Dr. Goodwin, tell us a bit about your early years, your background, where you came from and where you went to school.
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I grew up in Rockville Center, Long Island. My family originally came from Brooklyn, but moved out to the suburbs in the ’50s, as so many other people did. It was that time after the war, when having that first home of your own meant a lot to our parents. I went to public high school in Long Island and then went on to Colby College in Maine and then to Harvard where I got a Ph.D. But I’ve often thought that my love of history was rooted in this experience:
When I was six years old, my father taught me that wonderful and mysterious art of keeping score, so that when he went to work during the day, I could stay home and record the history of that day’s Brooklyn Dodger game, play-by-play, inning by inning. And at night when he would come home, and you’re only six years old, and he tells you, “You’re doing great as a miniature historian.” I think, in some ways, that made history have a magic that it still holds for me to this day.
So you were inspired by your parents and that experience?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think so. I think it was the combination of my close relationship with my father. My mother was very sick from the time I was born, and died when I was 14. So I think my love of books in some ways came from knowing that she was pretty much bound to the home, and read all the time as a way of learning about other worlds that she would never be able to experience, because she couldn’t travel very much because of her heart condition. So books took on a certain kind of magic for me, just as the baseball scores did. So between those two experiences, somehow history and reading became a very important part of my childhood.
Was there a period of history that particularly interested you at that time? What do you think further piqued your curiosity about it?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: As so often happens, there was a teacher in my high school. She actually went on to win an award as the best history teacher in all of New York State. She taught 20th century American history. I’m not sure that it was the subject. I think no matter what she taught me, I would have loved it, had it been medieval history or renaissance history. But she just made it come alive, and I think that was the beginning of a young adult’s love of history that carried through later in my life.
Then there was one in college. There was a teacher in college who made you feel that if you could understand everything he was saying, that somehow you’d understand truth, justice, everything. Later, I got to know him very well and he was always somewhat obscure. When I said to him, “If we could only figure out what you say, we would have understood everything”. And he said, “Did you ever realize that I just might not have been clear, that I myself didn’t know what I was saying?” I said, “Of course not. We just thought we weren’t smart enough to figure out what you were saying.” But he had that magical ability to make you want to understand things that were beyond your comprehension at that point. Those two teachers were really what did it for me.
Do you remember their names?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Absolutely. Louise Alston was the teacher in high school and Al Mavernack was my teacher at Colby College. I went to Harvard Graduate School, got a Ph.D., taught at Harvard for ten years, but there were never better teachers in that august institution than I had in those two schools. It just shows that there are great teachers in all levels of institution all over the country. So many kids think unless they go to one of these great Ivy League schools, which I was lucky enough to go to later, that they won’t get the same kind of learning. But I learned just the opposite lesson; that my best teachers were not at Harvard University.
Thinking back now, what books did you read when you were young that inspired you?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: When I was in high school, there was a book by James MacGregor Burns, a wonderful historian, called The Lion and the Fox, about FDR. And it was about his personality, his character, his early years in Hyde Park, his polio experience and… I remember that so vividly as the first real, live history book that I love so much. And I later met him, and have gotten to know him as a colleague, and he’s about 30 years older than I am, and I couldn’t wait to tell him, “You were the one who made it happen.”
What type of books do you enjoy reading these days?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Right now, I’m working on a memoir about growing up in love with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s in Long Island. So I’m reading books on baseball almost entirely. Baseball is another huge love of mine, not only because of that experience keeping score for my father, but after the Brooklyn Dodgers left Brooklyn and went to Los Angeles, I later moved to Boston and became a Red Sox fan. So I have season tickets to the Red Sox, and live and die by this crazy team. At the moment, I’m reading memoirs to understand the whole form of memoirs, and at the same time reading books about baseball.
Do you think that you were always destined to be an achiever in this field, or did it come as a surprise to you, your success in writing presidential biographies?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I certainly don’t think I thought of myself as a writer early on. In fact, in high school, I used to mistakenly leave essays until the last minute because it was so hard to write. I thought if I didn’t start writing it until ten the night before it was due, at least it wouldn’t be paining me for too long. I would not recommend that to people. But I don’t even think in college that writing is what I thought of. I thought of myself more as going actively into public life, into politics itself. That desire to go to Washington in the summers when I was in college and graduate school was partly seeing if I could enjoy public life.
