An exclusive Authorlink interview with Amy Bloom
By Ellen Birkett Morris
Amy Bloom’s novel White Houses is a compelling fictive exploration of the love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok. This is Bloom’s first book of historical fiction. The novel belies the common narrative of Eleanor Roosevelt as a woman who was disappointed in marriage and became an asexual being. “If a lot of historians tell you something that is common to human beings is absent in this person you need to take a closer look,” said Bloom.
She was driven in part by a desire to explore the “glass closet,” the open secret that the relationship was in the White House and the lengths people went to keep the details from the public. “Given the depth and clarity of their passion for each other, what would it be like to be literally cut out of the family photos?” asked Bloom.
The creation of the novel was aided by access to three thousand letters between Hickok and Roosevelt kept at the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park. The moving letters left with Bloom with no doubt as to the relationship between the two women. “I have close women friends that I’ve known from forty years ago, but I’ve never written a letter like those letters,” said Bloom
I have close women friends that I’ve known from forty years ago, but I’ve never written a letter like those letters . . .
The story is told from the perspective of Hickok, who escaped an abusive, poverty-stricken family life to hold a variety of jobs, including working in a circus, before becoming a reporter. Hickok met Eleanor in 1932 while reporting on FDR’s first presidential campaign.
“I didn’t want to make Eleanor the narrator, a real voice that is familiar to everyone. I didn’t want to do an impersonation of her on the page,” said Bloom. She knew Lorena’s outsider perspective and experience as a working woman would enrich the narrative.
The book is centered on a weekend the women spent together in 1945 in Eleanor’s Washington Square apartment, but includes scenes set in Lorena’s past and at varying points in women’s relationship. “That weekend is the center from which the rivers flow out and return,” said Bloom.
The book opens with the line: No love like old love. Then the reader is invited into 1945 New York where Hickok buys flowers from the Italian florist, Cole Porter and George Gershwin albums are waiting by the record player, and sidecars are served. Bloom describes populating this world as “acts of imagination and extrapolation to convey a sense of truth.”
The title, White Houses, came from Bloom’s friend, novelist Tayari Jones, to reflect the women’s shared and separate lives. The chapter titles come from popular music of the times and Emily Dickenson quotes. The final chapter title, Lilac and Star and Bird, is a line from Walt Whitman. “Structure and titles are just another way for the writer to communicate with the reader. The writer is saying look over here,” said Bloom.
The story broke my heart. It took a while to find a way to write it that didn’t feel like a grief, a loss for both women.
Her greatest challenge when writing the book was not a challenge of technique, but one of emotion. “The story broke my heart. It took a while to find a way to write it that didn’t feel like a grief, a loss for both women. But, Lorena goes on write books. She has friends. She didn’t give up, even after heartbreak,” said Bloom.
Bloom also tangled with how best to portray the relationship between Hickok and FDR, a president that Hickok would have embraced with her working class roots. “She would have seen him as charming friend, tough rival and difficult human being,” said Bloom.
She said writing the book was a great education for her in American history. “I have a much better grasp of the shards of American history and how they come together.”
As she revised the book for publication, Bloom looked to make the book as full and dense as possible while not making it thousands of pages long. “As a writer I don’t balk at the necessity of revision,” said Bloom.
As a writer I don’t balk at the necessity of revision . . .
How can writers engaged in revision avoid losing something that matters to the story? Bloom advises giving the qualities of a character who is cut from the story to another character so the dramatic exchange still has a place in the narrative.
White Houses is on bookshelves now and Bloom is current working on a television miniseries based on the book. She is also at work on her next novel, which centers on Marie Curie and her family.
Amy Bloom is the author of two New York Times best-sellers and three collections of short stories, a children’s book and a ground-breaking collection of essays. She’s been a nominee for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and numerous anthologies here and abroad. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, O Magazine and Vogue, among many other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award for Fiction. Her work has been translated into fifteen languages. She has written many pilot scripts, for cable and network, and she created, wrote and ran the excellent, short-lived series State of Mind, starring Lili Taylor. She lives in Connecticut and is now Wesleyan University’s Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing.
For more information: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/232351/white-houses-by-amy-bloom/9780812995664/