Novelists, at least the good ones, tend to be a modest lot, perhaps because they know no book of theirs is perfect, and even if it was, that won’t help write the next one. Thomas Mallon is especially self-effacing, which is noteworthy because there is no finer writer of American historical fiction working today. His 11 novels beautifully capture their times and temperaments, whether it be Lincoln’s Washington or Lucille Ball’s Hollywood, which is very much part of his latest book, Up with the Sun.

JIM KELLY: You are best known for your historical fiction, especially for highlighting minor characters who find themselves swept up in major events, such as Henry and Clara, the couple who sat with Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre the night he was shot, and Rose Mary Woods, Richard Nixon’s secretary during Watergate. In your new book, you focus on a real-life actor named Dick Kallman, who later became a wealthy antiques dealer and was murdered, along with his boyfriend, in 1980. Kallman is not exactly a household name, so how and why did you pick him?

THOMAS MALLON: When I was in junior high, I used to watch his ridiculous sitcom, Hank, which lasted one season (1965–66). Kallman played a college drop-in, a young striver desperate for an education despite having only the money he earned from odd jobs. He’d impersonate students he knew were going to be absent on a given day, taking their place in class. As I say, ridiculous.

The actor Dick Kallman, who is the focus of Mallon’s latest novel, in a scene from Hank, 1965.

But I, too, was desperate to go to college, and I’m sure some pubescent part of me thought that Kallman was cute. My poor father, who had to leave school after the eighth grade, would watch the show with me, no doubt wondering how on earth he was going to pay for his kid’s dreams. The program always stuck with me—and Kallman was murdered about 12 hours after my father was buried.

J.K.: You do a brilliant job creating the world in which Kallman thrives, a world of nightclubs and Broadway stars and 60s TV sitcoms and closeted gaydom. You wear your research lightly, but clearly you loved doing it. Can you share a couple of favorite highlights that you discovered about that era?

T.M.: Robert Osborne, of TCM fame, and Carole Cook—a superb comedienne who died just this month—were both members, along with Kallman, of Lucille Ball’s 1959 Desilu workshop for young comic actors and singers. I interviewed Robert more than a decade ago. In the clatter of the Brooklyn Diner on West 57th Street, he gave me superb insights into Kallman’s character and why, contrary to what one may suppose, nice guys in Hollywood actually do finish ahead of non-nice guys (such as Kallman).

I set the book aside for 10 years to write a three-volume political trilogy, and by the time I got back to it and interviewed Carole Cook, she was 95. Sharp and hilarious, she gave me perceptions as valuable as Robert’s, during a long afternoon in her West Hollywood house. Her husband, the actor Tom Troupe, plied us with old-fashioneds as we talked. The most fun workday ever.

J.K.: Here is a slightly delicate question: Some of the real-life characters in the book, like the actress and singer Dolores Gray, are depicted as, shall we say, highly unpleasant. She is dead, so she can’t sue, but how do you draw the line between what you discover about a real person and what you might embellish to make a stronger character? Put less politely, was Gray such a bitch?

T.M.: I wouldn’t say “bitch.” I’d say “tough broad,” one who made her way through a brutal world where the sell-by date for women came especially fast. I interviewed a number of people who found her impossible but liked her nonetheless. She had a lot of bad luck, made a lot of bad decisions (she turned down the Kay Thompson part in Funny Face), and she collected grudges.

Her lawyer told me about how, when Dolores was being wheeled through a hospital on a gurney, in terrible shape, she heard an orderly whisper to someone that the lady on the cart had once been a star. Dolores managed to pipe up and correct him: “A great star.”

J.K.: In all of your novels, you are such a master of period detail, primarily but not exclusively about Washington, D.C., in both the 19th and 20th centuries. You also happen to live there, God knows why. What came first, your love of the city as a place to live or as a place to write about? If you had lived in Pittsburgh all these years, would we be reading your novels about the Fricks and the Carnegies?

T.M.: I set two novels here before we actually moved down to D.C., 20 years ago. The sense that most of my subject matter was in Washington impelled the move, but I love the city—and find it less crushing to live in day-to-day than New York—especially now that I’m getting old. I still have a toehold in Manhattan—and this new novel is full of New York in the 1980s—but Washington provides me with plenty of material.

I do think that the old “write about what you know” adage is overstated, but there’s something to be said for “write about where you live.” It’s easier to wrap one’s mind around a city with 700,000 people than one with eight million. And look at what William Kennedy manages to do with Albany!

