In Her Own Write
Kate Lehrer Is Catching Up to Her Prolific Husband
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2004; Page C01
This is how Kate Lehrer copes with living with Jim Lehrer, a well-known TV newsman and ultra-prolific novelist.
Well, she used to daydream -- then she learned how to turn those reveries into novels. Her latest, "Confessions of a Bigamist," was published this week. It's a romp of a story about a woman who is married to two men -- one in New York, one in Texas -- and lives with the crazy complications of her doppelganger life. Freudians might have a field day.
Of the book, Newsweek says: "Her romantic juggling act is a middle-aged woman's fantasy tale -- hardly realistic, but a great escape."
In many ways, Kate Lehrer is living a fantasy tale.
Besides the new novel, she has good friends, three grown daughters, six grandchildren, a lovely Cleveland Park home, a clean, well-lighted office within walking distance and a farm in West Virginia.
Her husband is successful. He has been a news reporter and editor on public television for nearly 30 years. He is anchor of "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," a nightly show on the Public Broadcasting Service. And he has just published his 14th novel, "Flying Crows," this week also.
For many writers, it might be stultifying to live in the shadow of another creative force. Kate Lehrer looks at it philosophically. She says matter-of-factly, in a honey-dipped Texas accent, "If it wasn't for Jim, let's face it, I wouldn't be getting all this publicity."
Their writing life is like a Tracy-Hepburn movie script.
Kate writes slow. Jim writes fast. "That's why her writing is a little bit better than mine," he says.
Kate writes her first drafts in longhand; Jim uses a computer.
Kate doesn't talk about her fiction while she's working on it. Jim blabs about it to anyone who inquires. "If you ask me," he says, "I'll tell you more than you want to know." Talking out the plot helps him solve problems.
Kate's home office is overflowing with photos of Jim and their daughters, Jamie, Lucy and Amanda. Jim doesn't have any family photos in his home office. The room is chock-full of his well-documented bus memorabilia.
Kate does most of her writing at a rented apartment several blocks from their home. Jim does some of his writing at his WETA office in Shirlington.
"Kate needs isolation to write," Jim says. "I could write in the middle of RFK Stadium with 50,000 people screaming."
Kate publishes a book every few years. Jim spits them out like watermelon seeds. "I've already got my next book done," he says.
Kate edits Jim; Jim edits Kate. "Her main contribution to my writing," he says, "is nourishment."
They speak lovingly of each other. He says, "We work very well together."
On the eve of her novel's publication, Kate Lehrer is sitting on her sunny back porch, drinking Diet Coke beneath a ceiling fan. She's wearing black -- turtleneck, slacks, shoes. Around her neck is an evil-eye pendant. For good luck.
Her hair is reddish; her eyes hazel.
"I lie about my age," she says. "I was born in 1939."
Regardless of the exact year, Kate Tom Staples was born in Waco, Tex. She was an only child. Her father, Thomas Malcolm Staples, was a county extension agent; her mother, Lucy Joplin, a social worker.
When Kate was very young, her father inherited some land in Kentucky, so the family moved there for a few years. Malcolm Staples died when Kate was 7. She and her mother moved to McKinney, Tex., where she grew up.
"I was the tallest person in my class," she says. "I was very strong."
She says: "I loved English. I always read. It was my escape from life."
She remembers vividly reading "Anna Karenina" in the seventh grade. In the novel, Anna, who is married, seems to have everything she needs for a happy life -- beauty, money, family, everything except meaning. So she falls in love with another man.
"Confessions," Kate Lehrer points out, is the story of a similar situation. Unlike Anna, though, the protagonist in "Confessions" does not throw herself under a train.
Growing up, Kate was surrounded by strong women. "I had a very doting mother," she says. "She never remarried. She was a very independent woman."
There was pressure on Kate to excel. "I always had to bring home the gold star. And I was a cheerleader. And in youth group at the Christian Church," she says. "I was the all-around general gold-star girl."
She started writing fiction when she was 11. Eventually she was drawn to the work of William Faulkner and John Updike, because of the way he wrote about death.
After high school, Kate went to Texas Christian University. She graduated in three years and moved to Dallas to teach junior high school. At the time she had two boyfriends. "One had packed me up," she says, "and the other had loaned me his car."
In the fall of 1959 she met Jim, an obit writer at the Dallas Times Herald. He eventually became city editor. They married in the summer of 1960.
She stopped teaching and had three kids in six years. "I was overwhelmed," she says.
Though she wanted to write, the duties of motherhood prevailed. Jim, meanwhile, published his first novel, "Viva Max," in 1967. He quit the newspaper to write fulltime.
It was a strange period, she says. "He writes novels, gets published. I'm staying home. As the years go by, all my confidence is gone. I'm living vicariously, through him."
Jim's life takes a turn when he gets involved with public television in Texas. "He consults me about everything," Kate Lehrer says. "I feel as if it is all happening to me."
She adds, "But it's not."
Around 1970, Kate began to write fiction again. She even finished a novel, "Nice Girls." But in 1972 the Lehrer family moved from Dallas to Bethesda and Kate put the manuscript away.
In 1975, Jim became the Washington correspondent for the "Robert McNeil Report," which would become the "McNeil/Lehrer Report."
Kate, meanwhile, daydreamed.
But she had a novel to show. In 1979, they moved into Washington and Kate met her neighbor, novelist Susan Shreve.
Shreve offered to show "Nice Girls" to her friend, John Gardner, author of "October Light" and "Grendel." Gardner liked Kate's book and encouraged her to keep writing. She did.
When Jim had a heart attack in the early 1980s, she got even more serious and went to work on another novel. "He was 49," she says. "It was my worst nightmare. My father had died. Now Jim almost died."
Her first novel, "Best Intentions," was published in 1987. Her second, "When They Took Away the Man in the Moon," came out in 1993. "Out of Eden" was published in 1996.
In those same years, Jim Lehrer published nine novels, including the much-ballyhooed "White Widow."
"I'm a midlist writer," says Kate Lehrer. "Jim has built up his audience. He's got real fans as a novelist."
She has an audience, too. As long as she can sell enough copies of each novel to persuade her publisher to produce the next, she is content.
The walk from her home to her office in a high-rise apartment building on Wisconsin Avenue takes about 15 minutes. She passes a cafe, a florist shop, the Washington National Cathedral.
She waves to the guard at the front desk and takes the elevator up to the sixth floor.
The room is small and bright with a bed, a computer, a bathroom and a sweeping view of the city of Washington. It's a room of her own.
Here she wrote most of "Confessions." The story, she says, "is a metaphor for all kinds of conflicts in a woman's life."
She refers to the work of Isaiah Berlin, who wrote that a person must sometimes choose between two goods. "In a sense there are two goods going on here," she says. The book "is a fantasy in a way. We dream of different lives, different partners."
On her way back home, she runs into Timothy Dickinson, a Georgetown habitue who's wearing his usual bowler hat and pinstripe suit with boutonniere. He has the uncanny ability to draw on obscure references to add spice and gravitas to almost any conversation.
He is sitting on a brick wall and leaning against a shrub. He learns that Kate Lehrer has written a novel about bigamy and he proceeds, in Dickinsonian fashion, to ease into a 20-minute dissertation on bigamy (and apparent bigamy) through the ages. He alludes to everyone from a contemporary politician to a British monarch to writers Dawn Powell and Anais Nin.
"That was amazing," Lehrer says, after bidding Dickinson adieu and returning to the path home.
And it was. Like a dream.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company