In her new book, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life (Scribner, $26), Ann Beattie doesn't so much fictionalize the life of the late first lady as she simply wonders who Pat Nixon was. To begin with, her name wasn't Patricia — she was born Thelma Catherine Ryan. She had 11 nicknames, including Buddy and Starlight (her Secret Service code name). She trained as an actress. She is, we are told, the only modern first lady not to write a memoir. Through a series of imagined scenes, actual events and reprinted letters, Beattie has created a hybrid biography that gets us a little closer to understanding the enigmatic wife of Richard Nixon. Beattie, 63, spoke with USA TODAY about her book.
Q: This book is a mind-bender.
A: Oh! Yes, it certainly was writing it, too.
Q: What drew you to Pat Nixon?
A: I did have a few postcards of Mr. and Mrs. Nixon, Mrs. Nixon and her daughter Julie. I've had them for many years. I was prompted by that, but then of course she was still someone I felt I couldn't fathom and didn't really want to. It wasn't something like thinking, "Maybe if I research this woman, I'll find out how fascinating she was." It was, "What the heck is this? Whatever was that?"
Q: Is this how you felt about her at the time?
A: I felt more strongly about them at the time, of course. I disliked them intensely. You notice I didn't research a book on Mr. Nixon. I have no interest in rethinking that one. Mrs. Nixon was born about eight years before my own mother (Pat Nixon was born in 1912 and died in 1993). They had many of the same experiences: World War II, being in the workforce. But my mother and I had the advantage of not being Mrs. Nixon.
Q: This is more a meditation on the art of writing and biography than it is strictly speaking a fictionalized life or biography.
A: I would agree with that. I wasn't trying to fictionalize her. I understand why the edges are very blurry here. I didn't know where my research would lead me. In other words, it might have ended up being 100% a personal memoir, but no, it didn't lead me to that.
Q: The notion here of an unreliable narrator comes up quite a bit, which is fitting because Nixon himself spun the truth and was himself quite an unreliable narrator.
A: The quintessential, I would say, but for quite nefarious purposes. Not everyone who mobilizes an unreliable narrator is necessarily doing a critique on that narrator. Sometimes it happens and it can seem like just a game in literature and there's so much of it and it's so overdone.
Q: It's interesting that Pat Nixon was an actress early in her life. In a way, the role of her lifetime was as the first lady.
A: Exactly. That's just a wonderful gift to a writer when you find out something that's factual like that. The idea that she was an actor also made for a kind of continuity throughout the book. When (her daughter) Julie was sick, had a cold or something, her mother read aloud The Glass Menagerie to her. What writer wouldn't say, "Wait a minute. We'd better stop here and wonder what that could have sounded like to Mr. Nixon. Or to Julie." A lot of things in there are things that Mrs. Nixon would be pained to hear. And I'm not quite sure what her level of psychological awareness was, not to put her down. I truly have no idea. But things like that do so much of the work of creating the ambience of the book, you feel like they're a gift.
Q: Does writing dialogue for her, or any historical figure, make you nervous at all? Is there any special burden on the writer?
A: I don't think people are going to look at any scenes in which they know I couldn't have been present and I don't quote any source either and take it as anything other than fiction. I'm taking my best guess, though. I could have given her any number of verbal mannerisms and ticks and odd hobbies and all that sort of thing. But I try to stay true to the role I thought she was playing and not branch out into things that would have made her more conspicuous in ways I had no reason to think she actually was.
Q: What was she like, then?
A: She certainly was nobody's fool. I think she was a very gentle person. I think she was reluctant to speak and resolved not to speak. I always sensed some fragility there.