August 2007

Paul Morton


An Interview with Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon, one of the few serious novelists to set his books in Washington, D.C., lives in a small brick house in Foggy Bottom, across the street from the Watergate Hotel and a few blocks away from George Washington University. He spent some time working for the government here. From 2002 to 2005 he was on the National Council of the Humanities. From 2005 to 2006, he worked for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). He’s written seven novels, a book about plagiarism and a book about diaries. But he’s probably best known for the engrossing if sometimes cranky essays he’s written for GQ (his column there had the fitting title, “Doubting Thomas”) and The Atlantic Monthly. Do you remember that piece in The New Yorker last year that explained to you why your 8th grade teacher was wrong to call To Kill a Mockingbird a great book? That was his.

His novels tend to center on the Rosencrantz and Guildensterns of the American past. Henry and Clara (1994) tells the story of the unfortunate young couple who shared the box at Ford’s Theater with the Lincolns the night Abraham was killed. Dewey Defeats Truman (1997) examines the romances of the residents of Thomas A. Dewey’s hometown of Owosso, Michigan in 1948. Two Moons (2000) gives us a progressive Gilded Age senator who happens to be a womanizer and a brilliant, vivacious woman on the cusp of middle age who has no interest in feminism. Mrs. Paine’s Garage (2002), a work of nonfiction, tells the story of the decent Quaker woman who sheltered Lee Harvey Oswald in the months leading up to the Kennedy assassination. There’s a subtle, qualified patriotism in his work, one that acknowledges the crushing weight of historical circumstances as well as the ability of thoroughly American individuals to maintain a vague spiritual dignity in spite of their tragedies.

Fellow Travelers, his most recent novel, published in April, is the story of a romance between Hawkins Fuller, a Harvard-educated WASP who works at the State department, and Tim Laughlin, a young Irish Catholic who manages to become a bit player in the Army-McCarthy hearings. It’s a funny book, which has something “wonderfully over-the-top” about it as David Leavitt wrote in The Washington Post. It reads at times like a campy ’50s comedy. It is Mallon’s first novel to focus on gay themes.

I met Mallon, who is 55, in his study at his house on June 11. There are a few small but noticeable red flags in the room. He keeps a George W. Bush bobble head doll next to his desk. He has photographs of himself with Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney. There’s a Bush-Cheney ’04 bumper sticker on his bookshelf. This description may be an example of liberal bias. One should also point out that most of his house is decorated with vintage journalism photographs and he has more pictures of himself posing with writers (there’s John Updike and Mary McCarthy) than Republicans. By the way, his bookshelf contains Dan Quayle’s memoir, which Mallon worked on. If Al Gore had asked him to work on his book, he says he would have happily agreed.

Have you thought about why so few novelists are conservative?

For one thing, I’m a libertarian Republican, which is very different from a lot of what is in charge right now, and I think by conservative standards [I’m] quite moderate. I don’t think there’s any clear answer to that question. I think it’s a question that’s probably better put to liberals, because they’re the majority. I think the burden of explanation should be on them. 
How would you say being a conservative informs your novels aesthetically?

I still to this day think of myself as an essayist who writes novels. My novels are conservative in terms of structure and shape. Perhaps the most unusual of them is an early novel called Aurora 7, which is all set on a single day. They’re all [written in the] third person. I can’t really imagine writing a novel in the first person. I think that’s because I don’t want to let go of all those 19th-century prerogatives, all the essayist’s prerogatives. In a book like In Fact, my essay collection, and in all the criticism that I write, I think you could detect what some people would call a relatively conservative aesthetic. I got a real kick a few years ago with a review of Dewey Defeats Truman by James Wood, whom I admire a lot. It was a long review and he was sort of passionately conflicted about the book. There were a lot of things he liked about the book, and he was very kind about the things he liked. But he said that if there really was an avant-garde in America this book would be its mortal enemy.

