Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Patricia Beard

Patricia Beard

In the eighth of her series of interviews with women who write nonfiction, E.B. Bartels chats with prolific author Patricia Beard.

Patricia Beard has written nine books of nonfiction, including After the Ball: Gilded Age Secrets, Boardroom Betrayals, and the Party That Ignited the Great Wall Street Scandal of 1905 (Harper Perennial, 2004), Blue Blood and Mutiny: The Fight for the Soul of Morgan Stanley (William Morrow, 2007), and Growing Up Republican: Christine Whitman: The Politics of Character (HarperCollins, 1996). Most recently, Beard has published a novel, A Certain Summer (Simon & Schuster, 2013). Additionally, she has written hundreds of magazine articles and essays as the former features editor of Town & Country, the former editor-at-large of Elle, and the former styles features editor of Mirabella magazine.

EB: Why have you been drawn to writing nonfiction?

PB: I had originally thought when I was much younger–in my 20s and 30s–that I’d write novels. But I started writing for magazines–Town & Country, Elle, and Mirabella–and all the work I did was nonfiction. I began writing books because I did a long interview with Christine Whitman–a hot ticket in the Republican Party. Whitman had just been elected the first woman governor of New Jersey, and there was talk about her as a possible vice president candidate. I spent a week with her, and I wrote an article about her for Town & Country… She is the third generation of woman involved in moderate Republican politics, and I thought both her own story, and the story of her mother and grandmother, were interesting. I wrote a proposal, and HarperCollins gave me an advance to write the book, and I began to spend more time with her. She gave me permission to sort through many boxes containing more than a century of primary material that was stored her attic. Once the research was done, I used my system to keep track of it: creating chronologically organized ring binders, from which I wrote the book. To my delight, it was well reviewed and featured on the cover of the New York Times book review.

EB: How did your other books come about? Did they also begin as articles?

Blue Blood and MutinyPB: No. They often started with coincidences. I wrote After the Ball when a good friend told me about her grandfather, James Hazen Hyde, who had inherited the majority shares in the Equitable Life Assurance Society when he was only two years out of Harvard. He was twenty-eight in 1905 when he gave one of the most famous Gilded Age balls. It was used to discredit him by some of the most famous “robber barons” of the era—among them were Henry Clay Frick and Henry Harriman—and he was forced to sell his shares.

EB: What kinds of people do you like to write about?

PB: I don’t write about are people involved in scandals, or people who, in my opinion, are just plain bad. I don’t want to spend a couple of years “living with them,” because that would be toxic; and I never do a book where I can’t find good archival material. I prefer to focus on people who aren’t famous, but who have had interesting lives, and who provide insight into their times.

I don’t consider myself specifically a biographer; I’m more a social historian. I’m interested in the ambience and history around a main character. My next book, Newsmaker, is about Roy W. Howard, who was the president and chairman of the United Press and the Scripps-Howard news empire during a period I’ve described as “the Gilded Age to the Atomic Age.” The Howard family gave me access to fifty years of his diaries and thousands of pages of backgrounders on such subjects as his interviews with Stalin and Hitler, which took place during the same week in 1936. Howard’s life and writing—which had never been seen before—provide the backstory to some of the most important people and events of his times. Newsmaker will be published by Lyons Press in May 2016.

EB: What do you bring to your nonfiction writing?

unnamedPB: Curiosity, although I think that’s true of most writers. When I’m working on a book, I can ask questions and find material that wouldn’t be accessible in more casual situations.

EB: How has your life benefitted from writing nonfiction?

PB: Every time I write a book I almost feel as though I’m getting a PhD. Each book treats different eras and personalities, and I learn more than I could ever have known about history, people, and even finance, which was certainly never my strength.

EB: What has been your experience as a woman writer? Have you ever found that your gender has had an effect on your work or how your work is perceived?

PB: My gender has never had an effect. One of the reasons is because, when I wrote for magazines, I wrote for women’s magazines, and they were entirely staffed by women. My first book, about Christine Whitman, was about a woman too. I never have written about a subject I thought I would have trouble accessing as a woman–being a woman author has never closed a door for me, at least not one I wanted to open. Though covers are important too, and I feel that A Certain Summer looks too much like a “girly” book. I’ve had men read my novel and love it, but they’ve said they only picked it up because it was lying around the house because their wife had bought it.

EB: Besides book covers, what has been most difficult about writing nonfiction?

After the BallPB: Christine Whitman is the only person I’ve written a book about who is alive. Living people can give you good access, but it’s hard to avoid painting too rosy a picture of someone who has been cooperative, and whom you have come to like and respect. Conversely, when I’m writing about people who are dead, it’s frustrating not to be able to hear their voices or feel the impression they would make if you could meet them.

EB: Did you have a different experience writing your novel, A Certain Summer?

PB: Very different! I knew what the story would be about, although I made it up; and I knew the setting well, because I had spent summers there. The skills I learned from writing nonfiction shaped the novel, but I didn’t have to put together binders of research.

EB: What is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?

PB: From Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen: “If I know a song of Africa… of the Giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fiends, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?”

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.

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