Author Profiles 2007:
FRANK GREGORSKY: Are you now -- like so many people in our generation -- thinking hard about death and legacy?
LAUREN KESSLER: Dancing with Rose didn't come out of my thinking about death as much as it came out of the personal experience of my mother being diagnosed with the disease [of Alzheimer's]. Like a lot of family people who go through something like this with a mother or aunt or grandmother, or wife or husband, it's very shocking. It numbs you. And it's fearful.
Some wonderful people understand what they're in the middle of, and learn from it while they're in the middle of it. I was not one of those wonderful people. What I did [as my mom was dying] was "gird my loins" or "grit my teeth" -- whatever the expression is -- and do what had to be done. As a family, we got through it.
But then, several years later, you start to think: "Something big happened -- and you learned almost nothing from it! How do you expect to get wise in your life if you don't learn the hard lessons?" I couldn't learn from it while it was happening because it was too close, to me; and I wasn't close to my mother -- both of those reasons.
When Communication is Something Other than Words
Therefore I decided -- as a reporter -- that I would go to a "memory care" facility here, and research and write a magazine story -- to find out what life was like for people who had Alzheimer's. I visited a number of facilities, talked to staff, observed, and then settled on one particular place. I spent many hours there, sitting on the couch, and listening to conversations. I asked questions of family members and of caregivers and nurses. I wrote the story, and it was published as a cover story in the Los Angeles Times magazine.
I did all of that to sort of "exorcise the demons." And I was proud of the story. But I also knew that I hadn't done all the work that I needed to do, and I figured that happened because I had remained the detached observer -- approaching the story as a reporter, with my reporter's notebook always in hand, almost like a shield.
GREGORSKY: The trusty armor wasn't supposed to work in this unusual instance?
KESSLER: Something more was needed. I got the idea to actually apply for a job. Not in an "undercover" way -- I mean, they already knew I was a journalist. But I had made really good contacts there. I applied for a job the way anybody would apply for a job: Fill out all the papers, pee in a cup, go through the three days of training.
GREGORSKY: And you became a --
KESSLER: "Resident Assistant." The people with the disease live there -- they are residents. They aren't patients; it's not a medical facility. I was a primary caregiver. You wake people up in the morning; you help those who need help getting dressed; you change the diapers of the people who are incontinent, and take them to the bathroom every two hours.
Some people can eat by themselves, others have to be fed. Some people can eat if you cut up their food. You do laundry; you fold laundry and put it away. You play musical CDs for them, or put an I Love Lucy or Lawrence Welk Show tape in the VCR. You take them to various activities, or participate in various activities with them. You comfort them. (I did a lot of manicures -- that was a good way of interacting with the women.) You learn something that I wish I had known and been able to practice with my mother. You learn that communication is something other than words.
GREGORSKY: Hmmph [startled by a "principle" he never came close to considering in an Alzheimer's context].
KESSLER: Which, for talkative people like myself [laughter] -- an intellectual -- was quite a leap.
GREGORSKY: Say more about that "other than words" theme.
KESSLER: A gerontologist from Britain, Tom Kittwood (now deceased), said that we suffer from "excessive talkativity" and "excessive cognition." Unable to carry on a normal conversation with these people, how would I connect with them? And "connect" not as a journalist trying to find out their story, as much as a caregiver. Trying to make their day pleasant, trying to figure out why they might be upset -- whatever.
KESSLER: One woman -- I call her Marianne in the book -- had created an entire alternate world for herself. It was absolutely logical, and she was very articulate about it. She had all of the language skills -- still. She thought she was in an executive retreat, a retreat for executive women -- or sometimes she thought she was boss of this place.
GREGORSKY: Kind of an advanced or modern fantasy for an Alzheimer patient.
