Interview: November 8, 2002
November 8, 2002
New York Times bestselling biographer Christopher Andersen talks to Bookreporter.com about his latest book, GEORGE AND LAURA, his research techniques, and how he chooses which subjects to write about.
BRC: When did you start researching GEORGE AND LAURA? Did you have access to the President and First Lady?
CA: I began work on GEORGE AND LAURA about two years ago, and while I did not have the cooperation of the President and First Lady, I did interview their relatives (Laura's mom, Jenna Welch, for example), colleagues, and most importantly, their closest friends in Texas and other parts of the country. These are the folks both George and Laura have known for decades --- in some cases literally all their lives. I call them the new Lincoln Bedroom Bunch because whenever I spoke with them they were invariably just returning from or getting ready to go The White House, Camp David, or the ranch in Crawford.
BRC: This White House is said to control information more than other recent Administration --- very simply, it doesn't "leak." Did you hit roadblocks? If so, how did you get around them?
CA: Some of my colleagues call me the Stealth Author, because I quietly go about the business of researching my books and interviewing sources before anyone has an opportunity to try and shut off the flow of information. I have always found it helps to fly below the radar. There were a few people who declined to cooperate with the book, but the vast majority were kind and gracious --- and refreshingly frank.
BRC: Your interviewees included several lifelong friends of both Bushes including her mother, who has, as I recall, never been interviewed. How did you convince these people to talk to you?
CA: I have pursued sources for as long as a year before finally wearing them down, but that is relatively rare. As for how I get them to talk to me, well, let's just say it's a professional secret. But a hint: I've been doing it over 30 years now.
BRC: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about the First Couple?
CA: Where does one begin? For starters, the degree to which personal tragedy --- in Laura's case the bizarre traffic accident that took the life of her former boyfriend, for example --- shaped both the President and First Lady. Also, just how bad George's drinking problem was, and how Laura forced him to stop. And it will come as an immense surprise to everyone that Laura, who was a liberal Democrat when she met her future husband, has her say on both domestic and international policy issues. As the President says, "She's no shrinking violet. Laura tells me what she thinks and I listen."
BRC: The President is usually described as a lazy, incurious frat boy who never grew up --- a kid born on third base who thought he hit a triple --- or a very shrewd guy who puts on a Texas accent and plays dumb in order to fool people into underestimating him. What is your take?
CA: A little of both and then some. As one of his Texas buddies told me, "He may not be very book smart, but he's plenty people smart."
BRC: Your most recent books were about Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., both of whom were deceased when you started your writing. Were those books easier, or more difficult, for you to complete?
CA: These books, both of which reached No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, were done in the immediate wake of the subjects' sudden and tragic deaths. In talking to those who loved them, the wounds were still fresh and the memories heart-wrenching. But it's difficult to say whether writing about people who have died is any harder or easier than writing about the living --- just different.
BRC: One of the criticisms often leveled at books such as GEORGE AND LAURA is the way they tell you what the subjects were thinking. How do you get that information? As for dialogue, how do you test the veracity of what someone says he/she said?
CA: I'm always amazed at this criticism. When I describe what people are thinking, that is based on what the subjects --- in this case George and Laura --- told people they were thinking at the time. If I am writing about a conversation George and Laura may have had, that conversation was either witnessed by one or more people who spoke with me, or was related to those sources by George and Laura themselves. Whenever possible, I always try to get two separate and independent sources to verify each fact in the book.
BRC: How much time was spent writing this book, as opposed to researching it? Do write as you research? Was working on this book different from others?
CA: Certainly the situation here was particularly fluid. Once you begin writing, you do not stop the research process --- in the life of a sitting President (not to mention the life of a First Lady), things change every day. In this case, I did research for perhaps ten months before I sat down to write, but I was shoehorning new information into the manuscript right up until six weeks prior to publication.
BRC: Do your own political views ever cloud your writing or research? Do you ever feel that you need to take a step back when you are writing/researching to adjust your perspective as an author?
CA: I do not set out to write a book with a political agenda. Do I step back to readjust my perspective and try to maintain my objectivity as an author? Every day.
BRC: Your books just appear --- we never know what you're working on. Is there an advantage to that approach? And how, by the way, do you choose your subjects?
CA: Once again, I try not to scare away important sources by announcing my intentions too far beforehand. And it always helps to keep the competition guessing. As for choosing a subject, the criteria varies. In the case of Diana and JFK, Jr., events pretty much dictated that I had to write about them. With some --- Jackie, for instance --- I wanted to explain the woman behind the mystique. I also like to write what I call biographies of relationships. In JACK AND JACKIE, BILL AND HILLARY, and now GEORGE AND LAURA, I wanted to try and explain the forces that drew these fascinating, complicated, often tormented people together and kept them together. Beyond the power and wealth and fame, these are, after all, human beings with the kinds of problems --- the everyday headaches as well as the soul-trying, life-and-death crises --- that most of us can on some level relate to.
BRC: Who are some journalists and/or authors influenced you? Or ones who you admire?
CA: The great muckraker Upton Sinclair was an early influence --- as a young newspaper reporter back in the 1960s, I wanted nothing more than to expose corruption --- and get my byline on the front page in the process. I also admire the work of Theodore White, Jim Bishop, William Manchester, and Truman Capote, whose IN COLD BLOOD remains a towering achievement in the world of nonfiction.