What’s interesting to me is the way, when it comes to fiction, a person’s liberal or conservative aesthetic in terms of formal questions is not predictive of his political persuasion and vice versa.

But it seems to be with you.

There might be more of a continuum than there is with a lot of other people. My great mentor -- the writer I admire more than any other -- was Mary McCarthy. She was very anti-communist in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, but in later years, during Vietnam, she was quite left. But she was very conservative in her literary views. It’s detectable in her literary and cultural criticism. I think you can find that in a lot of people. It was like that in my Vassar days. I was a Tory in curriculum matters [and] I always had key allies who were very to the left of me politically but were purely conservative when it came to academic issues. So I guess there’s some continuum with me.

Well these are all questions of form. But let’s look at Roscoe Conkling in Two Moons and Hawkins Fuller in Fellow Travelers: I find them both to be charismatic characters, the kind you would find in an 18th-century comedy. They’re stars whose narcissism hurts everyone around them. Yet we still want to have sex with them. You don’t question the fairness of having people like this in the world.

You’re talking about accepting certain manifestations of human nature without complaint. And even beyond that, maybe even not complaining about that, even enjoying them. I can see logically why you would argue that as [being] an inherently conservative notion. It may have something to do with the extent to which one believes in possibilities of human improvement and I suppose the more conservative position on that is that those possibilities are very limited. I think that’s probably true.

I can recall a couple of reviews in which people have said that I seem to have affection for all my characters. Even a very mild villain in Dewey Defeats Truman is the Republican lawyer Peter Cox. He’s kind of a warm-up for Fuller in some ways. Some people were impatient with the fact that I wasn’t more censorious of Peter. And people were furious that I allowed him to get the girl at the end of the book. I viewed Anne Macmurray’s choice of him over the nice guy, Jack Riley, the union organizer, as an index of her maturity. She understood there was something chemical between her and Peter that just didn’t exist between her and Jack. There’s one scene toward the end, where she’s able to imagine [a future together] with Jack, but it will be dull and placid, but she’s not able to imagine [one] with Peter, because she knows they’ll be divorced in 10 years. But she knows she has to marry [Peter] anyway. I think the real possibilities of redemption lie beyond this world.

On the other hand, with the possible exception of John Wilkes Booth, who’s a bit player in Henry and Clara -- I’m looking at these books now (looks at a bookshelf that contains his body of work) -- I don’t know if I’ve ever dealt with a really evil character. The 18th-century [charismatic star] hadn’t occurred to me as a literary type that I could fit these characters into, but the minute you mentioned it I could see it. But those characters aren’t evil in the big time way.

You had an interesting essay recently about To Kill a Mockingbird.

[laughs] Ms. Lee. Did I ever get mail on that one! I was still in the government. And my e-mail address was very easily findable on the agency Web site. I remember getting some choice e-mails about it.

You wrote that it was being taught as “moral Ritalin.”

[laughs] I fell back on Flannery O’Connor. In a letter she says, [in a mock Southern accent] “It’s fine as long as they know they’re reading a children’s book.” It’s not a terrible novel. But the idea that it’s the book that Americans cite all the time as the book, with the exception of the Bible, that has had the most effect on them seems to me to indicate that it’s overly prominent. I think it’s a fine little book, in its own way, with a lot of garden-variety flaws. And one of the things I was struck by when I went back and read it and watched the movie was that the movie is in some respects more subtle than the book. Usually we think films have to gin up the book for a popular level. But in some ways I found the Horton Foote screenplay to be more subtle than some of the dialogue in the book. If I had a 14-year-old child I would want him or her to read it, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t put it in front of my kids as great literature. It’s funny how something like that [essay] could make a stir. A little piece like that.
You wrote in the Acknowledgements section of Fellow Travelers, “Having more than once described the writing of historical fiction as being a relief from the self, I was aware as I worked on Fellow Travelers of venturing further than usual into my own life’s preoccupations and fundamentals, however refracted they might be here by time and geography.” It’s an obvious question, but what were these new preoccupations, the most obvious being homosexuality?