KESSLER: Well, she had been a professional woman her whole adult life. And it was marvelous -- extraordinary -- the way her brain was protecting itself from the knowledge of the disease. So I would make appointments with her. Every day she would get dressed, by herself; she'd have her handbag, and be wearing a little jacket -- ready to go to a meeting -- and then I'd ask: "Do you have time today to talk to me?" She'd look at her watch (which was not set), say she was sort of busy, but she might have time in a few minutes. Then she'd usher me into her office -- which was her bedroom -- and we would have a perfectly wonderful conversation. But not about anything.
GREGORSKY: Not about planning the next convention, or not about business.
KESSLER: And not about the fact that she has a disease and is living in a care facility. It was [pause] very interesting. I talked to her a lot. With other people, I'd give hand massages. We'd bake cookies, every afternoon. Not so much the food itself, but the smell -- people really reacted to the smell. We had music all the time -- all the time. Communication happened through touch, and through music, and through smell -- and really feeling like you could "sink into a moment" with somebody that had nothing to do with words.
GREGORSKY: You probably say it in the book, but: What is your conclusion from all this?
KESSLER: [Pause] That we are so much more than the sum of our memories. Something is there -- and I guess religious people call it the "soul." I'm not sure what I would call it -- "soul" is a good word.
KESSLER: There's something inside of everybody that is there, and is untouched [even] by this kind of disease. And if you don't think of a person as a walking illness, but you think of them, say, as a walking essence [smiling] that happens to have an illness, then you can take the time and tap into that.
GREGORSKY: Dancing with Rose -- could you explain the title of the book?
KESSLER: "Rose" was the most severely demented woman in the facility. You could look at her and think, "There's an empty vessel" -- a body without a mind. Without a soul, maybe. She looked "haunted" -- I can't say she was haunted. And I'm not going to tell you what happens in the book but -- there was something there, also. If you moved beyond your own fear, and your own sense of wanting to separate yourself from the illness (which we all want to do), there was a way. The world that the Alzheimer's people inhabit -- it's vibrant, and quirky, and colorful. Even the ones that could be described as "waking zombies" -- were not.
The Roots of Lauren Kessler: From Push to Seek
GREGORSKY: What kind of a kid were you?
KESSLER: [Pause] At what stage of my "kidness"?
GREGORSKY: Six, eight, 10, 12.
KESSLER: Ahhhh, before puberty -- okay. Before puberty, I was Daddy's Girl. I was the first-born. Unfortunately [from my father's viewpoint], I was a girl -- but he didn't let that stop him. My mother taught me how to swim -- but my father taught me every other sport, ever. And that's what we did together. Every Saturday, rain or shine, we did something physical. Ice-skating on ponds. Roller-skating. Bowling (he once scored a 225 bowling with me). Tennis particularly -- he taught me tennis, and I became a pretty decent tennis player. Won some tournaments when I was a kid.
GREGORSKY: It almost sounds like he was a buddy who happened to be a few decades older, or maybe a coach. Were you doing all of this to please him [as the authority figure], or --
KESSLER: Well, you couldn't please him. Doing things to please him was a losing proposition [laughter]. I loved sports and I loved being physical. In the sense that he also loved being active, we were very similar people. Also pretty stubborn and independent. And focused. Mother was kind of the dreamer. You know?
GREGORSKY: But more open to ideas?
KESSLER: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeh. My father read one book that I know of: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich -- it was on his night table for like 25 years.
GREGORSKY: Twice as long as the Third Reich lasted.
KESSLER: [Laughter] That's true! I mean, they both believed in me. There was never a thought that my destiny was to be a housewife. But they were both disappointed that I didn't make my life in New York [or at least] on the east coast, because to them that was the true sign of success and achievement.
GREGORSKY: What did your father do for a living, and what are some words to describe him?
KESSLER: He was a Treasury Department agent. For most of his life, he worked for the Internal Revenue Service, as a corporate auditor. He was in charge of a group of people, and they did two- and three-year audits of major corporations and made them pay the taxes that they didn't pay. He was also involved in some criminal investigations of guys who could only be gotten for income-tax evasion and not be gotten for the actual criminal activities.
GREGORSKY: The Al Capone type of prosecution.