When I’d first gotten married, President Carter asked me to be the head of the Peace Corps, and it was a job that I would have loved a decade before, and really might have — had I done a good job and it led to a cabinet post or something in the administration, which I think is what I think I’d always dreamed of. At the time, my little kids were one and two years old and eight years old. There was no way in the world that I could take a job that made me travel all around the world. I remember when I told that to the White House, they understood that perfectly. But then I added in, “You see, I’m also a season ticket holder to the Red Sox, and I think this is the year we’re going to win the World Series. So I can’t travel around the world.” There was this great silence at the other end, as if they were saying, “Oh my God. Thank goodness this woman didn’t take the job. What’s the matter with her anyway?”
I’ve realized that might have been a turning point in the road because I didn’t take that job. I’ve gotten involved to some extent with the Clinton White House, I’m on a commission on campaign finance reform, but now I want nothing more than to be a writer. I’ve chosen to be a commentator and an analyzer of politics, rather than an actual doer of it. I think it could have gone the other way, but I’m not sorry that it didn’t, because this made it easier to be home with my kids and to spend time with them. Writing you can do right in your house. You don’t have to go anywhere.
You’ve had many forks in the road. What do you consider the biggest decision you’ve had to make in your career?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I decided when my two little kids were one and two years old, to give up being a professor at Harvard. Harvard had been an identity. When you are connected to a university — and especially one like Harvard — you go places and you say, “I’m a Harvard professor.” They know who you are. I had written my Lyndon Johnson book, but I didn’t have the same confidence that I could be as good a writer as I thought I was as a teacher. So it was scary to give up that umbrella in a certain sense. But… I knew that if I could spend the time writing and being at home with my kids, that if I could do that, it would give me more satisfaction, because I wouldn’t feel torn in a million directions, as I was feeling. Luckily, it really did work out, because I don’t think I would have had the chance to write the book on the Kennedys, to write the book on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if I was also trying to teach. I think I would have been doing things sort of half well all the way through. It wasn’t so easy at that time.
I remember when I was writing the Kennedy book, after I gave up the teaching at Harvard, and I was at a cocktail party. I heard somebody say, without realizing I could hear them, “Well, whatever happened to Doris Kearns anyway?” As if somehow I had died, because I no longer was a public figure. I remember wanting to hit them and say, “I’ve had three kids, that’s what happened to me!”
It all has worked out. I couldn’t ask for more than the kind of recognition that I’ve had as a historian. I didn’t know that at the time, when I gave up something that was of value to me. I had to do it, because I wasn’t happy trying to be moved in a million directions at the same time.
You’ve spent so much of your life in the company of historic figures, now departed. Hillary Clinton was teased for having an imaginary conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House. Just as an intellectual exercise, what would you say to Eleanor Roosevelt if you had the chance?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I thought about this so much, because during the six years that I worked on the book, there were so many times when I wanted to talk to both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. When this whole thing came out with Hillary, I kept thinking, “Oh my God. They will think I’m crazy, too. I’m having seances with these dead people.”
I think the most important thing I wanted to say at various times to Franklin and Eleanor was that it seemed so sad to me that — I really believe they loved each other and had a great deal of affection — but because of that early hurt in their marriage, there was a certain kind of distance from then on, until their deaths actually. At times, one would reach out to the other to try and break that distance, and then the other one would pull away. And another time, the other one would reach out. So at times, I just wanted to push them together and say, “Come on, you guys! I know you love each other. This is crazy!”
I could see, as I read their letters, as I did interviews with people, that they both wanted the other one, but there was too much pain and hurt to fully get back together again. So I think that’s what I would have talked to them about.
The book takes place on the second floor of the family quarters of the White House during the war. During Roosevelt’s time, an amazing group of people lived there, including Franklin’s secretary Missy LeHand, who was in love with Franklin Roosevelt, never married, and in many ways was his other wife when Eleanor traveled as much as she did. Harry Hopkins, his closest advisor, had a bedroom right next door to his. Then a woman reporter, Lorena Hickock, who was in love with Eleanor, she had a bedroom next door to Eleanor. Winston Churchill lived up there for months at a time during the war, drinking all day long. This beautiful princess from Norway, Princess Martha, would come in and spend the weekends. So when I wrote the book,
I kept saying to myself, and saying, when I talked about it in public, “What would the modern press ever make of this Roosevelt White House, where all of these people are floating around?” And I mentioned on a radio show in Washington that I would love to see the second floor once more, because I’d been up there with Lyndon Johnson. But at 23 years old, I never thought of asking, “Where did Franklin Roosevelt sleep? Where did Eleanor sleep?” For that whole six years of working on the book, that was the location of — most of the story took place on the second floor. So it happened that Hillary Clinton overheard me say this on the radio show, called up the radio station and invited me to sleep overnight in the White House. She said then I could wander the corridors and figure out where everyone had slept 50 years before. So two weeks later, my husband and I went to a state dinner, after which, between midnight and two a.m., the President and Mrs. Clinton and my husband and I went through every room up there, and figured out who had been there. It was great, because we realized we were ending up staying in Winston Churchill’s bedroom. So the whole night, I could hardly sleep. I was sure he was sitting in the corner and smoking his cigar and drinking his brandy.
