The Art of Biographical Fiction: On Thomas Mallon’s Presidential Novels

President Reagan speaking in Minneapolis, 1982

Thomas Mallon’s novel Finale is subtitled “A Novel of the Reagan Years,” and while it shares certain characteristics with his earlier novel Watergate, it takes an intriguing approach to the presidential figure at its center. Here, Reagan is presented obliquely: heroic to some and infuriating to others. Largely set in late 1986 and early 1987, the novel follows a number of politically-connected characters grappling with the issues and controversies of the time.

We talked with Mallon about a host of topics, including getting inside the heads of presidents, revisiting characters from some of his earlier novels, and writing a fictionalized version of his friend Christopher Hitchens.

Signature: When did you first get the idea that you wanted to write about the Reagan presidency?

Thomas Mallon: I think it grew pretty naturally out of the book that came before, which was the novel about Watergate. In fact, Nixon is back; he’s sort of the bridge figure between the two books. He’s more of a chorus figure in this book. It’s never clear how these things actually happen. I find myself, now, just past the middle of what my publisher informs me is a trilogy. I’m going to be writing next about the George W. Bush years, which are scarcely old enough to constitute historical fiction. The period, certainly, interested me. Writing about a time when I was in my mid-thirties and was beginning to get some traction as a writer. I had this sense that, whether one liked it or not, the Reagan presidency was big and consequential and presented a lot of imaginative opportunities.

SIG: Do you feel like someone should read Watergate before Finale, or does it stand on its own?

TM: It definitely stands alone. There are a lot of similarities and a lot of differences between the two books. They’re roughly on the same scale; they’re just about the same size. They both have large casts of characters. The narrative in each operates from about a half-dozen points of view, these alternating point-of-view characters. All of those things are similar. The two biggest differences between the books: first, Watergate has to follow its juggernaut of a historical plot and timeline. It covers the whole scandal over two and a half years. The fictional quotient in Finale is higher. The plot is somewhat more diffuse. It does show Reagan at his lowest point, the same way Watergate showed Nixon. ’86 is a terrible year for Reagan. He seems to be losing his touch. The Democrats take the Senate. The Iran-Contra scandal breaks open. Reykjavik (which at this remove many people judge to have been a success for the United States, the point at which the Cold War tipped in our favor) at the time was received by many people as a kind of fiasco. Its ultimate significance wasn’t really clear. There’s that difference. It’s a more diffuse kind of narrative. There are some minor fictional characters in Watergate, but virtually everyone in it is a real-life person, whereas in Finale, two of the half-dozen main characters are fictional characters.

The chief difference is the way in which the central figure is rendered. I don’t know what it says about me, but I never had any difficulty getting inside Nixon’s head and writing Nixon from the inside out. He’s one of the point of view characters. I just never even attempted it with Reagan. I did not feel like I could wrap my mind around him. He, at moments, seemed very deep, and at others seemed very silly. I’m hardly the first person to talk about Reagan’s remoteness. I made a decision in this book that I would not write Reagan from the inside out. Whenever you see Reagan in the book, and it’s not that much, you see him from the outside. Other people looking at him and trying to figure him out, which I think people spent a lot of time doing.

SIG: Was that approach something you had set before you started writing?

TM: I think so. Certainly, it was my own perception of Reagan, having lived through the Reagan years. Some of my reading supported that view; some of it didn’t. You’ll find certain people who’ll tell you that Reagan was not mysterious; he was funny and genial and not complicated. I had a phone conversation the other week with George Will, who was telling me that.

Dutch - Edmund MorrisThe best-known proponent of the view of Reagan as a more mysterious figure is Edmund Morris. Dutch, I think, is a very interesting book from the point of view of biography because you see Morris’s frustrations. He did not know what to do with Reagan. He could not figure him out. He was used to dealing with complexity, in the case of somebody like Theodore Roosevelt, but I don’t think he was used to dealing with mystery.

What he does in Dutch is, he tiptoes into the realm of historical fiction. He invents one main fictional character, and then, for stretches, it goes back to being a regular biography. As a book, it doesn’t quite add up, but I think Morris was on to something, and I think a number of Morris’s insights into Reagan are very good. I always recommend the book to people. I say, “You won’t be bored,” even though I was one of the people who wrote about it when it came out, and a lot of what I said about it was quite negative; as a book, it doesn’t hang together. I’m kind of glad that he didn’t go further into fiction. It left the field a little bit open. I think it says something that he wound up distorting the form as much as he did. I think he needed to because of the nature of Reagan.

SIG: How did you decide that you were going to incorporate as many fictional characters in this as you did? In the case of Anders, was there ever a question of using a historical figure for that role in the narrative?

