In the first of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels speaks with acclaimed biographer Patricia O’Toole.
Patricia O’Toole is the author of When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House, Money and Morals in America: A History, and The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, a National Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. O’Toole teaches in the Writing Program at Columbia University and is a fellow of the Society of American Historians.
EB: What drew you to writing nonfiction?
PO: I started as reporter and wrote fiction on the side––a novel and maybe a dozen short stories. I thought that fiction was what “real writers” did and that journalism and other forms of nonfiction were somehow a lesser art. But when I started writing for myself, I discovered that my imagination was much more turned on when I was narrating true stories than when I was trying to invent a story.
EB: How does being a woman affect what you write?
PO: I don’t think my decision to write nonfiction had anything to do with gender, but my subject matter does. My biographies have women in them, but the main subjects have been men. This is an outgrowth of a lifelong fascination with who has power and privilege and who doesn’t.
I went to a Catholic grade school, and in the Fifties it was clear—even to a six-year-old—that priests have much more power and many more privileges than nuns. And that boys had more prerogatives than girls. I didn’t want to be in the girls’ choir. I wanted to be an altar boy. And I didn’t want to try out for the cheerleading squad. I wanted to be on the basketball team. Not possible, and nobody could give you an explanation that made sense, so you’re left with a big “Why?”
If your temperament takes you toward writing nonfiction, that “Why?” opens field after field of inquiry. In my case, the questions were about the dynamics of power—between men and women, haves and have-nots, the strong and the weak, the citizen and the state.
EB: Do you think women and men approach writing biography differently?
PO: This is a big generalization, but I think it’s true: if you’re not top dog, you can’t afford to think unilaterally very much of the time. You’re constantly gauging how this or that is going to affect people who have power over you. You are perforce a social creature. A student of relationships. And you bring that to your writing.
Blanche Wiesen Cook’s life of Eleanor Roosevelt is the first to show how much Eleanor’s friendships with other women shaped her character and her contributions to public life. Kathleen Dalton’s life of Theodore Roosevelt is the first to demonstrate that his early work with the women social reformers of New York City deepened his sense of social justice and his concern for public health. I’m not saying that a male biographer would be incapable of having those insights about Eleanor Roosevelt and her Uncle Theodore. But I am saying that the insights were missing until Blanche and Kathleen came along.
EB: What do you love about writing nonfiction?
PO: It has taught me so much!
I come from a small town way up in Michigan. Rogers City, Limestone Capital of the World. My life as a journalist and a biographer has connected me with people and places and ideas that I knew only from the books I read when I was growing up.
Biography is a wonderful teacher in surprising ways. Not to over-Roosevelt you, but here’s a small anecdote that gave me an amazing life lesson: When FDR was president, he asked a visitor to his office if he would take a note up to the Capitol for him. The visitor said he would be glad to deliver it. FDR dashed off the note, put it in an envelope, and sealed it. Then it occurred to him that giving the man a sealed envelope might hurt his feelings because it implied a lack of trust. So FDR opened the envelope, took out the note, put it in a new envelope, and didn’t seal it.
EB: I love that––how you can learn things from people, even if you’ve only met them through research. Any other life lessons you’ve learned writing biography?
PO: From John Hay, who was a Secretary of State: in reading and thinking about his responses to various crises, I noticed that whatever he decided to do, it was always in proportion to the problem. In other words, if the situation could be remedied with a flyswatter, he didn’t get out the big guns.
Proportional response: that was a revelation. It completely changed my approach to resolving the problems that inevitably arise between people. Before making the acquaintance of John Hay in my work on The Five of Hearts, I’d been much more of an “I’m right and you’re wrong” kind of person.
EB: How has writing nonfiction shaped your life?
PO: Much of my writing about power has been about power in Washington, and I think it has made me a more thoughtful, more active citizen. Some historians think that it doesn’t much matter who’s on the world stage because individual leaders are at the mercy of forces largely beyond their control. As a biographer, I’ve come to the opposite conclusion. The decision to go to war against Iraq after 9/11 was not inevitable; it had everything to do with the character of the president and the advisers he chose. Elections matter. Biographers, historians, and reporters try to get to the bottom of things—to find new information and arrive at new interpretations. If you’re honest and open-minded as you go about your work, it’s bound to make you a more sympathetic, engaged human being.
EB: Do you have a favorite quote about biography from a woman writer?
PO: From Virginia Woolf’s essay “The New Biography” (1927): “On the one hand there is truth; on the other there is personality. And if we think of truth as something of granite-like solidity and of personality as something of rainbow-like intangibility and reflect that the aim of biography is to weld these two into one seamless whole, we shall admit that the problem is a stiff one and that we need not wonder if biographers have for the most part failed to solve it.”
– E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.