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Real People: 2019 National Book Festival

Real People: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Emily Eakin: Yes. So, I’m delighted to be
speaking with Roxana Robinson and Louis Bayard this morning. First, I want to thank our
host the Library of Congress for putting together
this wonderful event. And want to mention that we’re
going to speak for, I think, 30 minutes and then have a
question and answer session. So, please have questions and
hold on to them until the end of the program and we’ll give
you a chance to ask them. Thanks so much. Okay. So, today Roxana Robinson,
on my right, is the author of six novels, three
collections of short stories, and a biography of
Georgia O’Keefe. She’s the former president of
the Author’s Guild and teaches at the MFA Program
at Hunter College. Her latest novel
is Dawson’s Fall. And on my right here
is Louis Bayard, an author of nine novels. He’s a specialist in
historical fiction and his subjects have
included Theodore Roosevelt, Edgar Allen Poe, and the
sixteenth century English astronomer Thomas Harriett. He’s also an essayist and
short story writer and teaches at George Washington University and his latest novel is
Courting Mr. Lincoln. So, let’s talk about the
genesis of these books which are both set
in the 19th Century and although Louis
Bayard’s novel is about Abraham Lincoln
it’s actually not set in the Civil War period.>>Louis Bayard: No.>>Emily Eakin: But before.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: And
Roxana’s book, Dawson’s Fall is set
mostly after the Civil War. It features the Civil
War section. So, I’m going to start
with you, Roxana. You’ve written several
lovely novels. [ Applause ]>>Emily Eakin: Sorry
about that, everyone.>>Roxana Robinson:
That’s better.>>Emily Eakin: Is that better?>>Yes [Multiple Speakers].>>Emily Eakin: Awesome, okay. All right, well let’s start –>>Louis Bayard: I
could hear her fine. I don’t know what [laughter].>>Emily Eakin: Okay. I’m going to start with
a question for Roxana. You’ve written several lovely
novels that deal in various ways with familes, history,
and trauma. And in that sense Dawson’s Fall
is in keeping with the themes that have preoccupied
you as a writer. But this is the first novel
you’ve written that’s actually based in history. And indeed, the characters
at the center of this novel are
ancestors of yours. Tell us about the
genesis of this book.>>Roxana Robinson: So, just to
start out with, and forgive me for sounding like
an adolescent boy. I just got a cold so
my voice is going to go up and down [laughter]. I apologize. So, the books I’ve
written before are really about moral questions, always. They’re set in a family
but I’m really interested in moral issues of guilt
and honor and shame. So, that’s the center of them.>>Emily Eakin: The
through line.>>Roxana Robinson: Yeah, the
through line, all my books. Cost was about heroin addiction and what the family’s
responsibility is in that. Sparta’s about our
responsibility to our veterans and what war means
to us as a country. And Dawson’s Fall is about
my great grandparents and my great grandfather
was an Englishman who came to this country to fight
for the confederacy. And he married my great
grandmother who was from Baton Rouge and he
spent the rest of his life in Charleston, South Carolina
where he became the editor of the Charleston
News and Courier. And he was the liberal
voice for the New South. And in my family, every
family has its own culture and we all tell our children
and our grandchildren stories that reinforce our own version
of who we are as a family. And in my family, he was
talked about as kind of a hero because he stood up
for black freedmen. He believed in the rule of law. He tried to ban lynching. So, we were proud of him. But the more I thought about him
as somebody who came to fight for the confederacy, which
is supporting a crime against humanity, I was trying to understand how it
was possible for someone who was principled and believed
in the rule of law and believed in human rights, how
that was possible to integrate those things. And Dawson wasn’t the
only person like that. There were many hundreds of
thousands of people in the south who believed they were good
people and yet were complicit in a system that was the
crime against humanity. So I wanted to — the
reason I write novels is to understand a problem
that I don’t understand. So, I set out to write this
novel trying to understand who my great grandparents had
been, jow they could be people of principle, and yet complicit
in this gigantic national crime. So, I thought that I was writing
about my family but it turned out I was writing
about my country.>>Emily Eakin: How much of Frank Dawson’s
story did you know when you undertook the project?>>Roxana Robinson: I knew,
I won’t spoil the book, but his life was
very dramatic and so, I knew about the dramatic part. We all knew that. And then I wrote a piece
about him for The Times about seven or eight years ago. He just started entering into
my mind and I never thought that I would write
about this subject because this is my
father’s family. On my mother’s family,
my great, great, great aunt is Harriet Beecher
Stowe [Excited Utterances]. So –>>Emily Eakin: Listen, we
should pause here to say that Roxana, when it came
to her family in terms of sort of moral leaders –>>Louis Bayard: You scored. You scored big.>>Emily Eakin: She had a
trove of people to choose from.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: Harriet Beecher
Stowe was just one of them. There’s a Bishop
who was decapitated.>>Roxana Robinson: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: Henry VIII.>>Roxana Robinson: Yes.>>Emily Eakin: There
