallon: He’s really been asking for 20, right?
Robert Birnbaum: When did you start feeling you were aging? And that you had to think about an end-game, a last quarter?
Thomas Mallon: I think earlier than most people in the same game as I am. I think that may be temperamental, that may be dark Irish stuff, I don’t know. I did have a sense of being off to a late start as a fiction writer. Not as a non-fiction writer, but I published my first novel when I was 36. It seemed very late at the time. It doesn’t seem so right now, but it did in the ’80s. I think I had a sense early on that I needed to work hard and move quickly where fiction was concerned, once I found my feet. I have seen writers, often writers that I admire extravagantly, who went on too long. It’s very difficult to tell somebody to stop. I knew Gore Vidal a little bit, I edited him sometimes at GQ. A couple times I even wrote about him. I remember being on the phone with him one time, and he had written what was his last novel. I can’t even remember the title, but I think it’s set at the Smithsonian or something. He said to me in that patrician voice, “Well, you know, this will be the last one.” I said something like, “Oh, surely not.” “No,” he replied. “Well, why?” I asked. He said, “Well, you know, I get to the end of a chapter now, I have trouble remembering how it began.” I do think that the engineering feats of novel-writing are something to keep in mind. I’ve seen this, again, mostly in writers that I admired a lot. Somebody like Elizabeth Hardwick who went on very, very late. Lizzie was still publishing, I don’t know, well into her 80s or whatever. From anybody else it would have been pretty damn good. But if you had been reading her for years you noticed a falling off. How could you not? Once in a blue moon there are these people like V.S. Pritchett who seem undiminished. Updike seemed quite undiminished, too. He wasn’t of a very great age but well into his 70s. Then that burst of … I think, honestly, at the end, his poetry was fabulous. I think his criticism was still sharp, very sharp as he went along.
Robert Birnbaum: Updike is one of the writers I just never got around to [reading]. First of all I want to … not first of all but I want to thank you on behalf of ordinary Americans for adding to our knowledge of Iceland’s literacy and food culture, so thank you.
Thomas Mallon: Yes, highest per capita book consumption or something like that. I’ll tell you one last thing before we leave that topic concerning the writer I most admire. My mentor, my muse, was Mary McCarthy. Mary died at 77 which seems young, but it wasn’t so young for her generation—hard-living writers. I do remember my sense of Mary in her ’60s and ’70s. She was operating in some ways as if she had all the time in the world. I remember thinking this at the time, also because she wrote a memoir called How I Grew. It’s not my favorite among her books; again, for almost anybody else it would be top drawer. She was going over ground that she had already covered in probably her very best work, Memories of Catholic Girlhood. She was going over it in a way that was certainly interesting to anybody who cared about her work. But it was more literal than Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and I kept thinking, “Why are you giving this 3 years, or whatever it is, of your life? Get on to the 1930s which is what everybody wants to read.” One thing about Mary–and I think that some of her biographers notice this: she never really thought in career terms. She didn’t have a plan, and there’s something about that that I actually admire.
Robert Birnbaum: [across from the patio at which we are seated a wild turkey crosses the street The return of the species here…
Thomas Mallon: Unbelievable.
Robert Birnbaum: They are all over the place.
Thomas Mallon: I feel like I’m back in Westport.
Robert Birnbaum: Wildlife is everywhere now—returning to urban populated areas.
Thomas Mallon: I’ll be damned.
Robert Birnbaum: There are a couple of recent portrayals of McCarthy . One in particular impressed me —Janet McTeer played her in that Hannah Arendt film.
Thomas Mallon: Which I haven’t seen; which I will see.
(the beginning scene has Arendt and Mary McCarthy in conversation)
Robert Birnbaum: McTeer’s a wonderful actress and I hope her portrayal did her justice. So, the occasion for our conversation here is that you just published a book which is a historical fiction. I have to ask, how much of it is fiction?
Thomas Mallon: I would say probably about the same quotient, maybe a little higher quotient of fiction than in some of the previous ones. It’s a book that’s on roughly the same scale as Watergate and it operates in largely the same way with about a half dozen point-of-view characters.