TM: When I started this book, my original notion was that it was going to revolve entirely around the Reykjavik summit. It was going to have a very short window. I even toyed with the idea of having the book take place over four or five days. There’s that middle section of the book that takes place over those four or five days, and it shuttles back and forth between Iceland and the United States. That seemed to me to be too much of a stunt. It seemed to me that I wouldn’t be able to wrap my mind around the era. It’s really the era that I was trying to say something about, rather than Reagan himself and the personal mystery of Reagan.

Anders is someone who is very much a believer in the Reagan foreign policy, although his faith in it is sorely tested by seeing what happens with some of the Iran-Contra figures. He’s also having this late realization about his sexuality. He was a way, and the figure of Terry Dolan was also a way, of bringing in the AIDS epidemic. From my point of view, you couldn’t write a novel about the ’80s and leave it out. I don’t think it was the Reagan administration’s finest hour, his response to AIDS.

I was very torn for a lot of the ’80s. I couldn’t be less like Anders in most respects, although I am gay and I am more or less conservative, particularly on things like foreign policy. I was always in a tough position with Reagan in the ’80s, because there were a lot of things on social issues that I was not a supporter of his on. But in a fundamental way, I thought he was doing a lot of things that were very significant and good. So Anders is a reflection of that.

Dewey Defeats Truman - Thomas MallonAnn, I cannot quite remember how I decided to put her in there. Shes a revival of a past character of mine. Past twenty years ago, I wrote a novel called Dewey Defeats Truman, which was a kind of summery romantic comedy which was set in Thomas E. Dewey’s hometown of Owosso, Michigan during the 1948 election. So everybody in this little town is assuming that Dewey is going to win and they’re going to be put on the map the way Hyde Park became famous as Franklin Roosevelt’s hometown. Ann, in that book, is a 23-year-old bookstore clerk, and she’s being fought over by a local Republican lawyer named Peter Cox, who also reappears in Finale, and this guy Jack Riley, who’s a union man. They fight over her almost as if she’s the electorate. And she winds up going off with the Republican, knowing that they’re going to be divorced at some point, even as she’s accepting his proposal.

Here she is, back, almost forty years later in Finale, divorced from Peter as this anti-nuclear activist. The anti-nuclear movement was such a big thing in the ’80s in opposition to Reagan. I cannot quite remember how I got the idea that she was going to be my exemplar of sincerely-held belief. In political terms, I actually come down where Anders is, more than where Ann is. But Ann was one of my favorite heroines. She became this older woman, now in her early sixties.

Dewey Defeats Truman was realistic in a kind of surface way; it’s got a lot of texture and factual accuracy in it, but fundamentally, it’s a romantic comedy. It’s more of a romance. It’s not entirely a realistic book. To take a character from that and put her in a novel that’s much more realistic, in terms of its form and in terms of its mood — that was much more of a challenge. I was taking a character out of one mode and putting her into another one, and that was a little bit odd.

SIG: Were there any historical figures that you had wanted to work into Finale that you weren’t able to?

TM: I literally made lists at the beginning of who ought to be in it. Despite that vast array of characters listed in the dramatis personae at the beginning, there are really only seven or eight really important characters in the book. I don’t think so. We’re still close enough to it in history that there are a number of people who are still alive from that time that one might hesitate about because they are alive. Even though the law in the United States gives you latitude about dealing with public figures. You try to do things that people find unexpected, in a way. In Watergate, John Dean is a very minor character. Woodward and Bernstein scarcely appear. In that case, I thought, they’ve told their own stories. And they were still alive. John Dean can be very prickly, I think, and that may have stayed my hand a bit, the consciousness of him being alive, even though he’s clearly a public figure.

Some of it is to do something unexpected. If you tell people, “I’ve written a book about the Reagan era,” and they ask who your main characters are and you tell them, “Two of my main characters are Pamela Harriman and Christopher Hitchens,” that’s going to strike some people as odd. Why not Ed Meese? Why not George Bush, Sr.? You try to find your way in from these oblique angles.

SIG: Did you know early on that Christopher Hitchens would be such a major figure in this book?

TM: Not at the very beginning. In fact, I think Hitchens was not in the first version of the prologue. Obviously, I wasn’t very far into the writing of the book, because he’s pretty much there, even in his first appearance in the main text, when he goes off and has his first meeting with Mrs. Harriman. We see them both together for the first time. It was early on; I was looking around for a figure who was the equivalent of Alice Roosevelt Longworth in Watergate. She was my one-woman witches’ chorus; she was about ninety, but she was very compos mentis at the time. She was perfect in a way to offer commentary, in a way, on all of this.