KESSLER: Yeah. As for adjectives to describe my father: Stubborn. Impatient. Bullheaded. You know -- Alpha [laughter, with a hint of grudging delight].
GREGORSKY: He wasn't in the military during World War Two?
KESSLER: He was, yes. Not sure if he enlisted. But he ended as a captain. He was in the Army. Those were all field-command things. He was called up for the Korean War as well, and ended up not serving, for a reason I don't understand -- but not because he tried to get out of it. He was a guy who actually gained weight in the Army. He started as a skinny, poor kid. He grew up in a very, very poor immigrant family. When he joined the Army, he weighed something like 115 pounds. So he always thought the Army was good for him.
GREGORSKY: And you are growing up in New York City?
KESSLER: Well, I was in the second grade when we moved to something that was becoming a suburb, but [at that time] it was potato fields -- Long Island.
Kessler went on to attend Northwestern University as a journalism major. She would go through the semi-typical Boomer mix of rejection and revolt, in search of a transcending clarity -- in this case through the art of reporting and written interpretation. More on those years later. We haven't rounded out the early family retrospective. Remember that Kessler's 2007 book, Dancing with Rose, never would have been written without seeing her mother slowly succumb to Alzheimer's. What had the image of her mother been prior to that?
"People are Basically Unknowable"
GREGORSKY: Your mother's trajectory is conveyed in "Still Life," an Oregon Quarterly essay rich in detail. "She was living a life she chose by acquiescence rather than decision. She stayed because that's what women of her generation did, because she didn't know she had other choices, because she was selfless, because she was scared, because she was lazy..." This approach reminds me [see next section, about Kessler's 2003 book] of Clever Girl, where -- since you can't "know" why Elizabeth Bentley did this or that -- you list an array of plausible motivations, and then throw up your hands. With your mom, it's kind of similar. Completing that passage: "She stayed out of love. She stayed out of a failure of imagination. The truth is, I don't know why she stayed."
It sounds like you had very little contact with her from the mid-1960s to the ‘80s: "I left. I went to college. I came west. I started a career. I started a family. And then one day, many years later..." Much like your biography of Elizabeth Bentley, you go through all the key points in life and say "here's what was facing her, these were her options, she might have been thinking" this, that, or the other thing. You sort of do the same thing [in this "Still Life" essay about] your mom.
But -- you lived in the same house with your mom.
GREGORSKY: And the point is -- why so much guesswork?
KESSLER: Well, it just goes to show you: People are basically unknowable. As a writer, people always ask me: "You've written about people who are alive, you've written about people who are dead. Isn't it so much harder to write about dead people?" I don't think so.
There are challenges in writing about people that you cannot talk to, who you have to "reconstruct" using what they leave behind. But I don't think it's a slam-dunk -- we're talking about my mother here, but even as the subject of an essay, as opposed to being my mother, it's not a slam-dunk to be able to understand the inner monologue just because you've lived with them -- especially if you've lived with them. As a kid growing up, do you care what your parents' inner monologue is? You don't wanna understand them -- at all.
GREGORSKY: I don't think that's nearly as true [of young people] now as it was when you and I grew up. But sure, it was pretty strong then. Still, by the time you were 40, and she was in her sixties [pause] --
KESSLER: Yeah. Ummm --
GREGORSKY: I mean, is the direct question so hard for a [grown] kid to put to a parent?
KESSLER: You mean like, "Why did you stay with Dad, I knew you were miserable"? I would never ask that.
GREGORSKY: You'd couch it a little differently. "How aware were you of the sacrifices you were making?" "What would you like to have done if you could have another 20 hours a week, and we kids could have been taken care of during that extra time?" There are ways to get at that stuff [without assuming the worst or being judgmental].
KESSLER: Yes, there are. And so your question to me is "why didn't I do it." There are probably many answers, and one of them is [pause] -- both of them are true, but one paints me in a nice way and one does not.
