Sometimes You Have to Lie (but not in this interview): A Talk With Author Leslie Brody
It’s the talk of the season and I couldn’t be more pleased (or surprised). When I heard that Leslie Brody (playwright, journalist, editor, professor) had penned a biography of Louise Fitzhugh, the author of Harriet the Spy, I was intrigued. It did not occur to me, however, that her book would find popularity above and beyond the children’s literary sphere. Yet even as I type this, Brody has already been reviewed by The New York Times and the book sports more famous blurbs than you can shake a stick at. As such, when the opportunity arose to interview Ms. Brody about the book I leapt at the chance…
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for joining us today! First off, tell us a little about your own relationship to Harriet the Spy. How did you come to it? And, by extension, to Louise Fitzhugh?
Leslie Brody: I am exactly the same age as Harriet the Spy, that is to say in 1963 when Harriet was 11 years old, so was I. I was born in the Bronx and although Harriet lived in an elite quarter of Manhattan, we still shared lots of the same cultural references around New York City in the 50’s and 60’s. When the book was published in 1964, I really wasn’t reading kids books anymore and missed the wave. I wouldn’t even hear about Harriet and Louise until working as a playwright in Minneapolis twenty years later. I was hired to write an adaptation of Harriet the Spy for the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre company. I remember reading it through several times, stunned at how lucky I was—after all this time, and the many ways our rendezvous might have gone awry—to find her. Once I began writing biographies, Louise Fitzhugh was high on the list of women whose lives intrigued me, and whom I wanted to find out more about.
BB: Ah. I used to watch Minneapolis Children’s Theater productions when I lived there, long ago. That’s lovely. I wish I’d seen your adaptation. You know, I think that a lot of adults that read Harriet as children, return to it later, and are shocked by the content. Indeed, I have a hard time believing it could have been published as is today. Like Roald Dahl, Fitzhugh wasn’t afraid to get nasty, which I think kids appreciate. That edge gets completely worn away whenever Harriet is adapted into a film or TV show or what have you. Even at the time, though, it was a rarity. Where did Fitzhugh get her style?
LB: Wow. Well, she was a genius. Her writing style wasn’t studied or particularly strategic—though when she first wrote Harriet, she was hoping it would be a commercial success and support her while she continued to paint. As it turned out, Harriet was a fantastic and fortunate confluence of Louise’s absorption and amalgamation of uptown New York life in the early 1960’s (and the era’s popular references like spies and nannies); Louise’s own idiosyncratic childhood, as the only child of a wealthy white family in Memphis, Tennessee—she was Harriet’s age during WW2 (and it should be said, repudiated the Jim Crow milieu and went to New York as soon as she was able), and the guidance of the great editors Ursula Nordstrom and Charlotte Zolotow, whose influence and support helped Louise to expand and refine Harriet the Spy.
BB: I remember with crystal clarity a piece K.T. Horning wrote years ago called “On Spies and Purple Socks and Such” for the Horn Book Magazine way back in March of 2005. It was the first time I’d heard that there was any queer subtext to the book, but once she opened my eyes to it there was no going back. What was the first time that you discovered the subtext of the title?
LB: During my research I also discovered KT Horning’s work. And I admire how she described a “queer subtext” throughout the book. Horning interprets Ole Golly’s advice to Harriet, that “sometimes you have to lie…but to yourself you must always tell the truth,” as evidence of Louise’s embedded instructions to gay kids: You are not alone, come out when it is safe to do so. Homophobes during the culture wars of the late 20th century and early 21st fulminated about coded messages in the media meant to turn schoolchildren gay. Horning suggested that there were secret messages in Harriet the Spy, benign and comforting ones which offer fellowship and reassurance to young people figuring themselves out. I wish I could say that this advice is obsolete in the year 2020, but unfortunately it still applies. Louise and Harriet’s message continues to be one of love against the odds. “Writing is to put love into the world, not to use against your friends,” Harriet learns, but “to yourself you must always tell the truth.”
BB: Because of Harriet we’ve always heard a lot about Fitzhugh’s relationship to Ursula Nordstrom. What we don’t hear about as much is her relationship to other editors. You include Charlotte Zolotow, and Michael di Capua in this title. What did they have to say about her?