Do you think your experiences of the White House have fueled your passion to continue writing about the presidents?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think so. The White House is such an extraordinary, simple, beautiful place in our nation’s history. Right across from the room where we were staying, was the room where Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He was in there, in that room. Then you will see the tree that Andrew Jackson planted. Then at the same time we saw pictures on the piano of Chelsea and Hillary and Bill, because it was their family’s home for those four years. But it is also where all these other people lived. My next big book is going to be Abraham Lincoln. I know that once I start on Abraham Lincoln, I will want to go back again and see, “Now, where did he stay, and where was his place and where was Mary Todd Lincoln?” It’s an extraordinary piece of our history, because it is the one thing that binds our country together. We don’t have a king obviously, but we have this president, and the fact that almost all of them have lived in the same place, and so much history took place in those rooms. You can’t help but feel awe-inspired by being there.
Do you think it’s this awe that has propelled you in this direction since your early 20s, writing about the presidency?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think what happens also is, once you do something and you feel you’ve learned the skills of how to do it, then it seems easier to do another book about a president. I keep thinking, “Maybe I’ll write a novel, or maybe I’ll do something totally different,” but there’s a part of you that says, “Do I know how to do that?”
When you’ve learned how to do something, you want to get even deeper. I’m hoping that my book on Franklin Roosevelt was a better book than the one I wrote on the Kennedys, for the experience of having written two books before and learned how to bring the research to bear so that the characters can come alive for the readers. Lincoln is really scary, because that’s back another whole century. There will be nobody I can interview, as I could interview people for Roosevelt and Kennedy and Johnson. I was thinking that I wouldn’t take on Lincoln until I was 70 or so, because it seems like the Moby Dick of historians, but the Civil War is so fabulously interesting, and so is he. So you get a certain confidence that comes from each book. On the one side, I’m happy to be doing this memoir on growing up in Long Island in the ’50s, because I’ve never done something like that before. It is branching out a little bit. Another side of you, once you start in one field, you just want to deepen yourself in that field rather than go off in 25 directions.
Looking back, are you glad you decided to stick with that particular subject, to establish yourself as an expert on the presidents?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Oh, absolutely. First of all, each era that you study is so new that you’re learning all the time. Ninety percent of the six years that I spent on the Roosevelt’s was reading about World War II, reading about these fabulous people, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. There are so few other fields where so much of what you do, your mind is being expanded. You’re just learning, and you can sort of justify reading anything. I was reading novels about World War II. I was reading about the Air Force. I could read about battles and say, “This is all a part of it.” So you read it with an intensity that, when you’re just reading generally, you might not do.
So too now, as I start reading about the Civil War. There are 20,000 million books I could have to read, but I can pick the ones and know that I’m learning something that I didn’t know before. That’s the glory of writing. It’s not even so much the writing, it’s what you learn — especially history — because so much of it is research.
What do you tell young people about the importance of perseverance, having stuck with this theme that you established, and following it throughout your career?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I was thinking about this not long ago. When you are an historian, there’s probably nothing that matters more than to be recognized by your colleagues in your own profession. I was lucky enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for History. I had to give a talk right after that to some young people. The most important thing to tell them, I think, is that you can’t ever know that it’s going to turn out that way.
You can’t start out at 20 in whatever your profession is and say, “I want to win an Olympic medal,” or “I want to become president,” or “I want to win the Pulitzer Prize.” If you love what you’re doing, it’s sort of a nice thing that happens toward the end of your career, or in the middle of your career. It is not the reason you were doing it. The reason you were doing it is because every day you wake up in the morning and you can’t wait to learn something new. In my case it’s to learn something about history, and to communicate it to other people who can, hopefully, like it half as much as you do. If the rewards come along the way, it’s almost a byproduct of it, rather than the thing that you’re searching for. Sometimes when you’re young, you want the thing to validate who you are, rather than that the thing that is most important is what you do every single day and your enjoyment of it.