was the founder of the first medical school
in America’s a relative.>>Roxana Robinson: Yeah, yeah.>>Emily Eakin: And someone who
became the godfather to the son of a Lenape Chief, White Eyes.>>Roxana Robinson: The first –>>Emily Eakin: [Inaudible]
to Princeton.>>Roxana Robinson:
The first person of color to go to Princeton. So, yeah. So, I had all this
baggage [laughter] and I mean, usually writers are
trying to strike out into new territory so,
this issue, the issue of race in America and slavery, because
of Harriet Beecher Stowe, I really thought I can’t
say a word about this. My family has done this
subject, it’s finished. But finding out about
Dawson, which was much, I mean Harriet Beecher
Stowe was a wonderful writer and she was passionate and
she presented this subject to American readers in a way that it hadn’t been
presented before and she really caused
an enormous response. And so, she was absolutely
black and white and all my Beecher
ancestors are black and white. There’s good and bad and
there’s no crossover. But Dawson was so
morally, the situation was so much more ambiguous
and complicated that I became fascinated
by it and I had to understand what it was like
not to be Harriet Beecher Stowe who didn’t have to
hesitate for a split second, she knew exactly
where she stood. But for Dawson it
was very different and I was really interested
in the ambiguities of that.>>Emily Eakin: And I want to
get to the sources that both of you relied on as you
composed your books. I want to just, while we’re
speaking to you, Roxana, pause over the violence. This is a novel that’s permeated
by violence, racial violence in Charleston after
the Civil War as Reconstruction is
slowly dismantled, often in vicious ways,
by angry white mobs, often enacting vigilante justice
to close down voting polls for black citizens,
black freedmen. How aware were you when you
undertook this, of the context, even immediately locally
there in Charleston? And –>>Roxana Robinson: So,
it’s a great question. And when I started the book
I had no idea of the violence but one of my sources was
the Historical Archives of the Charleston News and
Courier which still exists today as the Charleston
Post and Courier. And if you subscribe to it,
you have access to their files which was a researcher’s dreams. Every morning I could get up
and go to 1873 in Charleston and find out everything
that was being thought of. And because my great
grandfather was the editor, he was responsible for every
single article in the paper and he’d written half of them. So, I knew what he
thought about everything. About opera, about
mining, about agriculture, I knew what he thought. But I was looking
for specific things. I knew certain incidents
that had taken place and so I was looking for those. But as I was reading the
newspaper, I became aware of these accounts
of horrific violence and it was not just white
vigilantes against blacks, it was white men shooting
each other over nothing. They would ambush each
other with knives. They would throw
rocks from a window and within 30 seconds
three people had been, had their throat slashed.>>Emily Eakin: Disagreements over an editorial
Frank might publish in the newspaper might be
resolved through a duel.>>Roxana Robinson: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: I mean, you
know, this is shades of today when there are attacks on
freedom of the press [laughter]. I mean, anyway. [Inaudible].>>Roxana Robinson: People
shot each other all the time and Dawson, being from England
and he refused to carry a gun, he did not believe in violence, and he was appalled
by the violence here. So, he put those
articles in their paper. There was a political campaign
in Louisiana, at one point, which I put in the book. There was something like 15
people killed, all politicians. The man running for governor
shot the other man running for governor. And his secretary shot his wife. I mean, it was just like a
— you couldn’t believe it. So, it became clear to me, and I
know you’ll say the same thing, but as you do research you
learn things that divert you into a different path. So, as I was reading these
things at first I was saying, well that’s not what I’m
looking for and then I thought, it is what I’m looking for. And it became more clear
to me that I was dealing with the legacy of slavery. Because slavery is based
on violence to the body and we’d had that kind of
violence in this country for 200 years before I
started writing this. And that violence had permeated
the southern culture and so that was part of this terrible
legacy that our country had.>>Emily Eakin: Let’s bring
Louis into this conversation. Now, your book, Courting
Mr. Lincoln, although set in the 19th Century, you know, has a different set
of challenges. You did not have
really an opportunity to discover new things
in the way that Roxana did looking
at Charleston. You point out somewhere
that, in fact, your book may be the 9,101st
book [inaudible] Lincoln.>>Louis Bayard: Yes.>>Emily Eakin: So, that’s
a whole different set of obstacles. Why tackle Lincoln?>>Louis Bayard: Well, in fact, I did feel like I was
finding something new. I felt like I was
finding something that hadn’t been explored. I don’t have the amazing family
that Roxana has [laughter] so I have to find my
subjects elsewhere but because I am a sporadic and almost recovering
mystery writer, I tend to gravitate toward
turmysteries [phonetic]. And this particular mystery
starts in 1842, January of 1842. Abraham Lincoln has the most
severe depressive episode of his life. He’s living in Springfield,
Illinois at the time. He’s prostrate for weeks. He can’t go to work,
friend’s despair of his life. They take all the
sharp objects away. Never again in his
life would he be at such a low ebb
psychologically and he would refer to that
