The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice
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What is your book about?
The Firebrand and the First Lady is a biography that tells the story of how a brilliant writer-turned-activist who was the granddaughter of a mixed-race slave, and the first lady of the United States whose ancestry gave her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, forged an enduring friendship that changed each of their lives, enriched the conversation about race, and added vital fuel to the movement for human rights in America.
Pauli Murray (1910-1985) became a lawyer, civil and women’s rights pioneer, and the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, despite the discrimination she faced because of her race, sex, and sexuality. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), the niece of Theodore Roosevelt and the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, became a diplomat and human rights internationalist in her own right. Drawing on letters, journals, diaries, published and unpublished manuscripts, and interviews, I present a close-up of an evolving friendship between Murray and Roosevelt, highlighting how they sustained it over time, what they gained from each other, and how their friendship influenced the cause of American social justice.
What inspired you to write your book?
I credit Pauli Murray as the inspiration for this book. In December of 1983, she sent me a letter packed with encouraging comments about my work and writing. She also mentioned the efforts of several activist-friends, including Eleanor Roosevelt. Little did I know that Murray would be dead in 18 months or that her suggestion—“You need to know some of the veterans of the battle whose shoulders you now stand on”—would lead me to write a dual biography. Not until the publication of Murray’s autobiography two years after her death did I realize that her mention of Eleanor Roosevelt in the letter to me was more than coincidence. Once I read the correspondence between them, I knew that my job was to tell their story.
Can you describe your writing process?
The Firebrand and the First Lady took longer than any previous book. I warmed up each day by listening to a Writer’s Almanac podcast. I followed this up by writing what Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, refers to as Morning Pages in my journal. These entries were usually about the things I’m grateful for, my daily goals, and the challenges in my path. Journaling about the book helped me keep it close even when I had little time to write.
I work mostly in a dedicated writing room where there is no television or telephone—not even a cell. I do my best writing before noon. The hardest task is to get the first draft done. Once I have a good draft, I solicit critiques from trusted readers.
How did you come to do what you’re doing today?
I was a university professor for 30 years and much of my work involved academic writing, giving lectures, and working with students. The transition from that career to full-time writer has been a natural one. I spend my days now writing for a trade market, speaking to a broad audience of readers interested in American, African American and women’s history, and growing my author platform. My committee work in the university has been replaced by teamwork with my agent and publishing-related professionals.
Can you describe a typical day in your life?
I rise by 6:30 a.m. Before I start the writing process (which I’ve described above), I do 15 minutes of yoga. I have breakfast, return to my writing room, and attend to e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter. I break for lunch and return to work until about 6:00 p.m. unless I’m on deadline. I end the day with at least 40 minutes of exercise 5 times a week.
What do you most enjoy about what you do?
I find the research process, especially conducting interviews and archival work, so satisfying that I have to make myself stop. Doing the first draft is usually hard, but revision is always joyous.
Are there any people and/or books that have inspired you along your journey?
As far as biographers, David McCullough is my standard-bearer. John Adams and The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris are my favorites. I turn to Anna DeVeare Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts—For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind when I’m at the beginning or middle of a project. I go to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear and Camille DeAngelis’s Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People as I’m nearing the end of a project.
Can you share something that people may be surprised to learn about you?
For five years, my husband and I took Argentine tango lessons. I was a fanatic.
What’s next for you?
I don’t think I’m through with Pauli Murray yet. I have a couple of ideas in the gestation stage, but don’t know if they will develop into a book.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Readers can learn more about me and my books at: