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Darin Strauss on Merging Memoir and Fiction in his Incredible New Novel

by Brendan Dowling on November 28, 2020

Darin Strauss’ The Queen of Tuesday offers a captivating take on one of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century, Lucille Ball, peeling back the layers to show a Lucy only a privileged few would have been able to witness during her lifetime. Beginning with Ball on the brink of her phenomenal television success, Strauss spins back and forth through time, showing her fleeing her tumultuous childhood in upstate New York, navigating the predatory waters of the Hollywood studio system in the forties, and flexing her considerable business acumen in the television world of the fifties. As Ball helps shape the nascent television industry, Strauss examines the warping influence of fame, not only through Ball’s complicated marriage to Desi Arnaz, but also through an imagined relationship with the author’s grandfather, Isidore Strauss. Strauss’ Lucy is a compelling character, capturing her dynamic wit, extraordinary intelligence, and fervent romanticism. Strauss, whose previous books include Chang and Eng and National Book Critics Circle winner Half a Life, has earned considerable praise with his new work. The Boston Globe gushed “The Queen of Tuesday reads like a dream painted in bold and fearsome strokes” and The Washington Post named it as one of their 50 Notable Works of Fiction in 2020.

The book is about an imagined relationship between your grandfather and Lucille Ball. How did you first get the idea for the novel?

It’s really interesting; I had a dream about Lucille Ball. I woke up and thought, “That’s weird.”  In the middle of the night I wrote down the name Lucille Ball, thinking that would be my next book. Then I woke up in the morning and thought, “What the hell was I thinking? I don’t know anything about her! (laughs) I did a little research, and I must have known this somehow, because it turns out my grandfather had been at a party with her. I started asking around my family, and they said, “Oh yeah, that’s a night people have talked about.” Then I found out the party was thrown by Trump’s father. I thought that pretty rich symbolically, because Trump’s father had destroyed this historic and beautiful building at this party. I thought it was sort of interesting, the Trump family destroying history and using celebrity to do it, so it seemed like the natural idea for a book.

While it’s ostensibly about Isidore and Lucille, it’s also about the relationships both of them have with their respective spouses. Early in the book, Lucille has an idea “to show that a couple is a performance.” This idea of the performative aspect of being in a couple seems integral to the book with all the various relationships.

I’m fascinated by the selves that we are in different situations. All of my books are sort of about that in a way. I don’t even realize when I start writing them. My first book was about conjoined twins and that was an examination of the self. I tried to think of them as a metaphor for how we see people at different times, because the first sentence of the book  is, “This is the end I’ve feared since we were a child.” They thought of themselves as one person. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by that idea. It’s interesting that Lucille in this book is different people at different times. She’s the public Lucille, she’s the private Lucille, she’s the Lucille she is with Desi, and she’s the Lucille she is with Isidore.

Isidore too, is different people at different times, especially once he has a brush with fame, which I think is warping for him. He’s the Isidore who tries to think of himself as this glamorous figure and tries to fit into this glamorous world, and then you’ve got Isidore who’s the father at home, and he has real trouble reconciling those two people. For some reason I do think the fascinating part of being alive that’s not examined as much as I would like it to be.

You really show Lucille’s struggle to come into her own as an artist and all the different personas she had worked through before she arrived at television.

When you write a book you just jump into the story. You don’t realize what it means until you look at it when it’s done or people point it out to you. I did an event for this book with the writer Nathan Englander, and he was saying when he read that opening scene where Lucille was talking about her struggles of trying to make it as a creative person. He said, “Wow, that was so great how Darin was able to capture what it’s like being a writer.” I thought, “Oh yeah. I guess I didn’t mean that but I’m glad you thought that.” (laughs) When you write a character, you put your own experiences and personality in them, in that imagined life, as much as you can to make it seem real to you so you can make it seem real to people. I thought about my own experiences trying to be a very different kind of performer and artist as a writer, I guess, but that was how I imagined her in that role.

One of the things that spoke to me about Lucille was how determined she was and how hard it was for her to make it. Everyone I think knows her now as this huge star. Not many of us know how long and hard a trip it was from upstate New York obscurity to television ubiquity. She was the most famous woman in the world at a time. But before that she was a sixteen year old girl who ran away from home and tried to make it and was told by producers, “You’re not talented, you’re not pretty, and you’re not funny. Go home, you’ll never be a star.” For the next twenty-four years she worked and worked and worked until she finally became a star.

That resilience you show with Lucille is so rewarding to read in the book. What was your relationship with Lucille Ball and “I Love Lucy” before you began the novel?

I didn’t think of her that much. I loved her as a kid, like a lot of people. I’m a lot younger than she is, obviously, so I only saw her in reruns. When I was growing up it was on a lot, so whenever I was home sick from school I would watch “I Love Lucy.” I associated her with days off from school. I thought she was amazing but then didn’t think about her all that much until I had that dream. I’m not sure why I had that dream still, but that was the beginning of my obsession with her.

