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Q & A with Jonas Klein
Tell us a little about yourself, from whence do you hail?
I haileth from Roxbury and Newton, MA, the second child of Magda & Bela Klein, Hungarian trapeze performers. My parents changed their names to Mary and David, and my father gave up the Big Top for dentistry. They never flew again. As a juvenile during WWII, I passed my time excelling at baseball against the stairs (stoop ball), knitting blankets for England, and scanning the skies for German dive bombers. (See Mother Wore a Helmet and Other Tales of Lasterday Chapters 1 & 2).
What's your favorite anectdote from the old neighborhood?
Unquestionably, it was the time I was arrested for grand theft auto by Officer Lawless of the Cambridge, MA Police Department along with 3 co-conspirator friends at the age of 14. This true tale is hilariously related in Mother . . . Chapter 4, "My Night in the Slammer." What started as a juvenile prank ended as a . . ., well, it's so well told in the book I'll leave it at that. I should add that I have been completely rehabilitated.
When did you first learn of Campobello Island, and what drew you to it as a vantage point on the lives of the Roosevelts?
I first knew of Campobello in early studies of Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt. My Master's thesis was on FDR and I learned that Campobello seemed important in their lives but was given bare notice by other biographers. I was determined to study the Roosevelts more deeply and, perhaps, write about them. A visit to the island several years ago made a deep impression and I resolved to use Campobello as the focus of a Roosevelt biography keying on their island home as an important element in their personal development that had, essentially, been all but ignored in the legions of Roosevelt biographers and historians.
Why write a book? I imagine it took a little chutzpah to throw your hat in along with the many historians who have written about the Roosevelts - where did you get the nerve?
Why write Beloved Island: Franklin & Eleanor and the Legacy of Campobello, you ask? Why not, I reply. Not only had I found a "hook" that others had neglected, I felt need for some personal accomplishment. I wanted to write, I wanted to write about the Roosevelts (my personal heroes), my primary goal was fun and not profit, and I had the time and energy to make the attempt. I was convinced that I could prepare a decent manuscript although I was clueless to any promise that someone would publish my work. I loved the challenge and the process. It didn't take nerve, because I honestly believed that the work was its own reward.
Do you have a "beloved island" of your own?
I do have a "beloved island." I live on a Maine island and quickly sensed that much of the intense love that the Roosevelts had for Campobello was much the same that I felt for my home. Island life springs, to a large extent, from unique rhythms of tide, light, and pace. It is the surrounding sea that in many ways sustains and energizes our souls. Campobello had a profound effect on both Franklin and Eleanor, although in different ways and in different stages of their lives, and I both understood and related to that premise. That is, essentially, the "why" and the "what" of Beloved Island.
Has the experience of writing and promoting the book changed you?
The experience has not made me wealthy, but it has helped make me healthy and wise. It has been exhilarating and in every way emotionally rewarding. And, most important, it has been great fun. In addition to book signings, talks and appearances, the book created for me a new persona to go along with the old tired one. I'm a folk hero to my neighbors, an expert to audiences as a teacher and lecturer, and a source of amusement and pride to my family and friends. To some, Stephen King is referred to as "that other Maine author." My granddaughter is in wonder in her belief that I'm the oldest person to ever write a book. It's added a little hop to my gait, a prideful entry to my resume, and some adventure to my tax return. But, beneath it all, I'm still the same modest retired IBM aide that is beloved by family and friends, and now esteemed in the book department of L.L. Bean.
Were you surprised by anything in your research? Did the experience bring you closer to Franklin and Eleanor?
My research developed new insights into the Roosevelts and reinforced my understanding of certain themes while altering others. The most surprising revelation was the depth and significance of the relationship that developed between Eleanor and Louis Howe, Franklin's closest friend and advisor. Not only did Howe encourage, help kindle and develop Eleanor's skills as a political person, there grew a mutual understanding and warm friendship between two lonely people who had much in common in addition to their mutual affection and support of FDR. My research brought me closer to both Roosevelts, and heightened my admiration for both and my affection for Eleanor. Their mammoth contributions aside, I came to evaluate them as individuals, mates, parents, friends, and citizens. Franklin came short in most, Eleanor in few.
