Reading through the sample, the narrative when from Donald Trump in the present day to the story of how his grandfather came to America from Germany. Does the whole book go back and forth through time, or is it mostly chronological? And how did you make the choice to write it that way?
The book does start at that pivotal moment just before election day, when everyone thought Donald Trump’s “pussy” tape would end his campaign. Then it goes back in time and proceeds chronologically. I think we can best understand history if it’s told to us chronologically rather than thematically. But I also wanted readers to know that much of this story would be set in the urgent present. There was reason to go back to his grandfather’s immigration. His grandfather lost his German citizenship for draft dodging, and wrote a heartfelt letter to a prince talking about how difficult deportation was for a family. Trump made immigration one of his themes during his election (and indeed, his tweets about immigration were his most popular—so he knew he’d hit a vein). His own family is made of immigrants, and so it felt like important information to include, along with the genesis of his family’s wealth.
At this point it seems like nothing we learn about Donald Trump could shock or surprise us, but… did you find out anything surprising during your research?
I was probably most surprised when an interviewer in 1980 asked him what he’d do if he lost all of his money. Somewhat jokingly, he said he’d probably run for president. But, as we learned from Dean Gloster’s critical thesis on humor, there are no “jokes.” He has long been ambitious. He’s also been unsuccessful as a businessman, filing Chapter 11 more times than any other business his size in the last thirty years. His record in real estate development is below average. Had he simply invested the vast fortune he inherited from his father, he would be far richer. In other words: he is a businessman whose efforts have lost him money. What’s more—and this is what remains to be seen pending the Mueller investigation—it is in no way unreasonable to suspect the Trump Organization has engaged in money laundering.
Before I did this book, I really did believe he was a regular businessman with a knack for getting the spotlight.
Now, I know that he’s nothing of the sort. Trump University was a fraud. He regularly didn’t pay his contractors, or he’d give himself huge discounts after the fact, something that smaller businesses did not have the wherewithal to fight. He partnered with criminals and people with questionable ties to the Kremlin for years (denying it under oath).
We are in dangerous waters, and what remains surprising to me is how many people are willing to overlook this for a variety of reasons. The process answered the questions I had as a child reading Anne Frank’s story: Why did people become Nazis? And would I have become one?
How has teaching at VCFA affected your writing life?
It’s made it better in so many ways. There is the great privilege of residencies, where I hear lectures by my colleagues and by students. (That was perhaps my biggest surprise: How terrific the graduate lectures are.) And when you are working with a student, doing everything you can to help them reach that next level, the deep thinking about the work helps me see my own work better.
There is also the community aspect of it. VCFA has given me a whole new community to admire, love, and support. What an extraordinary way for me to get to spend my life.
Which is better—Summer or Winter residency?
Winter. There’s nothing so beautiful as sitting inside a workshop room in beautiful old College Hall and watching snow tumble out of the sky.
What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student or teacher?
Embrace the work. It is so much work to do this well, but in dropping our resistance, in lowering our shields, we are all transformed.
Multi-talented Martha Brockenbrough draws on her diverse experience in journalism, research, nonfiction, and literary teen fiction for this incisive and thoroughly researched biography of sitting president Donald J. Trump. A powerful storyteller and narrative voice, Martha is the author of Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary; The Game of Love and Death; and Devine Intervention. She lives in Seattle, Washington.