I remember when I was making notes for these characters very early on. I wrote down something for Laughlin. I wrote “Date of birth: November 2, 1931.” Now I was born November 2, 1951, so I sort of knew something was up. It just came out of my pen. “This, on some level, is going to be about what my life would have been like if I had been born 20 years earlier.” He has a lot of my demographics pushed back a little bit. My father was born in Hell’s Kitchen. My grandmother was a very old lady when I was born, much nicer than Grandma Gaffney in this book, but a tough reserved customer nonetheless. They make this migration from Hell’s Kitchen to Stuyvesant Town at the end of the war. My family made it a little earlier in the ’20s to Woodside, along with all the other Irish. The world of that holiday dinner table was very familiar to me. The real life characters in my life were more lighthearted and fun than a lot of the people around that table. But in terms of milieu, that was my life. I was a serious anguished Catholic, the way Laughlin is. That didn’t persist as far into my 20s as it does with him.

And the homosexuality, the obvious part as you said… that’s kind of run through my books in mild ways. As much as anything I wanted to write about the ’50s, I didn’t necessarily want to write about homosexuality. I didn’t want to write an autobiographical book. I wanted to write about that period. But these things battened onto the book as I started it. So he’s the character most like me, though I’m not as sweet as he is. Nobody really is. If they are, God help them.

Because of the breakneck progress of Irish-Americans, by the time I was an adult, I had seen a fair bit of Fuller’s world as well. Neither of my parents finished high school. My mother eventually finished at night. It was this huge great leap forward for me to go to college in the family. I went to this Ivy League school. I was an undergraduate at Brown and then I went to Harvard as a graduate student. I had this fancy teaching career at Vassar and worked at fancy places like Conde Nast. So Fuller’s world was familiar to me, even though it wasn’t a world I was born into. I was struck by that as I was writing the book too. So time and -- I don’t know if you want to call it social progress or not -- had bridged those two worlds in a way they weren’t bridged at all in the ’50s. So there are bits and pieces of me and my own experience even in Fuller. But obviously it is Laughlin who is closer to me than any of the other characters.

Was it a relief to get back to the self at all?

[Long pause] Good question. I do remember moments when I was writing this book when my emotions were engaged in a direct way that I hadn’t experienced in fiction before and I remember enjoying it. I remember having a sense that this was something I hadn’t tapped into before. It was probably good for me, good for the book. I had emotional experiences writing other novels. I remember crying over the last page in Two Moons, but I was really crying over my creations. But this was different. I do remember a couple of times writing this book, doing scenes that were based on my own experiences and though they were refracted a bit, I would want to push the novel away. “I don’t want to think about that. I don’t want to deal with that right now.”

Even here, though, the characters are so different -- I don’t have any memories of the ’50s as an adult -- and their situation is so different from mine. It’s not like being a professor of writing at an MFA program who writes a novel about being a professor of writing at an MFA program who has an affair with somebody in the program. For all the autobiographical aspects of Laughlin the book is still quite far removed from my life too. In that sense some of the experiences I’ve typically had writing historical fiction obtained with this book too.

You’ve tended to write more about male beauty than female beauty in your previous books. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that.

[laughs] I wouldn’t say I have, but for obvious reasons I guess it doesn’t come as a shock. I once had a copy editor, a wonderful guy named Larry Cooper at Houghton Mifflin, who copy edited maybe five books of mine. I remember him once saying, “You never mention a character’s hair color unless it’s red.” Copy editors do get to know these quirks about you.