Robert Birnbaum: Right, but to me they were 3 really substantial characters’ points of view.
Thomas Mallon:Yeah, there are 2 important characters who are purely fictional characters. Anne Macmurray, who’s revived from my old novel Dewey Defeats Truman—she was the ingenue of that—and this fellow Anders Little on the National Security Council. In Watergate there were only a handful of very minor characters who were fictional. Watergate was different, with this juggernaut plot. You had to go from the break-in to the pardon. This book is somewhat more diffuse. It’s more a portrait of an era than it is a single narrative. The subtitle was somewhat carefully chosen: A Novel of the Reagan Years. It’s not trying to unlock the mystery of Reagan or anything-
Robert Birnbaum: I have to backtrack …there are 4 major characters; I forgot about Nixon.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah, Nixon in some ways; he’s my Alice Roosevelt Longworth in this book. He’s become the kind of aged one who’s seen it all. I guess I couldn’t let go of him.
Robert Birnbaum: In so many ways, he was fascinating.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I was surprised by a lot of things … Nixon and Reagan were in touch more often than I expected in the ’80s and the-
Robert Birnbaum: On whose initiative?
Thomas Mallon: Both, and that surprised me too. Nixon did not want to wear out his welcome but he would send memoranda to [Reagan’s] chief of staff, things like that. Reagan would call him up and they talked during Iran-Contra and Nixon makes no bones about it. “Apologize for the son-of-a-bitch and put it behind you. Learn the lesson I failed to.” I think Nixon had a … He knew Reagan had something and he had a certain respect for what Reagan was doing. I think he, at times, shook his head thinking that, from his point of view, things had come awfully easy to Reagan.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, right. My impression, you don’t treat Reagan negatively, but you cast this notion of him as being a cipher to so many people that they felt they sort of knew him and also didn’t know him.
Thomas Mallon:Right, and I think you phrase it exactly. “Cipher” to so many people. I don’t consider him a cipher. I do think he was a formidable figure, but I do think there was a great deal of mystery to him. One of the things I decided almost immediately upon beginning this book was that I was not going to try to turn Reagan into a point-of-view character. I was not going to see anything from inside of him. I had no trouble doing that, or I felt I had no trouble doing that, with Nixon. I felt comfortable writing from Nixon’s point of view, but-
Robert Birnbaum: You didn’t feel comfortable doing it because-
Thomas Mallon: I didn’t feel comfortable at all because I think Reagan has defeated any number of biographers. Which is not to say that they’ve necessarily been defeated by making an historical assessment of his presidency. Not that, but in terms of his personality they’ve been defeated. When I tried to see things from his point of view I never felt that I had put the skin on. There were times when he seemed very big to me; other times he seemed comically small. I was acutely aware of Edmund Morris’ s frustration with him. I even give Morris a scene with him in the book. I decided I would, to go back to Vidal, I would adopt his approach in Lincoln. He never gets inside Lincoln, it’s all from several different vantage points. I would do that, but I was not trying to render Reagan; I was trying to render the Reagan years. A time about which, politically, I was wildly ambivalent.
Robert Birnbaum: Good for you, good. As opposed to being so proud of our Exceptionalism.
Thomas Mallon: That part I liked. I do think that Reagan had a lot to do with winning the Cold War. To me it was thrilling when his own national security adviser asked him, “What’s your view of the Cold War?” He said, “We win, they lose.” I thought, “Clarity, at last; as opposed to detail.” It was also, it was a time when I was burying my friends and would have liked to have heard a kind word from him about AIDS, you know?
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, well. there were any number of those glaring disjunctions. I never worried about Russian tanks showing up on the Rio Grande.
Thomas Mallon: Oh, I did. The Soviets were truly on the march in the ’70s. Whether it was Angola or and then Afghanistan in 1980. The Soviets were extremely expansionist. Now, of course, it’s easy to say, “Oh, well-
Robert Birnbaum: It ruined them.