ever afterward to cryptically to the faithful first
of January. Now historians traditionally
looked at and said, that’s when he broke off with
his engagement with Mary Todd. But on that same day his
closest friend in the world, Joshua Speed, told him,
announced that he was leaving and going back to Kentucky. So, these were twin traumas
happening at the same time in two very intense
relationships that were going on
simultaneously. And I thought this
is a triangle. This is a triangle and
so that’s what it became. It became a courtship novel but
also a triangle with Lincoln in the middle and then
on both sides of it –>>Emily Eakin: I don’t
think I’d be pushing things to add the word love
to that triangle.>>Louis Bayard: Yes.>>Emily Eakin: It’s
really a love triangle.>>Louis Bayard: Yes.>>Emily Eakin: Right? And these two figures
sort of vying for Lincoln’s affection
and devotion.>>Louis Bayard: Yes.>>Emily Eakin: And we have
these chapters, well sections, really, alternating
perspectives between Mary Todd, his future wife and his
very intimate friend and bedmate Joshua Speed.>>Louis Bayard: Yes. They shared a bed for
three and a half years. Now it was common in those
days for bachelors to do that but what was less
common about was that the intimacy of
this relationship. They were inseparable and
you look at their letters. Actually what made me want to
write this book were the letters that Lincoln wrote
to Speed in 1842 in advance of Speed’s marriage. And these were incredibly
intimate. And I also saw two men
that were sort of coaxing and coaching each other toward
what we would now call a heteronormative lifestyle. You know, it’s like, you
can do this [laughter]. You can — and write me the
day after the wedding night and let me know how it went. You know.>>Emily Eakin: Louis
[inaudible] episode this puzzle. Really it’s a puzzle
for historians. What was the nature of that
relationship with Joshua Speed? Was this something you’ve
been mulling for a long time? Or how did it gel into a novel?>>Louis Bayard: How did it gel? It really started
with Lincoln and Mary because the other mystery there
was how did they come together? It was a famously froth
and complicated marriage but also a loving
and enduring one. But they are two very different
people and I think people who don’t know much about Mary
Todd as a young woman or Lincoln as a young man and I don’t
think most of us do know a lot, I don’t kind of get
how that happened. So, that was the
initial mystery. But then as I wandered through
the streets of Springfield, Illinois circa 1841
Joshua was kind of waiting there in the shadows. There was a book
that came out on 2005 by C.A. Tripp called
The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln. It sounds almost like
a radio soap opera from the 1930s [laughter]. And that was the first book
to really lay out evidence for what Tripp believed was the
fact that Lincoln was a gay man. But as long ago as the
1920s, Carl Sandberg wrote that there was quote, a touch of
lavender about the relationship between these two men. So, I think that
people have always felt that there was something unusual in their intimacy whether
it was sexual or not.>>Emily Eakin: I don’t know
whether you personally came to a conclusion about
that relationship but the way you handle it in the
book, I don’t want to spoil it for people, but it’s very
artful because you depict in great detail the intimacy
of these two men without sort of tipping your hand either way. It’s hard to say.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah. I wanted the reader
to make that call.>>Emily Eakin: Yeah.>>Louis Bayard: I mean
I could make the call from the same evidence but
I wanted the readers to come to their own decision. So, a lot of it is
unspoken and I thought that such a love coming around in the 1840s
would have been unspoken. There wouldn’t have
been a language for it. The word homosexual was
decades away from even being in the English language. So, it would have expressed
itself in these kind of strange and tacit ways.>>Emily Eakin: And let’s
talk about Mary Todd just for a minute because
you’ve alluded to the fact that historians are puzzled by
this woman that Lincoln married. And they haven’t always been
very complimentary about her.>>Louis Bayard: No [laughter].>>Emily Eakin: Tell
us a little bit about how your portrait differs from the conventional
wisdom about her.>>Louis Bayard: Well I think
that Mary got the rawest deal of maybe any first lady
in American history. And that’s partly because
her history was written by her enemies. One man, in particular, a
guy named William Herndon who was Lincoln’s
long-time law partner and his first oral biographer. So, Herndon did the
unbelievably useful task of interviewing everybody
who’d ever known Lincoln as a child and going forward. So, it’s a treasure trove for
historians but the history that he published
was deeply biased against Mary Todd,
whom he loathed. She loathed him as well. And the arc that he
created from this was that she made Lincoln’s
life a misery. He dragged out the shade of
Ann Rutledge who was long dead. A lot of people never
even heard of her. They posed her as the one
true love of Lincoln’s life and Mary was the
millstone around his neck. It was act of revenge
against Mary Todd.>>Emily Eakin: There were a lot of vicious feline
metaphors that –>>Louis Bayard: Oh yes. She had of the age –>>Emily Eakin: She wolf –>>Louis Bayard: She wolf –>>Emily Eakin: And
tigress and –>>Louis Bayard: Yeah, yeah.>>Emily Eakin: Female wildcat. Now that’s not the Mary we
meet in your book at all.>>Louis Bayard: Well one of
the nice things about, right, catching her at this part
of her life, she’s only 20, I think when the book starts,
you catch her at her best. And what I think a lot of
