Author Interviews

KCRW Interviews Janet Sternburg


Phantom Limb

Rosanne Welch Talks to John Leggett

about Ross & Tom: Two American Tragedies

When muckraker Theodore Dreiser wrote An American Tragedy in 1925 he hoped to help society focus on the debilitating effects of poverty.  Nearly fifty years later, in Ross and Tom: Two American Tragedies, John Leggett found similar effects could come from the opposite end of the spectrum, an abundance of talent, money and fame.  Leggett’s fascination with the (spoiler alert) suicides of best-selling authors Ross Lockridge and Thomas Heggen, after the publication of their wildly successful first novels led Leggett to write this dual biography.  Published first in 1974 Ross and Tom is now back in circulation in an era far more fascinated with fame than even Leggett could have imagined. Ross and Tom is such a deeply researched book about the act of writing, as well as the sacrifices of the writing life, one reads on despite knowing each man will leave behind loved ones as well as lasting legacies in the world of American Literature.

How did Leggett create such a compelling study of two small town Americans who conquered the big city world of publishing only to be conquered by it in the end?  Being a member of both of those worlds himself gave Leggett the confidence that he could write what he defined as a forceful biography. “The ‘force’ came from my own experience,” says Leggett, who was a bit of a small town wishful writer himself.  “I started in the business at Houghton Mifflin.  It was kind of a high spiritual place when I got there  – all these guys were hard-working and competing with the New York publishers.  They were all elegant gents, all shooting for the good books, but not just for the money.”

Leggett had submitted his own first novel to Houghton Mifflin but the editors turned it down.  “I wrote it on my honeymoon and hoped it would support me for the rest of my life.  Friends would read it and say keep it in the bottom of the trunk.  In any case I was yearning for fame and the elegance of being a writer of fiction.  We all loved Hemingway, we all loved Scott Fitzgerald and thought what a life – you don’t have to commute, don’t have to be anywhere at 9am.”  Though they turned down his novel, the editors offered Leggett a position at their headquarters in Boston, which he accepted.  There Leggett gained access to all the company’s files on their backlist of authors and books published in the past, which naturally included the works of Heggen and Lockridge:  Mr. Roberts and Raintree County which allowed Leggett to feed his fascination.

“Both Heggen and Ross were guys my age who had achieved just what I wanted – and they killed themselves, now there’s a lesson.  The truth of it was success was too great for them to understand how pernicious it could be,” Leggett says.  As his next efforts at novels began to be published, he couldn’t help thinking, “Look at this, I’m surviving while those guys killed themselves because they couldn’t take the success.”  Leggett feels that is the force behind Ross and Tom.  While working in publishing he tried to get other writers to write it, but no one took him up on the offer. In 1969 Leggett became a professor of English and the director of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, where, as he says, “I took a shot at it myself and I think it’s my best book.”

Leggett admits there was also a personal connection that kept him wondering about each man’s tragedy.  Lockridge’s wife, Bernice, sued the publishers, accusing them of killing her husband with publicity “and I worked in publicity then.  I thought all these things we were doing to get their names in the paper and all that to keep sales up, we thought we were doing the right thing, but then the wife thinks we killed him.”  Leggett’s guilt toward Bernice Lockridge kept him focused on effects of extreme fame.  “She was a simple girl in the end and couldn’t figure out why her handsome, know-it-all husband couldn’t stand the publicity.  She recognized that the publicity had changed her husband.”

Leggett agreed that fame had harmed both men and yet it is the essence of the American experience. “Ambition of that nature, I think, is pretty much an American experience.”  For Ross and Tom, however, that dream turned sour when neither author could even come up with an idea for a follow up novel.  “Then they think of themselves as terrible failures and they are shamed, when they don’t really understand that success is a passing dream. It doesn’t last and has no substantiality.”

In the course of years of research, Leggett found himself favoring Heggen and Mr. Roberts, partly because Leggett had served in the Navy and recognized the characters as real and partly for Heggen’s personality.  “Heggen’s work got more to a truth I recognized – and he was a mischief-maker where Lockridge was a choir boy.  Heggen was a loner, conditioned since he was a child to not try to compete with people but to make fun of himself.  He was much more interesting to read about than the grave Lockridge.”

Even while befriending Heggen posthumously, Leggett found the depressive nature of the research daunting but stayed positive about his own life and work because “I believe in telling the truth. In Ross and Tom – both men really interested me for their family life, their plain average American lives.  Because of the average-ness, the second- rated-ness of their home backgrounds, their motivation emerged for getting out of that sort of boring trudging of the Midwest and marginal families.  As children neither ever really had enough money or honor or splendor to do anything special.  They are so opposite and yet they followed exactly the same force of believing the their own publicity.  No young person – and there are probably a million of them writing a first novel – thinks they are going to be harmed by success.  It’s truth.  It’s why I wasn’t sure putting on the book jacket ‘Two American tragedies’ was a good idea, but it did tell a  good truth.  They were Americans and they were tragedies.”

On a final note, when asked if, as a teacher of writing, do you believe people can be taught to write or is it an innate talent, Leggett chuckled.  “What a question,” but continued after a moment of pondering.  “I think probably both sides are true.  If a person has no imagination, no feel for the English language, they’d better try something else.  Most writers have to develop some kind of love for stories as a child – someone read to you or you found an escape from the dreariness of school life.  But then you can’t just read a book you like, put it down and write another one like it. It takes agony.”  Leggett knows that agony personally, and he recreates it on every page it his tragic tour through the lives of Ross and Tom.

Rosanne Welch is a television writer with credits from Touched By An Angel and Beverly Hills, 90210.  She is also the writer of the Encyclopedia of Women in Aviation and Space.

Just gone live on Youtube: a 1979 television interview of MSW by Mary Lucille Deberry about the publication of MSW’s first novel, A Space Apart.

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