Something Truer Than True: Talking with Kelly O’Connor McNees
Why haven’t I heard about her before? This is what Kelly O’Connor McNees asked herself when she first discovered Lenora “Hick” Hickok, a pioneering journalist and the lover of one of America’s most powerful and beloved First Ladies. Of course, McNees understood that Hickok’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt is precisely why the reporter was very nearly written out of history.
McNees’s latest novel, Undiscovered Country, is an imaginative attempt to redress that erasure. In making Hick her heroine, McNees gives readers a sense of what life would have been like for a hard-hitting Associated Press reporter who happened to be a woman—and a woman who loved women—in the 1930s. We get a glimpse of Eleanor’s struggles, too, as she tries to balance her very public life, her sense of civic responsibility, and her private desires.
This is McNees’s fourth historical novel, after In Need of a Good Wife, The Island of Doves, and The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott.
Recently, McNees and I talked about the genre of historical fiction, its appeal and its challenges, and the timeliness of this story.
The Rumpus: What about the historical novel genre appeals to you?
Kelly O’Connor McNees: Well, I guess you write the books you want to read, and I find myself drawn to historical fiction. I think the novels I have loved most over my life—whether set in a historical period or in the present—give the reader this sense of being transported, of being immersed in a place that is foreign and therefore feels really fresh and alive because you’re taking it all in for the first time. From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, I just enjoy doing research, particularly when it involves primary sources like letters.
I get a little mystical about the past speaking into the present—that’s what I feel is happening when I’m with these materials. My role is to uncover the story that is contained within all those documents that were touched by the hands of the real people I’m hoping to depict. I’ve never been that interested in mining my own life for material—although of course you’re always writing about your own obsessions and worries in the end, however indirectly.
Rumpus: Your Eleanor Roosevelt is simultaneously your Eleanor Roosevelt and the Eleanor Roosevelt. This is the second famous person you’ve written about—the first was, of course, Louisa May Alcott. I’m wondering how it defines your process. Have you ever been thwarted by a piece of data you’ve uncovered—has your research ever stopped you from making a narrative choice that you really wanted to make for the sake of the story you’re telling?
McNees: Yes, that has happened. I’ve also chosen to take liberties in certain ways—departing from the historical record when I felt that doing so allowed me to get at something truer than true. To me, this is the power of historical fiction. When the narrative is untethered from the timeline and the transcripts, it can imagine a character’s inner life and secret heart, and thereby get at a kind of truth we can only fully “know” through empathy, not evidence. Writers of historical fiction vary in their comfort level with this. To some it is important never to stray from the record. To others, the sky’s the limit. I think I fall somewhere in the middle.
Another issue is that the “record” itself deserves some skepticism. Of course, in research we must rely on primary sources when we can, but we also turn to biography and other secondary texts. Much of what for a long time was accepted as truth about Eleanor Roosevelt’s personality, friendships, and role in the White House was shaped by the misogyny of the predominantly male FDR biographers who wrote that story. She was a cold fish, asexual, a mean old scold. It wasn’t until Blanche Wiesen Cook and others began their incredibly valuable work that we saw how the truth was more complicated. Hick was pretty much edited out of the story of Eleanor’s life until Cook wrote about her because the people shaping the story of the Roosevelt legacy did not know what to do with her. Like, people literally cut her out of White House photos.
Rumpus: Have you ever read The Clan of the Cave Bear?
McNees: I have always wanted to but have not!
Rumpus: A long, long time ago, I had the chance to interview Jean M. Auel about the series that started with The Clan of the Cave Bear. For this anecdote to make sense, you need to know that, in that book, Neanderthals have language—sign language that is, in its way, as sophisticated as, you know, human speech. I did a lot of research for my interview with Auel, and I thought I was being a real smartypants when I said, You know, there’s no scientific consensus that Neanderthals had language… Auel laughed, gently, and said, I’m a storyteller. I can’t decide that there was a 60% chance that my characters had language. I have to make a choice.
This exchange has stuck with me because, well, of course! Storytellers don’t tell us what evidence suggests. They tell us what happened.
