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Writer Thomas Mallon: Fact Is Stranger Than Fictionalizing The Election

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The 2016 presidential campaign has taxed the patience of the American people and often our imaginations. Would a novelist concoct a story in which a candidate begins a presidential debate with a boast about the size of his manhood, defame war heroes and recommend a porn video?

Would an editor tell a novelist, take out that part where the secretary of state's emails are found on the hard drive of a guy being investigated for sex texts? Too farfetched. In our last pre-election talk about politics with someone who's not in politics, we're going to turn to a novelist, Thomas Mallon.

His books include "Henry And Clara," "Dewey Defeats Truman," Fellow Travelers," "Watergate" and "Finale." They often feature some of the bystanders to historical events. Tom Mallon joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS MALLON: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: The 2016 campaign - do you find it believable?

MALLON: No.

(LAUGHTER)

MALLON: And to some extent, I found imagining it as fiction, maybe, consoling or at least an escape from it.

SIMON: Yeah - which you've done in an article in The New Yorker.

MALLON: Yes. So it's not actually a piece of fiction - this article. But it's a kind of essay about what one might do and might not do in putting it together as a novel.

SIMON: You often portray characters - are kind of caught in the gears of history. What names have become known this year that tickle your novelistic interest?

MALLON: Well, I had to decide first between the two protagonists. Or - I guess you can't have two protagonists - but the two antagonists, let's say. And my choice would be Hillary Clinton for a point-of-view character because I think Trump is unchangeable. He is himself 24/7, whereas, I think, she has all these twists and turns within her personality, some of them dark, some of them, maybe, even admirable.

But there's a host of minor characters. This essay had the distinction of being both prescient and obsolete. When I talked about Anthony Weiner, who had been forgotten for a couple of months - he's sort of lying low. I'm choosing my language carefully here. And I said that Weiner, who, as the estranged husband of Huma Abedin, must have seen some interesting things when he looked up from his texting.

I said, don't put him in to this book as a minor character. He's the kind of minor character who could run away with it. And the prologue, I imagine, for the book is the wedding of Donald and Melania Trump back in 2005, which the Clintons attended, in Florida. Hillary Clinton said they...

SIMON: We've all seen the picture at this point. Yeah.

MALLON: Right. She said they just happened to be there. So they decided to go. What you want to do in a prologue, of course, is find something that seems to prefigure the main action - prefigures it ironically or, you know, sows the seeds of disaster maybe.

SIMON: You describe yourself in New York Magazine - I'll quote now - as a "supposed literary intellectual/homosexual/Republican."

MALLON: (Laughter) Yes. A unicorn from (laughter)...

SIMON: All right. From that distinct point of view, what do you think's been going on in 2016?

MALLON: Well, I think the Republican Party has been taken over by a charlatan and that the Democrats have cast their net back a generation to a dubious past and, even, a dubious character. And I think we've been left with a choice that is very unhappy. I think one of the things that's unique about this election is there are so many people at one another's throats.

There are always people at one another's throats during an election. But I know voters - friends - at one another's throats, even though they are fairly unanimous in their opinion that they wish they had somebody else besides both of them.

SIMON: Yeah. A lot can and has been said about Donald Trump. But has he tapped into something?

MALLON: Oh, I'm sure he has. I'm sure he has tapped into a great deal of resentment, which he comprehends not in the least, which he has no interest in and which, in the event he's elected president, he will do nothing about.

(Laughter) You know, many of my books, when they deal with politics, have had a comic sensibility. And this piece in The New Yorker is comical, too, in many ways. But this is a year that could make anybody lose his sense of humor. When I read a draft of this piece to my partner, and I looked up, I said, so what do you think?

And he said, do you know how much anger there is in your voice? And I didn't really realize it until he said it. But once he did, I knew what he was talking about. It's because I feel squeezed out by this. I'd like a nice, good, moderately conservative Republican to be able to vote for with pride. And I don't have that.

SIMON: A lot of conservatives have endorsed Hillary Clinton.

MALLON: Yes, they have - a bridge too far for me, I must say. I decided just the other day, I think I'm going to take the opportunity to have the civic pleasure of casting my first ballot for a woman for president. I think I'm going to write in Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who's been stalwart against Trump this year and is a, you know, fine public servant, a good politician. There are some of them.

SIMON: Thomas Mallon, the novelist and critic - his latest novel is "Finale." Thanks so much for being with us.

MALLON: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: NPR and reporters from stations across the country will be live on election night and the day after with national and local results. You can listen live right here and watch the races important to you at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.