After 10 years of reporting, interviewing, researching and writing, journalist Joshua Prager released “The Family Roe.” The sprawling, highly detailed book represents the most in-depth look at the life and family of Norma McCorvey, the woman most Americans know as “Jane Roe.” It also tells the stories of the people that shaped her life and adds a unique perspective to how those stories have impacted the lives of millions of Americans since the Roe V. Wade lawsuit was filed in 1970.
How does a writer approach a project like this, and what does it cost them? Where did the inspiration for the book come from, and how did the scope of the book change over a decade of writing and reporting? And is it possible to write a book about a subject like this … and somehow show both sides of the argument with your efforts?
Prager sat down for a conversation in advance of his appearance with the National Writers Series this Thursday night. Whatever your feelings on the topic might be, you’ll definitely learn something new and surprising about the people at the heart of the argument.
National Writers Series: This is an epic undertaking—it’s first and foremost a story about a family, and the people around them through the decades, and all of their roles in this hugely divisive American issue. When you were starting this out, was there a book or an author that you wanted to emulate or use as a guide along the way?
Joshua Prager: I wouldn’t say there was a particular book, but I’ve had my heroes for years that sort of got me into this world of writing. One of them is everybody’s hero, [Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer] Robert Caro. I’m a person who [doesn’t] even have a smartphone so my metabolism is sort of slower—I like long history. I like to take my time. I remember Laura Hillenbrand, the woman who did the Seabiscuit book many years ago—that book excited me and interested me. I like to deep dive and really, what motivates me even more than that is writing with empathy.
NWS: It sounds like rather than using anything as a model, you just established some ground rules and tried to stick with them as much as you could.
JP: Absolutely. Like so many of these projects, you don’t know how overwhelming it will be until you’re in it. It grows and grows.
I did have one big ground rule… You want to tell the story not through politics but people. Not through law, but people. And when I said that to myself, I knew I needed to sort of find a few other characters who would surround Norma and her family, and I found these three Texans. Linda Coffee, who was this remarkable woman—she was one of the two lawyers who represented Jane Doe. I found her living on food stamps and in a heatless home in East Texas.
And then the other two were these doctors, also from Texas—one on the pro-choice side [Curtis Boyd], one on the pro-life side [Mildred Jefferson]. They were both really the architects of the pro-choice, pro-life movement. Incredibly important people, and yet unknown. So when I found those three people to surround Norma with, I knew that the project was going to be big.
So that was what I did: I found my characters, then I followed them. And 10 years later, I finally finished.
NWS: I’ve been thinking about how you had to live with this story every day for over a decade. I mean, the story of abortion in America is just nonstop trauma, so how does one person cope with carrying the story in your head and actively pursuing all of these things? How did you live with that?
JP: I’ll tell you the truth: it was very difficult. It wasn’t even so much that abortion itself is a very grave thing, and that so many people realize it is a very frightening, complicated, difficult thing, but also the people whose lives are connected to this story? My goodness, are they a tortured lot. And the advocates on both sides—they are a very intense group of people. If you are choosing to commit yourself to abortion—either for the right to legal abortion or the belief that abortion should not be allowed—you are an intense person who feels something very strongly.
I was always interviewing people who loathe each other, and having to win them over—not in any sort of dishonest way. I’m proud of the fact that I am now receiving positive notes from both sides. It’s kind of a crazy thing, but people feel that they have been heard and their stories have been told. I don’t hide from my reader that I am pro-choice, I mentioned it in my author’s note, but I did my very best to tell this story in a straightforward honest way. I think the facts can speak for themselves.
NWS: And the facts lead to a much bigger story than just three daughters of one woman.
JP: The New York Times said that the book was “making a sweeping, granular, century-deep case for women’s sovereignty over themselves.” And … it is, but I didn’t set out to do that. In writing about Norma, I said, “well, we need to know where this woman came from.” So I looked back at her mother and her grandmother—all three generations had had unwanted pregnancies, and all three of these lives have been redirected in very complicated, difficult ways. So, when you are seeing in human terms what happens when a woman is not able to have an abortion, you are writing “a sweeping, granular century-deep case for women’s sovereignty over themselves.”
NWS: And the flip side of that question is that, from a reader’s perspective, it’s a tough sell. Like, “here’s 500 pages on a traumatic issue that divides everybody in America to this day.”
JP: It is a challenge. It is a real narrative so I feel like once people pick it up, you know, they’re there. But you’re right, it’s difficult. I’ve been helped by the fact that obviously, the timing is really crazy—it is very much of the moment. But it remains a challenge. And one thing that’s nice is I have some people on the pro-life side and on the pro-choice side who are columnists [and] have told me that they would like to be writing about my book as the upcoming Supreme Court cases approach.
NWS: It’s like you need someone you trust to hand-sell it to people, in a way.
JP: You’re 100% right. One thing that is exciting is that I have been approached by some production companies that want to turn it into a television series, and I think that would be a way that—if that happens and it’s looking positive—that is a way that I think the book will get out there, something I worked on for 10 years. And I think that it really has a lot to offer.
I think people often need help to understand big things. Like, “How did this come to be?” And my book explains it through people and makes it very, very easy to understand—you come to care about these characters, even if you don’t agree with them. And that is something that I care a lot about: writing empathetically about people, finding people whose life stories explain enormous public events.
And so yes, that is a challenge for me, getting it out there. And I’m working on it.
NWS: Well, if FX can do a show on Phyllis Schlafly, someone can do a show on Norma McCorvey.
JP: Exactly! And I’ll tell you, as a person that’s watched very little TV over the years … I did watch Mrs. America and I thought it was fantastic. And that is exactly the kind of show that comes to my mind now when I think of this being turned into one. Because you had these different episodes devoted to characters, and my book is really about people: Mildred Jefferson, Curtis Boyd, Linda Coffee and Norma McCorvey most of all. And I do hope that happens.
Karl Klockars is the communications manager of the National Writers Series. This interview has been edited and condensed.