There are some unique challenges in biographical fiction.
Over the years, I’ve written historical novels featuring Beatrix Potter, Rose Wilder Lane, Jennie Churchill, Lily Langtry, Rudyard Kipling, and more. All of these books have required quite a lot of research, which is supposed to reveal the full story. It never does, of course--it just reveals more questions. Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research and writing demands. And sometimes, extraordinary challenges.
For Loving Eleanor—the story of Lorena Hickok's friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt —I started in the usual place: by reading everything I could find about Lorena (Hick, she was called). As it turned out, there wasn't much readily accessible material, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins, a woefully inadequate biography published in 1980 by Doris Faber, and Rodger Streitmatter's notes in Empty Without You, his collection of letters written by Hick and Eleanor. I had a lot of digging to do.
Hick was a woman who went through life with her elbows out. She began working as a journalist at the Battle Creek Journal in 1913 when she was just 19. She had a gift for telling a taut, well-honed story, and her abilities were quickly recognized. Two years later, she moved to the Milwaukee Sentinel, briefly to the New York Tribune, then (in 1918), to the Minneapolis Tribune, where she earned her stripes as a reporter, feature writer, and Sunday editor. In an unusual move, her editor, Tom Dillon, assigned her to the sports desk. Her breezy, conversational style was new to sports journalism, and as a female sportswriter, her work was groundbreaking.
In 1927, at the end of a failed love affair, Hick went back to New York, first to the tabloid Mirror and then to the Associated Press. She was the first woman to be hired in the flagship New York bureau. Fearless and energetic, she quickly earned a by-line. In her first year at the AP, she covered the sinking of the steamship Vestris, which gave her another first: she was the first woman to have a bylined front page story in the New York Times. As an investigative reporter, she covered politics (FDR’s election as New York governor in 1928); political corruption (the downfall of New York mayor Jimmy Walker and the hugely complicated trial of banker Charles E. Mitchell); and sensational crime (the Lindbergh baby kidnapping). I’ve found her bylined stories in hundreds of newspapers across the country, and almost every story is a standout.
In 1933, at the top of her game, Hick left the AP. It was an anguished decision she felt she was forced to make. Her deepening personal (and very intimate) friendship with the new First Lady made it impossible for her to write objectively about the Roosevelt administration. She believed that she was ethically compromised, and she did the honest--but very painful--thing. She went to work for Harry Hopkins, the director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. For the next two years, she traveled across the country, investigating government-sponsored relief programs and reporting on Depression-era conditions in 32 states. Her nearly 80 confidential FERA reports, written in bleak hotel rooms late at night, provide us with vivid, no-holds-barred descriptions of the appalling—and yet heroic—plight of millions of destitute Americans. She felt their anguish. Even now, reading her reports, we can feel it, too.
When Hick left FERA in 1936, it was the end of her work as an investigative journalist--but not the end of her writing career. In another post, we'll take a look at her 15-year career as a biographer.
Reading note: The thing that most attracts me to historical fiction is taking the factual record as far as it is known, using that as scaffolding, and then letting imagination build the structure that fills in those things we can never find out for sure.--Geraldine Brooks