The Short Answer: An exchange with Jim Lehrer
The executive editor and anchor of PBS's The News Hour with Jim Lehrer is the author of numerous books.
Your new novel, Flying Crows, involves the restoration of old Union Station in Kansas City. What inspired this?
I grew up around Kansas City, so I know about Union Station. When I found myself pursuing a fictional story of two men in a mental hospital in the 1930s, I imagined how they might have ended up riding on a train to Kansas City, and there I was with my story at the station.
The action in your novel moves back and forth between the present and the 1920s and '30s. Do you see any similarities between then and now in America?
The similarities for a fiction writer are always within characters' minds and souls, so the dates do not mean that much. A man afraid in the 1920s or '30s is pretty much like the man afraid now.
Is Union Station special?
Built in 1914, it was one of the largest and most beautiful train stations ever, and it started to fall on hard times as the train service was reduced in the late '60s. Eventually it was closed, boarded up, and left to deteriorate while developers and others sought ways to bring it back to life. Finally, in the late 1990s, the local governments in and around Kansas City raised the money to restore it for use as a retail center and science museum. Before restoration work began, the police made a sweep through the old building to make sure there weren't any bodies or other problems. An old man, feeble and sick, was found living in a storeroom. He told the police he had been living at Union Station for 63 years. The novel is the story of this man and how he happened to come here and make a life.
Do you see an object lesson in the abandonment of an old man and a decrepit structure with historic significance?
I think there is something to be learned from the double desertion of an old man and an old building. Most of us human beings are discarders by nature. We use things and then throw them away. The man found living in Union Station was, in fact, a discard. He had been tossed first to a mental hospital, and then to the winds. Those winds blew him to Union Station. And there, while he watched, that building also became a discard after the trains left. Fortunately, Union Station was rediscovered and now lives on in its old glory. That never happened to my fictional character. It was too late for restoration by the time he was found.
Several of your books have dealt with the past. Is there some creative impulse in general for a novelist in reexamining what went before, or is it just nostalgia?
I really believe that history lives in us all. That belief underlies most of my recent novels. The last one, No Certain Rest, had a modern-day spinoff from the battle of Antietam during the Civil War. The next one (after Flying Crows) will work off Benjamin Franklin and the American Revolution.
Why should Americans concern themselves with the past?
All of us should always try to see today through the prism of yesterday. We are who we are because of what others who came before us thought and did. To have only contemporary values is to have no values.
You and your wife have done some preservation of your own, right?
Yes, 12 years ago Kate and I bought an 18th-century house in the West Virginia panhandle that badly needed some restoration work if it was to survive. Part of the house was built in 1735, the rest in the mid-1780s. It was in the countryside where George Washington had done extensive surveying and where his family had built several houses. We discovered in his diaries at the National Archives that Washington had, in fact, visited our house on at least one occasion, in 1791, for dinner. We decided to restore it to as close as possible to that 18th-century time.
What special problems did you encounter?
We cleaned rather than refinished the original wood floors, for instance, and we left untouched some faux marble siding in the hallways. A professional paint historian came with his needles and expertise to tell us what the original paint colors were in each room. We dismantled and removed a porch and covering that had been tacked on later, and on and on. Each step was difficult, often expensive, but always fun and rewarding.
We believe that because we happened to come along when we did, it will survive at least a second 200-plus years. There are ghosts from the 18th century to entertain us. It is not difficult to sit in front of the fireplace in our front parlor and imagine conversations among men and women who were involved in the founding of our country. We are most fortunate, and proud of what we've done.