Franklin and Eleanor were both great communicators, certainly FDR was an innovator in his use of radio to reach out to the public. If Franklin and Eleanor were alive today, would they be bloggers? More importantly, would you invite them over for dinner? What would you serve?
Franklin remains to this day, in my estimation, the greatest communicator the American presidency has known. To be fair, Martin Van Buren might have exceeded FDR, but we have no sound bites to judge. Reagan, the actor, was good, but FDR was welcomed by radio into living rooms and kitchens as the reliable uncle who looked after our best interests, and who seemed very much to care. Only Walter Cronkite comes close. Eleanor, not nearly as effective at the lectern or microphone, was great in small groups and in a one-on-one. She was an effective writer, and a good listener. FDR was neither. An outstanding editor and synthesizer, he might have blogged with the best of them. I'd enjoy having them for dinner and try to get a word in edgewise. Not a chance. Serving them a meal would be a challenge. FDR enjoyed mostly the childhood mush served him in his mother's home, and that of the witch that terrorized the White House kitchen. Eleanor seemed to have little interest in food, and was known gastronomically only by serving huge portions of scrambled eggs always presented in a silver tureen. Lois would set for them an elegant table, and I would select a wine in a corked bottle . . . no screw caps for the Roosevelts!
As a conversationalist and correspondent you are known for your sense of humor, "Beloved Island" has its charm, but comedy it isn't, did you feel that a lighter tone would have been disrespectful? Or did it just not fit the project?
I had thought of writing "Fun with Frank & Ellie," but thought better of it. There's little funny about the Roosevelts, neither was known to have a sparkling sense of humor. FDR constantly regaled captive audiences with anecdotes, but guffaws never echoed from the Oval Office. Eleanor was known to laugh at the humor of others, but she was a chronically earnest person who had little time for much laughter. Perhaps a scholar will one day study humor in the White House. I've heard that William Henry Harrison (Tippecanoe) was a cut-up, and maybe Tyler too! Beloved Island didn't really seem to call out for humor. It would not have been a question of disrespect, it just wasn't there. Perhaps "Saturday Night Live" could lampoon the Roosevelts, but it's a stretch.
Have you considered any writing projects that would leave more room for humor?
You apparently have not yet read Mother....
Tell us about your latest project: "Mother Wore a Helmet and Other Tales of Lasterday." Can you tease us with an excerpt?
I'll let you decide. Chapters on Mother, Dad's Last at Bat, Smooching and Gimmee a "B" tug at the heart, What's My Name and Who Said That are just for fun, Good Boy is introspective . . . they're all gems. Your call. [editors note: I've requested the "Smooching" essay]
Anything new cooking on the word processor?
Two more personal essays are being tooled. One is an ode of sorts to my father, and the other has a working title of "I Can't Sing any More." Lightweights both. On the more serious side, I've done significant research for journal articles (or small books) on Eleanor & Howe, and on the Bonus March of 1932. My Beloved publisher has retired, and North Bay Books is a mighty slim operation. I've had articles published in national and regional magazines, and that's a potential route. Or, I may write only for my own amusement. Those who know me best are aware that I'm my own best audience, although a highly discriminating one
You've written two books now, so clearly it was no fluke, you're a REAL writer - any advice for aspiring scribblers? And just what's so great about digital publishing anyway?

Although it is enormously helpful to have some skill, writing is an exercise in personal communication. The trick is to find an audience, but the joy is in the process. Whether it's research, story telling or reportage, writing is merely chronicling a physical manifestation of a thought process, invention or study. It will work on some level if it brings enjoyment to its creator (or someone else). If it's tedious, it won't ever work. The world is full of lousy books, and a few very good ones. The odds are extremely long on financial success, but short on personal satisfaction. As to digital publishing, it's an economically feasible way to create short runs by printing only what you need (or are able to sell). Mother... would not have seen the light of day any other way. By my own twisted sense of justifiable criteria, it allowed me to make Mother... a roaring success. You can hardly beat that!

[another note: I've asked Jonas to let me know how folks can order a copy of his latest book, Mother Wore a Helmet, and other Tales of Lasterday.... I'll let you know when I know.]