Q & A with James MacManus!

1. What drew you to writing a book about Harry Hopkins, one of America's forgotten heroes?
It was my History tutor at St. Andrews University in Scotland who first drew my attention to Harry Hopkins. He was a cigar smoking Texan whose name I have sadly forgotten. We were studying  the FDR presidency and it became clear that in the unlikely figure of Hopkins FDR had found a trusted counselor, a confidante  and a friend who actually moved into the White House and took  up residence in Abe Lincoln's old study on the second floor.

I say unlikely because Hopkins was a real Washington outsider, politically very much a man of the left from the mid-west, who had been appointed to spearhead some of the more radical programs of the New Deal. Republicans hated him for his political views and Democrats distrusted someone who had never been elected to office yet occupied a key role in FDR's inner circle.

This was the man who the President decided to send to London at the height of the Blitz in Jan 1941 to find out whether Britain could survive. The American Ambassador, Jo Kennedy, had been withdrawn a few months earlier after suggesting that Britain would never win the war and should negotiate peace terms with Hitler. FDR did not trust Kennedy and sent Hopkins to find the truth.

On the face of it this was an extraordinary choice. Hopkins, as noted, was possessed of radical views and was openly hostile to the idea of the British Empire, as indeed was his boss in the White House. He had never been to London and what he knew of Winston Churchill he naturally disliked.

The relationship that developed between these two very different men fascinated me then and now - hence the book.

2. After Hopkins' incredible contribution to American and British history, why do you think most people don't even know who he is?

Historians have understandably concentrated on the two great figures that dominated the wartime transatlantic relationship, FDR and Churchill. Both men were geniuses of giant character who laid big shadows over the events of the time. Inevitably this meant that the vital work of the men and women who served them tended to be overlooked by journalists at the time and historians subsequently.

Added to that, as I have said, Hopkins was never popular in Washington and never wrote a book or left a memoir to tell his story. Thus for a long time his role did not receive the attention it deserved.  The fact that FDR used Hopkins on two wartime missions to see Stalin in Moscow and that President Truman sent him back to Russia in 1945 has even led to suggestions that Hopkins was a Soviet agent.

Distinguished academics have dismissed the accusation but it is an index of the ill feeling toward the man in certain political circles that such an accusation was made in the first place. As far as the UK is concerned  Hopkins is, and always has been, a little known figure whose appearance at Churchill's side in 1941 has to some extent been eclipsed by the tumultuous events that followed and American figures such as Eisenhower who drove the war to its conclusion. Also bear in mind that FDR died before he could write his memoirs and thus never was able to pay tribute to his faithful friend and counsellor.

3. Where did you do your research for the book?

The source material for Churchill's leadership of Britain in 1941-41 is voluminous in published works, in libraries and online. The best account of Hopkins' relationship with Churchill and FDR at that time is Robert E Sherwood's two volume history The White House Papers of Harry Hopkins to which I pay warm tribute in the acknowledgements. I worked largely at home in London with these sources.

4. How did you choose the title for your new book, SLEEP IN PEACE TONIGHT?

This is the first line of a little poem I wrote for the main female character, Leonora Finch. She sent it anonymously to Hopkins after he had ended his first visit to London and gone back to Washington. By then he and Leonora were lovers - in my book that is.  Leonora wanted to remind Hopkins not to  forget London, the blitz and indeed her.

5. While you were researching the book, did you uncover some interesting facts about the main characters - Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill - that you opted not to include in the book?

No. I put all the anecdote and stories I found about the three main characters into the book -FDR's passion for stamp collecting, Churchill's wonderful knock-a-bout relationship with his valet Sawyers and Hopkins' appalled reaction to the lack of heating in grand English country houses.

6. Why do you suppose President Roosevelt had such faith and trust in Hopkins?

They were politically attuned of course and Hopkins fought with success for FDR's  the radical New Deal programs.  More importantly Hopkins filled a void in Roosevelt's life. It is not often realized how lonely FDR was in the White House. Eleanor was his wife in name only, his children had grown up and his close political associates from the old days were gone. Hopkins was almost a surrogate son to FDR  and a  window into a world  the wheelchair bound President could not enter - the glamourous world of theatre, nightclubs and beautiful women. FDR loved talking policy with Hopkins  but equally he loved all the gossip. He wanted him around all the time which is why he invited him to live in the White House.

7. Some well-known figures make special appearances in your novel including CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and Hollywood actor Jimmy Stewart. Did they have any influence on Hopkins?

Murrow certainly did because he was a great newsman and a charming personality who made an impact on all who met him. But don't forget this book is not history but a novel and while I have made much of the relationship between the two men in London actually they Hopkins and Murrow met more often back in Washington after Pearl Harbor. Jimmy Stewart did indeed travel to Britain to fly bombers against Germany and a remarkable wartime career ensued. I do not know if he and Hopkins actually met in  real life  but London was a small much bombed city then and I would have thought it likely.

8. One thing you don't shy away from in the book is Winston Churchill's heavy drinking. How much do you suppose the Prime Minster drank in a day and did his drinking ever interfere with running the country?

The secret to Churchill's drinking was that he always had a glass, at least half full of whatever he was drinking at the time, close at hand. It was a great comfort to him. But he did not just drink one glass after another. He drank lightly but steadily from lunchtime to late at night but he did so in a disciplined way. That said he drank far more that we imagine possible today but he had the constitution for it. And of course he matched his appetite for alcohol with his delight in fine food. That probably helped absorb the alcohol. Don't forget that everyone in wartime London smoked and drank to excess. It was that kind of time. No, it did not seem to affect Churchill's wartime leadership. The hard drinking rich food loving Churchill beat the vegetarian teetotal Hitler. There must be a lesson for us all in there somewhere.