people don’t know about her was that she was — how
intelligent she was. She was unusually well
educated for a woman of her era. Even Herndon called
her brilliant and she was passionate
about politics. She came from a political family
in Kentucky and so she came to Springfield not just looking
for a husband but looking for a candidate to marry. Someone to back. And what I find particularly
impressive about her was her prescience
in picking Lincoln who was on nobody’s shortlist
to become president of the United States
[laughter] within 20 years. He wasn’t even considered
the leading politician in Springfield, Illinois. So, the fact that she kind of
looked through all his rawness and his uncouthness and his
rough edges and found somebody that she could stake a
claim on, you know that, stake a future on, I think that
speaks well to her judgment.>>Emily Eakin: She’s
very witty in the novel. She reminds me of a
Jane Austen heroine sort of an Elizabeth Bennett. She’s very outspoken,
very opinionated.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah, yeah.>>Emily Eakin: At one
point someone says, you would have been a
great statesman, you know.>>Louis Bayard: Yes, yes, yes. And she would have had she
come along, in obviously, in our Post Suffrage Era
she would have run her office herself. But the only way to do it was
to find the right husband. And, you know, at certain
levels she bet right. Because she could have chosen, you know she had other choices
including Stephen Douglas so, she chose Lincoln.>>Emily Eakin: All right. Well let’s talk about
sources and the restrictions that a writer of historical
fiction imposes on him or herself in terms
of factual accuracy. Because, of course, you’re
not only going to be judged on aesthetic qualities,
your storytelling prowess, your view of the pros
but on your accuracy. So, Roxana your book
contains all kinds of evidence in it including snippets
of editorials, congressional testimony,
diaries. In fact, Frank Dawson’s wife,
Sarah, kept an extensive journal that was eventually published
and I think to great success like all other ancestors
of yours [laughter]. She too was, you know,
quite an accomplished person so tell us how did you
integrate all this material.>>Roxana Robinson. It’s another really
good question and as a biographer I felt
an absolute obligation not to change any of the facts. These are historical people. The historical record is
established and I didn’t want to change anything and I
didn’t change anything. There is nothing, and
every time I do a talk about it somebody raises
their hand and says, so, what did you change? And I say, nothing. And they say, but what did
you make up [laughter]? And I say –>>Emily Eakin: That’s
my next question.>>Roxana Robinson:
Actually, nothing. And there are no
footnotes but everything in the book is documented. And people will say,
no but it’s a novel. You changed something, right? And I say, okay I did. There is one thing that
I made up, totally. Whole cloth. One day a bird gets
into the house. I made that up. It didn’t happen
or it did happen and I don’t know about it. But everything else
is drawn on, I mean, the fact is that
Frank is an editor so his editorials are there
in the paper for 25 years. He published his
own reminiscences of a Confederate service. All of his letters to his family
during the Civil War are extant. Lots of his professional
letters, all Sarah’s letters
to her families. I mean, thank you
David Rubenstein but all my family’s archives
and that’s that group of family are the David
Rubenstein Library at Duke. And it’s a room the
size of this I imagine. I didn’t actually go in it but
it’s just packed with documents. So, you know, there
was everything that I ever wanted was in
there in terms of the family and then there are
police records and congressional testimony
that all fed into this narrative and I went back and
forth during the writing of it thinking maybe
I should just make it into a straightforward
historical document, a biography, not a novel. But as a novelist, and you
know this Lou, I couldn’t give up those two things that are
really the most important tools of the novelist. And one is dialogue, which is
the most intimate and true way in which we communicate
and it has nothing to do with somebody’s stating
it in a paragraph that the two are finding
themselves closer than ever. Which doesn’t really
mean anything. But dialogue, somebody saying,
well so why did you say that? That indicates closeness. So, I couldn’t give up
dialogue and I couldn’t give up the interior monologue.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah.>>Roxana Robinson: Which is
so important for the novelist and you can’t get
there as a biographer. You can never say
as a biographer, she must have been thinking, because we don’t know
what she was thinking. But in Anna Karanina as she’s
in the carriage on her way to the railroad station,
her state of mind is shown because she is watching the
people out in the street and she’s looking at the
signs and we understand from her thoughts that
she’s in a state of despair.>>Louis Bayard: And the
novel would be nothing without her thoughts. So, it would be a soapy story
of a woman who has an affair but it’s the interior life –>>Roxana Robinson:
It’s the interior life. So, those are the
things that I drew on. The documents which are
limitless and the other thing is that I understood, I would
never have dared do this book about somebody else’s family. But when I was writing
the O’Keefe book, although I met O’Keefe once, but not long before
I wrote the book so, I couldn’t interview
her for the book. But I did interview her family
members and it became clear to me since every family has a
culture I was actually absorbing O’Keefe’s persona