I think that up until now the women have always run away with my books. For instance, Henry and Clara is Clara’s book. It was, as the title seems to indicate, [originally] supposed to be about the two of them somewhat equally. It became her book because I realized at a certain point, Henry was, from my point of view, crazy. The seeds of his craziness predate the [Lincoln] assassination. I had an editor at Ticknor and Fields who said, “This is post traumatic stress syndrome.” And I said, “Nah, I think Henry was odd for a long, long time.” But as the book went on I realized I couldn’t enter his madness the way I could enter into Clara’s response to it. Her fears of him, her sadness. These were all things I was able to imagine in ways I couldn’t imagine Henry. And frankly, craziness doesn’t interest me. It’s one of those arbitrary states. It’s for the same reason I detest dreams in fiction. When I teach fiction to people, I tell them, “No dream sequences. If you can do anything in a dream, what’s the point? Where’s the artistry?” In Dewey Defeats Truman, the young woman is the pivot of the love triangle. Two Moons is very much Cynthia’s book. That’s another very different sort of love triangle. There were two men and one woman, and the woman again is the chief character there. Fellow Travelers was different.

But there are very important women in Fellow Travelers.

And Mary became a much more significant presence in the book than I first imagined her. I imagined her in the beginning as a device, a go-between between the two guys. Her difficulties began to interest me a lot as I wrote about her.

Mary tells Fuller at some point that she doesn’t think any woman could approve, in their heart, of male-male love. This is one of the interesting things about historical novels. You get to study how the mores of sex changes so dramatically from one generation to the next. You couldn’t imagine someone like Mary saying something like that today.

If she were to use such a line like that today, either a fictional character or a person you met, you would disapprove of her and you would be right to disapprove of her. But she’s struggling with this in the ’50s and I think it would be unnatural for her to be so ahead of her time. Surely, there were people who were. But I didn’t want to make her prematurely pro-gay -- you know, what’s that famous phrase about people in the ’30s, “prematurely anti-fascist” -- prematurely pro-gay, because I thought it would be…

It would be a sign of insanity.

She would cease to exist to me as a realistic character. I almost in a perverse way made Cynthia in Two Moons anti-feminist and anti-progressive. Conkling is much more of a feminist than she is. Even though she has all these abilities, particularly with numbers, she’s not for something even like civil service reform. She says in the old days when merit wasn’t taken into account, someone could take care of you if they were your friend. My novelist-friend Richard Bausch once told me he didn’t like the way in fiction all characters had to represent the highest aspirations of their particular victim group. If you do that in fiction in a contemporary setting you’re going to run into problems with sentimentality. If you do it in historical fiction you’re going to run into that as well as problems with verisimilitude. Mary is a good person by any fundamental standard.

There’s a line from Philip Larkin, “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three.” We really don’t know what people did in their bedrooms. Roscoe Conkling in Two Moons comes across as sexually uninhibited. Henry in Henry and Clara is crazy enough to do anything. But we don’t know whether or not, given these men’s time and place, either would get a blowjob.

Henry and Clara have a shipboard episode of premarital sex. I fully believe that people were engaging in premarital sex in 1859, not with the frequency of today, but I think it happened. It has to have happened. It is tricky. I remember my own mother, who was a young woman in the ’40s, saying to me about Anne Macmurray in Dewey Defeats Truman, “I think your heroine is a little fast because she sleeps with Jack Riley.” On the other hand, I’m reading this biography of Alice Roosevelt, Teddy’s daughter. Here she is having her first child at 41 years old in 1925, while married to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nicholas Longworth, and everybody knows that the child is really the child of Senator William Borah of Idaho. It happened. They dealt with it in different ways. I’ve been amused to read some of these reviews of Fellow Travelers that have pointed to the explicitness of the sex scenes from a writer who has not been hitherto known for them. 

I wasn’t that shocked by that. I’ve read much more intense gay sex scenes.

I think if some of these reviewers were reading equivalent sex scenes between two heterosexual characters they would barely have noticed them. You’re right. These scenes are described as explicit but they’re hardly Dennis Cooper. But it’s true, sexual mores do change. I think people in every era probably did just about everything that we do now, but they probably don’t do it with the same frequency, the abandon, the lack of consequence, the lack of guilt. 

