The former first lady on her new book, how she writes and why she never liked Alice in Wonderland.
Most famous people who write books have help. You wrote your new one—Reflections: Life After the White House—by yourself. Why are you so comfortable going it alone?
Because I keep a diary, and I write monthly letters to my close friends and to my surviving brother and my surviving sister-in-law. I’ve been writing like this for a long, long time.
What do you write about?
Well, we went to China when George was the U.S. ambassador. That was exciting, so I wrote in my diary about it. I wrote about moving to West Texas, about leaving my family in Rye, New York, when I was young. I’d never met a Texan until I moved. I’d led a very sheltered life, obviously. I wrote about going to the U.N., when George was there. Whatever we did, I wrote about it. I usually wrote about the funny things that happened to me or who was around at the time. When I go back and read what I’ve written, I realize how much I’ve enjoyed my life.
Do you find it hard to write every day?
It’s easy now that I have a computer. I climb into bed with my laptop and write; then I e-mail the file to my other computer, put it on a disk, and print it out. The pages go to George’s presidential library. They won’t be made public for 25 or 50 years—I forget which, but there’s a provision in my will. The reason is that I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings any more than I’ve already hurt them.
It’s hard to imagine that you’ve been brutally honest enough to hurt someone.
That’s the thing about diaries; they give you a chance to say exactly what you think. I always recommend to parents that they get their children to write in diaries, and then I worry: What if the parents read them? That’s wrong. If you tell a child to write what he feels and then you look at it, it’s unfair. Whatever it is, you don’t need to know it.
You’ve been a great advocate for reading as well. How did you get into it as a kid?
I grew up in a house with no TV and no radio; we didn’t have those distractions. My father worked for the largest publishing company in the country at the time, and each week, he brought home the magazines they printed, like National Geographic and Reader’s Digest, along with a few they didn’t print, like the Saturday Evening Post. They had serials, so I would read those. I was always third in line to get them, behind my mother and sister, but that’s how we spent our time: We sat around and read.
Do you remember liking any books in particular?
I loved all the dog books. Albert Payson Terhune’s—I read those. I also read all the regular books, like The Bobbsey Twins series. I’m afraid to say it, but I never really liked Alice in Wonderland. I’m not really into huge imaginations. I read one of the Harry Potter books recently but only because I thought I ought to. I will say this about Harry Potter: When I used to go to a fifth-grade class to talk about reading, I’d ask, “How many of you like to read?” And only the girls’ hands would go up. Since Harry Potter, every hand goes up—the girls’ and the boys’. I’m really grateful to J. K. Rowling. She’s sensational.
So what’s next? Any more books in you?
If I live long enough—I’m in my seventy-ninth year, you know. Really, I’m not planning much. I love my friends so, and I’m starting to see more of them. And I’m playing golf again. It’s very exciting to me.