Q&A: Prof. Peter Slevin, author of Michelle Obama biography


Source: Andrew Johnston

Medill Prof. Peter Slevin penned a new biography about First Lady Michelle Obama. The book hit stores this week.

Helen Lee, Reporter


Medill Prof. Peter Slevin spent more than seven years writing what is described as the first comprehensive biography on Michelle Obama. “Michelle Obama: A Life” details the life of the First Lady and discusses topics like race and discrimination. Slevin will discuss his biography, which was released Wednesday, at an on-campus event April 21. The Daily caught up with Slevin to get an inside look at his experience reporting and writing on one of the nation’s most visible First Ladies.

What inspired you to write this biography?

I followed Michelle and Barack Obama during the first presidential campaign as the Chicago bureau chief of the Washington Post. And the more I watched Michelle Obama and the more I understood her remarkable trajectory, the more I thought she merited a biography at which she was the center of her own story, and not just wife of the more famous Barack Obama.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while reporting?

There were two main challenges. One was understanding the history of her family and African Americans in Chicago. The book is very firmly anchored in the city. I found relatives of Michelle and I found documents that told stories about her family, and I was very lucky that so many dozens of people trusted me to tell their stories. The second challenge was understanding her time in the White House, where she and the president live in a bubble and are very guarded … about what they say about their current existence. So getting access to the White House story was a particular challenge. I did a lot of shoe-leather reporting … I would meet one source and then explain the project, ask them to trust me, and then I would go ask them for help for meeting the next person. It was … source building 101. I explained to everyone I spoke with that I wanted to write a serious, thoughtful, careful biography — a true biography of Michelle Obama. I didn’t want to do a quick Washington politics book or something that was only about her fashion choices.

What was the most interesting thing you learned about Michelle Obama?

I loved how what she is doing in the White House — the issues she cares about — are connected to who she was growing up in Chicago and what she learned along the way at Princeton and Harvard and then as a professional for 20 years in Chicago. Her projects … are about trying to unstack the deck a little bit in a society where opportunity is grossly unequal.

What did a typical day look like for you while reporting?

There were two phases of the book. The first one was learning her story, reading about historical events that were relevant to her life and her family’s lives, and then finding people who could share light on what Michelle and her family were doing and thinking along the way. And much of the last part of the project was sitting at a long table in Deering Library and typing away on my laptop.

Did anything go wrong while writing the biography and make you change directions?

The biggest challenge … was getting access to Michelle Obama’s life in the White House and understanding why she is doing what she is doing. It would have been great to have had more cooperation from the people closest to her, but I also understand that she wants to tell her own story in her own way. And who can blame her?

What’s next for you?

I’m looking forward to being back at Medill in the fall and teaching again. I teach a class on Dilemmas of American Power, a lecture class on foreign policy; I teach a class called Politics, Media, and the Republic … and I can’t wait to get back in the classroom.

Looking at the final product now, would you say this is what you had expected going into this?

I was very lucky in having a publisher and an editor at Knopf who let me write a book that I wanted to write — a book on Michelle Obama and the historical context in which she lives. I could hardly have hoped for it to go as smoothly as it did.

Is there anything that you’d like to add?

I was very lucky to have several Northwestern students help me along the way and several professors help me be smarter about the things I was writing about.

Email: [email protected]