By Daniel Ford
From Martha Washington and Abigail Adams to Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, the nation’s First Ladies have not only provided insights into the Presidents they were married to, but also reveal much about our country’s tastes, styles, and character.
Author Louisa Thomas’s new book, Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, shines a spotlight on Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams and our only foreign-born First Lady. Based on letters, diaries, and a plethora of secondary sources, Thomas’s work paints a vivid portrait of one of the most overlooked figures in the early republic.
The author talked to me recently about how reading eventually led her to writing, her research process, and what compelled her to tell Louisa Adams’s story.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer or did the desire to write grow organically over time?
Louisa Thomas: When I was a kid, I wanted to be President of the International Olympic Committee (not a joke!). As I grew older, my ambitions were constantly changing: doctor, English professor, lawyer...never a writer. I wasn't one of those kids who wrote stories all the time (or ever). But I was a great reader—and that is probably why, in the end, I became a writer.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
LT: Virginia Woolf. Emily Dickinson. Don DeLillo. Wallace Stevens. Homer. Before that, Susan Cooper. And I was obsessed with this semi-trashy YA fantasy series, the Alanna series—The Song of the Lioness quartet. Also, my seventh and twelfth grade math teacher, Mr. Harding, and my Latin teacher, Mr. Cox. They were brilliant, funny, world-expanding. They cared about the right things.
DF: You formerly wrote for Grantland (RIP, sad emoticon), and your work has appeared in The New York Times, Vogue, and The Paris Review. Why did you jump into journalism in the first place? How has it changed from when you first started out and what do you think the future holds for the craft?
LT: I was lucky. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after college, and so I got an internship at Slate, which was, then, tiny and still pretty experimental. From there I became a fact checker at The New Yorker and then assistant to the editor, which was basically my journalism school. There was always some new subject to learn about. And I loved words—loved the way they sounded, the way the felt in my mouth. I was lucky to find myself at a place where every word mattered. Journalism has changed a lot since then—The New Yorker didn’t even really have a website when I was there. I think, for the most part, it’s changed for the better. There are fewer barriers to inclusion. There’s more weird and interesting stuff. There’s a lot of trash, but there was always a lot of trash. And The New Yorker is still The New Yorker. I feel very lucky to have come along when I did. The looming threat is economic. No one has figured out the model. When Grantland closed, I lost my job. I worry about how to make a living. But compensation comes in different forms.
DF: What is your research process like? Were there any hidden gems that didn’t make it into Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams?
LT: It’s long! I read thousands of letters. I read secondary sources—books, articles, monographs, biographies, dissertations, you name it. I read novels, which was more helpful than you’d think. It wasn’t until I reread all of Jane Austen, for instance, that I really understood why Louisa’s father’s bankruptcy had the effect that it did. We treat Austen’s books as if they’re romantic comedies. But they’re so much about money!
DF: When you finally sit down to write, do you listen to music, outline, or aim for a set number of pages? Does your voice come out naturally when writing something like Louisa, or do you find it more in the editing process?
LT: Some days, I wrote thousands of words; some days I only erased. It was pretty feast or famine for stretches. I am a huge reviser. I rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. In fact, I don’t think I’m a writer. I’m a rewriter.
DF: Early American history produced a plethora of colorful characters. Why did you decide to focus on Louisa Adams?
LT: She had a totally original voice. And because she wrote so much, and so openly, she was accessible in a way that few historical figures are. She made history human.
DF: John Quincy Adams wasn’t exactly the easiest fellow to like or get along with. What qualities did Louisa possess to not only match her husband, but also to carve out her own identity?
LT: She was warm where he was cold, social where he was silent, emotional where he was rational. She would have added: she was a woman where he was a man. Her gender was restrictive in so many ways—even that list of attributes indicates how much of the gendered conventions she internalized—but it was also liberating. So was being not entirely an Adams. She didn’t have to speak for the ages. She could speak for herself.
DF: Louisa has garnered some pretty high praise from the likes of Jon Meacham, Megan Marshall, and Joseph J. Ellis. What has that experience been like, and what’s next for you?
LT: I’m honored and grateful to have had such generous and insightful readers. When you work on for something for so long, and especially when you do it about someone rather obscure, you sometimes doubt yourself. No one was clamoring for a biography of Louisa Catherine Adams. So to feel as if maybe you’ve made a little contribution, it’s wonderful. And a relief. As for what’s next? I don’t think I’m done with the early republic. But we’ll see.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors and historians?
LT: Revise. Revise. Revise.
DF: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
LT: I have no idea how I pronounce my own name. Is it LouiSSa or LouiZa? I have no idea.