An Interview with Robin Gerber

March 22, 2008 at 9:47 pm | Posted in Books, LIfe, My Life with Books, Reading | 8 Comments
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On March 12, I had the opportunity to speak with Robin Gerber about her new novel, Eleanor vs. Ike. She was on her way to a fund raiser for Hillary Clinton in Hyde Park that evening, but she graciously took the time to speak with me. After having read the book, it was wonderful to have had the opportunity to talk with her about the thoughts and questions that it raised. I hope that you’ll enjoy this interview as much as I did:

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Literate Housewife: First of all, I really enjoyed your book and am so happy that I had the opportunity to read it.

Robin Gerber: Oh, great! I’m so glad!

LH: What was it like to have published your first novel?

RG: It’s been really exciting and really fun. Harper has been fantastic, very supportive. You put it out there and you have no idea if people are going to love it the way that you do. I really love the book and I still cry when I read it. I’m getting really nice emails and feedback from people who just love it. Who seem to have the same feeling that I do, that it’s a really good story, it’s exciting and they couldn’t wait to finish it to find out who won. Writing’s just a lonely thing to do. You have an idea of what you hope to accomplish but obviously you can’t know if other people are going to read it the same way.

LH: How did writing Eleanor vs. Ike compare to writing Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way?

RG: It really was a completely different thing when you’re writing non-fiction. Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way is an advice book based upon stories from her life. So it was part writing biography, which, of course, you’re interpreting facts and then figuring out how do those facts tie in to leadership and theories about leadership and that’s something I know all about. So it was almost more of an academic exercise I guess – and not a terribly creative one. Now, having said that, I think that it is a terrific book. People really like it and it did what I hoped it would do, but in terms of how fun it was for me, it was a million times more fun to be creative. And I think that is the difference. When you got to get to writing a novel and saying, “Okay, let’s see… So if Ike’s team has this letter that they can use against her, what could her team have against him? How do I work this?

If people are in to politics, there’s a lot of fun things in the book. I’m a political junkie, so I have Eleanor saying, “We’re in it to win it,” which is of course what Hillary has said during her current campaign. At one point I have Eisenhower making a sexist comment about when people people hear Eleanor’s voice it will remind them of their worst moments with their wives. This is actually quoted verbatim from what Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator, has said about Hillary. So, there’s a lot of very, very subtle little things like that in the novel. What I call “political junkie” stuff is just fun for me.

One interviewer accused me of hammering home the connection between Hillary and Eleanor by have Hillary meet Eleanor. But that’s not why I did it. I did it because it struck me that it could have happened and it was a fun scene to write.

LH: Well really, that scene was interesting to me because I didn’t know that much about Hillary prior to Bill’s first presidential campaign, so I had no idea that her family came from a mixed political background.

RG: Yeah, that’s all true. She grew up in Chicago. Her father was a Republican and Hillary was a Goldwater girl when she was a teenager. But, her mother was a closet Democrat.

LH: Was there anything about Eleanor that surprised while you were writing or did she in some way take on a life of her own in the novel?

RG: You know, I think it helped me to really understand why she didn’t run for President. I have wondered what she actually said about running for President when there were people actually pushing her in that direction. Writing this novel made me realize that there was really nothing she said that rang very true. And in the end I decided that she had a great deal of insecurity about putting herself on that public stage. In a way she might have been right if she saw what is happening with Hillary today, more than half a century later. Imagine what would have happened in 1952.

LH: Actually that brings up a question I was going to ask: You opened Eleanor vs. Ike with her remembering her husband’s affair and how painful that was to her. What was it about her that made her that allowed her to make the choice to take that energy and focus it on service instead of taking it out on herself? Why do you think she chose to move forward?

RG: That’s a good question. A lot of people would have crawled into a hole. Many terrible disappointments happened to Eleanor as a child. Her mother died early in her childhood and her father was an alcoholic. You know, I think there are some people who are born with a kind of resiliency. She seemed to have that. She was a lot like her uncle, Teddy Roosevelt. And, I think that she was deeply compassionate because of what happened to her in her young life. She came from a very service-oriented family. Her Uncle Teddy’s example made an impact on her. So I think she understood that service had a kind of salvation to it that was worth exploring for her. Still, she didn’t really seek it out. It kind of came to her. Her husband’s adviser came to her and said, “We could really use your help with women voters now that they have the right to vote.” She had never really done much on the political stage, but she kind of liked being on the campaign trail with FDR during his run for Vice President. So, it is true that Louis Howe encouraged her like I wrote in the book. He gave her a chance and encouraged her. She was enlisted by her peers.

LH: It’s amazing what can happen when just one person shows their faith in you.

RG: The woman who came knocking on her door from the League was a wealthy Republican socialite who was very committed to women’s right to vote. So, you never can tell where the angel’s going to come from.

LH: You mentioned Teddy Roosevelt being Eleanor’s uncle. Was he her biological uncle?

RG: Yes, he was. He was her father’s older brother. She was a Roosevelt, so when she married she became Eleanor Roosevelt Roosevelt. She was Franklin’s 5th cousin. The Roosevelt family came to what is now Manhattan from the Netherlands in the 1600s and eventually moved to the Hyde Park area.

LH: I’m going to have to read more about them because I am Dutch myself and my ancestors settled in Michigan. Obviously the Dutch have more of an influence in our country than just in Southwest Michigan.