What do you think it was about your work that earned you the Pulitzer Prize? What was it about your work that singled it out for this award?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I’d like to think that what my style of writing is, is an attempt not so much to judge the characters that I’m writing about, to expose them, to label them, to stereotype them, but instead to make them come alive for the reader with all their strengths and their flaws intact. So there’s not a way in which, when I start the book, I say, “I’m going to make Franklin great,” or “I’m going to get Franklin Roosevelt.” But rather, “I want to render him as he lived, day by day.”
I found an usher’s diary at the Roosevelt Library that recorded what Franklin and Eleanor did every day. “Awakened at 6:30; had breakfast with Henry Stimson; had lunch with Joe Lash,” or whatever. I could then go to the diaries of the people they had lunch or breakfast with to record what they said at breakfast or lunch. Eleanor wrote 25 letters a day to her friends. I got every single one of those letters and figured out what her mood was like on that day. Made a huge chronology, before I even started the book, of 1940 to ’45, the years that I was covering, so that I could recreate every day, in a certain sense, in their lives.
Eleanor wrote a column every day, which often reflected what she was feeling that day. Not that the book went every day from ’40 to ’45, but you’d have themes in the book, in terms of civil rights or battles of the war.
I tried to ground every issue in a day’s experience, so that the reader could feel what it was like to be Franklin and Eleanor at that time. This means that if they made mistakes, you could at least understand why they did. If they did something admirable, you could feel it with them. So your emotions would go on a roller coaster as you were reading the book. At times you would feel great about Franklin, at other times you would be mad at Eleanor, and vice-versa. It is not a question of coming at it from the start as if I’m out to get them, or out to praise them. I just want them to come alive again. That’s all you really ask of history. Then the reader can feel, with all the complexity of emotions, what it is that is happening to them. I would like to think that is what the Pulitzer Prize people recognized, was that desire to make them come alive without an agenda, to try and push them into a labeled stereotype.
How has criticism of your work affected you?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: It makes you realize something. As much research as you think you’re doing, you’re going to mess up, without a question. There are some times — I mean, I got the date of Roosevelt’s birthday wrong! I can’t believe it! I knew what his birthday was, and somehow I’d typed it wrong into the typewriter, and in the first edition of the book I had it the wrong day. Then immediately one reader called me up. Luckily now, the great thing about books is they print new and newer editions every few weeks, so you can correct your mistakes. And then, the next edition that comes out had the right date in it. There will be more serious things like that, that you might get wrong. Somebody will come up to you afterwards and say, “You know, you just didn’t interpret this right. I was there,” and maybe you didn’t interview that person. What I think I’ve learned is that you’re never going to get it all right, and you can’t obsess about having a fact wrong or a date wrong or something like that, as long as you tried as best you could. And you know some of them you will be able to change with the new editions of the book or the paperback. But even if it’s still wrong, if it is not meant, if you’ve done the kind of research that you’re sure is pretty good, then you just have to have confidence in it, so that nothing is perfect in life. I think that is what the criticism has helped me to understand.
Sometimes people will find things that are wrong. Sometimes they will even find an approach that you took wrong. If you think you took the right approach, then you just absorb the criticism, but you don’t change your mind. Sometimes you read something and you’ll say, “You know, that person is right. I didn’t spend enough time on that subject and I wish I had. Next time, I’ll think about that.”
Do you ever have any doubts about yourself or your ability as you proceed through your work?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: When the first book came out on Lyndon Johnson, before the reviews came out, I was certainly not sure how it would be received. It was the first. I had never even written articles before, much less a book, and I was young in writing it, and a lot was riding on it, because I needed to stay teaching for my tenure at Harvard. I needed it for my reputation as an historian. So I remember, in those months before the book came out, being quite scared. I mean, there’s no question. The weird thing is — I mean, luckily the reviews were wonderful. So I had this quick sense of being able to feel somewhat confident about it. But then you think, once the first one was really successful, then you would be fine when the second one came out. But I got nervous all over again, and I think you almost have to. I think it’s like anybody who performs. If you’re not nervous each time a new book comes out — or even when I’m writing a book, if I finish one chapter and I go to write the next chapter, I wonder, “Can I write this next chapter? What do I have to say? I don’t remember what I’m going to do.” So you never feel so confident — even after it has accumulated over a period of time — that you lose that sense of worry about what it is going to be like. Maybe one of these books will not work. Then it is going to be much tougher to have to absorb that. I haven’t had that experience yet, but it certainly might happen.
