Elise Hooper, FAST GIRLS

Elise Hooper, FAST GIRLS

Zibby Owens: Welcome to the third day of my July Book Blast. This is Beach Reads Wednesday. I’ll be releasing lots of episodes this week and next to get all these great beach reads out and also books that have come out during the quarantine or books that I think you just need to read at this time. I just don’t want you to miss these authors for any longer. Anyway, here are some great beach reads. Each episode this week will have a book that I think you should curl up with and read if you ever find the time.

Elise Hooper is the author of Fast Girls, a novel about the 1936 women’s Olympic team. She is also the author of The Other Alcott and Learning to See. Elisa is a native New Englander and spent several years writing for television and online news outlets before getting an MA and teaching high school literature and history. She currently lives in Seattle with her husband and two daughters.

Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” Elise. I’m excited to talk to you.

Elise Hooper: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

Zibby: Of course. Your latest book is about Fast Girls and the Olympic team. Tell me all the details. The first integrated women’s Olympic team in 1936, go.

Elise: It actually even was 1830 — no, not eighteen. 1932 is the year the first two African American black women qualified. They didn’t end up racing, though. They qualified. They went to Los Angeles with the team. One thing happened after another and they never got to race. I went back and looked at — I was able find times for everyone in the time trials and everything. Everyone’s time — these women should’ve raced. Through one thing after another I have just deduced it was not only racism, but it was sexism. I think their male coach just didn’t take them very seriously, and so one thing after another. This book has been about so much discovery for me. It began with, my younger daughter is a swimmer. In fourth grade, she had to pick a project to do a biography on an American who was no longer alive. She chose Gertrude Ederle. Do you know who Ederle is?

Zibby: I don’t.

Elise: I didn’t either.

Zibby: Okay, good. Now I don’t feel bad.

Elise: She was the first woman to swim the English Channel. She was a swimming champ from the 1924 Olympics. It was her second try to cross the channel. She became a huge celebrity at the time in the twenties. Woodrow Wilson called her America’s best girl. There were ticker tape parades in New York for her. She was a really big deal. Yet I had never heard of her at all. That really prompted me to wonder about other pioneering women athletes. I think we often associate the passage of Title IX in 1972 as the beginning, and Billie Jean King and some of these women who are still active in increasing women’s participation in sports, but it really goes back much earlier. I started digging around. I have a background in running. I ran track in high school. I’ve run a few marathons, done lots of 5/10Ks, all of that over the years. I couldn’t believe the stories I was finding about these women. I just couldn’t believe none of us knew anything about them. It was such a fun, an amazing book. That has been such a great adventure to research these women, their stories alone during the 1930s in the Great Depression. Then you pile on the intrigue of 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler wants to meet one of these women at one point, invites her away for a weekend. It was just crazy upon crazy upon crazy. Yet I had never heard any of this.

Zibby: But this is fiction. You went back and made it historical fiction based on all of the things that you discovered.

Elise: Exactly. These women’s lives were not documented nearly like Jesse Owens, for example, or something. There were a lot of gaps in the record, especially when it came to Louise Stokes, one of these black athletes who qualified in ’32, again in ’36. There was a lot of room to do some imagining about what their lives were like, what especially their interior journeys were like. This was a generation who didn’t really speak about how they felt. The Greatest Generation just was living and surviving through hard times. That’s just the way life was. There was a lot of room to create a story around these women. My three main characters are Helen Stephens, Betty, and Louise Stokes. They all kind of come together in 1936, but I had to create some connections, too, between them to get them on this path. There was definitely some moving around of things. I write in my afterward, the changes I had to make to the historical record to make this flow more as a real story. It’s really hard to get three people’s lives in different parts of the country to intersect in a way that kind of made sense.

Zibby: I think we forgive you, then, for the liberties. It’s okay.

Elise: Thanks.

Zibby: No problem. How did you get all that research? How did you do it? Were you in a library? Was this all Google? How did you find everything?

