In This Twist On Tricky Dick's History, A President's Secrets Can Save Us

In This Twist On Tricky Dick's History, A President's Secrets Can Save Us

10:38am Jul 26, 2015
Crooked, by Austin Grossman.
Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
  • Crooked, by Austin Grossman.

    Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

  • Austin Grossman, author of Soon I Will Be Invincible and You: A Novel, is also a video game designer.

    Austin Grossman, author of Soon I Will Be Invincible and You: A Novel, is also a video game designer.

    Marka Knight / Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

"I promise you I will show the same contempt for the historical record that it has shown for me."

So intone the opening pages of Austin Grossman's Crooked, in what are supposed to be the thoughts of our 37th president, Richard Nixon — or, at least, those thoughts as Grossman imagines them.

In Crooked, Grossman has a little fun with the "historical record" himself, offering a fantastical reconstruction of Nixon's presidency and the years leading up to it. By Grossman's telling, the much-maligned president has quite an excuse for his rocky political career: It turns out he's been taking on supernatural forces that threaten far more than just his time in office.

But, as the novelist tells NPR's Rachel Martin, he didn't exactly set out with this oddball scenario in mind.

"Honestly, I always try to write a very serious novel in a very serious character study, and it just goes this way," he says. "These things start to appear in the text, and I love them and I love to play with them. And they fit, somehow; they fit with explaining who Nixon was."


Interview Highlights

On taking the notion of historical fiction a bit far afield

I describe this book as the book where it's all explained. Watergate, Alger Hiss — it's a sort of character study of [Nixon's] desperation, his paranoia, his erratic behavior, which I chose to explain through a buried supernatural conspiracy underlying the Cold War.

I think any time you're writing about Nixon, you're writing about a man with a kind of hidden darkness. And my way of writing about that darkness was to make it real, to put it out in the world and make it a secret he had to conceal.

On the story's central tension

Well, Nixon began his career as an anti-communist crusader, but in his investigations, he stumbles on the supernatural world underlying the conflict that is the Cold War. He discovers that there are worse things in the world than communists, but for various reasons he's constrained not to tell anyone.

So he goes through his long, long, eventful political career constantly in over his head with this business — sort of stumbling from one crisis to another, barely covering it up. And it all explains what we saw on the surface: his meltdown in 1963, the fairly inexplicable Watergate break-in and a whole bunch of things in between.

On why he picked Nixon for his focus

My first reason was, yes, Nixon was president when I was born. He's the first president I remember. And when you're 4 or 5, you're trying to make sense of what the adult world is. The president matters. The president is sort of the best person we've got; he's at the top of the heap.

But one of the first things I learned about the president was that he was a villain and a joke, which made a conundrum of the entire adult hierarchy, as far as I was concerned.

As I've grown up, it hasn't gotten any less mysterious. To this day, no one really knows who Nixon was, or what he was thinking. And this is the kind of question that drives you to write a whole novel about someone.

On what drew him to Nixon's relationship with his wife, Pat

I thought it was very interesting to think about somebody in a marriage where he has to keep an enormous secret. It makes a kind of comedy of the marriage, where he's always about to almost slip up and let the secret out. And Pat doesn't seem to know what's going on. It's an interesting way to map a relationship. How can you actually be close to the person you're married to? How much can you trust them about yourself? It became a question to me about marriage and about what marriage is. It's part of the character study. What on earth was it like to be married to Richard Nixon? Once I thought of the question, I had to find the answer.

On using humor to tell the tale

Out 37th president was our funniest president. I don't think there's any debate about that, whatever else he might have been.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUSTIN GROSSMAN: This is the story of the great con game that was the late 20th century, of American history's worst presidency, of how I learned to lie. It is not history as you know it. Suffice it to say that there are at least three sides to this story, and I am telling both of mine. I promise you, I will show the same contempt for the historical record that it has shown for me. My name is Richard Nixon.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Those are supposed to be the thoughts of the 37th president of the United States, Richard Nixon, as read by the man who has imagined them, Austin Grossman. Grossman's new book is called "Crooked," and it is a fantastical reimagining of Nixon's presidency and the years leading up to it, in which the much-maligned president takes on supernatural forces that threaten far more than his political career. Austin Grossman joins me from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

GROSSMAN: Thank you. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: So, you know, I guess it's a kind of historical fiction. But it feels, perhaps, further field than that. How do you describe this book?