Have you thought about it?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: To be honest, when I think about Lincoln, that’s probably the scariest one, because so much has been written about him. I have to make sure that I have an angle that other people haven’t quite used, or else you really might have the people saying, “Why did she choose this subject when so much else has been written about it?” That one scares me. But I’m five years away, so hopefully by the time I get to the end of it, I’ll have figured out something that I feel is different, rather than just saying what everyone else said.
So you are confident you will be able to find the solution?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Not completely confident. I don’t think I’ll feel confident until I find the solution. I’ve been able to do it before. All three of the subjects I’ve written about before were ones that had been written about a lot: Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedys and the Roosevelts. It’s not so much that you come up with a totally original approach. It’s just that your story is somewhat different from the other ways that other people have done it. I don’t quite know how to do that yet with Lincoln. So until I figure that out, I won’t feel confident. But I have a lot of time.
We’ve focused primarily on your writing career, naturally. But becoming a professor at Harvard is quite an achievement in its own right. What did you get from that experience?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think what really drew me to graduate school, more than being a writer was the thought that I wanted to be a teacher. I loved teaching at Harvard, it was so much fun. This course that I taught on the presidency, I had like 350 kids in it. It was in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and the kids were so politically active at that time. You couldn’t get through a lecture without kids arguing with you, and it was wonderful. Much more lively in some ways than it is today, unfortunately. It was a wonderful time to become a young teacher. I also taught seminars, and had it not been for the fact that I got married and had kids and didn’t feel I could do it all, I would probably still be teaching today. I still lecture a lot around the country, so I can stay in touch with young students. I’ve just been elected to the Board of Overseers at Harvard. My youngest son is about to become a freshman at Harvard, so I can oversee what he does the next four years by being on the Board of Overseers. So I haven’t really left Harvard. I keep going back and doing seminars and stuff there, but it’s not a full-time job anymore.
On the basis of your experience, what is your advice to young women and young men about balancing work and family?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: When I was at Harvard, in graduate school, I was in a seminar with the great psychologist Erik Eriksson. And I remember he taught us, or tried to teach, that the richest lives, in the long run, somehow balance work, love and play in equal order. He tried to define for us what that meant. He said, “You have to commit yourself equally to each of those realms. Work is the obvious one, with the perseverance and the discipline to do something that you love, and to do it well. But,” he said, “even in the work — in the spheres of love and play — loving meaning friendships, family, children — you have to commit yourself, and in energy and emotion, so that they really become an important part of your life. And even play,” he said, “If you’re going to be involved in a sport, if it is a participant sport, you have to play it enough so that you can enjoy it, or if it is a spectator sport, follow it fully enough so it really becomes an emotional part of you.”
The most important thing he taught me, I didn’t listen to at all at the time. I was working for Lyndon Johnson. I was still teaching at Harvard, or a graduate student at Harvard, and I thought, “Oh, I can worry about marriage and play later. Work is what really matters.” It was only the experience of watching Lyndon Johnson, as I said earlier, that taught me that he hadn’t the play part of his life, he didn’t have the love part of his life, and that the balancing was really important. I think what I learned, more than anything, was that you can’t have it all balanced perfectly at any one time. When I was young, it was much more balanced toward work. When I had my children, it was much more balanced toward love and family, and I didn’t get a lot of work done. But you have lots of time left. My youngest is about to go to college. So I’ll have a lot more time than I had before, and I’ll be able to do more work than I did before. So you can’t ask of it to be perfectly balanced at any time, but your hope is, before you die, you’ve somehow had each of those spheres come to life. I think that’s probably more important than success in any one of those spheres alone.
Generally speaking, regardless of what field someone chooses, what personal characteristics do you think are most important for success? What do you tell your students and your children?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: One of the important qualities that I think is often overlooked is just energy. It’s vitality, and sort of a life force that some people have and others don’t. Probably that is connected to a love of whatever it is that they’re doing. Another quality that I think is central is confidence. Again, some people are more blessed with that than others.
