Stories, Like Dragons, Are Hard to Kill
Former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater rows across the river of historical fiction with both oars in the water. As the quintessential media man, Fitzwater can sure write the story. This time, though, he’s not putting the spin on a Reagan policy decision or facing the press corps’ questions concerning a George H. Bush legislative agenda. His stake in his new novel, Esther’s Pillow, is personal.
As Fitzwater’s father lay dying, he and his brother sat at their father’s bedside and heard him call out the name of a man they never knew—Jay, their father’s brother, whose name he never mentioned. Shrouded in secrecy, the story of this long-forgotten family scandal became the plot of Fitzwater’s first novel.
Esther’s Pillow is the story of Margaret Chambers, a schoolteacher who, in 1911, had the audacity to be both attractive and intelligent. After college, Margaret returns to her home town to teach in the one-room schoolhouse of her youth. The townspeople believe she needs to be “put in her place” and concoct a plan to tar and feather her, hoping to force her out of town. Margaret is ambushed by a group of men fueled by whiskey and everything quickly gets out of control. Knowing the sheriff will do nothing to her transgressors, Margaret seeks the counsel of the District Attorney, who is outraged by the tarring and feathering. The ensuing trial puts the small Kansas town into the national spotlight.
If you know Fitzwater, it should come as no surprise that one of the main characters in the novel is not a person at all, but an entity—the press. I emailed Fitzwater to ask him about the significance of the Kansas City Star in Esther’s Pillow. “The Kansas City Star is a character in Esther’s Pillow, especially because its extensive coverage helped change the moral attitudes in Lincoln, Kansas and the nation concerning tar-and-feathering,” Fitzwater replied. “Indeed, without the Star‘s coverage, this trial might have passed unnoticed, and the community would not have examined its own morality so closely.”
When I asked him about the integrity of the press, and how his experiences as a press secretary influenced his characterization of the newspaper reporter in the novel, he replied, “My characterization of Temple Dandridge [Star reporter] reflects my journalism training, and my years as a press secretary. I generally believe in the integrity of journalists, even when they round a few corners.”
My favorite character in the book is Easy Tucker. Fitzwater agreed. “He [Tucker] is a naive person, pushed to extremes by unquestioning love for his wife, and his own insecurities. But he also is the first to feel a personal sense of guilt and shame for what he did.”
Tarring and feathering a person was not illegal in 1911, and thus the assault on Margaret Chambers, the ripping of her clothing, was punishable. Fitzwater told me that the 2001 equivalent of tar and feathers would be children falsely accusing teachers of abuse, parents pressuring teachers on certain policies, legal actions against school systems on curriculum matters, or any situation in which citizens take the law into their own hands.
Questioned about digging up family secrets, Fitzwater believes “[the] truth is far more interesting than any sense of shame.” He finds it hard to think of Jay as a family member; instead he is just a character in the story. His family supported the book and the revelations about Jay Fitzwater’s background. Four generations have passed and now the search is for Jay’s descendents. In response to my questions about his long-lost relatives, Fitzwater told me, “No descendant of Jay has turned up, although I hope one will. I would love to know how they kept the secret, and did Jay’s direct descendants know what happened.”
In the July/August 2001 Atlantic Monthly, B.R. Myers discusses the popularity of “deliberately obscure” fiction. Lamenting the current trend toward affected prose, Myers writes, “. . . today any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose is deemed to be ‘genre fiction’—at best an excellent ‘read’ or a ‘page turner,’ but never literature with a capital L . . . What is not tolerated is a story element of action—unless of course, the idiom is obtrusive enough to keep suspense to a minimum . . .” Myers goes on to define the current best-selling incoherent novels, labeling them “Consumerland fiction.” Using examples like Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo, Myers criticizes hit and miss verbiage. The “growing consensus that the best prose is that which yields the greatest number of standout sentences, regardless of whether or not they fit the context.”
To that I say, read Fitzwater.
Herb squinted up at Jay to see if he was fooling, but Jay just flashed him that crooked smile. Herb thought the plan sounded possible. He didn’t really like Margaret Chambers. The last time they were out, to a school picnic, he caught her from behind near the coat closet and put his arms around her waist. If a couple of kids hadn’t been there, she might have raised a real ruckus. As it was, she turned and pushed him away, saying he was fresh, and she wanted to be taken home. That had been over a year ago, but it still seemed like there was some unfinished business there. Also, he remembered the smallness of her waist and the fullness of her breasts, memories that still stirred more than a casual interested in being with her again.
Right there, straight-up prose written for maximum readability. Fitzwater’s style is natural, not pretentious. No affectations or obscure references in this novel, no sir. If this is genre fiction, a page-turner, then send more of them to me. I read the entire book in one evening and enjoyed every minute of it. Sam Donaldson and Barbara Bush agree: we may have lost a great press secretary, but we gained a hell of a novelist.
Fitzwater’s next novel, tentatively called The Trotline Catch, is a murder-mystery about a waterman on the Chesapeake Bay. He says the hardest thing about writing a book is the discipline of doing it every day, a little bit at a time. His publisher, Peter Austin, told him, “Well, remember, James Michener writes a thousand pages per book but he only does it two pages a day.”