November 16, 2011 — Her real name was Thelma Ryan – Pat Nixon, that is. She remains one of America's most mysterious and intriguing public figures, the only modern first lady who never wrote a memoir. Ann Beattie, Edgar Allan Poe Professor of English and Creative Writing in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, combines fact and fiction in a book that's not really a biography, "Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life."
Beattie will give a reading on Nov. 22 at 5:30 p.m. at the New Dominion Bookshop on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville.
Drawing on a wealth of sources from Life magazine to accounts by Nixon's daughters to "The Haldeman Diaries" and Jonathan Schell's "The Time of Illusion," Beattie reconstructs dozens of scenes in an attempt to see the world from Mrs. Nixon's point of view. Through the process, the book instead offers readers a rare glimpse into the imagination of a writer.
Beattie, who has published 18 books, including a collection of her New Yorker stories last year, talks about what compelled her to write the book in a recent essay in the New York Times.
"Hypothetically, in a book you can say anything. Just how that thing is spoken of, however, has led to some major confusion. The question is: What lies beneath or behind the text? As any fiction writer will tell you, writing about what happened almost never works. Facts look stranger in print. 'Mrs. Nixon' is about the limitations of language and also about what I believe are the limits of knowing anyone."