Thomas Mallon: It wouldn’t have ruined them if there hadn’t been some push-back. This book doesn’t offer any brief for Iran-Contra but I wouldn’t argue with every tactic and every bit of strategy. People said to me, “Why does Reagan come out … Why does he get off so easily with something like Iran-Contra?” I think it’s because of the Contra part of the scandal, whether you agreed with this tactic of fighting this proxy war or not. People view the scandal, a lot of them, as a blunder or even something pernicious but it was part of a much bigger thing. It was a part of the U.S.-Soviet opposition and, ultimately, he won that.
Robert Birnbaum: If you turn around the telescope, then, yeah, great. The Berlin Wall came down, peace dividends were being declared but I’m not that much interested in the fixing blame on historical personalities. I think the process … Some of the things that started to happen under, or suddenly become more visible, under that administrations really were toxic to the democratic process. I don’t care, having someone like Ollie North running around, having ambassadors who really were cowboys and had no … hey weren’t really answering to anyone. Therefore, you could have things like nuns being murdered in El Salvador. Did the United States really say that was okay? Did we really want that to happen?
Thomas Mallon: Now we have government by executive order.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, so-
Thomas Mallon: I don’t think the democratic process is in terrific shape under this chief executive.
Robert Birnbaum: Certainly the promised transparency is not there. You know what’s interesting to me on Reagan is that Richard Reeves*, for instance, who is not particularly sympathetic to Republicans, wrote not a sympathetic, but an understanding biography of Reagan-
Thomas Mallon: Reeves’s book is quite good, I think. As I said, Reagan himself is at the center but he’s the missing center of this book in a way. It all swirls around him. I do think that in any administration, in any organization, people spend a lot of time trying to figure out the boss. They want to please the boss, they want to get ahead, etc. In his administration I think people spent an inordinate amount of time doing that. It may have lent it some odd kind of creative energy, along with some overreaching, because I think he baffled some of the people that he worked with. I’ve talked to other people who say, “No,” people who knew him.I had a brief phone conversation a couple weeks ago with George Will. He goes, “This remote stuff is very overrated. He was genial and what you saw was what you got,” and he said, “He had one friend and he married her.” My reaction to that was, “How ordinary is that? Who has one friend and marries the person?” Even Nixon had Bebe Robozo. I do think there was some mystery about Reagan, but I wanted, as always, I wanted to show him operating, the president operating, amidst a lot of accident, chance, fatefulness, opposition. We have Pamela Harriman as my sort of my comic…
Robert Birnbaum: I suspect she was a fun character to play with —a wild card.
Thomas Mallon:One of the reasons I think that Anne Macmurray came back laughs) was I realized I had Nancy Reagan and Pamela Harriman and I have to have a nice woman character among the main ones. The women characters have often run off with my books; I’ve noticed that. People talked a lot about that with Watergate. I didn’t set out to do that, but the women were very crucial in Watergate. I thought that they were, on the surface, they had some similarities, Nancy and Pamela. Nancy is this sort of-
Robert Birnbaum:Pamela, the way you presented her, was much smarter than Nancy. Nancy was shrewd but the scope of her general knowledge was limited
Thomas Mallon: Nancy, to me … I think the picture of her is sympathetic; she’s a raw nerve. I don’t think she enjoyed 10 minutes of the White House. Pamela is one of the least self-curious people ever. She’s just a predator, you know? She goes after one life after another. She’s kind of astonishing and is having this quite late third act.
Robert Birnbaum: Am I correct in assuming she wrote a memoir or autobiography or something?
Thomas Mallon: No.
Robert Birnbaum: No?
Thomas Mallon: There are 2 substantial biographies of her. She would have written a fabulous memoir. I think by the time she was ready to write it, she had inherited hundred million dollars and really didn’t need to.
Robert Birnbaum: Since she was not self-curious and had no financial need.
Thomas Mallon: It would not have been an introspective book. She had a tremendous desire for dignity. The really funny thing about her was she was an aristocrat. She was a Digby . Yet, throughout her life her reputation was for being a courtesan. Somebody who was trying to push her way into the respectable world,when in fact, it was the world she was born to.
Robert Birnbaum: In America, was she referred to as a courtesan?
Thomas Mallon: Oh, yeah; routinely.