RG: Roosevelt in Dutch means rose “something” and FDR didn’t deny that there was a Jewish background in the Netherlands in the 1600s. Of course, the Dutch settled Manhattan but there are a lot more in Michigan, that’s true.

LH: Speaking of Michigan, I was pleasantly surprised to see my home state so well represented in your novel. You have the two housewives from Traverse City who go to the convention in Chicago and then the Pentagon administrator who was from Escanaba. She played an important role inadvertently. Were these references added because of your connection to Michigan or Eleanor’s?

RG: I’m from Skokie, IL. I forgot that I made the soldier married to the woman at the Pentagon from Michigan. I’m not sure where I got that.

LH: Eleanor must have been to Escanaba at one point because that character mentions that she met Eleanor there. Anyway, the Michigan connection, especially at the convention really drew me in to the story.

RG: I wanted the novel to have the sound of reality. I thought it would be important to tell about part of the convention story from the point of view of the delegates. That’s why I created them.

LH: Margaret Thatcher was serving England as Prime Minister when I was young. I’m lucky in the respect of having the example of a strong female leader. Still, there are many other examples of female political leaders, both good and bad, throughout history. Why do you think that America has been so hesitant to have females hold high political office?

RG: Well, I think it really has to do with the two party system. That makes it very hard here, whereas under a parliamentary system it’s easier for a woman to break in. The parties have weakened over the last 20 years so before that, it would be hard for any candidate who didn’t have the support of the party to win an election. There has been change since then, but we’re still not seeing a great increase in women running for office.

LH: The Korean War was the most important issue during the election of 1952. People who were speaking out against Eleanor didn’t believe a woman could lead in a time of war. Although her ultimate goal was to find a peaceful solution to that conflict, do you think she should have challenged the notion that a woman can’t lead in a time of war? There are some great women who did just that, such as Joan of Arc, Katherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth I.

RG: I agree. That would have been a good point to make. I think that because she was running against a general that it would have been hard to argue. But I think it would have been a good point to make. In the novel, my resolution to this situation was that she would invite him to be her Secretary of Defense.

LH: I really did appreciate the opportunity to read your book. I was thrilled to have this opportunity and I think my readers are going to be excited to have the opportunity to receive a copy for themselves.

RG: You had good questions. I think you’ll find that the challenge is editing it on to the page. It’s fun for readers to hear directly from an author like that.

#61 ~ Eleanor vs. Ike

March 17, 2008 at 3:45 pm | Posted in Books, Inspiration, Reading, Secrets and Lies | 6 Comments
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Eleanor vs. Ike: A Novel by Robin Gerber

Robin Gerber was once asked while giving a talk about in conjunction with her book, Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way, if Eleanor Roosevelt ever did anything wrong. Ms. Gerber’s response was, “Yes, she should have run for president.” From that question and her own response, Eleanor vs. Ike, an interesting, fun, and fast-paced novel, was born. It imagines what might have happened if Eleanor Roosevelt ran for president in 1952 against Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Gerber’s inaugural novel begins with Eleanor in Europe, finishing work on a United Nations meeting. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away, Eleanor continued to work for our country. While preparing to leave the meeting, she received an obituary for Lucy Rutherford, a woman with whom her husband had had an affair. Opening the novel with this story really worked to peak my interest about Eleanor. Other than what I may have learned about her in school and the glimpse of her in Annie, I do not know much about her or the world that she inhabited. I was drawn in to the novel by the story of her marriage and childhood.

There is also a lot to be learned and thought through along the roller coaster ride of the 1952 presidential election. Not only did Eleanor and Ike have voices in this novel, so did their staff and their supporters. Sometimes having too many narrators can weigh a novel down, but seeing the campaign from the inside and the outside made it a richer experience. In a time of election, especially during a time of political crisis, we all work together – or, in the case of fringe groups like the KKK, against each other – to determine the course of our history.

As a country, we’ve never had a female represent either major party as it’s presidential candidate. While that might change by the end of the summer, Eleanor vs. Ike addressed many of the issues such a race would bring up. In Gerber’s election of 1952, Eleanor’s detractors were men. I was anticipating another woman to rise up and wreak havoc on her campaign, but such a woman never materialized. Women do tend to serve as each other’s worst enemies, but having Eleanor’s vocal and vicious opposition made up by men is appropriate for that time period. Both political parties were run and controlled by men. A woman would have to run through that gauntlet first. If Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic candidate for president, it will be interesting to see if that has changed.

If I have no vested interest in the outcome, I tend to root for the underdog. This may be attributed to the fact that I grew up as a Detroit Tiger fan, but it’s a part of me nonetheless. Eleanor’s gender and personal insecurities easily made her seem to be an underdog, but her courage in her convictions and her love for her country made her a strong person and a formidable candidate. Despite the fact that there never really was a runoff between Eleanor and Ike, I got caught up in the campaign. Gerber’s dialog is wonderfully readable and moves the novel forward. I stayed up way past my bed time to find out who won the election of 1952 and it was well worth the loss of sleep. We need more leaders like Eleanor Roosevelt, be they Democrats or Republicans. Although she was never on the ballot, I promise you won’t regret casting your vote for her by reading this book.

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To buy this novel, click here.

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