WAG: Writing Two Moons required
you to research three disparate fields—astrology,
astronomy and mid- to late-nineteenth century American
history. How much time did you devote to researching
each field? And when did you feel comfortable enough
with your newfound knowledge to begin writing the
Astrology took the least time, since
my "planet-reader," Madam Costello, is
a bit of a charlatan who gets a lot of things wrong.
I did read some nineteenth-century books on the
subject, but more for their flavor than toward any
serious mastery of particulars.
The astronomy came as I tried
to learn all I could about the workings of the U.S.
Naval Observatory in the 1870s—a process that
involved locating its records in the National Archives
and Library of Congress; reading the memoirs and
diaries of a number of astronomers who worked there;
and consulting two excellent historians, Jan K.
Herman and Steve Dick.
The politics of the period probably
took the most time. They came from biographies of
figures like Conkling and Chester Arthur, as well
as the Washington Evening Star, my source
for any number of that city's folkways. I read nearly
every day of it for 1877, as if it were my own daily
Where did the idea for
Two Moons begin?
With an attraction to the time period
itself. I had written about the 1870s, briefly,
in my novel Henry and Clara, which spanned
the years 1845-1911. The Seventies intrigued me
as an analogue to our own time; the pace of technological
change was so fast that people had real doubts about
their ability to keep up. Iron gives way to steel;
the pen to the typewriter; the letter to the telephone;
gas lamps to electric light. Washington, rapidly
expanding thanks to all sorts of public works programs,
at last becomes a real city, and it seemed just
the place for me.
As a novelist who prominently
sets his work in past eras, what attracts you to
a story? And what do you look for to determine if
it will translate well into fiction?
Narrative and character have to come
before historical detail, no matter how exotic and
authentic the latter element. The ideas in the book
(and I'm all for ideas in fiction) won't get anywhere
without a decent plot and dramatis personae. I try
to create characters who present some possibility
of sympathetic identification to the reader. A number
of my books have involved important public events—a
spaceflight, an assassination, a presidential election—and
those events are what I hope will attract readers
initially. I find it easier to tell these stories
from the point of view of ordinary people, bystanders
and accidental participants, than through the eyes
of the great protagonists. After all, how can a
reader be expected to see himself in Lincoln, or
an astronaut? But the "other" people at
the theatre, or the people watching the launch on
the giant TV monitor in Grand Central—they're
another, more fruitful matter, a psychic avenue
of entry for the reader.
What is the greatest challenge
you've faced in adapting history to fiction?
Getting the characters to speak and to
think as they might have in their time period.
You want, as I've said, for the reader to identify
with these people from another time, but in trying
to make that happen, it's important not to give
current ethics and aspirations and psychologies
to characters from another, distant time. You can't
settle for that sort of easy, fraudulent way out.
Two Moons demonstrates
quite well your talent for making political issues
dramatically interesting. Would you be interested
in writing a novel about contemporary politics—like,
for example, the maverick battles John McCain and
Bill Bradley recently waged against their parties'
established candidates? Or does the historical element
(not to mention personal distance) make past political
giants like Roscoe Conkling uniquely appealing?
I think I like the allegorical opportunities
presented by the earlier figures. No one can read
about Roscoe Conkling in Two Moons without
at some point being reminded of Bill Clinton and
Richard Nixon. (And if you're interested in campaign
finance reform, just go back and take a look at
I otherwise satisfy my interest
in current politics by writing feature journalism
and occasional opinion essays. After Dewey Defeats
Truman came out in '97, I profiled the just-defeated
Bob Dole for The New York Times Magazine.
And I actually have written about Bradley and McCain—not
in fiction, but in an Op-Ed piece.
You are a prolific essayist
and reviewer, and in 1998, you received the National
Book Critics Circle award for reviewing. Do you
find it helps your novel-writing to review other
writers' work? And does writing novels help you
as a critic?
I don't think writing criticism has made
me a better novelist. It may even have slowed my
narrative drive. But I do think writing novels has
made me a better critic of them. You can't help
but have a deeper understanding of how they're actually
constructed once you've written one yourself.
Which writers have most
influenced your own style as a novelist?
I'm not sure how much she influenced
my style, but Mary McCarthy, in both her essays
and novels, has certainly had a great impact on
the way I think about books and even life. Our politics
wound up being widely divergent, but our literary
tastes and values have continued to coincide.
Finally, two related questions.
Many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone
they think has been unfairly ignored by the general
reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who
do you think is the best under-appreciated novelist
Louis MacNeice is one of my favorite
poets of the twentieth century, and I wish he were
at least as well known to today's readers as his
contemporaries (Auden, Spender) usually are. Among
current novelists, Charles Baxter, whose new book
The Feast of Love will soon be published,
strikes me as a writer who deserves a bigger audience
than the appreciative one he already has.