I knew her in the way a lot of people know her, as this fixture on the margins of American life, because she was such a big deal that even years after she died she was still talked about. Once I got into her I read all these biographies and realized how incredible she was, not just as a celebrity but as a proto-feminist icon. She forced CBS to show her pregnant body on TV because they said for some reason that was too risqué. She forced CBS to cast her husband as her television husband. He was a Cuban guy and she was a Caucasian woman and that was something at the time that CBS wasn’t keen on portraying on TV. She said, “I don’t care. I think America can handle it.” They said no and she really had to work to force them to do that. The result is she had the first interracial marriage on TV.

You show the political activism that she participated in and how savvy a business person she was too.

Beyond even the TV stuff she ran a television studio that was huge, that brought such shows as “The Untouchables,” “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek.” “Star Trek” has such a hug influence on our culture and that’s only because of her. No one else wanted to air that show. I think without “Star Trek” it’s pretty safe to say there would be no “Star Wars,” without the two of them there wouldn’t be Marvel or any big blockbuster. You could say she invented TV by pushing the first modern sitcom and then she invented the blockbuster culture by allowing “Star Trek” to air. Without her, the whole field of entertainment would be so much different.

I wanted to ask about the scene where you describe the shooting of what ends up being the first episode of “I Love Lucy,” after the scrapped pilot, when they don’t know that it’s going to be an incredible hit. It’s such a fun scene to read seeing all of the things Lucy is internally going through you’re showing how Lucy was discovering her persona in real time. What was it like in terms of getting into Lucy’s head in terms of how she thought about comedy?

That was a tough scene to write. I had to change the dialogue because the lawyers at Random House said, “You can’t just take the show.” The plot was based on the pilot but I rewrote all the dialogue. I’m not a TV writer so that was tough. I only was able to do it because at that point I had been thinking about her a lot. It’s very hard to write any character in a novel, but especially someone as a different gender than you are and in a different time frame and then someone also as well-known [as Lucille]. I thought if I screw up people will go, “That’s not Lucille Ball.” The book took me a long time to write because I took a long time to feel comfortable with my version of Lucy. I had to go for it. Then also the book is a weird mix of fiction and nonfiction and memoir and biography and novel. It was hard to make all that work. It really took me a long time to write that book.

How did writing your memoir influence your approach to writing a novel?

I realized that it’s easier and more difficult in some ways. It’s easier to write a memoir because, for me, when you write a novel you’re always asking yourself, “Does this make sense? Would the character say this?” and what would come next . You don’t have any of those questions when you’re writing a memoir because you’re like well this would come next and this is believable and this is what the person would say. It’s easier in a way, but it’s harder because you can’t massage the facts. You can’t change the story to make it more interesting. I thought if I mix the two forms then I can take what’s best about both of them. You don’t have to ask when you’re writing about Lucille Ball, “Is this character compelling? Would this happen?” Because you know that she is and you know that this happens. You don’t have to stick with the facts that you do in a biography.

The reason I thought her biographies were not great and why I thought I should write the book was she was pretty withholding as a person. All the biographies could tell you were the facts about her fame, but they couldn’t tell what it was like to be her. I thought there was a real opportunity and if I did a good job, I could capture her voice and her essence in a way her biographies didn’t. If I do her then it will be more interesting than making some celebrity up from scratch because she’s already established and we have all these associations with us. I did think it could be a powerful thing to mix those two genres.

If I had to invent a character, it would take a long time to get to know her. Once I did Lucille Ball, you have all these associations with her so that made it easier for me. Let’s pull the reader in pretty quickly and let the reader be present in the world and know what it means, all the stuff you don’t know when you’re reading about someone who’s fake.

The book immerses you in the world of midcentury real estate and the hierarchy of the entertainment world. What was your research process like?

I got lucky. I interviewed family members about what it was like back then. My dad is still alive thankfully. My grandmother’s sister is still alive and I interviewed her. She’s ninety-nine. That was interesting. I got really lucky because Hunter College in New York City has this program where they have money to pay students to do research for writers. Someone there called me up and said, “Hey, do you think you’d ever want a research assistant for free?” (laughs) Yeah that would be great. For a semmester I had a student who would look stuff up for me, and I wouldn’t feel bad asking because they were being paid ten thousand dollars which is a lot of money for half a semester and it was not that much work. Hey can you do me a favor and look up anything you can find about my grandfather’s company in the records. They found articles about my grandfather. All the articles in the newspapers in the book about Strauss family business does this and this, those were true. And then I said, “Can you explain to me what the laws were for real estate companies, because I know there were government incentives to help working class people back then and people coming back from the war.” I was able to get free help, so that was great. It’s called the Hertzog program, in case any writers who are reading.

I did a bunch of research at libraries. There was only a couple of semesters when I was able to get that help and it took years to write the book. I teach at NYU and I was using their library, and then I used the New York City Public Library system. I went to the main branch in Manhattan and I did research there on both real estate and celebrity. I didn’t know anything about how a TV show works. I did research on How many cameras were there and how does that work. I got a photograph from the library of the set that Lucille Ball used and that helped me describe that pilot that you mentioned, the first episode rather. I didn’t realize there was what they called the script girl in a booth way above the stage. I never would have figured that out.

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