Robert Birnbaum: I wasn’t aware that Americans recognized that position.
Thomas Mallon: When you say-
Robert Birnbaum: Do you know what I mean?
Thomas Mallon: Yeah. When you say, “in America,” certainly while she was operating in America she was still referred to as that. Maybe she was more often referred to that way by people who had known her in her European days. It’s an astonishing life but the funny thing, at the end, is that she really craves respectability. She really wanted her reward for everything she did for the Democrats. She has to wait until Bill Clinton to get it and then she gets the ambassadorship to Paris. She felt this kind of strange hunger for respectability even though she had been born into hyper-respectability. She had this kind of raffish early and middle life that she had to overcome.
Robert Birnbaum: As you began this book, how much was [Christopher] Hitchens [ 4]going to be a part of it?
Thomas Mallon: At the very beginning I didn’t have him in mind at all. Obviously, he occurred to me in fairly short order because he’s there throughout the whole book. I didn’t know Christopher in the time-
Robert Birnbaum: In that period.
Thomas Mallon: Of the book. I got to know Christopher—I didn’t meet him until well into the ’90s. I got to know him pretty well in the early 2000’s. At the time the novel is set, 1986, he’s always betwixt and between. Should he stay in the States, go back to England? Is he going to make his was through publications like Vanity Fair or The Nation? Is he going to stay in his first marriage or leave it, whatever? I thought I could plausibly deploy him into the narrative in a lot of ways, though he never did a profile of Pamela Harriman [as the book purports].
Robert Birnbaum: Is that how you got information about Harriman —through him?
Thomas Mallon: No. I think to go back to what you were first asking about—how much is fiction, how much isn’t—I think that’s a good example of how I feel I can operate. I don’t operate at the extremes of historical fiction, which is alternate history fiction. Those books where the south wins the Civil War, things like that.
Robert Birnbaum: Bill O’Reilly’s-
Thomas Mallon: I think-
Robert Birnbaum: If one could call them books.
Thomas Mallon: That doesn’t interest me. It has to be what are Vidal’s “agreed-upon facts” that are adhered to. Then people say, “Why write fiction at all, why not write well-done biographies, things like that?” Obviously, there are ways it has an intimacy to it, historical fiction. There are ways to speculate about people…
Robert Birnbaum: Have you read any biographies of George Washington?
Thomas Mallon: No.
Robert Birnbaum: I haven’t either but I’m wondering how many of them refer to the fact that Washington was a real hound and would send his junior officers out so he could liaison with their wives. Is that something you think is … I think that’s the kind of thing, whether it’s true or not, that’s the kind of thing you can put in… that Vidal would put in a story. I’m glad you brought him up because I think those American civilization novels, I think they’re 5?
Thomas Mallon: Yes.
Robert Birnbaum: They are better American history than many scholarly texts of the time.
Thomas Mallon: One big … Let me to try to organize my thoughts on this and I will return to him in one minute. In my own books I’m not going to change something like the chronology of the Reykjavik summit. Those negotiating sessions operate almost exactly…
Robert Birnbaum: I assume that.
Thomas Mallon: The stuff I will change is the smaller stuff that you can plausibly change. For instance, something like, was Hitchens at Reykjavik? No. But is it plausible for him to have been there? Yes.
Robert Birnbaum: Does it make a difference?
Thomas Mallon: Right, and it’s the sort of thing where the only way the reader is going to know that it’s fiction is if the reader looks it up and discovers, “No, there’s no record of him having been there,” things like that. That’s a rule of thumb. It’s not what happened instead of the big things but what might have happened in addition to the big things. What might have happened behind the scenes, whatever. One difference I would say between me and Vidal, aside from the fact that he remains the maestro, is a … His works have a higher thematic content than mine do. He’s hugely working the thesis, the thesis of American empire, whatever. I’m more interested in serendipity, accident, quirks, telling a story. I think in that sense I’m operating more as a novelist than he is because there’s always a … He goes about more of the business of a historian than I do.
Robert Birnbaum: Nonetheless you have Truman that’s 1948, and Fellow Travelers covers the early ’50s, and Watergate, the late 60’s , early 70’s. I don’t remember was there a novel that’s set in the ’60s?
