James L. Swanson has had a lifelong fascination with Abraham Lincoln, so it might seem odd that his books deal more with the President's death than with his life.
Swanson's last book, Lincoln's Assassins, written with Daniel R. Weinberg, was mainly a collection of photos and other documents. Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killers--out this month and written by Swanson alone--is a suspenseful narrative. Says Swanson, a legal scholar at DC's Heritage Foundation: "I think anyone who reads the book will see that I think the real hero of the story is Lincoln."
Here's a conversation with the author:
You say a mythology has elevated Lincoln's assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, to a "fascinating antihero" and that a similar reverence toward Lee Harvey Oswald would be deemed obscene. How do you explain that?
First, Lincoln's assassination happened 140 years ago, and a lot of the emotional impact has withered. Second, it's partly due to Booth's excellence as an actor. He performed the assassination in such a dramatic way that we perceive it not just as a horrible crime but as theater. In part, we've bought what he was selling.
Does your style of storytelling, largely from Booth's point of view, risk perpetuating that myth?
I certainly didn't want the reader to sympathize with Booth. He was a racist, and he was a murderer. It was very important to me to write in the epilogue what I think his legacy really was.
What does Lincoln mean to you?
One of the great things about Lincoln is that he truly empathized with other people. He once said, "I shall do nothing through malice; what I deal with is too vast for malice." He had an uncanny ability to see problems through the eyes of others. When you came to him and wanted something, he already knew what you wanted, he knew why you wanted it, he knew what he could give and what he couldn't.
He saw it all when he was a lawyer--divorce, murder, property disputes, slander. He saw the heights and depths to which people could go, how they could tell the truth and how they could lie. In many ways, he was an amateur psychologist.
Movie rights to your book have been sold, with Harrison Ford slated to play one of Booth's hunters. If it were up to you, who would play Booth?
Johnny Depp would make a terrific Booth. There's a trick in casting, because Booth was considered one of the handsomest, most popular men of his time. You'd have to cast a Booth-like person who would exude the same characteristics.
Rita Braver, national correspondent for CBS News Sunday Morning, says a favorite love story is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. What does she like about it? "Everything. It was one of the first romances I read as a young girl." Braver says her husband, lawyer and literary agent Robert Barnett, isn't as enamored of the book, so she hasn't been able to get him to the new movie--"although he is very romantic."
Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen--whose new book is You're Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation--likes Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières: "It's about a wise young girl on a Greek island and a war-hating captain who comes to the island with the occupying Italian forces during World War II. I'll never forgive de Bernières for letting the war separate them and depriving them of an early reunion because of a misunderstanding, but I'll always be grateful to him for bringing them together 50 years later--and for the final scene, in which they ride off on a red motorcycle: two old lovers looking absurd to the world in their crash helmets but looking to each other like the handsome youths they fell in love with and never forgot."
Thomas Mallon is a novelist--his books include Bandbox and Henry and Clara--and acting deputy chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He recommends Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper, edited and translated by Jean Benedetti: "During the five years they were together, the playwright and actress were often apart, separated by his ill health and her stage commitments even after they married. Their correspondence is left to carry all the exasperation and affection and evasions of a deep, neurotic, charming relationship. In many respects, the letters were the relationship."
Local blues singer and musician Deanna Bogart suggests Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The novel, set during the introduction of Christianity to ancient Rome, centers on the romance between a Christian woman and a Roman soldier: "A love story mixed in with psychology, bloody politics, bloodier religious issues, and ancient history is always intriguing to me. Those folks had relationship speed bumps that make us look like wimps."
DC novelist Kate Lehrer, whose most recent book is Confessions of a Bigamist, likes Daniel Martin by John Fowles: "Daniel--a scriptwriter in his forties involved with a young Hollywood actress--becomes reacquainted with his first love, a woman with a heavy dose of British reserve that elevates her to the point of mystery. Finally, he chooses this older one. Would the story mean as much if I were in my twenties? Probably, because I'm a sucker for romantic love, one of the reasons Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway satisfied me so much at that age."
Washington Post financial columnist Michelle Singletary--whose book Your Money or Your Man: How You and Prince Charming Can Spend Well and Live Rich is out this month--has an unconventional pick: He's Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo: "It's simple, it's easy to read, and if every woman read it, she would end up with the love of her life because she wouldn't waste a minute on the bums who don't really want her. The less time you spend worrying if he's into you, the more time you have to concentrate on the things that will make your relationship work."
Former Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke's Lipstick on a Pig: Winning in the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game combines memoir with advice.
Chevy Chase author James Reston Jr. tells the story of his youngest daughter's mysterious and life-threatening illness in Fragile Innocence: A Father's Memoir of His Daughter's Courageous Journey.
DC writer Kristin Henderson--a Quaker whose husband, a Navy chaplain, has served in Iraq--intertwines other wives' stories with hers in While They're at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront.
Robert Wilson--former editor of Preservation magazine, now overseeing the American Scholar--has written The Explorer King: Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax--Clarence King in the Old West, about an adventurer's rise and fall.
Two parenting books with an edge are out in March:
Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads: Dealing With the Parents, Teachers, Coaches, and Counselors Who Can Make--or Break--Your Child's Future is by DC writer Rosalind Wiseman with Elizabeth Rapoport. Wiseman's Queen Bees & Wannabes was about competition among teenage girls.
Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families is a collection of essays edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner, general manager of the Washington Post Magazine. Contributors include local writers Iris Krasnow and Lonnae O'Neal Parker as well as such national names as Jane Smiley and Susan Cheever.
DC's Larry L. King--author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas--has written In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor. Morris was an author (North Toward Home and My Dog Skip, among others) and editor of Harper's magazine. It's due next month.