portrait Interview with Tom Fleming

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 45 ~ February, 2001

Thomas Fleming’s most recent book, The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, examines the women at the center of the lives of George Washington, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.

The History Book Club has named The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers as a main selection for the month of December.

The author of more than 40 books of fiction and nonfiction, Fleming has received wide acclaim for his revisionist book, 1776: Year of Illusions, and The New York Times declared his history of West Point the best book ever written about the U.S. Military Academy.

Some other highly praised books by Fleming include The Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Survival After Yorktown; Washington’s Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge; and Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr & the Future of America. Fleming has also written an acclaimed memoir, Mysteries of My Father, about growing up in the tough and tumble world of Jersey City where his father was part of Mayor Frank Hague’s political machine, as well as a recent novel, The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee.

Fleming’s book, Liberty! The American Revolution, was a main selection of the History Book Club, which named it one of the eight best books of 1997. The book was also a main selection of the Book of the Month Club, and the American Revolution gave it their annual award as the best book of the year.

The Officers’ Wives, a novel about three women and the West Pointers they married in 1950 was also a main selection of the Book of the Month Club, making Fleming the only writer in BOMC history to have had main selections in both fiction and nonfiction.

A Fellow of the Society of American Historians, Fleming contributes regularly to American Heritage and several other highly regarded magazines. He has served as chairman of the American Revolution Round Table and as president of the American Center of P.E.N., the international writer’s organization, as well as president of the Society of American Historians.

Fleming lives in Manhattan with his wife, Alice, a distinguished writer of books for young readers.

Derek Alger: What led you to write a book about the Founding Fathers concentrating on their relationships with the central women in their lives?

Thomas Fleming: I’ve always been interested in the personal side of history. It’s how I made a narrative come alive, from my first book, Now We Are Enemies, about the battle of Bunker Hill. I included character studies of the leaders on both sides. People were especially intrigued by the British profiles. I remember someone telling me they cried when they read how Major John Pitcairn of the British Marines died in his son’s arms back in Boston after the battle. Americans then and later considered Pitcairn the villain who ordered the massacre on Lexington Green that started the war. I discovered he had been shot by one of the black soldiers on the American side. Another surprising “human” touch.

DA: Your work has always made historical figures live for me as three-dimensional people.

TF: In 1969, I published a life of Thomas Jefferson, The Man From Monticello. I subtitled it “An Intimate Life.” I was amazed and occasionally amused to see how many other people seized on the phrase during the next decade. I considered it a compliment of sorts. In my 1975 book 1776: Year of Illusions, I have a chapter, “Revolutions Break Hearts,” which deals with Ben Franklin’s anguish when he learned that his only son, William, who was the Royal Governor of New Jersey (a job Ben had procured for him) decided to remain loyal to the King. You might call both these examples foreshadowings of Intimate Lives.In the Franklin section, I emphasize the role of William’s British wife, Elizabeth Downes, in persuading him to betray his father. After I wrote my biography of Ben, The Man Who Dared the Lightning, I realized she was the only woman Ben ever hated. He simply could not help it. She had inflicted a terrible spiritual wound in his soul. I explore this at length in Intimate Lives.

Meanwhile, I was also writing historical novels, in which a woman’s point of view was often a central device. Probably the best known is The Officers’ Wives, about three West Pointers and their wives during the Korean and Vietnam wars. It sold 2,000,000 copies worldwide. Dreams of Glory, set in New York before the American Revolution, has as its central character Catalyntie Van Vorst, who is a brilliant businesswoman as well as a passionate lover of war hero Malcolm Stapleton.

DA: Intuitively, you recognized an important fact about human relations.

TF: Gradually, I realized that the central idea in these explorations was a man’s relationship with the women in his life. Not only his wife, but his mother, his daughters, and other women who stirred his heart – or broke it. That’s when I decided to devote an entire book to the subject.

DA: I think a true picture of the Founding Fathers is a timely topic.

TF: I demonstrate in Intimate Lives that it’s always been important. At least two of these founders, John Adams, and James Madison, would never have achieved fame without the women at their sides. When Abigail Adams delayed her arrival in New York to join John when he began his first term as vice president, he made one horrendous blunder after another. Frantically he told her it was a “great dammage (sic) that you didn’t come with me.” When James Madison ran for president in 1808, his enemies spread appalling smears about him sharing his buxom wife with Thomas Jefferson and various congressmen. Dolley dealt with these slanders with laughter. She told one friend: “Oh, they are just trying to wound my sensibility.” At her dinner parties, which were the rage of Washington D.C., she ridiculed another critic’s rants on the floor of Congress: “It’s as good as a show!” she said. After Madison won the election, his beaten opponent glumly growled: “I could have won if I’d been running against Mr. Madison alone. Against Mr. and Mrs. Madison I never had a chance.”

When George Washington was appointed commander of the Continental Army in 1775, his first letter went to Martha. It began: “My Dearest.” He told her he would have more genuine happiness in a month at home with her than he could ever hope to achieve in this thankless task. But his country was calling. Within four months, he was asking her to join him in Massachusetts. He needed her as a hostess, companion and friend.