Thomas Mallon: Aurora 7, an early book but it’s not really political. Kennedy has a couple of scenes in it but it’s mostly my bildungsroman. It’s all set on the day of Scott Carpenter’s space flight … Finale is dedicated to Scott, who died a couple of years ago.
Robert Birnbaum: Then Watergate and now this. One could say that’s sort of a kind of American history. Do you want to fill in anything?
Thomas Mallon: It is kind of a Republican saga. If you go back to Henry and Clara, you’ve got Lincoln-
Robert Birnbaum: My favorite of your books.
Thomas Mallon: Thank you.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s such a novel perspective to look at Lincoln’s assassination from.
Thomas Mallon: Also, now that I think of it, the Hayes administration in Two Moons—another Republican administration. I am now writing —and it’s so close that I don’t know that you’d be able to call it historical fiction—about the George W. Bush years.
Robert Birnbaum: Is it fiction?
Thomas Mallon:It’s fiction, yeah. A novel called Landfall. I always seem to throw these presidents into the soup. I have them at their lowest points. Reagan here; Nixon during Watergate; and the Bush book is mostly set in ’05, ’06—Katrina, the Iraq insurgency, everything. I also want to go back to the Civil War one more time. I’ve sold these next two books as proposals and the one thing they said was … I was going to do the Civil War book first. They said, “No, we want you to flip them, and we want you to do the Bush book first and complete the trilogy.” I didn’t know I was writing one. They see Watergate, Finale and the Bush book. To use the phrase that DH Lawrence used dismissively about Ulysses—he said, “It’s so on purpose”—I think my books, in some intellectual, thematic way, are less “on purpose” than Vidal’s were. I don’t have a point to prove about the country.
Robert Birnbaum: They’re not quite Teddy White’s Making of the President.
Robert Birnbaum: As they say, Vidal had cojones. He believed in himself, yes, and-
Thomas Mallon: He was unfailingly nice to me, too. Jay Parini’s biography of him is about to come out.
Robert Birnbaum: Parini is executor of his estate, I think.
Thomas Mallon: Yes, Jay knew him very, very well. I didn’t know him nearly as well. I have to say I was always—in some ways I was scared of getting to know him any better because, I thought, if I do, at some point I’m going to feel the lash. There’ll be the falling out, there’ll be-
Robert Birnbaum: I hear you. How are you feeling about the city on the hill these days?
Thomas Mallon: Somebody asked, “You going to do a novel about Trump if he goes all the way?” I said, “It’s already a novel.” I wish he would recede quickly. I’m not sure it’s going to happen now. I still think … I do not think he’s going to go the distance. I don’t think he’s going to go the distance to the nomination. On the other hand, I am a terrible prognosticator.
Robert Birnbaum: What is the possibility that the American public becomes disenchanted with him?
Thomas Mallon: Yeah, they become disenchanted with a lot of people, so why not with him? It would be really different if he were 1 of 4, you know? The fact that he’s 1 of 16 or whatever it is, and that a dozen of them are almost completely unknown to the public, is what’s made the race more ridiculous than it would have been otherwise. I think the best thing that could happen to the Republican party right now would be for half of these people running to get out immediately.
Robert Birnbaum: This interesting thing about the status of Ronald Reagan within the Republican party, for me, is that these aspiring politicians really don’t have a grasp of who he was . But he’s given them the confidence to think that they could be president of the United States. Honestly, I look at that group and I would like them to explain, what makes them think they are qualified to be president?
Thomas Mallon:Certainly, Reagan had business running for president; a 2-term governor of California has the chops for it. He did raise the appropriate age so that if Biden gets in we’re going to have the altacocker primary in the Democratic party, I mean between Bernie and Hillary and Biden. Reagan did that. I’m sure I would get different opinions, but I would argue that nobody did more to lower the credentials factor for the presidency than Barack Obama. I’m not wild about the idea of electing people who have been in the Senate for a couple years—3 years, whatever it was—as president. I’ve often said this to people: “I hold Barack Obama responsible for Sarah Palin.”