I can’t remember how he occurred to me. He was a good friend of mine. I didn’t know him during that period; I didn’t meet him until well into the ’90s. I started imagining him as he would have been in that period, in his mid-thirties. Throughout the book, he’s this betwixt and between figure, wondering whether to stay in his marriage, wondering whether to stay in the States or go back to England, wondering how he can balance working for these slick magazines with writing for intellectual political magazines like The Nation and so forth. In a way, I was trying to imagine somebody I didn’t know. It certainly felt peculiar.

In every novel, I’ll put people I knew. I refracted them into the characters; they’re under other people’s names, but they’re recognizable to me, at least. Here was Christopher, not long dead at all, going into the novel and going in under his own name. That was an odd experience. Watergate was even dedicated to Christopher. But I thought, given the fact that he was a journalist, I could plausibly deploy him in a lot of places. He never went to Reykjavik. He never had that encounter he has with Mrs. Thatcher after her press conference. But by virtue of his being a journalist, there were things I could do with him.

SIG: In your acknowledgements, you mentioned that you had gone to the Reagan Presidential Library to do research. What was that like?

TM: I did it fairly late in the game. There were things that I wanted to look at: I wanted to look at photographs and invitation lists for parties and things like that. It’s gotten enormously more easy to do research for historical fiction online than it used to be. Presidential libraries are funny places, in that they’re run by the government and they’re repositories of documents that are supposed to be objective and allow historians free rein, and that’s very much true — but by some measure, there’s something slightly hagiographical about each one. Usually there’s a private foundation that’s very devoted to the president’s memory, who is involved in the library, in programming and events and so forth. I think you find this tension in every presidential library — aren’t they all inherently celebratory? From a research point of view, they’re not supposed to be. And they’re professionally run; they’re run by the [National] Archives. But it’s slightly odd being there. I looked at a great many photographs, but I didn’t spend an awful lot of time there. There were some particular things that I wanted to see, but mostly, it was other source material. With Watergate, I never went to the Nixon Presidential Library. I was drowning in material that was available to me outside of that — so much that the idea of more was staggering. I didn’t really need it, and it would have kept me from writing, forever.

SIG: You mentioned that this is the second book of a trilogy, and you deal to some extent with the modern conservative movement, particularly in the prologue of Finale. Do you see any parallels between these novels and Rick Perlstein’s nonfiction trilogy?

TM: I’ve only read little bits of Perlstein, to tell you the truth. I’ve never read one of the books straight through. I was well into this novel when The Invisible Bridge came out, and I looked at a little bit of it. I’m not sure why I’m writing about all these Republicans, to tell you the truth. Nixon was the absolutely obsessional figure, for me. He was a famous man when I was born. He was already a Senator. My first real political memories were the 1960 election. I turned nine the week of the election, and I went to school with a Nixon button every day. I inherited my father’s beliefs. Some Catholics! We didn’t even vote for Kennedy.

I’m not sure why I’ve gravitated towards the figures I have. You could think, well, why not go on to Clinton after Reagan? Clinton, in personal terms, doesn’t interest me. I think he’s complicated, but he’s obvious, if that makes any sense. We always talk about Clinton being compartmentalized. There’s no mystery about Clinton to me. I’ve met him — meaning I’ve met his personality type. He’s roughly my generation. I went to school with people like Clinton, or who I imagine to be like Clinton. Bush, I think, is a harder nut to crack, so I think maybe just on that basis…

Fellow Travelers - Thomas MallonI am more conservative than most of my writer friends and peers, but I haven’t consciously set out to say anything about the conservative movement. Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Probably more in this book than in some others. Some of the tension you can sense in Anders is reflective of things I’ve gone through in my own life, politically. I did some of that, too, in an earlier novel called Fellow Travelers, which was set in the ’50s. In terms of having a message, I’ve shied away from it. I’m not even sure I have a theme, let alone a thesis. Mostly, I’m trying to tell an entertaining story.

SIG: How far along are you in the book on the Bush administration?

TM: Not far at all. I’m reading and scratching notes. I’ve got a vague kind of outline. Most of it’s going to be set in 2005-2006. Again, I seem to always throw whatever administration it is into their lowest point. It’s going to be the era of Katrina, the era of the insurgency in Iraq, and all of that. What’s going to be very odd for me there is, aside from its recency, is that I was a minuscule participant in the administration. For a while, I was the Deputy Chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities. I was with a cultural delegation that went to Afghanistan. I went to New Orleans after the hurricane. A while after it, we ran an emergency grants program. I don’t know — am I a participant in it? Am I implicated in events? Every book presents a new little ripple.