I knew that my mother was unhappy, and I knew that she had a lot of regrets -- and getting her to talk about [such issues] would only make her more unhappy. That [stance] makes me sound sensitive and wonderful. The other part is that -- we didn't have a very close relationship, and maybe I didn't care enough. I had my own children, my own life. When you don't have a close relationship, it's very hard to [go back and create one] later. That's a Hollywood ending -- to all of a sudden burst forth from years of separation and become close again.
GREGORSKY: Or became close for the first time. Or be friends, as opposed to "authority figure and aging kid."
KESSLER: Yeah, yeah. And I know these stories; they are just not mine.
Otis Pease, Hayden Peake, and Elizabeth Bentley
GREGORSKY: Is there a first book, or perhaps a teacher from high school or college, that sort of turned you on to the intellectual life?
KESSLER: [Pause] There's somebody who turned me on to the intellectual life; and it happened rather late, as in graduate school. I went through a lot of school before I thought of having an intellectual life. Here I am, 23 or 24, when this happens. His name is Otis Pease, and he is the most brilliant, most articulate, most empathetically wonderful teacher that I've ever had. He's a professor of history at the University of Washington. He taught me whatever was internalized that made Stubborn Twig and Clever Girl good; whatever it was, I got from that guy -- because he taught me that history isn't simple.
KESSLER: You know the '60s stuff -- there's good and there's evil. "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." That was my mindset [until studying with him]. America is a land of promise, and it's also a land of prejudice -- to hold both of these things in your mind simultaneously?
GREGORSKY: Tension of the opposites.
KESSLER: Right. That's what I learned from Otis Pease, and it made Stubborn Twig and Clever Girl possible to write.
You heard about Stubborn Twig in the intro. It's this other book -- Clever Girl, Kessler's 2003 biography of Elizabeth Bentley (1908-63) -- that mostly brought me to Oregon. Bentley became a spy for the Soviet Union during the FDR years. As for "Clever Girl," that was the English translation of the Russian code name for her used by the KGB. It impressed me that a lifelong liberal, Kessler, was able to convey Soviet spy rings and mid-century America in a non-ideological way...
GREGORSKY: Frankly, when Myrna Oakley told me about you, and I did the web checks, the reaction was: "Okay, this woman is a leftist historian at the University of Oregon. Yes, I'll get her book -- but I dread being told that there were no Communists, and J. Edgar Hoover was a Nazi." So I actually couldn't start to read Clever Girl for the first two weeks it was out of the library.
KESSLER: [Chuckling] I understand, I understand.
GREGORSKY: Finally I picked it up for real. Sat there for three hours; went off to dinner and a bathroom break; and came back and finished it, into the late evening. I just love the book. And I recommend it to my hardest-core right-wing friends, so they can understand several things about the 1930s and '40s.
You are telling the story of one person -- Elizabeth Bentley. You tell what it was like to be an intelligent person coming of age on the east coast during the Depression, questioning capitalism, looking for an alternative; I've never seen it presented so well. Also marvelous is the way you never treat Bentley as a victim. You always describe the full circumstances where she is making these big decisions -- first to help the Soviet Union, then to expose what she knows [about its operatives] to the FBI. Step by step, sequence by sequence. You always hold her accountable -- but not in a mean way.
GREGORSKY: You tend to empathize with her on the dilemmas [while reserving historical judgment]. And so, at the end, regardless of one's politics, it turns out that you used a biography to tell a very complex and wider story -- of what we went through for three decades as a society.
KESSLER: Thank you! [Laughter]
GREGORSKY: All right, I'm not the first one to say this, but maybe it's not the standard reaction from right-wing Republicans [laughter]. So -- did you have to discipline yourself to not take potshots or go off on tangents? We're sort of getting at your approach to writing history here.
KESSLER: This is just what I was talking about with Otis Pease. He was a dyed-in-the-wool New Dealer, a liberal with a capital "L." I knew his background, I knew his politics. Yet he could speak outside of ideology, with great -- it's not sympathy, but it's just a complexity of understanding. I admired that so much. Also I think, as you get older, the stereotype is, for anyone who was a hippie or a leftist -- "they buy a house and become a stockbroker or something." Well, I don't know how often that happens. But you do presumably get wiser; and when you get wiser, things that looked simple get complicated.