J.K.: Fellow Travelers, your novel about a doomed love story between two men during the Joe McCarthy era in Washington, has been turned into an acclaimed opera and will soon be a Showtime mini-series starring Matt Bomer and scripted by Ron Nyswaner, who wrote the screenplays for Philadelphia and My Policeman. Congratulations on joining the ranks of novelists (population 1) who have had a book turned into both an opera and a mini-series! What is it about the book that you think has drawn such creative interest, and how much were you involved in these productions?

The old “write about what you know” adage is overstated, but there’s something to be said for “write about where you live.”

T.M.: I pretty much stayed out of their hair. I’ve seen a lot of the composer and librettist and director of the opera in the half-dozen years since it premiered, but I never did more than answer a few questions they put to me during its years of development. Same with the TV series. I’ve exchanged a few quick e-mails with Nyswaner, who I’m sure has his own vision of the material, which is how it should be. I haven’t asked to go up to the set or anything like that.

Aaron Blake and Joseph Lattanzi in the stage adaptation of Mallon’s novel Fellow Travelers, 2018.

I think the power of the story lies in the sheer pointlessness of the oppression suffered by the characters. It’s the same with any classical tragedy you watch—you think, none of this ought to be, or has to be, happening. Even the supposed “villain” of Fellow Travelers, the betrayer, is as much a victim as the young man he sort of loves and more or less destroys.

J.K.: The New Yorker recently published excerpts from your journals that cover the mid-1980s in New York, when AIDS was ravaging your friends and you lived in fear of contracting the disease. As one acquaintance at the time said to you, “Just turning 30 these days seems like an accomplishment.” How much did living through those times affect your work then and now?

T.M.: I was always self-disciplined, but the specter of AIDS made me more so. The importance of leaving something behind—namely, books—became paramount. We closed that New Yorker piece during a four-person Zoom session: me, my editor, the copy editor, and the fact-checker. When we realized we were at last finished, we all got very quiet for a moment. I began to remember some of the people I knew who died shockingly young, and I started to cry.

I do think that, when the coronavirus descended, people who had lived through the worst of the AIDS era had a certain edge, a toughness, over others. I remember, in 2020, passing a sign that said, We’re all in this together. I scoffed, and thought to myself, as I know others did: yeah, maybe this time.

I think that, when the coronavirus descended, people who had lived through the worst of the AIDS era had a certain edge, a toughness, over others.

J.K.: You became friends with Mary McCarthy, so I wonder how much influence she had on your work. Are there two or three other writers that have been especially influential for you?

T.M.: Mary’s influence has been a constant for 50 years, ever since I wrote my undergraduate thesis on her. She considered literary style to be “lucidity, perspicuousness,” nothing to do with decoration or sensibility. She was glamorous, fearless, and against all relativism. (She would have hated this age of “my truth” as opposed to the truth.)

Mallon with the critic Mary McCarthy at Vassar College, 1982.

Gore Vidal, whom I edited when I was at Condé Nast, re-introduced wit to historical fiction and opened up the genre for me and many other writers who came after him. The whole generation of British writers working after the war—Waugh, Amis, Spark, even C. P. Snow (less lumbering than you think)—must have had some effect on me, because I read and admired them so extensively. I’m not at all like any of them, but they have to be there somewhere underneath my own pages.

J.K.: Finally, I loved Bandbox, your hilarious novel about a glossy magazine in the 1920s, but I can’t help but note that you worked for a glossy magazine yourself for many years. Did you ever get any feedback from your former colleagues at GQ who might have seen themselves in Bandbox? And of all the characters you have written in your career, which one most closely resembles Tom Mallon?

T.M.: My favorite reaction to Bandbox came from the very talented David Kamp, who, like all my other friends and former colleagues in the book, is absurdly cartooned. I think the subject line of his e-mail was “You Bastard!,” followed by a generously appreciative text.

As for the character closest to me, it’s probably Timothy Laughlin in Fellow Travelers. My first note to myself about him was “born November 2, 1931,” exactly 20 years before I was. He’s a slightly built, Irish-American Cold Warrior, a devout Catholic who’s hopelessly in love with another man. He’s sweeter than I am, but there’s a lot of overlap.

And, really, who else could you possibly cast to play him in this upcoming mini-series besides Bridgerton hunk Jonathan Bailey? As a friend of mine in New York said, “I mean, it’s like looking in a mirror.”

Thomas Mallon’s latest novel, Up with the Sun, will be published on February 7 by Knopf. The TV adaptation of his novel Fellow Travelers, starring Jonathan Bailey, will premiere later this year

Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL