Doris Kearns Goodwin on her bestselling books and the movie adaptation of 'Lincoln'

Doris Kearns Goodwin talks about her book 'Team of Rivals,' and what it was like to see her work come to life in Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln.'

James Rogash/AP
Doris Kearns Goodwin says her new book on Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft is scheduled for release next fall.

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin long ago established herself as a writer with the most enviable of careers. Nothing can compare to Goodwin’s role as one of the most revered in a long line of biographers of America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. Seven years ago, Goodwin published “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” a highly successful work now back in the spotlight as the basis of Steven Spielberg’s new movie “Lincoln.” Goodwin talked with the Monitor’s Erik Spanberg about the movie, her role in the making of it, and her next book. Here are excerpts of their conversation.

Q: How does it feel to have “Team of Rivals” back in the headlines?

It’s been a wild ride.... I finished the book in 2005 and [Steven] Spielberg got the rights to it in 2000. And it just happened luckily to come out during this time of the lame-duck session [of Congress] so that it sends a connection. We never could have imagined [how timely it would be] so many years ago, when both of us took so long to make the book and the movie.

Q: How did your book catch Spielberg’s attention? 

Spielberg has always wanted to make a movie about Lincoln. It predated my book or my involvement. It’s been in his heart for a long time. I met [Spielberg], actually, in 1999.... And when he found out that I was doing a book on Lincoln – I was four years into the book at that time – he said, “Will you shake hands and I’ll get the first look at it when you’re done?” So, of course, I said yes. He decided [later] to acquire the rights, even though I was four years away from finishing.

Q: What is your relationship with Spielberg like?

He’s so warm and accessible that you feel like you know him even after you’ve met him just one or two times. 

Q: What was your involvement with the movie? 

The first thing was I got to know and become great friends with [screenwriter] Tony Kushner. So I’ve seen the various scripts from the beginning, ranging from ones that were much longer, covering a much longer period of time, down to this final, really smart decision to focus on those last four months. As soon as Daniel Day-Lewis agreed to take the role of Lincoln, and even before he was announced, Spielberg asked if I would take him to Springfield [Ill.] because [Day-Lewis] wanted to go through Lincoln’s house and his law office and see all the documents.... It [meant] so much to him. I can remember still when we went through Lincoln’s house and a lot of the ceilings are low in it. But more importantly ... he remembered the carpet and the wallpaper were so busy that he felt claustrophobic and he couldn’t wait to get out of the house. Which is how Lincoln felt. He was already absorbing it.

Q: What was it like on the set?

I went down to the filming in Richmond [Va.]. To see characters you’ve been living with for 10 years in your imagination now suddenly costumed and speaking lines that you know they actually said in real life and knowing that Daniel had mastered Lincoln’s voice, that high-pitched voice. And he had figured out the walk – we knew [Lincoln] walked like a laborer. And the warmth in his face when he would tell those stories. The one thing I teased Tony Kushner about endlessly is, “You’ve got to get Lincoln’s stories in there.” The stories were his means of communicating and, more importantly, whittling off sadness, so that his melancholy was dealt with. [Kushner] obviously got those stories in there to show that side of Lincoln. I’m often asked, “If you could only spend one dinner with Lincoln, what would you ask him?” And I know I’m supposed to say, as an historian, “What would you have done differently about Reconstruction?” But I know I would simply say, “Tell me one story after another.”

Q: What can you tell us about your next book? 

Hopefully, it will be out in the late fall of 2013.... It’s really about Theodore Roosevelt’s ability to use the bully pulpit and [William Howard] Taft’s corresponding difficulty with it, even though they were such great friends and shared much of the ideology together. Until they split apart.... Edmund Morris’s [Theodore Roosevelt] trilogy is so fine, there’s no way I was going to write a biography of Theodore Roosevelt.... I’ve always been interested in the Progressive Era. Then when I read about [Roosevelt’s] friendship with Taft and knowing it had broken apart when they ran against each other in 1912, that became an angle. So it could be a different look at the era. 

Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.

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