Thomas Mallon Looks at the Reagan Years

The professor’s ninth novel, “Finale,” pulls back the curtain on one of history’s most enigmatic presidents.

Thomas Mallon Looks at the Reagan Years
Thomas Mallon examines the legacy of Ronald Reagan in his latest work. (File Photo)
October 17, 2015

GW Professor of English Thomas Mallon has written historical fiction for years. He has received praise from John Updike, and his novel “Watergate,” was shortlisted for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award.

He takes on a new challenge with his latest release, “Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years,” by examining the hotly debated legacy that the cryptic Ronald Reagan left behind. “Finale” takes readers through Mr. Reagan’s career in Washington and captures his negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev in the final years of his presidency.

As part of Colonials Weekend, Dr. Mallon will participate in a book signing and discussion about his ninth novel. George Washington Today writer Julyssa Lopez interviewed the award-winning writer in advance of his Saturday event on the Foggy Bottom Campus about the process of putting together his newest work.

Q: What was the research process for this novel? What sources and documents did you pore through to paint this portrait of President Reagan? 

A: There was an enormous range of materials to ponder: the president's daily schedules and public papers; memoirs written by administration figures, opponents and family members; transcripts of congressional investigations. Don Regan, the president's chief of staff, and Pamela Harriman, the British-born Democratic activist, are important characters in the novel, and the papers of both of them are available at the Library of Congress. The official notes from the October 1986 Iceland summit meeting—which in some ways is the heart of the novel—are in the National Security Archive right here at GW. I went to Reykjavik to spend time in the little white frame house where the president met for two days with Mikhail Gorbachev, so that I could get the look and feel of things right. I also traveled to the Reagan Library in California, and to Walter Annenberg's "Sunnylands" estate, where the Reagans spent every New Year's Eve and where the last chapter of the book is set.  

Q: Your other novels have revolved around the political world. What was the impetus for focusing on Reagan? Your website mentions that "Finale" is the book your work has been building toward for years. Had you always wanted to do a book on him?

A: Whether you liked them or not, the Reagan years were enormously consequential, and I don't think any president in modern times, for all his surface charm and sunniness, has been more personally mysterious, harder to grasp, than Ronald Reagan. (The Reagans had a famously close marriage, but even Nancy Reagan would admit that there were parts of her husband's mind and personality with which she could never quite connect.)  All of this was catnip to me as a novelist.  A fiction writer is concerned primarily with action and character; here was a combination of huge events and psychological mystery.

Q: The New York Times writes that your novel is a reminder "that today’s statues commemorate yesterday’s frail and fumbling mortals." Was it difficult to portray Reagan in his weaker moments when he is so revered today? How did you keep him from being the canonized, one-dimensional figure sometimes featured in textbooks?

A: I dislike the Rushmoreization of Reagan by conservatives; he had plenty of flaws and shortcomings, and his administration had its share of unappetizing aspects. But I dislike the left-wing cartoon of Reagan even more—that he was some daft featherbrain, or a warmonger, or just laughable. That caricature is far more prevalent in the smugly liberal American university, and if I were intent on disabusing my students of false notions about Ronald Reagan, those are the ones I'd start with.  And then, yes, I'd get around to excessive reverence for Ronald Reagan on the other side.

Q: Your writing jostles between fiction and non-fiction. How do you decide which narratives should be told straight (à la “Mrs. Paine’s Garage”) and which require a fictionalized approach?

A: Most of my nonfiction has been literary criticism; I've done some reporting and nonfiction narrative, but comparatively little of that.  The book you mention, “Mrs. Paine's Garage,” began as a long piece in The New Yorker. It concerned Ruth Paine, the young Quaker housewife who became innocently enmeshed in the Kennedy assassination because of her many kindnesses to Lee Harvey Oswald and his Russian wife in the months prior to the president's murder. Nearly four decades after the event, I wanted to reconstruct her experience and explore how she had survived it. 

I thought, in this case, that it would be more important to add something to the actual historical record than to indulge in the speculative pleasures of historical fiction.