When I look at Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership, I think the most important quality he had during the Depression and the war was this absolute confidence in himself, in his country, really in the American people. He was able to exude that confidence and almost project it. So when the people in the country heard him speak in these fireside chats, they said, “Yeah, it’s going to be okay. We’ll get through this depression,” or “We’ll win this war.” I think confidence comes from doing something well, working at it hard, and you build it up. It’s not something you’re born with. You have to build the confidence as you go along. So I would say energy, vitality, confidence, being willing to take risks at certain times if it’s something you believe in. That’s probably the hardest thing you have to figure out, and that’s where courage comes in. I think in the long run, these qualities somehow all meld together in a way that it’s hard to speak about them separately
The World War II era — and the adversity that had to be overcome in those days — remains a fascination for many of us. We have been fortunate enough to live in peaceful times. Do you think we are in some way deprived, lacking that experience of adversity?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think there is something to that. During World War II, there were factories open 24 hours a day, people willingly going to ration goods in order to contribute to the overall good and the economy, a sense that their sons, daughters, brothers were in the war overseas, so they had to work at home to make it all work. There is a sense of feeling larger than your own life when you’re in some common mission together. You have to hope it’s not going to take a war to bring that back to our country again. I think another time when it seemed to be here was in the early 1960s.
The one thing that John Kennedy did, above all else, was to energize young people to feel that they wanted to give something to their country. That’s what the Peace Corps was all about, what VISTA was all about, what the civil rights movement was all about. That wasn’t John Kennedy’s doing, but the civil rights movement is a big part of what made his presidency work. And I know, being a young person in that era, it was wonderful to be alive at that time. I just hope, for young people of this generation, that they’ll experience that feeling once again, that by working on large goals, they can do something more than their own individual ambition. I know from having been caught in the civil rights movement myself when I was young, it made those days much larger. And it was my experience of a war, in a certain sense, going down to Mississippi in the summer, going down to register people in the South. I value that more than almost anything else I’ve ever done.
Is it because of that adversity?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think it’s because you were working with other people. There were enemies. There were people in the South who didn’t want the blacks registered to vote. But more importantly, there was a sense of a brotherhood, of working for a goal that you knew was an important goal, that the country itself would be made better, and you were doing something not just for yourself, but something larger than yourself. That makes you feel bigger somehow.
You were obviously very close to the White House and Washington, being nearly selected to head the Peace Corps. President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Were you taking that to heart?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: There is nothing that I would like to instill in my own three sons more than that philosophy. It’s difficult when we talk to them now.
My husband worked for President Kennedy, was involved actually in writing the Peace Corps speech, worked for Lyndon Johnson and did all the great voting rights speeches. So these kids know how much we believe in all this. It is hard to penetrate the modern feeling — and I understand why they feel it — that politics is about special interests, that it’s corrupt, that it’s not really after these large goals that it was when we were there. Issues that are debated — the balanced budget — are not quite the same dimension as civil rights or the Voting Rights Act. I keep thinking that history runs in cycles, and that some day these large issues will come before the country again. There will be leaders that inspire young people. I don’t think it means that it’s over forever, but I’m getting pretty impatient. I’m hoping it comes soon, so that my young people can know that experience that we knew in the ’60s, and that the World War II generation knew during the ’40s.
What does the American Dream mean to you?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think what the American Dream means to me is the fact that — what founded this country — when I think about those posters that were put up in Europe, which said, “Come to America and you’ll have golden sidewalks. The land will be yours.” There was something so inspirational about the fact that these immigrants from all over the world felt that here was a place of freedom, a place of opportunity. There is still something about Ellis Island, whenever I see it, that makes me realize that the root, in some ways, of this country was that people felt that this was a new land, without a class society, without an aristocratic background, where if you worked hard you could become what you want to become. It’s only partly true. I mean, obviously there’s racism in this society. There’s economic benefits that go to people who are wealthy. There are some people who don’t really have a chance. But on the other hand, there’s always somebody who makes it through — even from the worst ghetto — that makes it through to the top of the society, and that’s not true in a lot of other countries. I think that’s still what the American Dream means: that with perseverance, with hard work, you can become something, that the classes won’t prevent you from becoming, that there’s a movement up that ladder with hard work.
What one book would you select to read to a grandchild?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think if I were reading to a grandchild, I might read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I love literature and fiction. In fact, when I’m not reading for my own books, I tend to read fiction even more than non-fiction. But the kind of fiction that I love the most is ones that tell stories about characters in a time, so that you learn from it at the same time. I’ve read War and Peace several times, and it can take a whole summer. If I had a grandchild to read it to, I can see it taking a whole summer. They would learn about Russia, they would learn about history, they would learn about human nature. They would learn about, “Can the individual make a difference or is it great forces?” Tolstoy is always battling with those large issues. Mostly, a whole world would come alive for them through that book. So I think I’d have a great time with that.
