Q&A with Author Ted Gup
Uncovering a suitcase of letters stored in his grandmother's attic for decades changed the way author Ted Gup viewed his family, the Great Depression and the recent recession. In an interview with Think, he describes the personal and professional journey of writing A Secret Gift.
One of the things that most struck me in reading the book was the thoroughness of your research. What impact did that kind of investigation have on you personally?
On the narrowest level, it completely transformed my view of the Depression. I knew that there were bread lines and soup kitchens, that unemployment was high, but I didn't understand the depths of the despair and desperation. I did not expect to encounter poverty of those depths in my hometown. That absolutely shocked me ... the idea that you could watch your children starve to death.
What struck you most about the condition of the people who wrote letters to your grandfather—the anonymous benefactor—asking for help?
People were extremely proud, to the point where they would, in some cases, allow their loved ones to suffer needlessly rather than swallow their pride and extend their hands for help. Many of the people who wrote my grandfather were hoping that they could repay him at some point. Many said they didn't want a handout, but a job. And many of them, when they asked for something, didn't ask for themselves but for their loved ones. These people lived extraordinary lives and demonstrated amazing strength and courage. I came away after writing the book feeling like something of a lesser being, I couldn't help but measure myself against them and find myself wanting.
What were the challenges you had from a writing standpoint?
I had to continually remind myself to underwrite it-not overwrite it. I wanted to be deferential to those who wrote to my grandfather. It was about them, their stories. You read these letters and there is an authenticity and honesty about them. They are eloquent and unadorned. You feel the power in these words. There was nothing I could write that would ever be as powerful as what these people shared.
So you don't set out each time to write the Great American Novel?
Most people who are new or aspiring writers very often try to express something profound or meaningful to them. They want to write a book that's going to be an important piece of fiction. Writing my first novel was an effort to write something utterly light and entertaining.
What do you consider the overarching message of the book? What do you want people to walk away thinking?
That individuals can make a difference, that there is profound power in small but sincere gestures. Today we throw billions and billions of dollars at problems and we wonder if it helps. And there's not a personal involvement or touch to it. What my grandfather did had an intimacy to it, the human connection. And at least as important as the money that arrived was the hand that was extended by an unknown neighbor. It sent the message that people were worth saving.