and her thoughts by interviewing her family. So, there were things
about these people that were deeply familiar
to me and I realized that I was actually
aware of them in a way that no one else would be. And that Dawson, for example,
loved music, was very musical, loved to sing, loved to play the
piano, and he would come home after going to a concert
that he had never — music that he’d never
heard before. He’d come home and sit down
at the piano and play it. And my father would do that. So, I started feeling that these
are people that I know in ways that I wouldn’t know
anybody else.>>Emily Eakin: So, you
sell a certain confidence of recognizing that comes
from recognition, really.>>Roxana Robinson: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: How did
you handle dialogue? I’m going to ask Louis
to jump in as well.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: Because you’re
not making anything up so, but you’re transposing
from one kind of source and documentation
to a different form. How do you decide
how to do that?>>Roxana Robinson: You
have to have, you know, conflict is the engine that drives novels,
that drives fiction. So, you have to have people
disagreeing with each other over important issues. And what’s always worried me about historical fiction is the
dialogue because we tend to, people who are writing
today about another period, tend to make it very stilted
and make it sound like letters which are much more
formal than dialogue. But if you read Trollope
and Jane Austin, it’s very lively or Tolstoy. But the person that I used, every time I write a
book I use one book that I read every morning. I read a few pages of
it just to remind myself of where I’m trying to go. And for this book, I
read Hilary Mantel.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah.>>Roxana Robinson: Because –>>Emily Eakin: Wolf Hall?>>Roxana Robinson:
She manages –>>Emily Eakin: But which book?>>Roxana Robinson:
It didn’t matter. Actually I worked
in different places. Sometimes it was Wolf Hall, sometimes it was
Bring Up the Bodies. And I met her once and I said,
how did you do this dialogue? Your dialogue is
so contemporary. And she said something
completely mystifying and somebody said,
yeah, she didn’t want to tell you but [laughter] –>>Emily Eakin: Trade secret.>>Roxana Robinson: But her
answer was, she said, yes, we had to go back
before Shakespeare. This is not Shakespearian
dialogue it’s before that. I don’t know what that means –>>Louis Bayard: I don’t know.>>Roxana Robinson:
She’s drawing on and I don’t know
how that would help. But anyway somehow she makes the
dialogue utterly contemporary and yet persuasive as a 16th
Century piece of writing. So, she was my muse. She was my model and I
can’t tell you anything more than that. I don’t know how.>>Louis Bayard: I think David
Mitchell must have furthered the processes in antiquing
that the hybrid you create between contemporary and past. Because you don’t want to
write 19th Century dialogue. That would feel stilted or
feel like a stunt, really. But finding that hybrid
quality and so that’s — I plan to do it by
ear after a while. And part of that is just
reading so much in the period that I just start
internalizing it. In terms of though, I’m
not as ethical as Roxana. So, I do make up
[laughter] stuff. I’ll give an example. The climax that Mary in the
book takes a climactic journey that she did not
take in real life. And she does that just
because I needed her to do that [laughter]. But, no, Roxanna is like,
she’s going crazy right now. La, la, la [laughter]. So, I don’t honestly
make apologies for it because to me the job
of a novelist is to step in where the historical
record falls silent and we go into that quiet space and
we fill it with something and it’s speculative and
it involves dialogue. And sometimes for me, it involves reordering
time sequence. I try to stick to the factuality
of these people as much as I can but in my mind, from the
start I’m telling a story. So, when people ask, you
know, why don’t you say in the afterward, you
know, which parts are true. Like they were asking, okay, which parts are true,
which aren’t? It’s like I don’t want
to tear up the integrity of the story that way. I’m giving you a story. And a lot of it’s true and
some of it’s my imagination but that I’m not
going to pull parts of the threads, you know, so.>>Emily Eakin: Did you
consult scholars for parts of it or really rely on
secondary sources? You didn’t have the scholar read
the novel for plausibility or –>>Louis Bayard: No. No, I probably should have.>>Emily Eakin: I’m
still curious. I mean there are many,
there’s some wonder scenes where Joshua Speed basically
has to teach Lincoln how to sort of be in proper society. He teaches them how to waltz,
how to use a fork and knife, you know, when he fails to take
off his silk hat at a dinner and that’s a real faux pas and
Joshua has to break it to him, you know, you really need
to take that hat off. So, how much of that
is invention and how much do we
know about that?>>Louis Bayard: That’s
speculation because, look, the Lincoln came to
Springfield in 1836, I think it was, was
kind of rude. I say that in a nice way, but
he was, he came from New Salem. He had one year of
formal education and lived off the land. He lived a very rural lifestyle. So, I thought someone would
have had to take him in hand. And who better to do that
than Joshua Speed who came from wealth, who was
a Kentucky gentlemen, who’d certainly had known
all the things to do, escorting ladies up or down
a staircase, how to lift them into a carriage, all
these little trade — and actually I found
a wonderful –>>Emily Eakin: How
to knot a tie.>>Louis Bayard: How to knot
a tie and how to, you know, and find nicer clothes. So, I thought he would have
been the one, because they were so close, to take
him in hand and go through that Pygmalion kind of process really
that they go through. So, you know, that
was just me looking at the available facts
and figuring, okay.>>Emily Eakin: There’s another
scene I wanted to ask you about where Lincoln
actually goes to visit the Speed household.>>Louis Bayard: Yes.>>Emily Eakin: Which
is a rather grand place.>>Louis Bayard: So,
yeah, a plantation.>>Emily Eakin: In Kentucky
and there are slaves.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: And
he’s uncomfortable with being served in this way.>>Louis Bayard: Yes.>>Emily Eakin: By a slave and
there’s an extraordinary moment where he expresses his
unease and says, you know, to Joshua Speed, I, myself,
have been basically a slave.>>Louis Bayard: Yes.>>Emily Eakin: And
that really struck me. How, are you going
out on a limb here? Is this –>>Louis Bayard: No, that,
he actually did say that.>>Emily Eakin: He said,
my father, my father sort of sold me out to do
labor as I grew up. I had no say in the matter.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: I
didn’t get paid.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah. Yes, that’s true. No, he definitely used that
word to describe himself. But, of course, in the
next breath he’s saying, but that ended when I was 21. That ended when I became of age. I no longer had to do that. And for the slaves in
this plantation that, of course, won’t happen. Slavery will be a bit
of a bone of contention between those two men. They were never quite as
close once they got married. And of course, they’re living
apart and slavery did come up in their letters
to each other. It was a serious tension
because Lincoln was, not an abolitionist, but he definitely not a
proponent of slavery so.>>Emily Eakin: Exactly. Well I’m curious about
the timing of these books. I know we have just a few
more minutes before we open up the floor to questions but
they happen to land at a moment when we’re going through a
period of renewed interest in the Civil War period. In particular, I think
the post Civil War period. There are, you know,
Reconstruction and the Dismantling
of Reconstruction, the period called
Redemption before Jim Crowe. There’s lots of new scholarship about this period
including Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates,
Jr. who’s here today, somewhere [laughter]. Were you thinking about — I mean, your books
happen to resonate with contemporary concerns. Was that a conscious
thought or is that just one of these coincidences? That –>>Louis Bayard: Oh
gosh, I don’t know if you can write a book set
in 1842 America and not talk about slavery at some level. Now Illinois was a free state
but you could import slaves and Elizabeth’s sister has
imported slaves from Kentucky. So, they’re coming across —
and but Mary was even further to the left than
Lincoln on slavery. She refused to have
slaves of her own. So, I just feel like you have
to address it and it reminds me of this wonderful
educational initiative that The Times had started.>>Emily Eakin: Right. This year is the 400th
anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves
in this country and it’s an amazing
project that The Times, in particular The Times
Magazine has undertaken to kind of look at –>>Louis Bayard: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: That
period and it’s legacy.>>Louis Bayard: Well, it’s
such a provocative thing to kind of put out there because
we’re used to treating slavery as an episode where in fact it’s
woven into the entire fabric of our [inaudible] in history.>>Emily Eakin: It’s
such an ongoing trauma.>>Louis Bayard:
Yeah, and it, yeah. And it’s resonating
down to the present day. So, I love that approach. And I think it’s really useful
for a novelist, for historians, for Americans to
look at it that way.>>Emily Eakin: How
about you Roxana?>>Roxana Robinson: The book
took me five years to write and then it takes a year
to come out so, you know, six or seven years ago things
were different in this country and I don’t know why I started. But with each year that
I was working on it, it became more and
more topical –>>Emily Eakin: [Inaudible].>>Roxana Robinson: and more and
more relevant and more urgent. Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: There
is something that I have to ask you. There’s a subplot, without
giving too much away in your novel that
is actually more of a kind of familial subplot. So, a lot of the
trauma and crisis in the novel is our
social one around slavery and its legacy and its violence. But there’s a subplot involving
a an au pair from Switzerland who lives in the household,
Frank Dawson’s household, and cares for his
children and gets involved with an unsavory
character, a doctor, a kind of loosh figure
who lives next door. Was that a subplot you knew about before you
undertook the novel because I imagine that’s
not the kind of thing that Dawson is narrating
in his memoir, for example.>>Roxana Robinson: No,
he is not narrating that. But I did know about that,
I mean, because it is such a dramatic story,
it’s so dramatic. And it’s well-known
in Charleston. I mean, everyone
knows that story. So, and my father told
me aspects of that story, bits of it that he had heard. So, I was aware of these. In fact, he told me a version of
it which turned out to be part of a dream that his
mother had told him. It’s –>>Emily Eakin: There are
a lot of powerful dreams, a couple at least in this novel,
that are very prophetic it turns out that I’ll let
you all discover them if you haven’t read the book. We’re going turn it over
to questions at either of the microphones that are in
the aisles but I wanted just to ask you just in a sentence
do you want to say something about what you’re
working on now?>>Roxana Robinson:
No [laughter].>>Louis Bayard: Well,
now I’m going to sound like a blabbermouth if I
talk about mine [laughter]. I’m actually moving on to
another dead president. This is — John Kennedy and
Jackie as another courtship but looked at from the
angle of Jack’s best friend, Lem Billings, who was
his closest friend from Choate onward through
life and was a closeted gay man and a really interesting figure
in the Zelig-like presence and all these White
House photos and –>>Emily Eakin: You’re the
9101st [inaudible] [laughter].>>Louis Bayard:
Yes, yes, gosh yes. But maybe the first
novel to have Lem as sort of the major figure in that. Lem.>>Emily Eakin: All right. So, it’s hard for me to see. I think we may have a question. Do we have a question? Over, we do? Yes. Okay, here.>>Hi. So, as a country we
have sort of a idealistic view of Lincoln as a person. And I was wondering
how you dealt with that versus the [inaudible] as
a person and who he was?>>Louis Bayard:
That’s a great question. Getting past the idealized
version of Lincoln. Because we do have this
idealized version of him. But again, one of the
interesting things about catching him at this stage
of his life is he is flawed. And he’s still finding his way. He was deeply ambitious
politician and he wasn’t above getting his
hands a little dirty. This book includes
two of the episodes that he was most
embarrassed about in his life. One is the climax of the
book what I won’t reveal but the other is the incident
where he was in the Whigs. He was in the Whig
party and they wanted to avoid giving quorum
to the Democrat majority. So, he and a couple of
other legislators jumped out of a window to avoid
giving quorum [laughter]. It made him a laughing stock across all the Democratic
newspapers made great hay with it. So, he’s making mistakes, and
so it’s useful to see that. But I will say that one of the
things that the book deepened for me about him was
his enigmatic quality. Even the people who knew him
while he was alive never felt like they really knew him. And I would say that
writing it only deepened that enigma for me. There’s always going to
be a mystery about him. I mean, that’s why there’s
9,101 books [laughter].>>Emily Eakin: Okay. On this side?>>To Louis. Have you had reaction
from Lincoln scholars since your book was published? Do you keep them off
your back [laughter]? What was the nature
of that been?>>Louis Bayard: I have
not had a lot of reaction from Lincoln scholars. I’m a little disappointed,
actually [laughter]. I was hoping to stir up
a little more controversy than apparently I have. I think because it’s
a work of fiction. Because, as you say,
it’s a quiet story. I’m not like CHF and, you
know, kicking the door down. But no, I haven’t. There’s been silence from
Springfield, Illinois as well. I have received no notations. My dream was that Tucker
Carlson would boycott the book [laughter] but that has
not come to fruition. If you know him, if
anybody knows him, see if you can make
that work [laughter]. Yes. Thank you.>>Emily Eakin: Over here.>>In looking at old newspaper
stories or just other sources for a family mystery of my
own that took place in 1905, I found that depending
on the political leaning of the newspaper at the time, there were probably twenty
versions of the same incident. How did either of you wade through maybe different
depictions of the same event to determine what the truth was. Especially, not so much
with the Lincoln book but with the Dawson book where there might be other
sources besides the newspapers?>>Roxana Robinson: Well
first of all I was interested in Dawson’s take on things. So, I wasn’t trying to find out
what other people were thinking about a particular incident. I wanted what he thought. And secondly, at that time the
newspapers traded articles. So, he would run
something and say this is from the Greenville
South Carolina Register. So, I had a sense of what
other newspapers were saying about things and they would
argue with each other. He’d write an editorial directed
at Gary who was in Atlanta. So, I could feel
the conversation. When it came to things like court testimony
there is pretty much going to be one verbatim
version of that. It’s going to be the
stenographer taking down everybody’s statement. There were certainly different
versions of stories that I had to figure out on my own
and just say, okay it looks as though it’s most likely
this version is the correct one for these reasons. I don’t know. That was the way I proceeded.>>Emily Eakin: Do you want
to weigh in on that, Louis?>>Louis Bayard: Well
one of the things as you mentioned the book is
told from two perspectives and I sometimes use that
to look at the same events from those two perspectives. So, in an effective
challenges the whole idea that there is one
truth to be derived from any of these things. That’s why I like
multiple narrators. They cast doubt on each other.>>This is great. This gives me a opportunity
to share a peeve with you that I often have with
historical fiction and ask — you know I read your book — I haven’t read either
of your books but I think I will [laughter]. When I read a book that
incorporates real people and the one that started
this with me was Ragtime. When I’m reading the book
I’m constantly asking myself, did this really happen? And I can’t help but
think it somehow detracts from my enjoyment of
the book and I’m curious like your books sound
like they’re great. They sound like they would stand
alone if you were writing them about John Doe and Mary
Doe as opposed to Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln
and your ancestors. So, how do you make that
decision and do you think about this aspect that
the reader is wrestling with the historical fact. I mean, I love the way you
