Susan Wittig Albert on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Heart

An LJ 2016 Indie Ebook Award winner, Susan Wittig Albert’s historical novel Loving Eleanor tells of the romance between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok. Here, Albert talks about the significance of their story and her own experience being an indie author. Those interested in learning more about this year’s awards can find more information here.

What drew you to Eleanor and Hick?
I first read about them in Blanche Wiesen Cook’s wonderful biography, Eleanor Roosevelt. I was intrigued by Cook’s suggestion that their friendship began with a love affair and changed over the years—and that it was documented by 30 years’ worth of letters. That archive of letters is a treasure, especially in modern times. I followed the trail of footnotes to Doris Faber’s The Life of Lorena Hickok: ER’s Friend. I was offended—perhaps horrified is a better word—by Faber’s gender-biased treatment of the relationship and her negative representations of Hick. I knew there was an important story there, but Faber hadn’t told it. So I had to.

What do you want readers to take away from your novel?
Many of us know only the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt. I hope that readers will come to a fuller understanding of her as a woman, deeply conscious of her limitations and always unsure of herself but enormously courageous and willing to take risks that would terrify most of us. I also want them to know Hick as Eleanor’s mentor, supporter, guide, lover, and devoted friend. We love whom we love. Hick made that commitment, even as it altered her professional and personal life.

Why did you choose to focus on Hick’s point of view rather the better-known Eleanor’s?
This is really Hick’s story. She loved longer, loved more deeply. Hick shaped Eleanor’s political life in a way that has not yet been acknowledged. And because Hick was extraordinarily brave; she saved their letters so that they could be read in a more compassionate and (we hope!) enlightened time. We’ve already seen Eleanor in a wide variety of public settings, shaping herself and her message for different purposes and audiences. Hick’s view of her is deeply personal. By showing us Eleanor’s heart, she shows us a part of Eleanor we would not otherwise have seen.

What was the research process like? Did you discover anything particularly unexpected?
I love research and always do more than I know I’ll need for a project. For this novel, I spent a week with the unpublished letters at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and hundreds of hours with published materials and online resources. One of the most fascinating discoveries was a treasure trove of Hick’s Associated Press stories, written between 1928 and 1932. I also studied the full collection of the reports she wrote during her two years with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Hick’s wide interests, her curiosity and dedication to the facts, come through in these pieces. I came to admire deeply her professional competence as an outstanding political and crime reporter in a time when that was a remarkable achievement for a woman.

You recently said that 2018 would be your last year using a traditional publisher. What made you decide to make the switch from hybrid author to self-published only?
I’ve been with [Penguin imprint] Berkley for over 25 years and through some 50 titles, so this was a difficult decision. But my longtime editor retired last year, the publishing environment has changed dramatically, and the technologies for publishing my own work have become more accessible.

Also, I’ve been experimenting. In 2013, I published A Wilder Rose, about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, via my own imprint, Persevero Press. In 2015, I published Loving Eleanor, and in 2017, The General’s Women, about Dwight Eisenhower and his wartime driver Kay Summersby. The success of these three stand-alones has encouraged me to believe that I can successfully continue my [“China Bayles” and “Darling Dahlias”] mystery series as an indie publisher.

Yes, this is scary! And yes, it’s at the margin of my comfort zone, but I’m looking forward to the adventure of seeing a book all the way from my imagination to readers’ hands—to becoming a publisher as well as a writer.

What are you working on now?
I like to have several projects on the desk. The 26th “China Bayles” mystery, Queen Anne’s Lace, is in production at Berkley and will be out in April 2018; I’m already thinking about No. 27, likely a prequel to that long-running series.

An Unlucky Clover, [book seven in the “Darling Dahlias” mysteries], is about two-thirds finished. I expect to do two or three more books in that series.

And I’ve begun research on another historical novel, the story of Georgia O’Keeffe’s later life. I have long loved her art and admired her independent life—her home in Abiquiú, New Mexico, is just over the mountain from my home there. I hope to start writing by the end of summer.

Kate DiGirolomo About Kate DiGirolomo

Kate DiGirolomo is the SELF-e Community Coordinator at Library Journal. She received her Master's degree in Library and Information Science at Pratt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @KateDiGirolomo.

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