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Two Moons
307 pp.

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Dewey Defeats Truman
Picador USA
368 pp.

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Henry and Clara
Picador USA
358 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon names the novelists who most influenced him and describes the greatest challenges he faces writing historical fiction.

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 novel?

Mallon: 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 newspaper.

WAG: Where did the idea for Two Moons begin?

Mallon: 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.

WAG: 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?

Mallon: 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.

WAG: What is the greatest challenge you've faced in adapting history to fiction?

Mallon: 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.

WAG: 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?

Mallon: 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 the 1870s.)

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.

WAG: 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?

Mallon: 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.

WAG: Which writers have most influenced your own style as a novelist?

Mallon: 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.

WAG: 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 working today?

Mallon: 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.

—Interview conducted by Charlie Onion

Posted April 1, 2000


Photo Credit: William Bodenschatz

Thomas Mallon is the author of nine books, including Dewey Defeats Truman, Henry and Clara and his latest, Two Moons. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and GQ. He lives in Westport, Connecticut.



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