DA: You’ve always been particularly interested in the Revolutionary War.

TF: I grew up in an Irish-American ghetto, Jersey City, N.J. Virtually all my friends were Irish. The few who weren’t Irish were ethnic Americans like us. As a teenager, it began to dawn on me that I knew next to nothing about the “American” side of my hyphen. We were all patriots, of course. My father had been a hero in World War I. But I knew little or nothing about American history. This was confirmed when I read Oliver Wiswell, an historical novel by Kenneth Roberts. Wiswell was a loyalist and the whole story of the Revolution was told from his point of view. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a loyalist. That was when I resolved to learn more about the Revolutionary era. It seemed to me the ideal place to deepen and widen the meaning of that potent word, American.

DA: It’s one thing to be an accomplished writer, but you’ve succeeded in both fiction and nonfiction.

TF: I remember when I was very active with PEN in the early ’70s, and I was having lunch one day with the short story writer Donald Barthelme, who was also involved with PEN. He turned to me and said that he was concerned about the way my career was shaping up because I was writing both fiction and non-fiction. “They won’t let you do that,” Barthelme said. “Who are they?” I asked. “I don’t know, but they won’t let you,” he said.

DA: Whoever they are, they apparently didn’t succeed. You mention PEN – why did you get involved with it?

TF: I got into PEN for only one reason – because it is a force for free expression, in America and around the world. Every writer should contribute to and, if possible, participate in the struggle, which is never-ending. I have defended black power spokespersons in America and an imprisoned woman poet in Cuba. Currently, PEN is the only hope of free expression in Iran and other parts of the Moslem world. PEN also gives prizes for translation and new fiction, but these are subsidiary to its central purpose. I also helped found PEN’s Writers in Prison program, which is another expression of its faith in the power of the word.

DA: How would you say your involvement benefited other writers, known and unknown?

TF: I was President of PEN from 1971 to 1973, and I tried to set up a fund for published writers who were struggling, those who had a first novel published but didn’t make a great deal of money. These are people, even writers with two of three novels published, who need as much help as the beginning writer and are in danger of running out of gas.

DA: I know beginning writers need encouragement and help. I don’t think people usually think about what happens to a writer after a novel is published.

TF: There’s a huge fall off between the number of first novelists and the number of second novelists, and I think that’s something important for young writers to understand. I think it’s something like 50% of first novelists don’t publish a second novel, and 50% of second novelists don’t publish a third, and the drop off is the same after that. It keeps going down.

DA: What advice would you give the beginning novelist, for both the first and hopefully the second novel?

TF: I was fortunate. Early on, I worked for Fulton Oursler, a big religious writer and, in his heyday, the editor of Liberty, the second biggest weekly at the time behind The Saturday Evening Post. I remember seeing something like 37 books by him on his shelf. ‘How do you write a book?’ I thought. Fulton told me it was like seeing all the food you ate in one year in one place. You’d get sick if you tried to eat it all, but you eat it one day at a time. Just like you write, one day at a time. It’s great advice. It’s almost common sense, but it’s a good saying for young writers; it’s almost like shock treatment.

DA: Any other advice?

TF: More important was the other advice Fulton gave me. He said whenever you finish a book, start another one right away. Don’t ever let a book come out if you haven’t got another one started. You must have one up and running. That way you won’t get stopped by bad reviews or poor sales because you’re working on something. That advice was of tremendous value.

DA: With over 40 published books to your credit, you obviously followed that advice. Any other practical tips?

TF: It’s very important for would-be writers to study the lives of contemporary writers and find out how they make their living. It’s very instructive. It’s unrealistic to think you’re going to make a lot of money through writing, and the inability to pay bills exposes one to a tremendous amount of anxiety. Getting your life set up to write is crucial. When I started out writing for magazines, they paid good fees. The first 10 years, I was able to supplement my novel writing with that.

DA: Did you always feel that you were a writer?

TF: I always thought like a writer. I think imagination is a force you only have modest control over. I knew pretty early on, I’d be a writer.

DA: Was there a particular point when you really felt you made a conscious decision to pursue writing as a career?

TF: I had a severe, temperamental father who was a very powerful politician who helped run the State of New Jersey. He said to me, “Teddy, become a lawyer, and I guarantee you’ll make a million bucks by the time you’re thirty.” I had no doubt he was right. My father was a man who didn’t make promises lightly. I remember looking him in the eye and saying, “Pop, I think I want to be a writer instead.” My father had a short fuse, and I was ready for him to call me every name in the book. This was in 1948, and I was twenty-one, but he was a true American father and told me to do what I felt I had to do. It was a tremendous experience. He said he wasn’t sure I could make a living, but if that’s what I wanted, it was my choice.

DA: How did you make a living in the early years?

TF: I edged into the business as a magazine editor. I was an executive editor at Cosmopolitan in the days before the arrival of Helen Gurley Brown, and I knew DeWitt Wallace of Readers Digest and got a lot of good breaks writing for them. In 1964, my literary career was just beginning. I’d published some books about the American Revolution and politics. Wallace called one day and asked me if I was interested in West Point. I’d need to go up there and meet General Groves, the guy who built the atom bomb, and write a history. The next thing I knew, I was writing a history of West Point. At the very beginning, I said to Groves, “General, this is my book and you’re not going to see it till it comes out.” That was really a crucial move.