GROSSMAN: I describe this book as the book where it's all explained - Watergate, Alger Hiss. It's a sort of character study of his desperation, his paranoia, his erratic behavior, which I chose to explain through a buried supernatural conspiracy underlying the Cold War. I think anytime you're writing about Nixon, you're writing about a man with a kind of hidden darkness. And my way of writing about that darkness was to make it - to make it real, to put it out in the world and make it a secret that he had to conceal.

MARTIN: So your trying to answer a lot of outstanding questions. But can you explain - I mean, it is a thriller. We don't want to give too much away. But what is, as you can define it, the central tension in the story?

GROSSMAN: Well, Nixon began his career as an anti-Communist crusader. But in his investigations, he stumbles on the supernatural world underlying the conflict that is the Cold War. He discovers that there are worse things in the world than Communists. But for various reasons, he's constrained not to tell anyone. So he goes through his long, long eventful political career, constantly in over his head with this business, sort of stumbling from one crisis to another, barely covering it up. It all explains what we saw on the surface - his meltdown in 1963, the fairly inexplicable Watergate break-in and a whole bunch of things in between.

MARTIN: I chuckle because it is funny at points. I mean, there are very serious historical events that had grave consequences. But the way you write this is pretty funny.

GROSSMAN: Well, our 37th president was our funniest president. I don't think there's any debate about that, whatever else he may have been.

MARTIN: Why Nixon? I mean, you were born the year Nixon became president. What drew you to the time period? What drew you to him?

GROSSMAN: Well, I mean, my first reason was, yes, Nixon was president when I was born. He's the first president I remember. And when you're 4 or 5 and you're trying to make sense of what the adult world is, the president matters, right? The president is sort of the best person that we've got. He's at the top of the heap. But one of the first things I learned about the president was that he was a villain and a joke, which made a conundrum of the entire adult hierarchy, as far as I was concerned. And as I've grown up, it hasn't gotten any less mysterious. To this day, no one really quite knows who Nixon was or what he was thinking. And it's this - this is the kind of question that drives you to write a whole novel about someone.

MARTIN: You also explore Nixon's marriage to Pat, which is interesting - a kind of little subplot of the book. What drew you to that relationship? What did you want to say about it?

GROSSMAN: Well, I thought it was very interesting to think about somebody in a marriage where he has to keep an enormous secret. And it makes a kind of comedy of the marriage, where he's always about to almost slip up and let the secret out. And Pat doesn't seem to know what's going on. And it's an interesting way to map a relationship. How can you actually be close to the person you're married to? How much can you trust them about yourself? It became a question to me about marriage and what marriage is as part of the character study. What on earth was it like to be married to Richard Nixon? Once I thought of the question, I had to find the answer.

MARTIN: Lest anyone think that this is strictly a politically inspired novel - I mean, we should mention you are a video game designer. So you come from this different universe. And this is a really fantastical book. There's all kinds of crazy supernatural things that are happening, dark forces in the world. Are there things that come into your imagination from the world of gaming that you think, no way, it just can't work in a book about Richard Nixon? Or was everything just at the forefront of your imagination and there were no limits?

GROSSMAN: I gave myself a lot of permission in writing this book. And honestly, I always try to right a very serious novel and a very serious character study. And it just goes this way.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GROSSMAN: It just goes this way. These things start to appear in the text, and I love them. And I love to play with them. And they fit somehow. They fit with explaining who Nixon was. But it's - I don't know if it's from video games or some deeper, mysterious source. But it is just how it goes when I try to explain who a person is.

MARTIN: The book is called "Crooked." It is written by Austin Grossman. Thanks so much for talking with us, Austin.

GROSSMAN: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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