America’s appetite for the Roosevelts is seemingly insatiable. For instance, over 30 million people* watched “The Roosevelts” this fall on PBS, making it Ken Burns’ third most popular series to date. If you’ve caught the Roosevelt craving, then Chip Bishop‘s newest book, Quentin & Flora: A Roosevelt and a Vanderbilt in Love during the Great War, is for you. It’s the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, his secret romance with a member of the Vanderbilt family, and his heroic service in World War I.
A note about the author — who sounds as though he’d be a great subject for a biography, too:
Chip grew up in Woonsocket, R.I. and was graduated from Boston University. His lifetime of achievements includes time as a campaign and administration aide to President Jimmy Carter, Capitol Hill lobbyist, business entrepreneur, local elected official, and disc-jockey during the fabled 1960s British Invasion.
He serves his community as vice chair of the board of trustees of the Mashpee Massachusetts Public Library. He loves doo-wop music, old German stamps and the Red Sox when they were champions.
Chip lives in Mashpee on Cape Cod with his wife and business partner, Jane Nichols Bishop, and Benjamin and Sabrina, their two black, rescue cats.
He is the great-grandnephew of Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Theodore Roosevelt’s authorized biographer, who was profiled in his first book.
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Quentin & Flora?
Chip: While I was researching my first book, The Lion and the Journalist, I was struck by the deep heartache that Theodore Roosevelt felt at the wartime death of his youngest son, Quentin. Theodore exalted war but he never expected it to take away his favorite child. When it did, he was overwhelmed not only by grief but guilt. He had sent his four sons into battle after he, himself, was denied the opportunity to go to Europe and fight the oppressors. These events motivated me to dig deeper into the Quentin story. And, at the suggestion of my then-literary agent, I added the “love interest” story of his relationship and secret engagement to Flora Payne Whitney, a Vanderbilt descendant.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Chip: Of course, I researched secondary sources among the many Theodore Roosevelt books and several others written about Flora’s family. Then I discovered that the T.R. Collection at Harvard University held about 125 letters that Quentin and Flora had exchanged during their courtship. The letters opened up the intimate world of Quentin and Flora and gave me the rich texture of their brief time together. Interviews were virtually impossible since all of the principal characters of the era had died. But I was fortunate to obtain the support of Flora’s daughter who offered great insight, photos and previously unseen documents.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Chip: The floor of my study was littered with three-ring binders and spiral notebooks where I keep excerpts of the letters and many hand-written notes, organized by subject and potential chapters. I code my resources in a way that I can pull together every bit of information by topic when it is time to draft the manuscript on my laptop. It works very well for me, despite the mess.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Chip: I’m a morning person, so you are likely to find me at my desk as early as 4:30 or 5 a.m. when the house is quiet and everyone else (including two black rescue cats) is asleep. I find that my mind is fresh after a good night’s sleep and, if I’m lucky, the words will flow from my fingers. I read the first draft of a chapter (the worst draft, I call it) to my wife, Jane, over breakfast. She is my best critic, and I usually accept her suggestions. Later in the day, I return to the keyboard and update the text with a fresh perspective. My final manuscripts are the result of heavy editing, four or five times over.
I am a marketer by profession, so I am on the road locally every week, reading from Quentin and Flora to audiences that will have me.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Chip: Theodore Roosevelt and his family do not lack for informational resources. The finest, by far, are the Theodore Roosevelt Collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library and the online files of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota. I have spent hours at Harvard reviewing original manuscripts and letters, and an equal amount of time online with the Center’s collection. I admit that I would be at a loss without Dictionary.com and my online thesaurus.
Bonus question: Quentin & Flora is painted with a rainbow of feelings — joy, sorrow, love, fear, warmth, and humor. How did you go about creating an emotional portrait of your subjects?
Chip: I admit to getting too close to my subjects as I wrote. At times, I got choked up while reading the manuscript out loud to Jane. I righted myself during the final editing, worked hard to restore perspective, and delivered to my readers what I felt was a fervent but impartial narrative. It is Quentin and Flora’s tale, of course, but fortunately for all, Theodore Roosevelt shines like the sun in the backstory.
*Just to put that in perspective, 2014’s most popular show, Big Bang Theory, draws about 23 million viewers per episode.