9. Is it true that Winston Churchill held meetings with Hopkins while he was soaking in the bath tub?

Absolutely and it is true that when Hopkins put this into his reports to FDR the President laughed out loud. Churchill did indeed receive male visitors in his bath, not regularly but occasionally. He was a man in a hurry and he did not want to waste a second of the day.

10. Churchill made it a point that Hopkins should get an up close look at the various sections of country that had been bombed. Specifically, what towns/communities did Hopkins visit and how did what he saw impact his decision?

The book makes this clear. He went to the two great port cities of Southampton and Liverpool which were heavily targeted by the Luftwaffe. Churchill also made sure he went to Glasgow which is when Hopkins gave the moving quite from the bible in reply to Churchill's speech. Obviously the damage caused by the bombing in these cities and Britain's precarious dependence on the Atlantic convoys allowed Hopkins to report back to FDR in dramatic terms.

11. Leonora Finch. What was the importance of creating a fictional character in your novel?

The truth is that Churchill desperately wanted to know what Hopkins was telling the President about his London visit. Leonora and her romantic relationship  with Hopkins was a device to convey this to the reader and also to show a warmer more passionate side to a man under huge pressure.

12. Was there a real Leonora Finch in Hopkins' life? Did he have a fling or flings in London even though he was engaged to Louise Macy?

Not that I know of but it would not surprise me if Hopkins cast rather more than an eye over the ladies in London. Eisenhower certainly did when he arrived a couple of years later. It is also true that the Blitz broke down social barriers in London and there was something of a sexual revolution in the city- and elsewhere, as the bombs fell.

13. What surprised you most about Harry Hopkins? And what do you think might have happened if the United States didn't join forces with Great Britain?

I think the speed with which Hopkins grasped the dire plight of the UK when he arrived was surprising for someone who had never been to Britain and disliked what he knew of Churchill. As for the US intervention, if that had not happened we on these islands would be speaking German now. That is why we owe Hopkins so much, he was instrumental in moving the President to see the dangers Britain faced from Hitler and his Nazi regime.

14. Are there any special places in London that you like to frequent to clear your head and write?

When I am stuck I walk around my local park or sweat out the problem in the gym.

15. How long did it take you to write SLEEP IN PEACE TONIGHT?

One year from start to finish including research.

16. Do you have any special rituals or habits when preparing to write?

I time myself with an hour glass and make sure I do three hours every morning. In the afternoon and evening I correct that work - using the same timer. I can only do five hours combined - after that a bottle of wine gets opened.

17. What are your other passions outside of writing?

I have three grown up children and we stay in close touch so I suppose I count that as my main passion. Otherwise poetry which I always read before falling asleep, fish especially shellfish which I love cooking, and collecting the work of young artists who I hope will make it big one day. Finally I am absolutely nuts about my 1988 Saab turbo car which has done a mere 125,000 miles.

18. Did you have input regarding your book's cover design?

The American covers have been so good I don't have to. I did have a bit of a fight with the UK publisher over this book but we have sorted that now-it is very close to the US jacket.

19. Of all the literary genres, you're drawn to historic figures. What is it that you find so fascinating about these people?

Every answer to the problems we face today can be found in the successes and failures of great men and women in the past. But too often we don't look back and learn. Too many people seem to think Henry Ford was right when he said "History is bunk." Too few agree with William Faulkner who said in Requiem for a Nun :"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

20. What is one thing you hope readers will take away after reading your book?

We were lucky at a time when Hitler was bidding to conquer the western world that we had leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. And both those great men were lucky to have the services of Harry Hopkins.

Learn more by visiting his website: http://www.jamesmacmanus.com/

About James MacManus:

James MacManus was born in London in 1943, educated at Westminster School and graduated from St Andrews University in 1966.He broke his Guardian reading parents’ hearts when  he joined the Daily Express in Manchester as a trainee reporter that year. He redeemed himself  when he moved to The Guardian in 1972, working first as a reporter in the London office  and then as a foreign correspondent in France, Africa and the Middle East for twelve years. The bulk of this time was spent in what was then Rhodesia where he was based as the Guardian’s Africa correspondent from 1974-80. In 1985 he joined the Diplomatic staff of the Daily Telegraph in London.
He joined the Times in November 1992 as Assistant Editor (Home) and took over as Managing Editor of The Times in September 1996.
He became Managing Director of The Times Supplements in April 1997, a company that published the Times Educational Supplement, the Times Higher Education Supplement and the Times Literary Supplement (TLS).
Following heart surgery in 2009 James relinquished many of his Corporate Affairs duties to concentrate on speech writing and managing the TLS.
In 2006 after a gestation of almost 20 years a film script  James had written finally made it to the screen under the title The Children of Huang Shi. The film takes place at the height of the Sino-Japanese war in the 1940s and tells the story of 65 Chinese school children who were recued from certain death by George Hogg, a young Englishman who had been caught up in the conflict. To escape the advancing Japanese forces in the bitter winter of 1944 Hogg took the children in a convoy of mule carts  over the highest mountains in China  to Shandan in the remote North West. There he died in 1945 of tetanus aged 30. MacManus heard about Hogg’s brief and heroic life while working in Beijing as a reporter in 1985 and his subsequent news story in a London paper attracted the attention of Hollywood. The film starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and directed by Roger Spottiswoode was released in 2006. James MacManus has also written a book about Hogg’s life called ‘Ocean Devil’ which was published in March 2008.
In 2010 James’s first novel was published by Harper Collins in |London. On the Broken Shore won critical acclaim and is to be published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St Martins Press in New York. The book will be re-titled the Language of the Sea. Thomas Dunne is a senior and widely respected publisher in the US and he said of On The Broken Shore: "What an odd, brilliant, shocking, moving, clever, perceptive book."


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