Elise: Thank god for the internet. I don’t know what historical fiction writers did before the internet. I used newspapers.com. I read so many articles on newspapers.com. Some papers, they go way back with. I was able to find a ton in the 1920s and ’30s, so many in fact that I really decided I needed to create some of my own newspaper stories for this book. I was really intrigued by how journalists were talking about these women too. I feel like in Rio that was a big topic of how journalists spoke about women athletes. There was a lot of awakening to the double standards they were applying to men and women, and even around Serena Williams and all this oohing and aahing over her comeback as a mom. I think she’s been sort of annoyed by that. It takes off. We’ve become more aware of this. Back in the twenties and thirties, it was crazy with journalists talking about the buxom gal in lane three on the track and things that I wanted readers to really see and hear how these reporters were talking about them. I ended up aggregating a lot of the language and tone used and kind of wrote my own articles to give readers a sense of that. Newspapers were really big.

I traveled to Missouri to visit the Helen Stephens Collection at the historical society there. I was able to hold her track shoes and read her handwritten diary from Berlin. I had gone to Chicago. I went to Malden, Massachusetts, which is where Louise is from. I was also able to connect with a few people who — this one sports reporter out of Boston had written an article about Louise, which was really the most in-depth piece I’d been able to find about her over the decade. I contacted him. Oh, my gosh, bless his heart, he has spent hours in the Malden library going through microfiche and copying these articles. I owe my eyesight to him, really, because I would’ve destroyed my eyes doing that. He was generous enough to send me this big file he had accumulated on Louise over the years and allowed me to copy it and then send it back to him in Vermont. I was able to find some terrific sources. I talked to Helen Stephens’ biographer. I talked to descendants of Betty Robinson, her daughter and granddaughter, to get information. I’ve really tapped into so many different things. The Olympics are always very well-documented. There are actual films of these races. There are official reports. The Nazis documented everything, amazingly enough, of course. I can look at schematics of all the different facilities and read all their data about who came to the Olympics. If anything, there was so much information to be found. I needed to figure out, okay, what am I using here? It could be pretty overwhelming at points.

Zibby: How did you get into writing and doing historical fiction? I know this is your third book already. How did that happen?

Elise: I grew up right outside of Concord, Massachusetts, which is home of the Alcotts. My first book was about the Alcotts. I have to say that the Alcotts were a really formative part of my life. I had grown up going to drama camp at Orchard House, which is the Alcott family home-turned-museum. I had seen the tiny little desk upstairs in Orchard House where Louisa wrote Little Women. This sounds so funny to us, but seeing that desk as a nine-year-old is when I realized that people write books. They don’t just magically grow on bookshelves. Even as a kid, I had been an avid reader. That’s when I knew, boy, this is something I would love to do someday. It took me a while to get there. I had to almost build up some courage. I worked in journalism for a little bit. Eventually, when my youngest daughter was heading off to kindergarten, I said this is the year I’m going to try writing a novel I’ve always wanted to do. It’s been a whirlwind since, and just writing, writing, writing. Right before we got on the phone, I’m working on a new book. I really love this. I have worked as a high school teacher for years. I just love learning new things and finding all these new people I had never heard about. That, to me, is just so much fun.

Zibby: That’s great. How old are all your kids now?

Elise: I have two girls, almost fifteen and almost twelve.

Zibby: It’s nice to know there’s more time for writing as they get older.

Elise: Yeah, there is.

Zibby: Tell me about your next book. What is it about, the one you’re working on now?

Elise: It’s actually been crazy timing. I managed to fit in a trip to the Philippines right before the world shut down. About a year ago, I started working on this book about the so-called Angels of Bataan. That was a group of nurses during World War II, American nurses who were caught up in the Philippines at the outset of right after Pearl Harbor is bombed. Eventually, they’re taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. They have several extraordinary years in confinement where they continue to work the whole time. They really believed in the purpose of their job as getting them through these long, hard days. It’s a really amazing story about perseverance. These women were really on the front lines at some points, especially before they were, obviously, all captured. It’s a really great story of resilience. I’ve been writing like crazy ever since the pandemic because I’m taking a lot of comfort in returning to a time when people faced really hard challenges and yet were able to persevere. I’ve taken a lot of comfort in that and a sense of perspective. For me, that’s how I’ve dealt with a lot of the challenges we’ve had in the last few months, is going back to the past.

Zibby: Are there any books in particular that you feel like have gotten you through this time?

Elise: Yes, definitely. I really read a real range. I know one you had talked about and I feel like everyone’s been talking about was Beach Read. That was a fun one. I feel like I’m bouncing around between a lot of hard books, what I would consider kind of sad, or then fun. I recently read Sourdough by Robin Sloan for — I’m in a local bookstore’s book club out here where we knit and discuss the books.

Zibby: Awesome.

Elise: That’s really fun. I just read The Guest Book, which is definitely more serious. I love memoir. I read Chanel Miller’s memoir right at the beginning, which was actually possibly a really tough one to read right now. I really have been all over the map like probably a lot of us have been.

Zibby: I try to mix it up. If I read a memoir about some personal challenge, then the next thing is historical fiction. Then I go to maybe self-help-y type book. Then I go to something else. I like to mix it up. I feel like I can’t do back to back of any of the same type, if I have the luxury. Now I’m preparing a lot of books all the time. If it’s vacation or something, I like to mix it up.

Elise: I know. Do you listen to books, too? Do you do audiobook?

Zibby: No, it’s too slow. I read really quickly. I tried listening where you speed it up, but I can’t understand it and process it fast enough. Plus, I’m very tactile. I don’t know about you. I turn down the pages. This whole pandemic I’ve actually — I was very against electronic books, but now I’ve had to learn how to manage them. There are a lot of perks there too, the highlighting. I need to see it, for me at least. That’s just how I learn.

Elise: I’m with you. I’ve spent so much time, though, walking my dog and trying to get outdoors recently that I have been doing a lot of audiobooks. I kind of bounce around. I usually have a few different books going at different times in different forms. That helps me too.

Zibby: That’s true. I should say, during periods of time where I’m driving a lot, I try to have a book that I listen to in the car. If I’m at home, not as much. I read somewhere that you thought of yourself more like you should’ve been born in the times of Laura Ingalls Wilder or something like that. I loved that because as a kid, probably like many of us, I was obsessed with Little House on the Prairie and had my dress that looked like Laura. I feel like I might have watched every episode of that show as a child. I don’t think I had any limits on TV. I was the binge-watching champion at age I don’t know what, six, eight. I related to your saying that. Did you watch that show all the time or just read the books?

Elise: Yes. I once even turned down an invitation to go to a Donny and Marie Osmond concert because I did not want to miss Little House that night. I was a very dedicated viewer to Half-pint and everyone. I think also maybe where I grew up with all this history around, I just loved — I really did feel like I was born in the wrong time. I was taking dining room chairs and throwing sheets over them to make a covered wagon. Anne of Green Gables, I really loved that book too and still need to go to Prince Edward Island to channel that. Yes, I loved all those books. Of course, Little Women and all of Alcott’s books were really important to me. Yes, I definitely had that in common with you.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Elise: I really came to writing as a reader. My advice is always just to keep reading. I just love to read and learn more stories. Every time I pick up a book, I learn something no matter, honestly, what book it is. It could be way outside of my genre. I am picking up something on structure, on voice, on dialogue. I would say to keep reading. Some people say, when I’m working on something, I don’t want to read. I can’t relate to that at all. I have all these different books going. I am always looking to pick up new tricks.

Zibby: You should come to my virtual book club. I do a book club on Tuesdays at two PM Eastern time. It’s full of book lovers like us. I just started it in the pandemic. It turns out a lot of the authors I’ve interviewed come because we are all such big readers. Anyway, just thought I’d throw that out. Fast Girls, congratulations. It sounds like it should be a movie, by the way. Has this been optioned yet?

Elise: It hasn’t been. I know it’s been pitched around. Hopefully. It definitely has a very cinematic quality to it with these women. The 1936 Olympics has that in general to it, for sure. So fingers crossed. I just feel like I’m on a mission to help people know these women more. I think their stories are so important and we can learn so much from them.

Zibby: Awesome. Thank you. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m really glad we connected. Hopefully we’ll meet in real life one day.

Elise: Yes, I know, someday. Thank you so much, Zibby. I really appreciate all you’re doing to connect all of us who love books. I think that’s just so important these days.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m trying. Have a great day. Buh-bye

Elise: You too. Take care. Thanks so much. Bye.

Zibby: Thanks for listening to a Beach Reads Wednesday episode from my big July Book Blast. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know some of these amazing authors.

Elise Hooper, FAST GIRLS