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Authors Interview

Author Interview: Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin is an American biographer and historian. She has written biographies of several U.S. presidents. Her book “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II” won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1995.

In a chat with The New York Times, she answered some questions about books and described how she and her husband were struck by how individuals could make a difference. Read the interview here;

Describe your ideal reading experience.
The early hours before dawn have always been best. I have all that is necessary: quiet, a bathrobe, a comfortable old blue leather couch, and a table stacked with books and research.

What books are on your night stand?
Right now: “Three Roads Back,” a powerful book (especially after the death of my husband, Dick Goodwin) on how Emerson, Thoreau and William James dealt with grief. “The Facts,” by Philip Roth, in which I am delighted to find a hilarious dinnertime conversation concerning the politics of divorce between Roth, Robert Kennedy, and my husband. And, in readiness for reading time with my grandson, “Frog and Toad Are Friends” and “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!”

How do you organize your books?
I’ve come to realize my books organize me more than I organize them! Every book I’ve written has required its own library. Before I knew it, I had amassed full-blown libraries, including fiction as well as nonfiction, for Lincoln, the Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt, the muckraker journalists, F.D.R., World War II and the 1960s. I even built an extended alcove to hold baseball books and memorabilia. Not to mention my husband’s extensive library of plays, poetry, science and philosophy. Books took over every room of the house Dick and I shared in Concord, Mass., as they do now in my Boston home.

What books would people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Stacks and stacks of mystery and detective stories. As W.H. Auden wrote, “The reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.”

Did spending so much time with your husband’s letters and journals influence your beliefs about how history gets told?
Too often, history is told and remembered with the knowledge of how events turned out. For 50 years, Dick had resisted opening the 300 boxes he had saved, a time capsule of the 1960s. The ending of the decade — the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Dick’s close friend Robert Kennedy, the riots, the violence on college campuses — had cast a dark curtain on the entire era for him and the country.

But when Dick turned 80 and we finally opened the boxes in chronological order, what struck both of us were not the tremendous sorrows of the time, but the exhilarating convictions that individuals could make a difference. This was the impulse that led tens of thousands of young people to join the Peace Corps, and participate in sit-ins, freedom rides, and marches against segregation and the denial of the vote.

Reading all that alongside him must have been head-spinning.
I‘ve often called the subjects of my books — Abraham Lincoln and both Roosevelts — “my guys,” because I spent decades immersing myself in their letters, diaries, and memoirs. I would often talk to them and ask them questions. They never answered. But now, my actual guy, my husband, was sitting across the room from me — arguing, correcting, laughing as he read aloud from his own letters and diaries. Head-spinning for sure!

Doris Kearns Godwin’s Books

Which of you was the better writer?
I could never have withstood the pressure and time constraint under which Dick drafted his most important presidential speeches. History is far more patient, far better suited to my slow pace of research and writing. It took me twice as long to unwind the interrelated stories I wanted to tell about the Civil War and World War II as it took those wars to be fought. Dick and I were never in competition. We complemented one another. He was more interested in shaping history, and I in figuring out how history was shaped.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
This past Christmas my son and daughter-in-law, Joe and Veronika, gave me a signed first edition of Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” — a gift that carried me back to the first time I read the book 60 years ago in college. Here was a woman writing about the field of war traditionally reserved for men. Here was a master storyteller who believed historians must write only what was known by the people at the time, resisting the urge to reference future events.

What’s the most terrifying book you’ve ever read?
“2666,” by Roberto Bolaño.

What do you plan to read next?
James McBride’s “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” and Geraldine Brooks’s “Horse.”

That’s all for today. Read past editions of our favorite authors’ interviews.

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