address this right up front about you didn’t make
anything up, well, you made the whole
book up [laughter]. The book is the interior
dialogue, the book is the dialogue. You know, the facts are
the facts but the beauty of the book, I’m sure
I’m going to find is in the parts that you made up.>>Roxana Robinson: And,
what’s your peeve [laughter]?>>That I have to
try and wrestle with what’s true
and what isn’t true.>>Roxana Robinson:
I just told you. Everything in my book is true. I really mean it. There’s documentary
evidence for every event, every exchange for
that very reason. And I find it distracting,
as you do, if I read a book and it’s based on real people and I don’t know what’s
true and what isn’t. That does distract so I wanted
to correct that in my book so that you do know
that everything, every event that happens in
the book actually happened.>>Louis Bayard: I
think I’m the peeve. I think I’m the peeve
[laughter]. Well, I mean, I’m thinking
Shakespeare’s Richard III, for instance. That is a work of
historical fiction. It has very little
historical basis. It’s really meant more as
a psychological portrait or a particular kind of evil. I don’t think anybody, you know, Shakespeare did not
consult any historians. He grabbed what was ever on his
shelf and threw stuff together. And his intent was
to tell a story that would hold people’s
attention for three hours and maybe say something about the corrupting
nature of the crown. But I –>>Emily Eakin: Maybe if I
could reframe your question, I think maybe what you’re asking
is, what is the added value of grounding the
story in history? Louis could have been
inspired by Mary Todd and Joshua Speed’s
relationships with Lincoln and then changed the names and
it could have been published as a work of fiction and
no one would be the wiser. And because you’re saying
sometimes a reader is constantly asking himself or herself, was
this really how it happened? Why not do it that way? And I wonder if the answer has
to do with there being a kind of more cogent moral
forced to suggesting that in fact this isn’t
an invented issue. The moral dilemmas in this story
are the ones of human history. I don’t know what the answer is. Is that what you’re asking?>>I wish I had said that, yeah.>>Roxana Robinson: I mean,
for me, the reason I’m drawn to these characters is
that they were there, they were real people at a
real moment in our history. So, for me these characters
reflect on our own past in a way that — I don’t think
I would be able to make up two characters
like that in 1889. I wouldn’t have the
tools to do it. I can make those characters
up today because I live in this world and I
could know those people. But these people are not just
part of the historical record, they are real and this was in a really important
part of our history. So, I could not have made
this up with anonymous people. I mean, if I had done that, it would be a completely
different book and I would be in charge of the narrative,
I’d be in charge of the drama, it would be completely
different. This is a book that
was created by history and it reflects on our nation. So, that’s why it
was important to me.>>Emily Eakin: Do you want
to add anything, Louis?>>Louis Bayard: Well I just, I think I would reframe the
question is not what’s true and what’s false but what is the
story that I’m about to read? It has actual people in it that
— what is this story about? What will happen over
the course of the story and just release that hold. But I know that need for
immediate factual grounding. But that’s how I read
fiction as fiction regardless of whether it’s historical
or completely made up. I’m telling a story. So, but I know that doesn’t,
I don’t know if it gets to the peeve or not [laughter].>>Emily Eakin: We have
time for one more question. Do we have a question
on either side? From the audience in
the fourth row there.>>[Inaudible].>>Louis Bayard:
The rule of tone?>>Emily Eakin: Well you’re
addressing that in a way because you have these
dueling perspectives.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: I mean, that
we do give at least two angles on Lincoln’s attractions. One from a man and
one from a woman.>>Louis Bayard: Yeah.>>Emily Eakin: [Inaudible].>>Louis Bayard: And I
guess I resist the notion that there is a single unified
objective truth anywhere out in history or anywhere else. But I don’t know how
tone addresses that.>>Roxana Robinson: I think, I think that tone
was really important if I understand what
you mean by it and writing my book was
a challenge in that way because I’m writing from
the perspective of today and the way we see
slavery today. And I was trying to
write about people who saw it very differently
and I had to calibrate my own
response, my own feelings about it to those in the book. And that was very challenging. I didn’t want to be a moral
presence who was slapping down every decision
the characters had made because we can’t
judge them, actually, by today’s standards any
more than our grandchildren or great grandchildren
should be judging us. I mean, they will be
[laughter], and they’re going to be very sorry
about the environment. But you have to be very careful
about how you deal with people in another culture,
another period. So, tone is crucially
important, I agree.>>Emily Eakin: All right. Before we end, I
wanted to announce if you don’t know both Roxana and Louis will be signing their
books in the signing area at –>>Louis Bayard:
Which is somewhere.>>Emily Eakin: Somewhere near
here at — do we know what time?>>At 12:30 [multiple speakers].>>Emily Eakin: At 12:30. So, please feel free
to approach them and continue this conversation
and thank you all for coming. [ Applause ]

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