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In This Twist On Tricky Dick's History, A President's Secrets Can Save Us

"I promise you I will show the same contempt for the historical record that it has shown for me."

So intone the opening pages of Austin Grossman's Crooked, in what are supposed to be the thoughts of our 37th president, Richard Nixon — or, at least, those thoughts as Grossman imagines them.

In Crooked, Grossman has a little fun with the "historical record" himself, offering a fantastical reconstruction of Nixon's presidency and the years leading up to it. By Grossman's telling, the much-maligned president has quite an excuse for his rocky political career: It turns out he's been taking on supernatural forces that threaten far more than just his time in office.

But, as the novelist tells NPR's Rachel Martin, he didn't exactly set out with this oddball scenario in mind.

"Honestly, I always try to write a very serious novel in a very serious character study, and it just goes this way," he says. "These things start to appear in the text, and I love them and I love to play with them. And they fit, somehow; they fit with explaining who Nixon was."

Interview Highlights

On taking the notion of historical fiction a bit far afield

I describe this book as the book where it's all explained. Watergate, Alger Hiss — it's a sort of character study of [Nixon's] desperation, his paranoia, his erratic behavior, which I chose to explain through a buried supernatural conspiracy underlying the Cold War.

I think any time you're writing about Nixon, you're writing about a man with a kind of hidden darkness. And my way of writing about that darkness was to make it real, to put it out in the world and make it a secret he had to conceal.

Austin Grossman, author of <em>Soon I Will Be Invincible</em> and <em>You: A Novel</em>, is also a video game designer.
Marka Knight / Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
Austin Grossman, author of Soon I Will Be Invincible and You: A Novel, is also a video game designer.

On the story's central tension

Well, Nixon began his career as an anti-communist crusader, but in his investigations, he stumbles on the supernatural world underlying the conflict that is the Cold War. He discovers that there are worse things in the world than communists, but for various reasons he's constrained not to tell anyone.

So he goes through his long, long, eventful political career constantly in over his head with this business — sort of stumbling from one crisis to another, barely covering it up. And it all explains what we saw on the surface: his meltdown in 1963, the fairly inexplicable Watergate break-in and a whole bunch of things in between.

On why he picked Nixon for his focus

My first reason was, yes, Nixon was president when I was born. He's the first president I remember. And when you're 4 or 5, you're trying to make sense of what the adult world is. The president matters. The president is sort of the best person we've got; he's at the top of the heap.

But one of the first things I learned about the president was that he was a villain and a joke, which made a conundrum of the entire adult hierarchy, as far as I was concerned.

As I've grown up, it hasn't gotten any less mysterious. To this day, no one really knows who Nixon was, or what he was thinking. And this is the kind of question that drives you to write a whole novel about someone.

On what drew him to Nixon's relationship with his wife, Pat

I thought it was very interesting to think about somebody in a marriage where he has to keep an enormous secret. It makes a kind of comedy of the marriage, where he's always about to almost slip up and let the secret out. And Pat doesn't seem to know what's going on. It's an interesting way to map a relationship. How can you actually be close to the person you're married to? How much can you trust them about yourself? It became a question to me about marriage and about what marriage is. It's part of the character study. What on earth was it like to be married to Richard Nixon? Once I thought of the question, I had to find the answer.

On using humor to tell the tale

Out 37th president was our funniest president. I don't think there's any debate about that, whatever else he might have been.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff