Author Martha Brockenbrough developed a strong journalistic background during her days as editor-in-chief of the Stanford Daily while attending Stanford University. She went on to become editor of MSN.com and wrote an educational humor column for online encyclopedia Encarta. Her passion for good grammar led Brockenbrough to write a book for adults, Things That Make Us [Sic] (St. Martin’s, 2012) and launch National Grammar Day (observed every March 4), as well as found the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. She has written well-received YA novels as well as picture books and nonfiction for young readers. Exploring President Donald Trump’s life story felt like a logical next step for Brockenbrough following her biography of Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary, Feiwel and Friends, 2017). In a recent telephone conversation, she shared why writing Unpresidented, due out November 13, became an urgent issue for her.
What is Unpresidented, and what compelled you to write it?
Unpresidented is a biography of Donald Trump that reaches back before he was even born, to his grandfather’s immigration to the United States and expulsion from Germany for dodging the draft. I cover how his dad started his business and the trouble his dad encountered with the law at various times to how Donald established himself in Manhattan, when he first developed political aspirations—it’s much earlier than you would imagine—all the way up through the election and the tumultuous first year-and-a-half or so of his presidency.
I had just finished writing a biography of Alexander Hamilton and I absolutely fell in love with the form and became even more deeply interested in the founding of our nation and the constitutional principles than I had been before. I started my career as a journalist. And I also taught First Amendment to students so it’s long been an interest.
Donald Trump’s campaign and election astonished me, for lots of reasons, and after he was elected, I immediately wanted to write a biography, but it took me about a year or so to understand what the most useful book would be for young readers. To connect it back to Alexander Hamilton a little bit more, Hamilton died because he was afraid of an Aaron Burr presidency. He thought Aaron Burr had shifting political principles. Aaron Burr’s finances were also in trouble and Hamilton thought that made him susceptible to influence from foreign governments. He said that no one in Burr’s financial situation could make a living as president, because they didn’t get paid much. Hamilton thought Burr was a demagogue. As I was researching that, I was noticing the parallels between Aaron Burr and Donald Trump, right down to the combover; Aaron Burr had small ears. There are things that might not necessarily make it into the book, but certainly Aaron Burr also had a way with the ladies. It’s all so interesting to me.
After the election, and the revelations that have followed, and also his behavior as president, it made the book feel really urgent to me, and I was glad that Jean Feiwel, my editor, agreed. I’m really thrilled to work with her again. We worked on the Hamilton book, which looks really beautiful in terms of images and design. Unpresidented will also have all of those visual exhibits, which I think are important for these books.
This book is aimed primarily at a YA audience. How did you find the right tone for such a politically charged project?
It’s definitely a politically charged subject and I am primarily interested in the facts. And so I trust the reader to take these facts and come to an understanding of what their significance is independently. But there are lots of challenges with the tone and it comes in part from some of the unprecedented political language that was used during the campaign and afterward. I’m including that. It’s part of the story, and it’s part of the notion of norms of public discourse and what those mean and what value they might have. Jean and I have gone back and forth a lot on exactly what the right tone is, but we share a goal of just presenting the facts because they really do tell a consistent and compelling story about who the president is and how he was elected.
The news cycle swirling around this president is pretty much nonstop. How will your book distinguish itself within that?
There are a lot of books that cover very specific moments. There’s Fire and Fury, which is a very riveting account of the first year. Mine deliberately takes a much wider span and it’s definitely not an insider account. I’m not there sitting in the Oval Office. I am combing through all the documents and accounts I can find, and I’m doing my best to understand what’s really happening. That’s one of the tricky things because the news isn’t always about what’s happening, it’s about what we’ve just discovered. And that event that’s just been reported in the news could have happened six months ago, a year ago. So one of the things I’m doing is building a comprehensive timeline so that I can take these things and weave them together. Because it’s significant, for example, when Donald Trump made the unprecedented invitation at a rally—“Russia, are you listening? Find those emails.” What was happening in his campaign around that time? It puts things in more perspective and that’s really what I’m trying to do— give perspective. Here’s the facts, here’s the order in which they happened, then leave room for readers to understand what they think of this development and the direction that the country is going.
I could never get away with these plot twists in fiction. My editor would say, “You know, that’s just really too much.” So sometimes we have to, when we want to write something wild, really stick to the facts.
What do you hope your book will accomplish?
I hope that it fascinates people and gets readers who are on the cusp of registering to vote to feel engaged in the process and that history happens with their participation. It’s going to happen either way, but better with their participation. This is a book that can feel desolate at times but it is ultimately meant to empower people with knowledge and with perspective so that they can take their rightful place in the life of the public.
One of the things that’s been most heartening and most exciting to me is the example of the Parkland high school students. Honestly, this book is for them. This book is for kids like them. My daughter asked permission, as she left for school this morning, to take part in the nationwide walkout. And I said, “Sure. Make good choices.” It’s thrilling to write for kids who feel that this is their country and they have every right to say how they want it to look and who they want to include.
Unpresidented: A Biography of Donald Trump by Martha Brockenbrough. Feiwel and Friends, $19.99 Nov. 13 ISBN 978-1-250-30803-0