Robert Birnbaum: (laughs)
Thomas Mallon:I was not a fan of Governor Palin, but do you remember much talk when she was picked by John McCain? Do you remember much talk of, “God, McCain’s going to put somebody a heartbeat away from the presidency who’s been governor of Alaska for a year and a half?” They couldn’t do it, the Democrats couldn’t make that point because of Obama.
Robert Birnbaum: Why would they need to? She was self-discrediting.
Thomas Mallon: You have all of these first-term Senators running. I rather like Rubio, I will say that. But I think something’s wrong.
Robert Birnbaum: Except these guys are talking pie-in-the-sky economics and that they— are going make the American worker ,who’s being screwed by the Democrats, they’re going to make their lives better for them. Really, with their voodoo economics? Their supply side economics and deficit austerity?
Thomas Mallon: You see, Robert, now you’re getting into issues, and I hate that part of politics.
Robert Birnbaum (laughs)
Thomas Mallon: I would much rather … If I were truly interested in issues I’d be a historian, but it’s personalities …
Robert Birnbaum: Its no longer about experience in governance as much … I don’t think you can argue that he’s not a very smart man.
Thomas Mallon: Who?
Robert Birnbaum: Obama.
Thomas Mallon: Yes.
Robert Birnbaum: That he’s a quick read and that he does have respect for history. In fact , look at the disenchantment by left Democrats. Obama’s a centrist all the way. Bringing Goldman Sachs people into the economic advisory mix, what makes him radical? The right calls him a socialist …
Thomas Mallon: I can’t see him as a centrist but I know the point you’re making.
Robert Birnbaum: What operating room do you have if the opposition says, from day one,”We’re gong to do everything we can to make sure he’s a 1-term president.” How do you negotiate? Govern?
Thomas Mallon: As opposed to the gigantic elbow room the Democrats gave Reagan throughout the ’80s? Come on. The Republicans gave Obama the stimulus he asked for.
Robert Birnbaum: The Tip O’Neill-Ron Reagan ‘friendship was just a myth?
Thomas Mallon: I think it’s overblown, I do. Others will argue differently. There’s that Chris Matthews book about the whole thing. I don’t think either one liked the other.
Robert Birnbaum: Chris Matthews?
Thomas Mallon: Yeah.
Robert Birnbaum: My, my.
Thomas Mallon: You know, Jesse Jackson used to say, “I would rather have Roosevelt in a wheelchair than Reagan on a horse.” I would have to say that, because of the basic sense he had of what he wanted to do with the presidency, I would rather have Ronald Reagan at the beginning of geriatric exhaustion—I’m not saying senility—
Robert Birnbaum: Right, got you.
Thomas Mallon: At the beginning of his geriatric exhaustion, than Obama at the head of the Law Review.
Robert Birnbaum: That does point to the fact that there’s this whole bouillabaisse of credentials and characteristics that one would think make a good president but you really don’t know what the mixture is. It’s a mystery, right?
Thomas Mallon: Right, and you really don’t know what opportunities they’re going to have to use the better parts of themselves, you know? I think it’s … It won’t be me but Obama would certainly be interesting for a novelist. Much more interesting than Clinton.
Robert Birnbaum: What about someone like Ulysses S. Grant for whom, I think, his historical stature is being revised . He’s been rehabilitated. I don’t think Americans know his story, they think he was a drunk and a crook, you know? How many people do you think have read his memoirs which I am told are quite good?
Thomas Mallon: Very few.
Robert Birnbaum: …and were published by Mark Twain, right?
Thomas Mallon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Robert Birnbaum: And then Eisenhower, I don’t think … He turned out to be, looked like a much better president today than he was when people were laughing at his golfing and his lack of polish as a public speaker.
Thomas Mallon: It’s amazing that the United States has this 10-year stretch with two of the most baroque personalities ever as president— Johnson and Nixon, with their incredible complexities. And then it goes Main Street with Jerry Ford.
Robert Birnbaum: That was sort of accidental. He would have never been elected.
