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Interview with Stephanie Dray

As a Mount Holyoke alumna, I had long known the name of Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet secretary in the US government. But I wasn’t five pages into Becoming Madam Secretary before I realized that I didn’t have the slightest idea what an amazing woman Perkins really was. I knew right then that I had to conduct a written interview with Stephanie Dray. Fortunately, she agreed, so read on to find out more.

A woman in a blue jacket, black cloche hat, and dark skirt against the background of the US Capitol building; cover of Becoming Madam Secretary by Stephanie Dray

You’ve covered quite a wide range in your fiction, from Ptolemaic Egypt to women associated with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, as well as incursions into French history. How did you discover Frances Perkins, and what made you decide to focus a novel on her?

It goes back to my own family history. Escaping early twentieth-century Europe’s poverty and persecution, my ancestors were relatively new to the American scene. My grandparents, growing up in the Great Depression, had it tough—they’d hunt frogs and squirrels and pick wild mushrooms just to survive. There’s a sad story about my great-uncle, too. He died trying to steal coal to keep them warm. It was FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps that turned things around for my family, so I grew up hearing how FDR was a hero. Both my granddads, who signed up right after Pearl Harbor, revered FDR as their commander-in-chief. And when my dad got polio, my grandmother looked to FDR as a beacon of hope. She always thought, “If he can lead a country from a wheelchair, my boy can do anything.” But you know, we hardly ever talked about Frances Perkins, even though she was the one who deserved much of the credit. I only knew of her from the dowdy pictures in history books until my friend Laura Kamoie and I were toying with a new book idea on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. That’s when I stumbled upon the young Frances Perkins—this vibrant, brilliant dynamo who I now think is the most important woman in American history. I just had to tell her story.

Are there particular constraints in writing fiction about people who actually lived?

Contrary to popular belief, there are no history police. Readers might not like it, but you can write whatever you want. And each author probably has his or her own rules about what lines they’re willing to cross. For me personally, there are lines I won’t cross. For example, if I’m going to say something controversial about a historical figure, I make sure I have some evidence. But if the record is hazy, I’ll generally give my protagonist the benefit of the doubt. I also relax more with ancient history, but when it comes to more modern political actors—all of whom are still directly relevant in political battles we are having today—I stick as close to the historical record as I can.

A middle-aged woman with dark hair and eyes stares straight at the camera; portrait of Frances Perkins

Introduce us to the young Frances. What brings her from her family’s home in Maine to New York City?

God. Precocious young Frances Perkins, raised on tales of her family glory, apparently asked God to make her an instrument of his mission to uplift mankind. She spent the rest of her life trying to get into Heaven, and she probably succeeded because she’s now an Episcopal saint. But I don’t want people to get the impression that she was a humorless holy roller. Frances was incredibly witty, worldly, and wise beyond her years. She didn’t want to live a conventional life in her father’s comfortable home; she wanted to go where people needed her most. So the plucky Frances headed off to the big city, parasol in hand. She had a real hunger for fun, romance, family, and all that life offered. But first, always, was her commitment to social reform.

I was surprised to find out that she was not only a friend of the writer Sinclair Lewis but, at least on his side, a love interest. Is that part of the story true, and either way, what can you tell us about their relationship?

Oh, that’s all quite true. Both of them apparently downplayed this romance later in life, but Sinclair Lewis did confess his love to their friends, and did propose marriage just as I portrayed in the book. I think it would have been a terrible love match; Frances would never have been able to put up with the bad boy of literary circles that Sinclair Lewis became. And he would have thought her to be a tiresome nag. But as friends, they were wonderful. She gave him the nurturing that he so desperately needed. He brought out the fun and adventurous side of her like no one else could. And ultimately, she deeply influenced his writing, which made its own impact on the world.

Nonetheless, it is not Sinclair Lewis but Paul Wilson who wins Frances’s heart. Who is he, and what draws her to him?

Paul Caldwell Wilson was a progressive reformer—he worked for a watchdog organization that helped battle corruption in government. He was brilliant, and their contemporaries said that he was every bit her intellectual equal. Which is, I’m sure, what drew them together. Having read Paul’s letters, I can also tell you that he was romantic and deeply supportive of her independence. It helps that he was extremely good looking, with blue eyes, an athletic build, and a great head of hair.

Marriage and family aside, Frances is defined most strongly by her work—in her own mind and those of others. What does she want, and what gives her the courage to think she can obtain it?

What Frances wants is for the United States to live up to its purported values. She thinks it’s the purpose of the government to help citizens secure for themselves the best possible life. Instead, she’s living in a time of robber barons, world wars, and the collapse of an unregulated crony-capitalist system. Her most revolutionary achievements come about because of the absolute catastrophe of the Great Depression. She knew that people were desperate enough to accept big change, and she had the fortitude and sense of purpose to step in and do what needed to be done, even though she paid a terrible price for it.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act, surrounded by Cabinet members; Frances Perkins stands behind FDR's left shoulder

Her view of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, especially early in the novel, is rather unexpected. How does she see him, and what eventually changes her mind and convinces her that this is someone she can work with?

Writing about how Frances and FDR went from being enemies to friends, and eventually soulmates, was possibly my favorite thing about this novel. I was startled to learn what a snob FDR used to be in his younger days. Frances also had a blast pointing this out in her writings, especially with photos of young FDR looking all high and mighty. I saw those same pictures, and they cracked me up. But FDR really changed, especially after polio, and Frances loved that transformation. When she sees him struggling to overcome his paralysis, she admires his tenacity. He became kinder, more patient, more empathetic and wise. But of course he was still a natural-born political animal, and he would make Frances Perkins into a shrewd, brass-knuckled political fighter. Good thing, because in turn, she made him one of the greatest presidents in American history.

This novel will be released on March 12. Are you already working on another fiction project?

I am indeed! Laura Kamoie and I are working together on our new forthcoming novel A Founding Mother, about Abigail Adams and her daughter Nabby.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Stephanie Dray is a bestselling author of historical women’s fiction, including her latest—Becoming Madam Secretary. Her work has been translated into many languages and tops lists for the most anticipated reads of the year. She lives in Maryland with her husband, cats, and history books. Find out more about her and her books at

Photographs of Frances Perkins and of Francis Delano Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act in 1935 public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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