What advice do you have for young people who are interested in writing and perhaps are suffering from that common ailment, writer’s block? How do you get going?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I remember in high school, the reason I would be paralyzed from writing so often was that they’d give us the wrong kind of assignments to write. I remember once this horrible essay, having to write, “Experience is an arch under which we all walk.” I had no idea what it meant and I still don’t know what it means to this day.
You’d sit there with abstract thoughts and try and write them on the paper. So the most important thing is, whatever the assignment is that you’re given to write, go out and find some small detail that you can write about — if you’re describing a neighborhood, describing a house, describing a person or describing the reaction to a book — so that you’re bringing some material to the essay, or whatever it is that you write.
Do research. Even if you’re writing the college essay in some ways, you can do a little bit of research to bring it to life. You can’t just expect it all to come from your head. I think the mistaken idea that we have about writing is that somebody sits by a lake and they look at the clouds. There are poets who can do that, who generate their own thoughts with nothing other than what’s in their head. Ninety-nine percent of the rest of the writing is from work you build up. When I do research, I have done — 90 percent of my time is the research, the other ten percent is the writing. So I don’t have to face a blank piece of paper. I can look at this as a quote that I have from somewhere. This is an interview that I’m going to take from that. So it’s not as scary as having to have it come from your head. So I think the most important thing I would tell kids is, “Don’t think of it as something that has to come from your head.”
Even if you’re writing a book report, go read other people’s essays about that book. It doesn’t have to just come from you. Think about what the other person said, then have your own reaction to it. Don’t try and start the first paragraph. It’s always impossible to have your first sentence and first paragraph. Start in the middle of the thing and then go back and write your first paragraph, because otherwise, that can spend three days figuring out how to open the thing, because the opening paragraph has so much weight to it.
What are your memories of English class? Were you always very successful in that?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Oh, not at all. When I was younger, I didn’t understand detail and information. I kept thinking it had to be big thoughts. For example, if you’re writing about Plato or Aristotle, and you’re only 17 years old, how are you really going to understand what they’re saying? If I were to do it over again now, I would just take a piece of what they were saying and understand that, and apply it something else that I knew about, instead of trying to be a miniature Plato, which you cannot be at that time. So I never felt really confident about writing until I wrote the Lyndon Johnson book.
Just doing that gave you the confidence?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Doing that, which came from research. Just knowing that there were building blocks to writing, as there is to anything else. That confidence grew, and I thought the next book was better. Then the next one, hopefully, was better than that.
We were speaking to R.L. Stine, a very prolific writer. He talked about the importance of having an outline and then basically following that roadmap. Is that something that you do also?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Whenever I start a book, I make a very long outline. Not so much A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, 4, but really paragraph outline of the episodes that I want to cover in the book. And it’s before I know a lot. When I do that, it is what I, as a layperson, would want to know about, say, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Then what happens is, you get so deep into it, that after a while you’re off on a million tangents. And I always go back to the outline, because what it was in the outline, that I wanted to know as a layperson, is what the lay reader is probably going to want to know too. So it’s a nice reminder to yourself, if you’re getting so deep into something that really the reader is not going to care about at all.
For example, I’ve always loved medical history, because I have two sisters who are nurses, and a brother-in-law who is a surgeon. John Fitzgerald, Rose Kennedy’s father, went to Harvard Medical School for a year, in 1884. So when I was writing the Kennedy book, I used it to write 30 pages about the state of medicine in the 1880s. What was anesthesia like? What were hospitals like? It was completely off the track, because as the editors finally said to me, ‘This would be great if this man became a doctor. But he dropped out of medical school after a year and he became a politician. What are you doing?” I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” and that’s what happens sometimes. If I had gone back to my outline, I would have seen at the beginning I didn’t think of having 30 pages on medicine in the 1880s. So sometimes that first brush of an outline tells you the general place you want to go with the book, and you have to trust that. It’s sort of an instinct. When you become a specialist, you sometimes lose that layman’s approach. So I always pull myself back to it by the outline.
What do you consider your greatest achievement in your writing, up to this point?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think, in terms of writing, I feel best about the book on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, particularly the fact that people who lived through that era, who are now seeing their 70s or 80s, have written to me by the thousands and said that somehow it made them understand the era through which they lived. Even when you’ve lived through an era, you’re only seeing a part of it, understandably. It’s been a wonderful feeling to hear from them that I’ve given them an understanding of what was happening in the home front as a whole, so that they feel their sense of their own life has been enriched. That means even more than the next generations who never experienced it, because that I’ve been used to. That’s what you do when you write history. Mostly it is for people who didn’t live through it. This has been a special thing that I’ve never experienced before.