Thomas Mallon: He came close. Clinton would not interest me as a novelist because while Clinton is complicated, yes; everybody’s always talking about Clinton as being compartmentalized, whatever. I don’t think he’s the least bit mysterious. Can see the different compartments, you know? Obama, is a much more opaque figure. Much harder to read, harder to get at.
Robert Birnbaum: There’s a duo, a comedy due called Key & Peele. They have a routine where they have an anger translator for Obama.And Obama brought him to the last White House Correspondent’s dinner
Thomas Mallon: Suppressed anger, I think, is fascinating. I always thought and continue to think, even as I wish him well in his current state of ill health, that Jimmy Carter was a very angry man beneath the surface. Very angry and resentful.
Robert Birnbaum: Is he a Baptist or Methodist ?
Thomas Mallon: Baptist, I think.
Robert Birnbaum:A more austere form of Protestantism?
Robert Birnbaum: Well he did a good job of anger management didn’t he?
Thomas Mallon:That’s the thing, though. Anger management is not the same thing as anger suppression, because anger management entails letting it out as appropriate, you know? I would be interested to know just how cool Barack Obama really is or how much anger he suppresses. What he’s angry about? I think that it might be something entirely different from what we think. It’s not for me, but I think there’s good material for a novelist there and-
Robert Birnbaum: In all these cases you have a very volatile world setting. There’s lots of stuff going on that you can pull out to deal with. Has anyone talked about making a movie out of any of the books? You optioned?
Thomas Mallon: Say that louder. The options come and go. They don’t buy up properties with the alacrity they used to. Hollywood has the same kind of cautionary chill about it that publishing has now. Henry and Clara options have come and gone. Dewey Defeats Truman was not only optioned, it was bought. I paid for half of my house in Connecticut with it and then they never made it. They could still make it. It was a period piece to begin with.
Robert Birnbaum: What I notice is this expansion of the scope of what the so called cable industry and HBO, Showcase, A & E. They’re making things they’re … The HBO special that David Simon just did [Show Me A Hero]. Can you imagine somebody actually making a movie about the housing crisis in Yonkers?
Thomas Mallon: Yeah. I would much prefer if somebody were going to film this. My strong preference would be to have it done for television in 8 parts or something. I think that would be a much closer match to the construction of the novel. Television is doing such interesting things with narrative right now. Much more so, I think, than film.
Robert Birnbaum: I think I find myself reading somewhat less and watching more of these extended series. When it comes down to it, my interest in stories, good stories.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah, right.
Robert Birnbaum: The streaming services are a great reservoir of wonderful movies but, again, in terms of commercial interest, starting with the Sopranos and the Wire , producers are buying into getting writers writing good stories; investing —like Nick Pizolatto, His True Detective [at least season one]was genius.
Thomas Mallon: In terms of adaptation, something like Wolf Hall. If you were going to do Wolf Hall, to me the proper way to do it was the way it was done on television.
Robert Birnbaum: Right, I don’t know about you but I couldn’t read the book but I thought the dramatization was fabulous. The lead actor Mark Rylance, just perfect.
Thomas Mallon: I like the book, I’ve never read the second one, the one that came after. Maybe I will at some point
Robert Birnbaum: Also the BBC did a splendid job on William Boyd’s [novel ]Any Given Heart. It’s about a writer’s life, from about 1910 I think up until the ’60s or ’70s. 3 It’s just a wonderful story and again, ist based on a worthy text
Thomas Mallon: The single, greatest television experience I have ever had—and I remember the first run of the Honeymooners as a rug rat in the mid-’50s—the greatest television experience I ever had was Deadwood. If you have not seen Deadwood…
Robert Birnbaum: I have seen Deadwood and I read Pete Dexter’s novel of the same name. There was a piece on the HBO series producer David Milch in the New Yorker. I don’t remember if they referenced Dexter’s skepticism about Milch’s claim saying he never read Dexter’s book.
Thomas Mallon: Oh, really? It was one of those things where after a couple of episodes I still wasn’t in the groove with it. I’m thinking, “Am I going to commit to this?” or whatever. Then I got past that crucial point very much as you often have to do with a novel. “Now, I’m in; I’m investing,” whatever. After that, I just felt the whole thing was so audacious, so atmospheric. It just, it didn’t build and build in a narrative way, it didn’t build and build to the climax of the story, but it deepened and deepened and deepened.