McNees: The “evidence” is only one piece of the puzzle for me. It creates a framework, boundaries and limitations that can be useful creatively—in an I-prefer-not-to-play-tennis-without-a-net way. But then I have to do a lot of imagining about how these fictional versions of real people might have felt in a particular situation, what they might have said and done and wanted, what they might have expressed publicly that was in conflict with their secret desires and frustrations—sometimes secret even from themselves. And that imagining draws much more on just being curious about people and wanting to know what it’s like to be in someone’s shoes. I am always walking the line between wanting to stay true to the conventions and expectations of the time—which I can only ever partially understand from a 2018 vantage—and knowing that people are people, heartbreak is heartbreak, ambition is ambition, whether a person feels it in 1932 or now.
And what Auel says—“I’m a storyteller”—of course shapes my decisions, too. In a novel, we need our protagonist to be seeking something, to come up against obstacles, to face high stakes. I didn’t put anything in there—mostly—that didn’t come from Hick’s biography, but the arrangement of interactions and realizations, the push-pull and the sense of escalating tension—those are structural decisions I have to make so that this will be a novel.
Rumpus: You said early that Hick was edited out of history because nobody knew what to do with her. I find myself thinking: Of course they didn’t. She was such an extraordinary person.
McNees: Hick was extraordinary in the literal sense of the word. She grew up very poor and I think that always marked her—she was self-conscious about not being from money—because she was around so many people with money in the world of NYC politics and later DC—and yet she was proud of her self-made status. She knew she had earned every single thing by the sweat of her brow and it gave her a kind of swagger that was just outlandish in a woman. She was bold and brash and drank like a man.
She was also as “out” as a woman could be in 1932. She never attempted to date men or find a male companion as a kind of cover. I think her colleagues understood that she preferred women; they didn’t exactly celebrate it, but I guess it shows how much they respected her work that they didn’t make an issue out of it as far as I was able to tell. I created the character of John—he’s fictional, though based on some of the colleagues she talked about—because I just wanted her to have someone to talk to. And I thought a lot about how he might have approached this subject with her, how they might have danced around it.
But just to demonstrate the risks Hick and Eleanor were taking, let me share something I found: In 1978, Doris Faber, under contract to write her biography of Hick, went to the FDR archive to open the trove of letters Hick had donated upon her death in 1968, with instructions they be sealed for ten years. Faber was the historian to look at them. It quickly became clear that this was not professional correspondence between colleagues. These were love letters. And everyone panicked about how to handle the material. Not only was Faber supposed to characterize this relationship in the biography, but she was also under contract to write a children’s book about Eleanor Roosevelt! In her papers, there is a letter from the children’s publisher canceling the contract: “Whether a children’s book on Eleanor Roosevelt by Doris Faber will still be a good idea after the revelations in the adult book is something we can’t tell at this point.” This editor really thought Eleanor’s legacy was going to be tanked, that she would be untouchable and unmentionable in polite circles. And this was in 1978!
Rumpus: The one realm in which it seems that she was able to succeed on her own terms was journalism, and I can’t help but think that she would be remembered as one of the great reporters of the first half of the twentieth century if she hadn’t been a woman and a lesbian—a word I use advisedly, since I don’t know that she would have used it herself.
McNees: Hick covered a lot of important stories, including FDR’s first presidential campaign, and if she hadn’t fallen in love with Eleanor, who knows what she might have gone on to do with the AP. Later, when she took the job as a federal investigator, interviewing people across the country about their lives and writing reports about them that were used to form New Deal policy, she also made a tremendous impact. But that work really wasn’t recognized until fairly recently. That’s heartbreaking to me as a serious Hick admirer. And it’s also irresistible to me as a writer because it makes me wonder who else is lurking in the shadows that I might get the chance to write about!
Rumpus: One of the things I love about this book is Hick’s voice. As a writer, I get the risk you took with first-person narration. Language is always a problem in historical fiction. You don’t want anachronism, but you also want it to sound natural. The fact that we have movies set in the 1930s as reference points might be helpful to you when it comes to getting the language right, but it also means that readers are maybe going to hear it if it’s wrong.
