By Daniel Ford
Meeting your personal heroes, whether on the page or in person, can be a risky proposition. Plenty of journalists find out that the men or women they look up to rarely match the personas in the headlines.
Author Larry Tye conducted exhaustive research for his new book Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon—including interviewing Kennedy’s 88-year-old widow Ethel—and walked away with even more respect for the former U.S. Attorney General and New York Senator. That’s impressive.
Tye talked to me recently about why he decided to pursue journalism and nonfiction writing, his research process for Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, and what new discoveries he made about one of our most profiled public figures.
Daniel Ford: What made you pursue writing, specifically journalism and nonfiction writing?
Larry Tye: I love to explore issues and people in-depth. I love sharing my findings. And after 20 years of telling stories for newspapers at the length of a page or two, the luxury of doing it at 500 pages has proven irresistible.
DF: What inspired you to write your newest book, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon?
LT: I grew up in Massachusetts, with Kennedys everywhere, including going to high school with one of Bobby’s sons. I grew up with RFK as a hero. And I saw my mentors in journalism—the hardest-headed reporters of their generation—fall in love with Bobby, the first and only time they let themselves do that with a politician.
I wanted to know more about this enigmatic political figure, and Random House gave me the chance. I also wanted to know more about what America was like in my formative years in the 1950s and ‘60s, and nobody reflected that better—including the ways the country was changing from the era of Eisenhower to the tumultuous 1960s—than Bobby Kennedy.
DF: What was your research like? How many interviews did you conduct, and what kinds of documents did you comb through during the process?
LT: I interviewed more than 400 people and combed through endless documents, including newly-released ones. I read unpublished memoirs and sifted through more than 500 books. My research was both relentless and a blast.
DF: The Kennedy brothers have been the subjects of myriad biographies and historical narratives since their rise to power in the 1960s. Did you discover anything new that truly surprised you?
LT: Lots new: From probing in ways nobody had Bobby’s relationship with Senator Joe McCarthy, to understanding his real role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, to talking to people who hadn’t talked before about his times as attorney general, senator, and presidential candidate. I could cite endless specifics, but would prefer your readers read my book and decide for themselves.
DF: When you finally sat down to write the book, what was your process like? Would you say your process would differ than a fiction author?
LT: I have never written fiction, so wouldn’t know. What I can say is that nonfiction is an ongoing back-and-forth between writing, rechecking old facts, researching new questions, and trying to get back to sleep every time you wake in the middle of the night, remembering something you’d forgotten.
DF: Like his brother, Bobby Kennedy is a captivating figure because of his flaws as well as the better angels of his nature. In writing a biography about a well-known figure like Bobby Kennedy, how do you go about balancing the details of his life to give readers an accurate portrait of who he was?
LT: You try and tell it all, the bad and the good, and hope that the figure that emerges is the real one. That’s harder than it seems, but also what a journalist tries to do every day in every story she or he tells. Again, my readers will have to decide whether I was balanced.
DF: As a Superman fanatic, I can’t let you go without asking one question about your book Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. How cool was it writing about the Man of Steel?
LT: As cool as it gets. What could be better than calling it work when you spend your days reading old comic books and watching old episodes of Superman movies and television shows.
DF: You’ve written about Satchel Paige, the aforementioned Superman, civil rights, Jewish identity, and, now, Bobby Kennedy. What’s next on the agenda for you?
LT: Stay tuned.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring nonfiction authors?
LT: Know that writing books is the hardest work anyone could ever do, since it’s never done until it’s done. It’s also the most fun. Test whether it’s for you by writing your story first at newspaper- or magazine-length, then, if you and your publisher think there’s more to tell, try a book.
DF: Can you name one random fact about yourself?
LT: After seeing all the good and bad in him, I remain a bigger fan than ever of Bobby Kennedy. Nothing better than your hero being flesh-and-blood, with the balance of faults and goodness all of us have.