Robert Birnbaum: I always loved John Hawkes[plays Sol Star in Deadwood]. Do you know his work? He does a lot of comedy but in Winter’s Bone he’s resoundingly sinister.
Thomas Mallon: A little bit, yeah. The main character, Al Swearengen, there was a part of him that reminded me of my old boss Art Cooper.
Robert Birnbaum: I think the next time I saw Swearingen was in some odd NBC special about some futuristic kingdom where he’s the king. Have you seen Winter’s Bone?
Thomas Mallon: No, I know what it is, though.
Robert Birnbaum: It takes place in a hard scrabble Ozarks, really tough people with their own code, insular; 2 really interesting characters. Based on a novel written by a wonderful writer, Daniel Woodrell credited with creating “redneck noir”. Are you engaged in this book tour for some period of time? Is it a distraction? Is it hard for you?
Thomas Mallon: No, it’s not steady…
Robert Birnbaum: You’re going to tell me you’re glad they asked you because…
Thomas Mallon: Actually, yes. It would be wrong to say anything else. It’s a little bit different; it’s more broken up than it used to be. In the old days they put you out on the road for a long time. I go home tomorrow and then I’m at home for 10 days; then I go to St. Louis. Then I’m at home for a week and I go to New York.
Robert Birnbaum: That’s good. There will have been time for people to actually read the book?
Thomas Mallon: Yeah, over a couple of months it adds up to a lot.
Robert Birnbaum: That’s smart.
Thomas Mallon: Then there’ll be a California leg of it, whatever. I still, I’m always keeping my journalistic life afloat. The truly hair-raising aspect of this week was not just the traveling, not just waiting on reviews. I had to close a piece for the New Yorker this week. From the hotel room in Texas and then at my apartment in New York, I was on the phone with the fact-checkers and getting proof after proof after proof. I’m a nervous closer even during a slow week at home, so my hands have been shaky.
Robert Birnbaum: That’s the state of writing, too. Writers used to say, “I never write on the road.” Now people are forced to write on the road.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah, I couldn’t actually write on the road but I have to do other stuff on the road. One of the things that I’ve also noticed is a bit of a change in my non-fiction life. I think I’m writing … I’m still writing literary criticism, but I’m writing more about politics and political books that I’m used to. This piece I just closed was about The Drew Pearson Diaries from the 1960s
Robert Birnbaum: He was an influential columnist-
Thomas Mallon: Incredibly so, yeah.
Robert Birnbaum: In the Washington Post, right? There were a handful of those guys, also Lippmann, Drew Pearson, Jack Anderson?
Thomas Mallon: Anderson was Pearson’s assistant. Until he took over the column. Lippmann and people like Joe Alsop—they were sort of these mandarins of commentary. Although Anderson also had some reporting in his column. Lippmann was very much speaking ex cathedra but Pearson was the Washington equivalent of the Hollywood gossip columnist. A lot of digging, and the diaries are really fascinating. It’s odd, a volume of them covering the ’50s was edited 40 years ago. This volume covering the ’60s is only coming out now. What they really show is the degree to which he operated as somebody seeking political influence behind the scenes. He was often rounding up Senate votes on something. You would think he was the majority whip rather than a columnist; a very interesting dynamic compared to what we have today. And so, in a sense, maybe there’s more overlap between the 2 kinds of writing I am doing, fiction and non-fiction, than there used to be.
Robert Birnbaum: Wow, time flies, as usual it’s been a pleasure.
Thomas Mallon: Same here.
Robert Birnbaum: I’m glad we’re both still walking and talking.
Thomas Mallon: Yeah, a little more stiffly but still doing it.
1 The Kid Turns Seventy:And No one Cares —The Weekly Standard
2 Trailer for Hannah Arendt
3 Conversation with Richard Reeves
4 Identitytheory conversation with Christopher Hitchens
5 True Detective / Season 1 trailer
6 Any Human Heart Episode 1