McNees: I fought the first person for a long time. My other three novels are written in close third. Two have alternating third-person points of view, in part because I often find it tiresome to be in one character’s head for an entire novel. First person always feels like the biggest risk to me, whether we’re talking about historical or contemporary fiction. And then, as you say, there’s the added concern of capturing the time period—how people thought and talked in 1932. But in this case Hick just had such a strong voice in my imagination—fueled in part from reading her own writing. I knew she was so much funnier and more raw than I could ever be speaking in a more distant narrator’s voice. So much of what I was trying to do was understand what it was like to walk around in her skin, so eventually I realized that it just made sense for me to let her speak for herself.
Rumpus: This story is very much of its time, but it also feels so relevant to today. I get the impression that neither Hick nor Eleanor thought that personal happiness was the point of life, but it’s also impossible to not wonder about how they might have lived and what they might have done had they not been so defined by their gender and had they not had to hide the fact that they were women who loved women.
McNees: I’m glad it feels relevant. It certainly seemed so to me, and I think a lot about what they would think of marriage equality and my incredible Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park that is full of all different kinds of families—just as I also think about what Eleanor would say to nudge us out of despair at the current state of things in this country. Anyway, one thing they really understood and valued about each other was how much they wanted to do their work. They were both ambitious and full of vision, and also, in their own ways, felt a deep sense of responsibility to use their gifts to help make the world better. Work was a sacred thing to each of them—really at the core of who they each were. Which is why I think it was so devastating for Hick to lose her job with the AP. I don’t think she ever recovered from that.
Rumpus: While reading, I thought a lot about how Eleanor’s class and status made her vulnerable, but also protected her, while Hick didn’t have such protections. I really identified more with Hick in this respect, and she emerges as the more tragic character.
McNees: Class was a hugely important question to me as I researched their stories and thought about a way into this novel and its central characters. I wondered for a while what it could have been that Eleanor saw in Hick, since they were from such different worlds, and maybe I assumed that someone in Eleanor’s position would look down her nose at a woman who didn’t have a pedigree. But I had a breakthrough when I realized that Eleanor was in awe of Hick’s freedom and autonomy. Eleanor’s entire life was planned for her—boarding school, marriage, motherhood, wife of the governor, and then First Lady. She still managed to do her own work, of course—which was an incredible accomplishment and created a lot of friction in her world—but she was always coming up against the limitations of her station.
Hick had her own apartment, her own (meager) paycheck, and no one telling her how to spend her time. I think that was intoxicating to Eleanor. Of course, it’s easy to romanticize freedom when you will never have to worry about rent or health care or debts. As she aged, Hick became somewhat dependent on Eleanor’s generosity and vast network of friends, who helped Hick find a place to live over the years and things like that, and I imagine that put a strain on their relationship. I think in the early days of FDR’s presidency, Eleanor leaned heavily on Hick for support and to help her figure out how she was going to cope with the role of First Lady. Then, once Eleanor found her footing and realized she could use the White House as a platform for so many of the issues she cared about, Eleanor needed Hick less—partially because Hick, with her media experience, helped Eleanor see the opportunities, helped her realize how she could make the job her own. Eleanor’s world expanded, but Hick’s world shrank as she lost so much of what mattered to her in order to be true to Eleanor.
You have to be rooting for your protagonist in order for the novel to work emotionally, and Hick had the trait I most admire in a person, which is resourcefulness. Making something out of nothing—that’s certainly what she did leaving home at fifteen and working her way up as an apprentice reporter. As I think back over my other books, I realize that most of my protagonists are resourceful—Louisa May Alcott, of course, but also my matchmaker trying to scrape out a living from bringing Civil War widows and homesteaders together in Nebraska, and the half-Ottawa woman who took over her husband’s fur-trade route when he was murdered and became the wealthiest woman in the territory. I just marvel at the way women throughout history have fashioned lives and work out of the crumbs thrown to them.