DA: Would you say that book was a turning point for you?

TF: It took me four years to write it. I was able to meet and learn about the professional soldier, many of whom have relationships with politicians. I met General Omar Bradley and others and got a feel for the politics of the country. Every general or colonel is in the history game. I was up at West Point three nights a week. At dinner, I listened to the wives. One thing leads to another. I published the West Point book in 1969 and the novel The Officers’ Wives in 1981.

DA: Was there something special that prompted you to write The Officers’ Wives?

TF: Sometimes a novel can simply emerge out of a voice, out of something that even sounds silly at the time. While doing the West Point book, I found the wives fascinating. They saw the Army experience in dramatically different ways than their husbands. For the next few years, I heard a voice whispering: The officers wives…The officers wives…That’s what we’ll be…For the rest of our lives.

DA: And you knew you’d write that novel?

TF: It didn’t make much sense then, but 10 years later, the entire novel exploring the lives of the three very different women who were the main characters, and of their husbands and children, emerged, fully developed and ready to be written. The women sang the song at a party in the first chapter of the book.

DA: And the rest is history. You were a Navy man writing about the Army?

TF: Yes. Instead of waiting to be drafted, I volunteered for the Navy during the last year of World War Two under the illusion that I would have some control over my fate. I didn’t have to serve two years because they discharged us once the war ended. I got out under a fluke after one year. That was a happy accident.

DA: That happy accident eventually led to your novel, Time and Tide?

TF: I met many interesting characters, and I said I’ve got to write a novel about the Navy. I started it over 20 times, but it never went anywhere. I left the Navy in 1946 and didn’t publish Time and Tide until 1986. By that time, I was absorbed in the ethos of the American military.

DA: Why do you think it took you so long to write that novel.

TF: Sometimes you have to allow time to objectify the experience. If I had written it right after I got out of the Navy, it would have been a book about a bunch of swabbies who were just kids getting drunk and chasing babes on the beach. There’s still that in the book, but there’s much more. I could never devise a satisfactory plot until one evening I was researching the battle of Savo Island for an article and everything fell into place. The battle was a 1942 clash off Guadalcanal and a dolorous defeat for America. The conduct of one heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Chicago was baffling. She had sailed away from the Japanese after taking a single hit. Four other cruisers were sunk during that battle and the Chicago’s captain was subsequently relieved in disgrace. In a swirling moment, I saw the story that had eluded me for so long.

DA: On another subject: you’ve written historic novels with both relatively contemporary characters as well as those from previous generations. Is there much of a difference in your approach?

TF: In regard to writing about real people who are more contemporary vs. those who have become historical figures – I think in both cases, if using them in fiction, George Eliot’s “veracious imagination” is the guideline to follow. A writer must research and discover what they were (are) like, and he has to stay within the boundaries of the truth as he/she uncovers it. You can’t portray a man as a drunk when there is no evidence that he ever was one. You shouldn’t portray George Washington as a weakling when he wasn’t – nor should you portray Harry Truman as a moron or a greedy crook when he wasn’t. The alternative is to succumb to the “veracious imagination” that turns reality inside out and ultimately betrays both the truth and the novel as a work of art. Generally speaking, I think using real people in fiction should be done sparingly. They may be effective subsidiary characters, adding a realistic depth to the story, but the main characters should be products of the writer’s historical imagination.

DA: Is there any elements you consider necessary for a writer to be successful?

TF: One worthy of discussion is luck. My primary agent was Malcolm Reese of Paul Reynolds. I remember Paul Reynolds had signed letters by Somerset Maugham and James Joyce on his office wall. One day, Malcolm decided I should get to know some publishers. He set up a lunch with Alfred Knopf and George Brockway of W.W. Norton. Toward the end of the lunch, Malcolm turned to Reynolds, Knopf and Brockway and said, “I bet the three of you have a 100 years of experience in the publishing world, which do you think is more necessary for a writer, talent or luck?” In unison, in a bellowing chorus that almost blew all the dishes off the table, they exclaimed, “Luck.” “See, I told you,” Malcolm said to me. It’s a moment I never forgot.

DA: Given our online audience, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask your thoughts on the future of e-books.

TF: Though I’m getting to be a senior writer, I hope to see some of my books, both past ones and future ones, appear as e-books. I think it’s only a matter of time before the technological problems are solved and e-books explode, as the paperback did fifty years ago.

DA: So you see e-publishing as the wave of the future?

TF: One of the values of this new revolution will be a new breadth and depth for novelists. One of the dirty secrets of the publishing world is how many good books get (and have gotten) mutilated over the last twenty five years, as costs of paper and labor drove book prices out of sight. Writers are told bluntly, coldly, that fifty or a hundred or even two hundred pages have to come out of a manuscript so the book can be published at a saleable price. This is a painful process, which leaves many writers bleeding psychologically for a long time. E-books will put an end to this barbarism. I can’t wait to see them go mainstream.