GREGORSKY: The ideology begins to fade.
KESSLER: Right. And so my goal [with that book] -- I was faced with this woman who, on the face of it, I didn't understand. At one level, Elizabeth Bentley is born into a certain kind of life, into a certain place -- and [therefore] she should've become a certain kind of person. But she didn't.
"You Write a Book to Solve Mysteries"
GREGORSKY: Bentley came to your attention how?
KESSLER: A very long article in the New York Times Sunday magazine, written by a historian, asked how come there are no good histories of the McCarthy Era. His thought was: The histories that are out there are written by left-wing historians, or they're written by right-wing historians. Everybody has their [particular] axe to grind; and, as they grind the axe, whatever they were trying to "chop" gets lost in the mix. And one sentence in this article was: "And that's why we don't have a biography of Elizabeth Bentley."
GREGORSKY: Hah! [retroactively sharing a magic moment]
KESSLER: That's where it came from.
GREGORSKY: So then did [it] become a mystery -- something to solve?
KESSLER: Right, yes. As writing a book always is. You write a book to answer questions, to solve mysteries. Not only for your readers, but for yourself first. One mystery was: How could she become a Communist? What did it mean to "be a Communist" in 1934, and how did that woman become one? I embedded myself in what it was like in New York, surrounded by the Depression. Beginning to understand that, I didn't feel like somebody had "kidnapped" her into Communism. She made a conscious decision, based somewhat on politics and somewhat on [brief pause] loneliness. And I really did get that part.
But then she makes this other huge change. Some people change once in their life, and very few people change twice like that.
GREGORSKY: Right, right. The tension and drama of her finding the right FBI building in November of 1945 -- those parts of Clever Girl are riveting.
KESSLER: And in coming to understand [this second change], that was really coming up against all of my leftist reading: The Communist scare was a bunch of crap, and J. Edger Hoover was insane -- which, you know, he did have some problems [laughter].
GREGORSKY: Yeah [smiling]. Yes, he did.
KESSLER: So I had to simultaneously hold in my head [two landscapes]. First was the fact that the McCarthy Era [1950-54] was dangerous and McCarthy himself had some severe problems, and that he did ruin the careers of many, many innocent people, and there wasn't a Communist under every couch.
KESSLER: But that doesn't mean that there wasn't a Communist [in some other critical place]. And there were. They were in the State Department and in the Commerce Department; they were in fact passing information --
GREGORSKY: When did the existence and then the declassification of the "Venona" material come to your attention?
GREGORSKY: Without those disclosures, you could not have written Clever Girl, right?
KESSLER: Oh, absolutely not. That stuff was amazing. But it wasn't why I decided to write the biography. I began by dealing with the published sources. Elizabeth Bentley wrote a ridiculous autobiography.
GREGORSKY: Published by Devin-Adair around 1951.
KESSLER: And there was a guy -- he had retired from the CIA -- who wrote an introduction to a new edition of that biography.
GREGORSKY: That's not Hayden Peake, is it?
KESSLER: Yes. I found the book, and contacted Hayden Peake. He became my "guide" to a lot of things. He's the one who told me about Venona, and he sent me books, and we had a back-and-forth conversation over two years. And then I finally had dinner with him in Washington, D.C.
GREGORSKY: I intended to ask you about Peake, former army intel officer and CIA operative. In the research notes toward the end of Clever Girl, you call him "open-minded, thoughtful, and truly generous." You had a "lively dialogue" that led you to appreciate "a diversity of views," I presume about the mid-century threat American freedom really did confront from the Stalin-governed espionage network and military system. It sounds like nearly all of the collaboration was done long-distance.
KESSLER: Yeah, but I wouldn't call it "collaboration." I would say to him: "I'm doing this kind of reading; where else should I be reading?" Or: "I've read two conflicting things, what do you think?" He's a smart guy.
