Q & A: Frank Deford
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How much research did you have to do—you know, aside from being a woman? I know you talked to Leni and Eleanor, but what other kinds of research did you do?
There isn’t a whole lot of ... I mean, Jesse Owens is mentioned, and of course, he’s the star [of that Olympics], but this is not a story about the 1936 Olympics. It’s a story about a young woman who goes to the 1936 Olympics, and what happens to her. Yes, Jesse Owen and the Olympics and everything is going on around her, but we really don’t get into that. That’s the background.
So, as far as the research involved that, what I mostly had to read about was the swimming. It’s interesting—there are still a few people left who are still alive who were there that I talked to, and who had pretty clear recollections of it. That allowed me to give a little more of those passing details that I think makes it seem so much more genuine. Just tiny little stuff, like what kind of food was being served. There’s just no way you could’ve found that out unless you talked to somebody who had been a member of the swimming team who could say, “Well, this is what they served and it was terrible food, and we complained.” Just little details like that, which I think really brings the story to life. I was fortunate that I was able to find people who were still alive from the ‘36 games.
If you have that kind of detail, I think the characters come more alive. What were they wearing. There’s a whole chapter I devote to a gown that Sydney buys. I’m certainly not an authority on that. I probably had to do more research on that gown than I did on the whole 1936 Olympics because I know more about the Olympics. I know more about swimming than I do about women’s gowns!
But again, it was important to get that just right. I think when the details are right, then everything comes more and more alive.
You talk about writing a love story—that’s sort of outside the normal of what you do. How was that?
Well, I’ve written a lot of novels, and some of them have had love stories in them that have been very important to them, but this is the first novel that I think I’ve ever written where you can say, “This is a love story.” The others have had love stories as key elements, but this really is a love story, with a huge twist at the end, but nonetheless, it’s a love story. I mean, look at the title! If that doesn’t say love, then I don’t know what does! [laughs]
Did you find it a little more challenging to write? Just focusing on the love story?
I don’t think so. I think the main thing is finding the two characters. If you write them right and understand them so that they do love each other, then I think it all flows from that.
They fall in love very quickly. It is something we’re all familiar with, love and romance. It’s not something strange, so I think it comes very easily if you have the characters. If you have people saying, “Oh, she’d never fall in love with him,” then you’re dead. Then you’re dead! But if the reader or the author think, “Hey, these people are really meant for each other,” then I think it’s very easy and very natural. We all like love stories, so we’re prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. We want them to love each other. We want things to work out. Of course, love stories don’t always work out perfectly, otherwise there’s not a story! I won’t say anything more than that, but you can figure it out—if she goes to Germany in 1936, well, it’s going to be tough once she leaves Germany.
Now that you’ve completed it, what’s you take on the final work?
I’m very pleased with it! But I think you’re always worry until other people read it. You can’t trust yourself. You can be saying, “Well, I think this is wonderful,” but until you begin to get feedback from other people . . . .
I do always get very fond of my characters, so in a way, fiction books become closer to me because I’ve created them. So I really love these people, and hate the bad guys.
But the early response so far has been terrific, so I feel very good about it right now. I really do. I feel like it’s a book people really like. Everybody says they couldn’t put it down, although it’s not a page-turner in the sense of ... like there’s a guy in the other room with a knife and you know. But I think people have really enjoyed it, and the early reviews suggest that’s the case. So I’m real happy.
I remember last time we spoke, you compared sportswriting versus fiction-writing, and you were saying sportswriting is easier in that all the narrative elements are there, and fiction can be much more challenging. Do you still find that to be the case?
Oh, there’s no question about that. Fiction is the most difficult thing to write because you’re creating it. It’s easy in the sense that you can change things to make them work. I mean, if something is real, and somebody loses and you want them to win, well, you can’t do it. So in that sense, writing non-fiction is hard because it doesn’t always work out the way you want it to. But you know that going in.
Fiction is something you’re making up, and because you’re making it up, it’s the hardest thing to do. But it’s also the most satisfying when you’re finished. When you’ve finished, you’ve created something out of nothing.
I just wonder if this one might’ve been a little more challenging because you had to weave fiction inside of history?
Well, I’ve done that before. I wrote a book called Love and Infamy, which was another love story leading up to Pearl Harbor, written more from the Japanese point of view. Obviously, I was very limited in how I could move around then because those events, everyone is very familiar with. So you are restricted in that sense. You can’t play with facts. You can monkey around a little bit. For example, I needed an indoor swimming pool for Sydney to swim in when she started to get good. Well, there wasn’t one where she lived, okay, so I created an indoor swimming pool. You can do that, but you can’t have Sydney Stringfellow win the 1936 Olympics because she didn’t. You can’t do that and take the gold medal away from someone who was real and give it to this fictional character.
You can monkey around and fiddle a bit on the edges, but that’s all you can do. But altogether, it’s a puzzle that you have to figure out.