Interview with Michele Wehrwein Albion
Even the harshest critics of Eleanor Roosevelt succumbed to her disarming grace in person. Author Michele Albion explains how she was charmed by this nontraditional, inspirational first lady through her articulate and opinionated quotes—and why Eleanor’s wisdom continues to resonate today. The Quotable Eleanor Roosevelt is available now.
Michele Wehrwein Albion (MWA): Eleanor Roosevelt has intrigued me since I was a child. Though she had passed before I was born, I remember my grandparents and great-grandparents talking about her in hushed tones. To one pair of grandparents Eleanor Roosevelt was a saint who did good work for down and out people. To my great-grandfather, she was a woman who didn’t know her place and she might have been a communist. Who wouldn’t be intrigued with such mixed reviews?
UPF: How is your day structured when you write? What’s your writing routine?
MWA: I write around my family’s schedule. I get up before they do. I write when they’re in bed. I research and write in the parking lot while waiting to pick up at school or while they’re in taikwan do class. But, when I do I have a few hours strung together, I work like a demon. There is no waiting for the muse to strike. I have to be good to go whenever the time presents itself.
UPF: For readers today, why is Eleanor Roosevelt still so relevant?
MWA: Eleanor Roosevelt’s childhood left her feeling ugly, abandoned, and unloved. She might easily have lived a privileged, but relatively empty life. But at boarding school she studied under an educator who taught her to speak up, take risks, and most importantly, value herself and other people. Her courage, to try new things, to work hard, to believe in the essential decency of human beings is a lesson for all generations.
UPF: Eleanor was a quite nontraditional first lady. What’s your favorite example of how she broke the mold?
MWA: Eleanor Roosevelt believed in racial equality. During World War II the armed forces were segregated. The Army reluctantly launched an “experiment” to teach black men to fly at Alabama’s Tuskeegee Institute. When she visited in 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt was impressed with the skill and courage of the men and insisted on flying with them. Her secret service guards were flummoxed as she climbed into the fighter plane. But the flight wasn’t enough. She further insisted that photographs be taken so that she could convince her husband and the American public that African-American pilots were valuable to the war effort.
UPF: This is the third “quotable” book you’ve done for UPF. How do you select your subjects, and what significance has each had for you personally?
MWA: Actually, it was my first editor, John Byram who suggested a quotable book on Thomas Edison. Henry Ford was a natural choice for the next book, considering I had been the curator of the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. I chose Eleanor Roosevelt because I’ve always been fascinated by her willingness to step outside the traditional constraints of her class, of her gender and of the position of First Lady.
UPF: What’s your favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quote?
MWA: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
UPF: While researching and collecting quotes, did you learn anything interesting/unexpected about Eleanor?
MWA: Everyone she met—even those who detested her like Westbrook Pegler and Nikita Khruschev—admired Eleanor Roosevelt when they met her in person. She had a disarming grace that made people feel comfortable around her.
UPF: What do you hope readers will enjoy the most about your book?
MWA: Eleanor Roosevelt was so very articulate about the things she cared about—and she cared about everything!
UPF: What are you currently reading?
MWA: I usually read a few books at a time. Right now I’m reading The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin, Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman and Out of Order, Stories from the History of the Supreme Court by Sandra Day O’Connor.
UPF: Who are your favorite authors, and how have they influenced or informed your own work?
MWA: My favorite non-fiction writers are Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough. For fiction, I adore Alan Bradley, author of the Flavia de Luce series, Christopher Moore, Michael Gruber and Chris Bohjalian.
UPF: What are you working on next?
MWA: I have two fiction projects in the works and I’m considering another Quotable book.
UPF: Do you have one sentence of advice for new authors?
MWA: No excuses; just write!