Ideological Talk Radio? "I Was Able to Do Both Sides"
GREGORSKY: I really like your audio file -- "The Power of Fact" -- where you say nonfiction writers should not make things up or jazz [a situation] just to excite the reader. So then I wonder: How do you know that Elizabeth Bentley did things [like almost turn back, at the top of the stairs, from the door to the communist cell]?
On page 35 of Clever Girl, Bentley is about to meet the group of ideological simpaticos. "[W]hen she walked up three flights of rickety wooden stairs and into the office, with its battered furniture, bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, and windows so grimy you could hardly see out of them, she almost turned and walked out. A young man spotted her" -- and she entered. To me, that passage read like a novel. It's quite dramatic -- and elsewhere (the audio URL coming up) Kessler counsels nonfiction adventurers: Don't make things up. If you have to speculate, okay, but admit that you are doing that. Simple question, larger point: How do we know that Bentley almost turned and walked out? A similar scene on pages 43-44: Bentley is going to join a cell, and she "knocked on the door of the apartment. She could hear voices within, then silence... This is just like a speakeasy in the Prohibition days, she thought. It crossed her mind to answer: ‘Charlie sent me.' Instead, she said, ‘Lee told me to come here.'"
GREGORSKY: How do you know what "crossed her mind"? For that matter, how do you know she screwed around on that boat trip to Italy? Is all of that [very detailed] information in the Venona files, too?
KESSLER: No. The Venona files are pretty much [pause] -- pretty much about how she met [operatives] in Washington and how many trips she made from New York to Washington to meet people, and who they were -- I'm talking about the people who were passing information to her -- and how she was "thought of" by her Communist handlers. And the trouble she made for them, and her drinking problem. When she turned herself into the FBI [they realized] who had just walked in the door. So they did enormous debriefings. I have the number of hours I think in the book, but -- boy, they really understood what they had. It's around 147 single-spaced pages -- of the FBI asking questions and her responding. That was very, very helpful.
The thing about the FBI -- why I have enormous respect for the FBI -- in a general sense [laughing to signal that she doesn't want this plaudit taken too sweepingly] -- is that you could not ask for better people to do your research for you. If you're a journalist who was not alive and not a witness at the time? But you wanted someone to have been alive and asking questions? -- you want the FBI guys to do it. Because they ask the exact kind of questions that a narrative journalist wants to know.
GREGORSKY: Can you give an example or two?
KESSLER: "How far away were you in the car with Golos when you looked over and saw that guy that you thought was Julius Rosenberg? Was there a streetlight on? What would you say he was wearing?" This [kind of notated recollection] allows you to reconstruct the scene. It's the same type of question I would have asked, had I been there. Bentley had multiple interviewers -- and that was just one of many documents.
GREGORSKY: I would've expected more like a thousand pages of single-spaced transcription. I mean, 147 single-spaced pages -- that's about 15 hours [of talk].
KESSLER: That's probably what they did with her [right away, during the first interview or two]. But there are enormous numbers of FBI memos going back and forth between agents. She spent quite a bit of time with agents, both formally when they brought her in for interviews over the course of several years; and less formally, when she called on particular agents to get her out of scrapes. Whoever had contact with her in any way wrote a memo. So there's lot of "collateral talk" about her.
GREGORSKY: What was the reaction to Clever Girl among your academic colleagues, and what surprised you about the wider national reaction?
KESSLER: [15-second pause] That's actually a hard question to answer because my "academic colleagues" here are in Journalism, and I don't write about journalism. Had I been in the History Department, it would have been different. Since I can't answer that question very effectively, let's skip to the other one [about national reaction]. When I went out to be interviewed, I did a lot of radio. Radio talk shows are pretty ideological, and I was able to do both sides.
KESSLER: It was pretty interesting. I remember being on an interview show on KPFA in Berkeley, which is a venerable lefty-liberal station. It's possibly the best, most serious, most professional -- and longest-lived -- progressive liberal station in the country. Yet when they read the book, they certainly did not say: How can you have sympathy for somebody who was a rat and went to the FBI, and didn't you think Venona was a hoax? -- they didn't do that at all. Instead this [KPFA interviewer] said: "I guess this whole thing was a lot more complex than we were willing to -- "
GREGORSKY: You couldn't ask for a better reaction.