LB: She had a wonderful relationship with Charlotte Zolotow, until she didn’t. Zolotow was a brilliant editor with the special talent of helping writers who hadn’t written children’s novels before adapt to the form (she also notably did this with Paul Zindel). Zolotow recognized Louise’s essential anti-authoritarian nature. (She said Louise saw the adults as “oppressors”) She gave Louise excellent advice and encouragement and in some ways probably helped her embed and preserve that distinctive fierceness in the Harriet character. Zolotow began as Louise’s editor of “The Long Secret,” the second novel in her Harriet sequence; but they soon had a falling out. By then, Louise had a much stronger sense of what she wanted to do with her story and her prose, and she wasn’t as compliant or patient with guidance or advice.
Louise and di Capua had a vexed relationship from early days. She didn’t like working with him and felt he didn’t understand her work or process.
BB: Zindel! Well that’s a whole separate can of worms. And I had no idea that di Capua was the editor on Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change and not Nordstrom. Do we know why Fitzhugh made the switch?
LB: It took Louise a long time to finish a draft of Sport, which was under contract to Harper & Row. She showed it to Charlotte Zolotow –who didn’t think it was finished and wanted Louise to revise. It’s hard to know exactly what happened, but Louise was tired of writing about Harriet and friends and wanted to move on to other projects. When she finished Nobody’s Family is Going to Change (originally called The Changelings) her agent Pat Schartle Myrer pitched the book to a number of publishers, diCapua at FS&G was the highest bidder.
BB: One aspect of Fitzhugh’s life that I’d certainly never heard much about was her art. One of my prized possessions is a copy of Sandra Scoppettone’s Suzuki Beane, which she illustrated. Yet I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Fitzhugh wanting to illustrate for a living. What was the role of art in her life?
LB: You are so lucky to have a copy of Suzuki Beane! It is sad that that wonderful book is out of distribution. Louise didn’t rate her book illustrations—as unique and influential as they would become—as highly as her painting. She once wrote to a friend of “the depth, the pain, the horror, searching, fumbling,” that distinguished painting from illustration. Alixe Gordin said Louise used to destroy paintings which she considered not up to par.
Louise was a multi-faceted artist: musician, writer, artist. In her last years, she was writing plays and novels for adults, and if she had lived longer, I’ve no doubt she would have produced some more great literary works.
It is too bad that there is no archive of Fitzhugh’s work. Gordin’s estate has many paintings, and so does the Fitzhugh estate. I’d love to see these and her papers curated and kept safely and available to view somewhere.
BB: I’m a bit fuzzy on my Fitzhugh gossip, but I seem to recall that there was some talk that the brain aneurysm she suffered from was a direct result of a bad review she received. In hindsight this seems ridiculous, but there might be something to the stress she was under at the time. Is this addressed at all in the book?
LB: Yes, a week before she died, she received a wounding review. She was drinking heavily and had other underlying conditions—high blood pressure, etc. She was incredibly stressed, waiting for the book to be published—it was her first novel to come out in 10 years. The review didn’t kill her, but it made her miserable. If you read it now you see it was just a terribly written review–offhand and casual and snarky. Louise’s friends tried to comfort her, saying better reviews would come, and they did—but all too late. She died a week later, just days before the publication of Nobody’s Family is Going to Change.
BB: Finally, I was unaware that the Fitzhugh estate kept such a tight grip on any and all information about Louise Fitzhugh. In this day and age it seems ridiculous that they’d keep any information from the public. How did you go about researching this work?
LB: I conducted over 60 interviews and spent the first two years of this four-year project researching Louise’s life and loves. I was fortunate to meet some of the friends Louise knew during her life, who all had fantastic stories to tell of their life and times. She was part of a network of extraordinary artists– a social circle of high-flying, mostly queer, career women who in their youth had crashed through ceilings in literary and artistic professions at a rip-roaring velocity: writers of children’s books, mysteries, and crime thrillers; editors at glossy magazines and books; copyeditors, photographers, and illustrators at high-flying ad agencies; theatrical producers and literary agents and casting directors; professors, painters, and actors. Their mutual friend, the playwright and author Jane Wagner characterized this extensive cabal as “successful, creative, pleasure loving, ambitious, knowledgeable lesbians.” It was a world of downtown gay bars and uptown house parties and in the summer, shared Hampton rentals. and writers in the 1950’s and 60’s in New York. I came away thinking that every one of those women deserves a biography!
I simply cannot thank Ms. Brody enough for speaking with me today. Sometimes You Have to Lie is now available in bookstores everywhere (and would make a mighty fine holiday gift for any book lover you happen to know).
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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