Most readers know me as a mystery author, but for the past five or six years, I’ve been indulging my interest in biographical fiction. My first biographical novel, A Wilder Rose, told the story of Rose Wilder Lane, the woman who rewrote the family stories her mother—Laura Ingalls Wilder—had written down. Together, they created the Little House books. When publishers weren’t interested in the book, I published it under my own imprint, Persevero Press. A Wilder Rosehas sold over 60,000 copies and is under option for film.
My second biographical novel, based on letters held in the FDR Presidential Library, tells the story of the friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Titled Loving Eleanor, it too was published by Persevero Press just a few months ago. I’m almost finished with a third, set during WW2 and into the postwar years. The General’s Women is about Kay Summersby, Mamie Eisenhower, and Ike, the man they both loved. It is based on Kay’s memoirs, Eisenhower biographies, and letters I found in the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Another project, now in the research stage: a novel about the five women who loved Franklin Roosevelt: his mother, his wife, his lover, his secretary, and his cousin. I’m tempted to call it Loving Franklin, to pair it with Loving Eleanor.
Writing biographical fiction is—for me—deeply satisfying work. I am far more interested in her stories than I am in histories. I am fascinated by stories of women who have set out to do things, discover things, make their way in a man’s world, even change that world and the people in it. Unfortunately, history—that is, our public memory, the culture’s corporate record of events and ideas—is not only written by the winners but written by the men who have won. The stories of women who counted for something are usually hidden in history, behind his stories, because their achievements often challenge commonly-accepted beliefs about how women are supposed to behave. So I spend a lot of time digging around in unpublished diaries, letters, autobiographical fragments, pieces of memoir—listening for voices that need to be heard. Silenced voices, misunderstood voices, whispers. Not history. Her stories.
It’s a good thing that I enjoy research, because any kind of historical fiction—fiction set in the past—requires quite a lot of it. Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research demands. And biographical fiction about a well-known, much-admired woman is extraordinarily challenging. For Loving Eleanor, I started in the usual place: by reading everything I could find to read. At the time (2014-2015), there wasn’t much published material about Lorena Hickok, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins and an inadequate biography. The Roosevelts, of course, are the subject of dozens of books, so I ended up with a full bookcase and plenty of film and online resources.
But since I’m interested in the hidden stories, what I’m chiefly after are unpublished documents. It is our great good fortune that Lorena Hickok, who clearly wanted somebody to tell the story of her friendship with the First Lady, donated her collection of letters and other documents to the FDR Presidential Library. Reading them is very much like listening to hundreds of hours of private, intimate conversation. I found myself pulled deeply into the worlds that Hick and Eleanor shared. That’s when the real questions began to arise. Who are these women, behind the personas history has created for them? What do they want, what do they need? What are they afraid of? What is it they have to learn? Where is the real story, the hidden story? These are the questions that take us deep into the imaginative heart of fiction, but keep us within the boundaries established by the biographical and historical facts—the truths—that careful and persistent research can discover.
I heard filmmaker Errol Morris speak recently about making documentary films. “We don’t judge a documentary film on whether it tells the truth,” he said, “but whether it attempts to seek the truth and asks you to think about the relationship between the film and what the truth might be—if it could be found.”
That’s what I’m trying to do with these biographical fictions about women’s hidden lives. I want to take us toward what the truth of their lives might be—if it can be found.
Susan Wittig Albert is a best-selling novelist, memoirist, and author of both adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She lives on a 31-acre Texas Hill Country homestead with her husband and frequent coauthor, Bill Albert. She founded the Story Circle Network in 1997. Her website: susanalbert.com.