You think oral sex was common in the 19th century?

No, I don’t think it was this common, but I also don’t think it was unheard-of. I think to put an oral sex scene set in the 19th century, it would feel like a stunt, where you were making some exceptional point about the characters. 

I do think these heroines I’m talking about -- Clara, Anne and Cynthia -- they’re all highly sexed and very susceptible. I do think there is a tricky element to it. You really don’t know what people would have allowed themselves. It’s easy enough to go too far in the other direction. What little I knew about Clara from the facts convinced me that she wasn’t a milksop Victorian maiden. There was a passage about her in the diary of Henry’s cousin, J. Howard Rathbone. This is before the Civil War in the late 1850s. He goes to a dinner party and says, “I enjoyed sitting next to Clara tonight. She was not so sarcastic as usual.” Suddenly she came to me. I also realized that if she was indeed a pal of Mary Lincoln’s… Mrs. Lincoln who was highly-strung didn’t want to be around virtuous shrinking violets either. And to some extent this had to extend itself to the sexual realm too. So I don’t think you should be overly conscious about going there either, even if it is historical material.

Kenneth Woodforde, the liberal writer from The Nation who starts off as a communist sympathizer and drifts away after the events in Hungary in 1956, and Tim debate each other throughout the book. You wouldn’t meet that many writers at The Nation today claiming that Saudi Arabia represented a superior way of life and that we should emulate them. The debate between the left and right in the War on Terror tends to be one of tactics. Woodforde and Tim’s debate seems quaint by comparison.

Right. There’s an essay in In Fact about Underworld. One of the things that Underworld made me realize was how much I missed the Cold War, how much I missed the Manichean world. I do think that the Cold War was more interesting morally than what we’ve got now.

Because it was easy to be a good person and be enticed by communism, whereas a good person couldn’t be enticed by fascism.

Right. I do think there aren’t that many people right now -- literary intellectuals, political writers -- whose positions have all that much nuance to them or contradiction to them. I suppose I’m contradicting myself. I’m describing the Cold War as Manichean and in some aspects it was. But if you were on the good side, the democratic side, you also had these enormous splits between democratic liberals who could be more vigorously anti-communist than Republicans who still had a tinge of their old isolationism. [Think of] Truman and Johnson and Kennedy and so forth…

There was once an old bumper sticker: “Americans out of Vietnam. Russians out of Latvia.”

One person who doesn’t add up to people right now politically and who I think is a very morally serious person as well as being a very flamboyant character is my friend [Christopher] Hitchens. Hitchens is somebody who is trying to grope his way, day by day, conflict by conflict, article by article, toward a serious strenuous moral position on things.

I don’t see that. I think he writes too quickly to make that claim for himself. So much of his work seems like billboard notices.

He is a man of action, which I’m not. Once in a while, I’ll muse upon something politically. But what would me as a man action be? Working at the NEH a couple of years as a political appointee (laughs). But he is in the fray, and he’s a figure who’s exasperating to a lot of people. He has lost friends over politics, which is itself a sign of seriousness, sacrifice. I just think he’s interesting in that he gives everybody something to complain about. These Republicans who are so delighted to have him on their side where the Iraq war is concerned still have to put up with his book on Mother Theresa. And that in itself is bracing. His presence in the culture is healthful, as opposed to the blogging culture generally.

But I see him as very similar to the blogging culture. He’s a talking head. He’s a product of the media. He seems to have created a narrow focus for himself of being the secular humanist who is happy to do battle with Islamo-fascism where he just ends up making Blink-like reactions to every issue.

I think he wound up in that place. I don’t think he created that for himself in the way some people create identities for themselves in the sense of “That’s good business, I can brand myself as that.” His intellectual journey, moral journey took him to that place. And that’s where he is now. Being the kind of flamboyant, spectacularly verbal character that he is he isn’t going to be shy about occupying that position or defending it. I think a lot of him. I think the world of Hitchens. Aside from all else he’s tremendous fun, which you can’t say about many people who write about anything in Washington.