KESSLER: It was wonderful. And on the right, I also felt like it was sort of a privilege to be able to be interviewed in a sane, calm way, by people who would normally not be that way to me. We were able to have a conversation about that era, in which one could admit there were enormous excesses that were very harmful -- without having to throw out the idea that there was some truth to all of the stuff that people [dismiss] as bizarre conspiracy theories. So I felt really good.
GREGORSKY: You transcended a big polarity.
KESSLER: For a moment [laughter]. I felt pretty good about it.
The List of Terms, "the Power of Fact"
GREGORSKY: Now, this is the closest thing to a Barbara Walters exercise.
KESSLER: [Groaning] You want to know my favorite color?
GREGORSKY: No, it's not quite that shallow. I'm going to read eight potential self-descriptions. You tell me whether you think these terms apply to you, and why or why not.
KESSLER: Okay. But I was getting ready with my favorite animal [laughter].
KESSLER: Cat [continuing with the laughter].
GREGORSKY: Your website does refer to the cat who thinks he's a dog. Maybe we'll come back for him [and we did, though it's not part of this document]. First term -- academic.
KESSLER: Me? Not really.
GREGORSKY: You just hang out here [at the University].
KESSLER: That's correct.
GREGORSKY: But you teach twentysomethings to write nonfiction?
KESSLER: I am a writer who teaches and edits young writers. I don't think of myself as an academic.
GREGORSKY: I have to insert this -- the way you organized Clever Girl was the best use of sourcing in a book on history. Because for every single page [of the main text where there are references], I can go to the back of the book and easily see the sources for that individual page. You rarely see it done that way -- academically rigorous, but also very reader-friendly.
KESSLER: I know. Because the information was so rich I wanted people to know where it came from -- but I didn't want footnotes [in the main part of the book], I wanted people to just [she draws out the word] reeeeeadd through it.
GREGORSKY: You solved each half of the problem. And maybe that [solution] was too logical. An academic wouldn't have come up with that sort of a way to handle the sourcing.
KESSLER: [Laughing appreciatively]
GREGORSKY: Next term -- and I'm doing these alphabetically, so they don't imply any kind of "trail." Conservationist?
KESSLER: Well -- yes. Of course, I live in a house made of wood. And I have leather shoes. So, yes, I believe in --
GREGORSKY: I mean the word in a citizen's sense, not a professional sense.
KESSLER: Ummmhh. Wow [she is wincing]. Gee -- probably not. Part of me would really like to be. But [crusading] is a full-time job. It takes a true believer -- and I can hold too many contradictions in my head. I'm one of those really annoying people who, when asked "is it this or is it that?," I'll never say one or the other; I'll find some other alternative. And how can you be a crusader that way?
Let's put in this way: I'm a crusader for good writing, and a crusader for compelling stories. But politically? Not.
KESSLER: Yes. Proud to be.
KESSLER: I hope so! As a member of the human race, I would like to be -- fully functional.
GREGORSKY: But I saw a passing reference in one of the books about the benefits of pessimism [and how] it heads off disappointment.
KESSLER: Yes. It was in some essay. Okay, a pessimist is never disappointed. So -- a streak of pessimism is in me, and I work very hard against that. Because I do really believe [pause] that people are good [immediate ironic laughter], all evidence to the contrary.
GREGORSKY: Much evidence lets you make a case for either.
KESSLER: People can be wonderful -- and so, yes, I believe that things will turn out all right. So I can't be a pessimist.
GREGORSKY: Does that mean you're optimistic about the American future looking 10, 20 years out?
KESSLER: Not necessarily. I'm optimistic about the American character. I'm optimistic about us as individuals. I'm not terribly optimistic about us as [pause] -- I'm not optimistic in any larger "political" sense, I guess.
