An Interview with 2021 Excellence in Nonfiction Winner Candace Fleming

Candace Fleming is no stranger to accolades. Her work has been lauded by numerous outlets over the years, and this year, she was honored for her work on two books: Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera (winner of the 2021 Sibert Medal) and The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh (winner of YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction).

The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh by Candace Fleming

We are so grateful to Candace Fleming for this thought-provoking book and for her time as she prepared these remarks for us, some of which were included in her speech at the 2021 Excellence in Nonfiction Celebration. Weren’t able to attend live? YALSA recorded it! You can find the video here.

THE HUB: Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Charles Lindbergh is not an admirable figure, and some would argue that to make him the subject of a biography is to elevate his abhorrent views. Why drew you to him as a research subject? What would you say to those who might challenge the “need” for such a book?

FLEMING: I believe I wrote an honest biography of Charles Lindbergh, a thorough and well-researched telling of his life that puts it in context. I wanted readers to consider who he was, and whether he deserves to be elevated or lowered in the eyes of history. Biographies aren’t written just to elevate the lives of people we admire.  They’re also meant to tell us what happened – honestly and fully.  They’re meant to show how people from history fit into our times.  And Lindbergh certainly fits into our times.  It was current events that compelled me to write this book.  Echoes of his past had become part of my daily present –political rallies seething with rage, attacks on the press, xenophobia, racism, America First.  Sounds familiar, huh?

I hesitated, though.  I wasn’t sure I could write about someone I found so repulsive.  Could I write about him impartially?  So many biographies fail to criticize.  Other biographies do nothing but.  I knew going into this project that mine would be an uneasy writing path.  So why bother, I asked myself.  Why struggle?  Here’s how I finally answered myself: By choosing not to write – or read — about the unconscionable and unjustifiable, we are forever bound to the mistakes and misfortunes of previous generations.  But by looking as honestly as possible at this man – using facts and evidence  — we can, perhaps, understand why we misguidedly venerated him in the first place.  But we have to look at it all, because only by seeing the whole can we learn the deepest truths about his times as well as our own.

I think history, especially written for young people, should be a form of investigation to be disputed and debated, its premises questioned and examined, its arguments countered.  We don’t have to fill in all the blanks for teens, or connect the dots (as if that’s even possible). We present the story and then trust them to grapple with the complexities and complications, the contradictions, the messiness.  We trust them to draw the right conclusions.  By “kicking it to the reader” as author Tonya Bolden calls it, we turn passive reverence into rigorous inquiry.  The past can’t be shirked, no matter how much we want to look away, or hide it in a dark closet, or just walk on.  We carry it everywhere – into schools and political rallies, down boulevards and into public policy. Only by knowing our past – in all its glory and ugliness – can we learn how to live in the present.

author Candace Fleming

THE HUB: The research required for such a book is tremendous – the Bibliography and Source Notes alone span 35 pages! What was your research process like?

FLEMING: My research process is intentionally chaotic.  I’m not the type of researcher who settles on a topic and then goes out and gathers the information and material she needs.  I’m more… um… organic in my looking.  I start with what my biographical subject has written – books, journals, articles, speeches, diaries, letters that sort of thing.  I read what those closest to my subject wrote.  I listen to radio broadcasts and watch newsreels if they’re available.  I prefer primary sources because that’s where telling, intimate and unexpected things are found.  I think about what I’ve uncovered.  I ask questions.  I write the questions down – lots of questions, ledger pads of questions, questions like:  What was his favorite color?  Did she sleep on her back?  Believe in God?  What did she carry in her purse?  Who gave him his first kiss?  Sometimes I find the answers.  Sometimes I don’t.  I visit the places the person worked and lived.  I believe that landscapes speak and houses hold memories.  I notice stuff like the color of the living room carpet, and how the lilacs in the garden smell after a rainstorm.  I count the number of stairs to the bedroom.  I stand on the sidewalk and try to see what he or she saw. 

The searching and finding isn’t in any logical order, which explains why research takes so long.  I’m gathering and thinking and questioning.  During this part of the process, I don’t try to impose a story on the material.  I don’t try to give it structure.  Not yet. I wait until it sort of starts to whisper to me. It will tell me how it wants to be written.  That’s because I know the material inside and out. I’ve given myself enough time and space to see new angles, new ways in. I’ve had enough time to ask different questions of the history I thought I knew. All of this, of course, results in piles of paper, notecards, ledger pads. My organization, like my process, is messy. Oh, if you could see my office right now. I’m in the throes of a new book and every space is covered with paper. The office floor has become an extension of my desk.

THE HUB: Is there an element that you uncovered in the research that surprised you, or changed your perspective or direction for the book?

FLEMING: When I still thought this was a book about the kidnapping, I came across a description of Dr. Alexis Carrell’s laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute of Medicine in New York City. Lindbergh was working there when the baby was taken, and was curious. What, I wondered, could an uneducated pilot be doing in a medical lab? Searching for immortal life! It turns out Carrell’s was a macabre, secret laboratory with all-black operating theaters, a huge, glass mousery, and a piece of heart muscle taken from a chicken that he’d kept alive for twenty years. Every January 17 – the date of the original experiment – he gathered his staff around the petri dish and sang “Happy Birthday” to the chicken tissue. I remember thinking, “Huh?  Too weird!”  Of course, I had to know more. Eventually, I learned that Lindbergh and Carrell were seeking immortality so they could form a council (of which they’d be members) of “superior white men.” These men would live hundreds of years, and with their accumulated knowledge tell the rest of us how to live. I’m not making this stuff up! After that, I knew I couldn’t just write about the kidnapping.

