'Bliss, Remembered': Despite War, They Dove Into Love Sportswriter Frank Deford's historical novel, Bliss Remembered, tells the story of a young American swimmer at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Deford explains why he was drawn to this particular historical setting — and what it's like to write a novel from the perspective of a woman.
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Love, War And 'Bliss, Remembered' At 1936 Olympics

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Love, War And 'Bliss, Remembered' At 1936 Olympics

Love, War And 'Bliss, Remembered' At 1936 Olympics

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: an 18-year-old champion backstroker from Maryland's Eastern Shore named Sydney Stringfellow.

Let's tip a small plot point here - she doesn't win a Gold Medal. In fact, she isn't able to swim at all, but as she tells her son Teddy, years later, she does meet a boy named Horst.

"Bliss, Remembered" is the new novel set in Berlin of 1936 by Frank Deford. He needs no introduction. We're going to make him sit through one anyway. Frank's a member of the Sportswriters Hall of Fame, a commentator on NPR's MORNING EDITION, and a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports." He's written 16 books, including the bestselling novel "Everybody's All American," and is generally acclaimed as the best sportswriter in America.

Frank Deford, who also sleeps in occasionally, joins us from New York.

Frank, thanks so much for being with us.

FRANK DEFORD: Thank you very much for having me, Scott, and a very nice introduction.

: Well, it may go downhill from here. But...


DEFORD: I'll try to hold my end up.

: So what did those '36 Olympics represent in history, not just sports history?

DEFORD: Actually, I tried to shy away from them when I was writing the book and I wanted to write a love story and I wanted to put it in an Olympics, because they're most notorious Olympics. If you've heard nothing about the Olympics, you've heard about Hitler and Jesse Owens. Really, the Nazis were the first ones to really understand how to use the Olympics. Goebbels was - Josef Goebbels, the minister of propaganda - the Olympics are today what they are because the Germans figured it out in 1936.

: The novel opens with Sydney - Sydney Stringfellow, now elderly, telling her story to her son, Teddy, because she's sure that she doesn't have much time left.

DEFORD: She's - not just want to tell Teddy her story because it's a love story and she wants to relive that, but there are revelations that are particularly important to Teddy that go beyond the love story itself. It's not just a romance, it's a suspenseful romance and Sydney wants him to know that before she dies.

: Now, the story about Eleanor Holm tippling champagne, getting thrown off the team, is that true?

DEFORD: Absolutely true. And as a matter of fact, true story, I met her at the White House. She's a wonderful, wonderful old lady. And it was because I remembered Eleanor that I thought, that's what I'll do. I'll make Sydney a backstroker.

I didn't intend to write the book as a woman.

: Yeah.

DEFORD: I just sort of drifted into it and all of sudden I'm Sydney instead of being Sam or Harry.

: How do you - how do you write from the skin, mind and heart of a woman?

DEFORD: I don't think it's that hard. You know, I mean it's all this sort of vaudeville comedy and sitcom, you know, I just don't understand them and all that sort of stuff. But I think I've known women all my life and known a lot of them.

: I'll bet your mother was a woman.

DEFORD: Yes. My mother was a woman and she was about the age of - born about the same time as Sydney. Honestly, Scott, it's a lot easier writing for me about an American woman than it was writing about a German boy in the 1930s.

: Yeah.

DEFORD: That was a much harder task.

: Sydney Stringfellow at one point meets Adolf Hitler.


: Now, a lot of people would shrink from writing a scene like that because you have to, you have to describe Hitler. How did you do that?

DEFORD: I wouldn't have dared written the scene unless it really happened. Hitler came down to practice one day, showed up at swimming practice at the pool because he wanted to meet a German American named Adolph Kiefer, who in fact won the 100 meter backstroke Gold Medal. Kiefer met with Hitler, and all I did was to move Sydney into the scene and place her there.

I also placed her at a great party that Josef Goebbels had in the middle of the Olympics - the middle weekend. Again, I could never have had Goebbels in the story unless I knew that this actually happened. And so I did borrow, but mostly it's a question of trying to put the lovers in various places. I'm not trying to drag Hitler and Goebbels into the story. I just want places for the lovers to go and be in love.

: Yeah. Yeah. What makes a small town girl fall head over heels in love at first sight with a - well, as soon as I finish this sentence I think I know the answer - handsome, young - handsome, young, cosmopolitan blond man.

DEFORD: Yeah. And he's fun. And he's charming.

: Forget I asked that.

DEFORD: And, yeah. And it's the kind of time and place where I think love is in the air. The wonderful thing about love stories is that, you know, it's not girl meets boy, boy falls in love with girl, they live happily ever after. The best love stories have impediments. I mean the Montagues did not like the Capulets, right? And that's what made "Romeo and Juliet," not their love.

And so obviously the impediment here is that she is a little small town girl from America and he is this German sophisticate, son of a diplomat. But that's what makes, that's what makes the good love story, the hurdle, the fact that you've got to overcome something to find love at the end, that every good love story has that element. If it didn't, it's just too sweet. It's too good. And no, we don't want to read that. We want to read about lovers trying to overcome, and that's Sydney and Horst.

: Frank, thanks so much.

DEFORD: Thanks very much indeed.

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