When you speak to someone, as you mentioned earlier, who says, “I was at that meeting with FDR,” or “I was there when Kennedy said this and that,” is that exciting for you, to actually be speaking to someone who lived part of the history which you feel so strongly about?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Oh absolutely. One of the pleasures in doing the Roosevelt books was that I got to meet two of the Roosevelt children before they died. There were five Roosevelt children; Jimmy and Elliot, two of the older boys, did die in the middle of my writing the book, but I met them at the beginning. And then, I’ve met the whole generation of their children — there are like 40 young Roosevelts — at a picnic, where they had me come and speak to them. You know that they have all these memories; that they knew their father, their grandfather.
Even now, when I go places sometimes, some woman will come up to me and say, “I saw Eleanor Roosevelt.” I never saw Eleanor Roosevelt, so there’s that great feeling of, “Oh, you’re so lucky. Tell me everything about it.” You want to hear everything about it, because they can teach you even more. Sometimes you’ll say, “Oh, I wish I knew that before.” Somebody will tell you a great story that — if you could have included it — but again, the book has to end at some point. If you want to absorb everything like a vacuum you’ll never finish these things. So I’ve learned to not say, “Oh, this is horrible that I didn’t know this before,” But just say, “Oh, this is great; I know it now.”
What do you think was your most valuable educational experience?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: I think interviewing the people who either knew one of the characters, or knew somebody who knew them, is probably one of the great sources. You learn so much from interviewing other people. It also makes the process of writing much less lonely than it would otherwise be, because I had to go out a lot during the period of writing and meet with these people. If you interview five people about the same incident, and you see five different points of view, it makes you know what makes history so complicated. Something doesn’t just occur. It’s not like a scientific event. It’s a human event. So the dimensions of it will be seen differently by different people. So the value that I found in interviewing was for an educational experience, just to know that history itself is subjective, that you can’t say, “It happened.” Do the best you can with what you think happened, but a lot of other people are going to see it happening differently.
What do you say to young people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: The most important thing, the greatest reward I feel, is that I love getting up in the morning, going into my study and knowing that this profession that I’ve chosen is one that is open-ended, that I can keep learning. I keep thinking, I can still do it when I’m 90 years old. Unless some mental infirmity comes about, even if I can’t walk anymore, I could still sit there reading.
There are a lot of other things I might have done and enjoyed. I might have liked to be a lawyer, I might have liked to be a public servant. So it’s not as if there’s only one thing meant for each person. Once you’ve gone down a path and you’ve gotten a certain confidence in it, and a certain love in it, the love really deepens over time. I love being in a story now even more than I did 20 years ago. So I think the most important advice is, a person doesn’t have to find out right away. It’s not like their first attempt at finding a profession is the only one they’re going to find. I might well have gone down other paths, and it still might have been okay. But if you find something that you love, and if it keeps deepening with each new experience, then just stay with it.
If I could produce another three or four books on presidents before I die, that’s all I’d ask, maybe even two. It doesn’t have to be 25 books, because they take me five or ten years. There’s no way that I’d be able to do that. But it isn’t even the book in the end. It’s knowing that every day I like what I’m doing, and I feel like I’m learning something new. I can talk about it to people and enjoy it. It’s knowing I can share it, both in lectures and in the books themselves, that makes it so worthwhile.
What is the place of integrity in your line of work, as you see it?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: When I look at what a writer owes to the reader, it’s critical to know that everything you’re writing about is not made up in your head.
You don’t sort of imagine what somebody might have thought at a certain moment. Some writers feel like it’s okay to just sort of go in the heads of their subjects and make it up. I feel that unless you can document and be certain about what it is that you’re writing about, the reader is going to lose faith in your own integrity. So I try to make it come alive as much as possible by endless research, so I know what the room looked like when the person was in there. If somebody interviewed a person, or a diary entry said what they said at a meeting, I can record that. I think my integrity depends upon not stretching over that line that separates non-fiction from fiction, as too many non-fiction writers are doing nowadays. They make it seem like a novel, rather than actual non-fiction.
Any other final thoughts?
I think you’ve done it.
Thank you. We appreciate it very much.
You’re very welcome.