THE HUB: Do you have any stories from the archives that didn’t make it into the book? 

FLEMING: When Lindbergh was a boy he had a beloved fox terrier named Wahgoosh. The dog slept with him every night and shared his breakfast every morning. One day, Lindbergh’s mother shouted repeatedly for the dog, but he didn’t come. Later, Charles found Wahgoosh dead in the well. Someone had beaten the dog to death with a crowbar. Who? Why? My god, how did this affect the boy? Lindbergh never spoke about it, but it must have seared. It’s one of those moments that nag at me. I just wish I knew more.              

THE HUB: Many schools conduct some sort of biography project as a part of their upper elementary experience. I’m sure many students over the years have chosen Charles Lindbergh as their subject. How do you think your book might change projects like those?

FLEMING: I expect they may change their minds about choosing Lindbergh. But I hope they don’t. Instead, I hope they attempt a more complete telling. Why should school reports or biography projects just be a recitation of laudable achievements?  That’s always felt a bit reverential to me. Why not encourage kids to share their subject’s darker bits? Benjamin Franklin owned slaves. Eleanor Roosevelt was an antisemite until she grew in understanding. Amelia Earhart lied a lot. Charles Lindbergh was a white supremacist. What do they make of that? How does it fit in with what they thought they knew about those American icons. Kids can handle it.  Let them discuss it. That’s history as inquiry. 

THE HUB: You include a fair amount of material from the writings of Lindbergh’s wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Would you talk a bit about why her voice was so important here?

FLEMING: Anne was literally and figuratively Lindbergh’s co-pilot. He chose her for that role in 1929, and she remained in it until his death in 1974. During all that time she kept diaries – lushly detailed, raw and honest (far more so than Lindbergh’s own journals). On those pages she questioned her husband’s decisions and actions. She criticized his behavior. Sometimes she raged against him. She never said anything to him, mind you, until much later in life. But she left us this intimate, day-to-day look at Lindbergh and their life together. It was a natural choice to allow her to speak for herself in all her beauty, and her ugliness.

THE HUB: Many have remarked on how strong the narrative impulse is in this book. Despite its length, it reads almost compulsively, maintaining a brisk pace that draws readers on with ease. How did you manage such a feat, especially with such complex and wide-ranging material?

FLEMING: Thanks for mentioning the book’s pace! This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of nonfiction. The greatest sin one can commit while writing history is to take something connective and compelling and squish it into a dull list of chronological facts. Let’s face it: no one wants to read boring history, young people least of all. What my goal was – is with all my narrative nonfiction – is to write so that the story unravels in the reader’s minds just as it does when reading a novel. You see it in your mind. So I pulled out my fiction writer’s toolbox and did all those things one does to make fiction move: use of quotations as dialogue, using simple, direct exposition when filling in backstory or providing context; using scenes, particularly transitional scenes, to push the story along. I also spent a lot of time looking up things like the weather on certain days, and peering at photographs of the Lindbergh’s homes and haunts so I could add authentic, sensory detail. And I broke each chapter up into readable bites.       

THE HUB: What part of this book was the hardest to write?

FLEMING: The scenes in which Lindbergh goes to Germany just days after the surrender were the most difficult to write. There he is, in the middle of rubble and ruin, and he still refuses to admit the Nazis were evil, the true enemy. He has little sympathy for the Holocaust survivors he sees right in front of him. He won’t admit Hitler’s culpability, or his own, even after seeing stacks of bodies, mountains of ashes; even after talking with a teenaged boy whom Lindbergh himself describes as  “a walking skeleton.” Instead, he twists himself up making all these ridiculous excuses about science having stolen morality from mankind. He blames the American government. He can’t, won’t face the truth. And in his Wartime Journal he’s so unmoved, so dead-set in his convictions, so damn infuriating! I was enraged. I shouted and pounded my fist on my desk. I was tempted to leave the project. But the parallels between then and now stopped me again. I’ve seen this kind of excuse-making and finger-pointing recently. I’ve seen leaders twist themselves up rather than accept any moral culpability.  

THE HUB: Was the connection between Lindbergh and the current political climate always on your radar, or did that develop as the book did? What do you most hope readers take from this book?

FLEMING: You probably know the answer to this one by now, right? The parallels between Lindbergh’s time and our own striking and unavoidable. Celebrity politicians. Hero worship. Unchecked populism. The role of media in society.  Intensifying xenophobia and nativism. Building walls. Growing antisemitism and rising white supremacy. That’s so depressing, isn’t it? But we can take heart from history. Americans eventually repudiated Lindbergh’s speech. They called him “un-American” and “the most dangerous man” in the country. Even Congress condemned him! They were no longer willing to tolerate his racist message. Lindbergh was disgraced and ostracized. Let’s hope history repeats itself.