“In families, at least in families like mine, a fact is interesting or useful only if it’s been encrusted into myth,” Darin Strauss writes in the afterword to his latest novel, The Queen of Tuesday. “Strauss family memories are dunked in legend; my relatives make fanciful splashes.” Perhaps coming from such a family emboldened Strauss to imagine an affair between his grandfather, Isidore Strauss, and one of the most iconic actresses of all time—a woman who helped define the sitcom and insisted on showing both her interracial marriage and pregnant body on television: Lucille Ball. In the opening chapter, Isidore, a married man who works in real estate but has always wanted to be a writer, meets Lucille at a party thrown by Fred Trump on Coney Island in 1949. He is so enamored with her that he “almost has the sense that his touch gave Lucille her color, that he is part of the glamour.” Loving a star gives his life a reflected glow. Years later as he’s dying, Isidore reflects on how Lucille helped shape him: “the time he spent haunted by her gave his life, in his eyes, a heroic dimension.”
Strauss has written about celebrities before. His first novel, Chang and Eng, imagined the lives of Chang and Eng Bunker, conjoined twins who were born in Thailand and became famous in America by performing in circus acts. In addition to two other novels, Strauss wrote Half A Life, a memoir that won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In The Queen of Tuesday, Strauss blends fiction and the truth in an attempt to understand his own grandparents and to explore the life of Lucille Ball, a woman who paved the way for so many who came after her.
On television, Lucille Ball won fans over with both charm and relatability. But Strauss’s portrayal of the actress shows the anxieties of an existence lived mostly in the public eye. Lucille realizes one day while filming that “her image will replace her forever, that’s what’s terrifying.” She feels pressure to stay faithful to her womanizing on- and off-screen husband, Desi Arnaz, because, to the public, their marriage is “the Washington Monument of wedlock.” Strauss uses fiction to explore the questions raised by Lucille Ball’s double life as a star and a wife. What does it mean to be a celebrity in America—and why do we need idols? What does loyalty look like in a marriage, and how does one survive the shame of a spouse who won’t stop cheating? How do we wrestle with our unfulfilled dreams, whether dealing with an artistic purpose or a significant relationship?
— Michele Filgate for Guernica
Guernica: In the afterword to The Queen of Tuesday, you share why you decided to write a hybrid novel that is half-novel and half-memoir. Can you talk about the inspiration behind this book, and what it was like to imagine an affair between your grandfather and Lucille Ball?
Darin Strauss: I wanted to try to make a book that was a greatest hits compilation. I had written historical fiction and contemporary fiction and memoir, and I was doing a bunch of nonfiction articles, so I thought it would be a challenge to see what I could do with that. Also, it was a way to pay homage to this woman who I thought was so cool, and to look at my grandfather. The thing about my grandfather that always fascinated me is he did these things that you think would make him the villain of my family, but everyone really loved him, even as he did things that, from the outside, looked really bad. He abandoned my grandmother and moved in with her best friend, and even my grandmother was like, “Yeah, you know, he’s still my husband.” I was there when my grandmother died, and she was telling the nurse about him right before she died. At that point they hadn’t lived together in 32 years, and I thought that was the saddest thing, that she didn’t let go of this marriage. In telling the story, I realized that my grandmother was the secret hero, and that was another reason I wanted to tell it. But that only came out in the writing; I realized how angry I was at my grandfather and how much I admired my grandmother.
It felt like the right way to tell it. That seems to be how a lot of writers are approaching fiction right now. Maybe it’s because the world is so crazy, and reality is so difficult to get a handle on, artists are deciding to use nonfiction and fiction together.
Guernica: If your grandfather were still alive, how do you think he’d react to this novel? Has your family been supportive?
Strauss: I’ve been really struggling with that. It’s something I don’t know. I do love him, and I feel like in a way this book is kind of judgmental. He wanted to be a writer. The reason I ended up a writer is because I knew he wanted to be a writer my whole life, and I knew he hadn’t been allowed to do it. His father told him when he was a young man, “You can’t do that; you have to take over the family business.” So he was in real estate. It was a terrible decision. He’s the only person I know of who inherited skyrises in Manhattan and lost everything. It seems like the one thing you can’t mess up is Manhattan real estate, and somehow he did. But I think about this a lot. There’s that book U and I by Nicholson Baker where he talks about John Updike. Baker says he doesn’t think he could ever be as good as John Updike because he’s not mean enough—because Updike is so mean to his family when he writes about his own experiences. He feels responsibility only to the work and not to the feelings of the people involved. Baker says that makes him a good writer and a bad person. I don’t want to be a bad person. Maybe that’s why I had to wait until everyone involved was dead. But I hope he would like it as a writer, [and] appreciate that I told him in all of his complexity. I felt closer with my grandfather having written the book than I did before I wrote it, even though I exposed him as having been not the most moral at all times. And I felt especially close to my grandmother.
Guernica: Before I read your book, I had no idea that, as you write, “Lucille Ball starred in America’s first big-time interracial love story; was the first powerful woman in Hollywood; that she owned more movie sets at one point than did any movie studio.” Was it difficult to write from the point of view of someone who was quite literally larger than life, and did you find yourself veering further from the facts as you got to know her as your own character?