KESSLER: [Pause] I don't think I'm smart enough to be a philosopher.
GREGORSKY: You are reflective enough -- appreciating all the contradictions and complexities.
KESSLER: Okay, I'm reflective [laughter] -- that's an "R" word, so it'll fit here.
GREGORSKY: Still in that part of the alphabet -- reporter.
KESSLER: Oh yeah. I love going out on stories that are -- whether it's right in front of you and you can be the witness; or going out on a historical jaunt to dig into documents and make them come alive. Absolutely, yeah.
KESSLER: I strive to be. That's really a big goal of mine.
GREGORSKY: And this is a good chance to mention your audio lecture on "The Power of Fact," which we'll link to here.
You are holding [us nonfiction producers] to a high standard: We shouldn't imagine things, concoct details, engage in mind-reading -- throw in "a sprig of parsley" even though it's not really part of the nutrition plan. Do you get resistance from your students on that? Or from other writers? Do they call you a hard-ass about it?
KESSLER: Well, they call me a hard-ass about a lot of things [laughter] -- and that might be one of them. But I get to be the recruiter for the program, and most of the students I choose actually come from the journalistic tradition.
GREGORSKY: I see.
KESSLER: And so what I need to do is "loosen them up" about telling stories. They don't come from the creative-writing "I'm an English major" kind of tradition -- because I don't take those people. But I do have heated arguments about memoir -- which I don't consider to be nonfiction. I don't dislike memoir, and I don't "not read it," but it's someplace in between fiction and nonfiction. Memoir is where people get this very large sense of poetic license.
Tribute to Tom, and One "Crusade" Makes the List
GREGORSKY: All right, what's the question I should have asked? Or what's the part of you, the part of your story as a writer/author, that needs at least a couple of sentences for us to have a full portrait here?
KESSLER: That my husband is a writer -- and, before that, was an editor. And that it is a blessing and a privilege to live with somebody who cares about books and writing, and story. And who is my first, best editor.
GREGORSKY: Tom is a total free-lancer too?
GREGORSKY: Since creative types need some physical space [smiling at his own domicile dilemma] -- do you guys have offices at separate wings of the house?
KESSLER: Actually, yes. His office is what used to be the garage -- so you actually have to walk out of the house to get there. And my office is in the house, but -- yeah. So I'd like to mention him. The other thing I would mention [laughter] -- or maybe not mention -- I wrote an essay about how long it took me to "unlearn" what I learned at Medill School of Journalism -- because I have a real problem with the arrogance of the press. It has nothing to do with ideology. It's reporters who write stories before they get the stories.
KESSLER: And that's one of my -- when you said "crusaders"? I'd like to go back and say, "Yeah, against that." Reporters ought to view themselves as students, and their sources are teachers -- or [perhaps the parallel is] children and parents. You go out on a story to learn; you don't go out to reaffirm what you thought before you went on the story. That's not what reporting is.
GREGORSKY: To go out looking for people to give you a quote to put into the template you already have.
KESSLER: Which I did -- absolutely. I'm guilty of it. I understand how to do that, and how "deadline" makes you want to do that. You're writing the story in the car! "How do I ask a question that will get me the quote that needs to go over here in paragraph three?" And nobody learns that way. The source doesn't learn, you don't learn, and readers don't learn.
QUOTING FROM one of her web essays: "Four years writing inverted-pyramid news stories at Medill School of Journalism with grizzled Chicago Tribune editors-turned-teachers pointing out all my flaws, plus eight or nine painful months covering zoning commission meetings in a northern California town, brought me to my senses. It took me close to 10 years to unlearn what I had learned about what makes a story and how to write it... And then comes the literary...the quest to tell this true story in the most involving, compelling way, with characters who live on the page, with scenes a reader can fall into, with dialog and action and point of view. With a voice. But without -- I repeat -- without sacrificing the factual."
KESSLER: So [in a lowered voice but indicating satisfaction] I am a crusader against the arrogance of the press.
© 2007, Lauren Kessler and Frank Gregorsky