But to go back to the point of origin. I would confess to a certain nostalgia for the kind of political and moral debates we were having 40, 50 years ago than what we have now.

You wrote recently American novelists don’t realize we are fighting an enemy that doesn’t want them to be allowed to write novels.

I said this to The American Scholar, about intellectuals generally.

Well, when Salman Rushdie had his problems with the fatwa, there was a universal march of solidarity with Rushdie. He has more respect as a novelist today than he may deserve partly because of that experience. I also don’t think there’s a novel that hasn’t been written in the last five years because of Osama bin Laden.

I wouldn’t argue that either. I would argue that he would certainly have stopped a novel from being written if that novelist had his study at Ground Zero. What I’m saying is that the novelist is not in a special position here. Islamo-fascism wants to wipe out secular Western culture. They’re not going to do it novelist by novelist, fatwa by fatwa. They’re going to do it by mass extermination. I do think there’s a serious threat of mass killing on a scale equal to or greater than 9/11.

I don’t think novelists are unaware of that.

No, but if you want to go back to where we began the conversation, by their (smiles) liberal to left position, they’re insufficiently agitated about it.

In what way should they be agitated about it?

I’m not sure a novelist should do anything in his or her novels. I’m not sure the novel is a particularly supple tool for any kind of political demonstration. But I do think novelists and intellectuals should be less shy about supporting an aggressive foreign policy generally.

Were there all that many novelists, or really anyone, who protested the war in Afghanistan?

I concede you the point on Afganistan. I don’t think there’s [a level of alarm that’s appropriate concerning] the Islamification of countries like the Netherlands. I think that there’s a knee-jerk tendency among some on the left to cry racism. They believe they’re arguing for assimilation, but in fact they’re dealing with the grafting of one culture onto another where the grafted culture has no intention of assimilating. I think this is much more a question for European intellectuals than American ones. 
In Mrs. Paine’s Garage, you include a long discussion of Michael Paine’s pedigree followed by this interesting line: “The end result of this colonial procession, fourteen months later, assured the peculiar fact that on the morning of November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald, preparing to go watch a modern political parade, would awaken in a bedroom, not only of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great-great grandson, but also the distant scion of a man who had signed the Declaration of Independence.” You couldn’t put that in a novel.

Why not?

It would have been too pat. Hawkins Fuller could very likely have a signer of the Declaration of Independence in his blood, but you wouldn’t put that in there.

Right, because it would have felt like overkill. That was one of the things that fascinated me about Ruth Paine’s story. The whole business about truth being stranger than fiction: It does obtain some of the time. People will go back to Henry and Clara and say, “Surely you made up the fact that their first child was born on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12.” Actually not. He was born then. Sometimes, the facts give you a better story than something you make up will. I was well into writing Henry and Clara, I had 75 pages written, operating under the belief that I had gotten from all the factual sources I had, that Henry was 28 and Clara was 23. What I discovered only after I was well into writing it, was that Henry was indeed 28, but Clara was 31. She had fallen in love, when their families were amalgamated before the Civil War, not with her older brother. [That] was a very older Victorian paradigm: “Oh! My new protective handsome older brother!” That added a new kink to the story, which already had a whiff of incest about it. And that was discernible from these dry-as-dust census records. The inaccuracy got started [because Clara] was lying about her age to these newspaper reporters. So the modernity of her was also brought out by that.

I first approached Ruth about writing about her in 1995, which was not long after Henry and Clara came out. And she didn’t agree to sit down and talk to me until 1999. She very politely declined but we kept in contact. She had all kinds of reasons for not wanting to do it. One of them was that she was reasonably suspicious that I would really want to write a novel. But I in fact didn’t, although I think Ruth would have been a wonderful subject for a novel. I didn’t want to write a novel about someone who was available for me to talk to. I wanted to ask her real questions. The first part of the book… Clearly, I was trying for a little bit of a Capote-esque nonfiction novel. I was trying to adhere to literal truth and did, so far as I know. I wouldn’t allow Ruth to walk across the room at some point unless I knew from some bit of evidence that she had done that. So there was that kind of attempt. I found it very hard to go from writing novels, no matter how much you pride yourself on accuracy, to write the literal truth. I found that a very tall order. 