Strauss: I think because she’s so well-known, I didn’t want to veer too much. I just tried to give my take on what it must have been like to be her. One of the reasons I wanted to tell the story was because now she’s sort of seen as this anodyne sitcom character, but she did invent the sitcom, and she did have a hand in a lot of interesting things as a person, progressive things. She was as you mentioned, famously in an interracial relationship, and that was a struggle. CBS did not want to put her on the air with a Cuban husband. And she said no, I’m not going to do the show unless you let me be married to him on the air, and she was not a successful person at this point. Her career was pretty much over when she made that demand, so that was a very brave thing she did, and it worked out and it helped racial attitudes in some small way in this country. Soon the most popular marriage in the country was interracial. And she was a businesswoman, and a super successful businesswoman, at a time when the stereotypical image of American marriage was the husband would work and the wife would stay home. That was portrayed on TV, but that was not what she lived. The only reason we have Star Trek is because she took a flier on that weird science fiction idea. And that show also changed popular entertainment. She was a trailblazer. She fought the network to show a pregnant woman on TV, it was thought to be bad taste. So I think she was really awesome in all of these ways.
Guernica: Quoting from your afterword once again: you write “But a novel can elbow the facts toward literature’s own idea of truth, which is something else entirely.” That makes me think of something that the novelist Paul Harding told me, about the significance of emotional truth in fiction. I’m interested in how you interpret literature’s idea of truth, especially as someone who has written both memoir and novels, and now a hybrid of both!
Strauss: I think certain stories call out to be told as fiction and certain call out to be told as nonfiction. So with my memoir it was about this car accident I was in where this young woman died who was 16—she rode her bicycle in front of my car, I hit her, and she died, and so it seemed disrespectful to tell that story and play with the facts. But then there are other stories where the truth isn’t known that well, or can’t be known, so the story would be less satisfying and less artful if it was told nonfictionally.
The Lucille Ball biographies I read had all the dates and names correct, but they didn’t give a sense of what it was like to be her. Only she could write that, and she chose not to. Her autobiography is pretty intentionally at a distance. And so that’s what the novelist’s job is, I think: to try to inhabit the things that aren’t told in biographies. It takes a novelist or a memoirist to do it, and so since there isn’t a memoir where she goes into it, and you want to tell that story, you have to take liberties.
Guernica: I know that E.L. Doctorow was your mentor. What did you learn from him about writing historical fiction? And what have you learned now that you’ve written several novels based on real people?
Strauss: Doctorow gave very practical advice, which I think is really helpful. He said, over and over, to do the least amount of research you can get away with. And that seemed facetious when I heard it—books have to be well-researched or they seem fake. But I think the key is what you can get away with. His thought was if you do tons of research, you’ll feel beholden to that and not the story you want to tell. Your responsibility is to the story, and the facts are secondary. They have to be believable, but don’t let the fact get in the way of a good story. If you do tons and tons of research, you’re going to feel obligated to put it in out of respect for your own time.
There are a lot of historical novelists who disagree with that. My friend Kevin Baker wrote this great book Dreamland, and he did tons and tons of research about Coney Island. He said that’s where you find so many great ideas, because who can imagine everything? History is so weird and full of strange details. But I tend to follow Doctorow’s advice with my own work. I didn’t plan on being someone who often takes the truth and bends it, but I think it’s an effective way to tell stories because you can have the best of both worlds—you can have a great story that you know is good before you start writing it, and then you have the freedom to invent stuff that makes it even more interesting.
Guernica: Speaking of strange details, I’d love to know any weird facts you stumbled upon while researching this.
Strauss: One I had to include was that she was so popular that around the country, when her show would cut to commercial, the reservoirs of the major cities would go down because the entire country was going to the bathroom at the same time. According to numerous sources, Detroit and New York and I think somewhere in Ohio would register that the water table would dip, because 9:07 was the first commercial break and everyone would go take a pee and then come back. She would get 70 percent of American television watchers.
Guernica: I’m interested in your thoughts on what celebrities mean to Americans. You write: “Do Americans really want idols? Does anyone more than an American hate someone who thinks he’s better than they are?” Most of America was watching her show, but that was a different era, when there was less entertainment to choose from. Do we still want idols?
Strauss: That was another thing I wanted to examine with the book, the weird distorting force of fame. I imagine in this book my grandfather falling in love with her and ruining his life because she was famous and that was so seductive. I think there’s something fucked up about how America deals with celebrity. Look at the president. What is Trump’s qualification other than fame? There really isn’t anything, and look at how much trouble it has gotten us in. I think we have this weird dual need to both build people up and tear them down. There’s such a desire to insult icons, people who we made famous for some reason—this gleeful look at this person on a beach and how bad they look now. It’s a cliché, but we are a country without royalty and without religion to a large degree, and so what do we have? Celebrity.
Guernica: When I think of acting, there’s a certain amount of deception involved; the audience knows that what they are watching is another person trying to embody a character. There’s a great line in The Queen of Tuesday where you write of Lucille: “It strikes her: She can conquer the world with realness.” Why did Lucille Ball’s authenticity interest you?
Strauss: I think she’s an example of celebrity-as-force that was really interesting. When I was growing up the closest thing would be Madonna. Lucille said “I’m not really that funny,” and I think there’s some truth to that. She was very funny when she had written lines, but she couldn’t write her own stuff. And she said, “I can’t sing, and I can’t dance.” So why was she the most famous woman in the world? She was not exemplary in the areas by which celebrities generally became superstars, and yet, somehow, she was the biggest. And I think it was just some kind of desire to be famous, which was interesting.
She needed love because she was abandoned by her mom, and her father died when she was young. There was this hole there that she needed to fill with admiration, and she worked so hard to get it. There’s something about hard work and resiliency. She didn’t become famous until she was 40, and when you start at 16 that’s a long time. And also, I think the line you quoted gets at what I think her appeal was. I think she made people feel like, “Oh yeah, I could be friends with her,” in this newly created, intimate medium. Before TV, and she was there at the birth of TV, celebrities were on a giant screen. She was the first real celebrity people were inviting in their houses every week. She had that realness they were connecting to, but she also had some grain of glamour that was beyond most people.