Your characters are Rosencrantz and Guildensterns of American history. Would you say the same about yourself, living in Washington, D.C., knowing the Cheneys, working at the NEH?

I like being an observer of things. This is a company town. I enjoy being in the town. I prefer not working for the company to working for the company. The way I wound up at a place like the NEH wasn’t accidental. People knew what I had written, positions I had and so forth. Insofar as my acquaintance with the powers-that-be in Washington: it is infinitesimal. Someone once told me that I was in the orbit of all this [power]. I said, “If I am, I’m on Pluto, post-demotion.” I know Mrs. Cheney a little bit. I’m happy to know her. I’m hardly an intimate of her or anybody else of any consequence in Washington.

If someone wrote a novel of your life…

(laughs) God help them.

…Lynne Cheney would show up for a paragraph and mostly for the fun of saying, “Here’s Lynne Cheney.”

If that. One of the things I find odd, and to some extent lamentable, about American fiction is that we don’t really have serious political fiction to any great extent. [I’m not talking about] novels with a political viewpoint, but novels about politics. Think about it. What novels do we have about political life? They tend not to be literary fiction. They tend to be commercial fiction. They tend to be “The president’s plane is missing.” They tend to be political thrillers.

Then there’s your friend Gore Vidal.

You’ll name them quickly. I can name them too. Ward Just is a fine writer about politics. There aren’t that many of them. I’m distinguishing the political novel. We have lots of novels that are in some fundamental way political in that they have some political point of view. We have very few novelists that write about the business of Washington.

If you live in France you write about Paris, which also happens to be the political center. If you live in England you write about London, which also happens to be the political center. If you live in America you write about New York. By having an artificial city -- Washington is the only major city in America not founded on trade -- you have a place novelists won’t live in.

Washington is Brasilia in a way. So I do think that is true and I think in American fiction it contributes to this sense that even discussion of politics per se is somehow unnatural. It’s one thing to talk about a big political moral issue. But to talk about “Who’s up? Who’s down?” which is what most political discourse is about on a day-to-day basis doesn’t figure into novels very much.

You depicted Joe McCarthy as a weirdly omnisexual beast. Everyone knows about Roy Cohn’s sexuality. But I don’t think most people know about McCarthy.

I wasn’t completely sure he was. I make him into this drunken groper. McIntyre, who is a real person incidentally, says, “Well, when he’s drunk, he’ll grab anything, your old maid auntie.” There were rumors about him. Lillian Hellman used to refer to him, Roy Cohn, and David Schine as “Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde.” There were definitely stories. He didn’t marry until he was in his 40s. The one child he and his wife had was an adopted child. There is a genuine sexual mystery at the heart of the Army-McCarthy hearings. Why did McCarthy allow this to go on the way it did as long as it did when there was nothing going on there, other than the privileges given to David Schine? Schine was in fact straight, though I think Roy Cohn was infatuated with him. I invent the plot that Schine has something on McCarthy. But [sexuality] certainly runs under the whole thing, to a great extent. You find it acknowledged in documentaries about the Army-McCarthy hearings when McCarthy and [Joseph] Welch have the famous exchange of “pixie” and “fairy.” They’re accusing each other of being a little light in the loafers. What’s amazing is you go back to the ’50s in the daily newspapers and you see that exchange reported and it’s reported as a big climatic moment. But nobody writes about what the implications actually are. You couldn’t even talk about the imputation of homosexuality to somebody in the newspaper. It’s all between the lines. When you see one of the most famous exchanges in a Senate hearing ever and you read the original reporting of it, you realize no one was writing about what everyone knew it was about. It’s kind of astonishing. I really don’t know [about McCarthy’s sexuality]. I say in the note in this one that I took more than my usual license with historical figures. I don’t claim that my depiction of his sex life is based on anything authoritative.

You couldn’t write a gay novel set today with this kind of drama, unless your character came out of a horrible fundamentalist Christian background. But even that character would have New York City to run to at some point. You write about gay people in the final period in which being gay could have any real kind of tragic consequences. The whole “man vs. society” conflict for gays can’t be that strong after 1970.

I did think about that in pondering the afterlife of these characters. Fuller we see in 1991. We hear about Laughlin indirectly. I did try to do the math as carefully as I could. By the time things were underway in the ’70s Laughlin would have been in his 40s. I asked would it have been too soon for Laughlin to lose this nervousness. I concluded that it would. He would be in his 70s today. Fuller would be 82. On the other hand, I also didn’t want to write a cartoon of the ’50s where everything was despicable.

Like in Good Night and Good Luck.

Which I wouldn’t let myself see. I refused to let myself see it while I was writing this book. That and Brokeback Mountain. I didn’t want to be influenced. There were quite attractive things about the culture of the ’50s. I didn’t mean for Laughlin’s politics or his religion to come across as baggage. I miss my religion to this day. I’m still in some very tenuous way a believer, but I haven’t been a practicing Catholic for decades.

Did you lose the religion solely because of your homosexuality?

No, but it was a big motive to come out from under it.  I still miss the wonder of it, still miss the possibilities it had to explain the world to me. I still have a longing for it. The things that are oppressing a character like Laughlin are double-edged and that was one of the things I hoped would come across.

Did casting off your religion cause a big upheaval in your family?

No, my parents were practicing Catholics, but not zealous Catholics. I see some of my youthful religious longings displaced to some extent to a continuing interest in space or astronomy. There was always a theological element to that for me, as well as a poetic one. If this were a horrible, raw, moment-by-moment ache, I would have done more about it. And it would have done more, governed my behavior more than it has. It’s something between wistfulness and longing. If it was a yoke that was being cast off, it was also -- I don’t know what the equivalent positive metaphor is -- there was something good being cast off as well.

The last line: “It had traveled with him for many years, from one country to another, throughout a world grown unexpectedly, and increasingly, free.” Anyone who is oppressed, and who wasn’t part of the movement to overthrow that oppression in any way is almost better off not getting his freedom. That offer of freedom seems to have become an insult that the world pays Fuller.

A friend gave a party for this book last month. One of the people over was Frank Kameny, the grand old man of gay rights in D.C. I had to make some remarks. I said, “If you asked me when I was 18 and I was going off to college, what were the two biggest political developments I would want to see in my lifetime, my internal answer -- because I wouldn’t have dared say it, the first part I may have said, the second part I wouldn’t -- it would have been the collapse of communism and the liberation of homosexuals. By the time I was 40 both of those things had been in large part achieved. Communism was collapsing the year I turned 40. And the legal liberation of homosexuals -- granted there are still tons of debates about marriage, etc…, all the rest, let’s just call it the decriminalization of homosexuality -- [had occurred]. I had both of those things on my mind when I wrote the last paragraph. Fuller doesn’t really care about the situation in the world. Laughlin is a fervent anti-communist. Fuller is fairly indifferent to the whole thing. In a sense, he has lost the possibility of rejoicing because he was never very passionate about it to begin with. Some reviewer made the point that the book is a very sad book in many ways, but -- and this may contradict my conservatism -- it’s not a pessimistic book. Two of the things that are very much in the forefront of the book -- homosexuality and the divided world between democracy and communism -- there’s been real progress on these things in 40 years. For this reviewer, it undercut the tragedy of the book. He said he didn’t think it was as sad as it wanted to be. And that’s probably true.