You've written biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Who in this campaign has reminded you more of Roosevelt?
Not even Paul Ryan, with his physical vigor?
No. T.R. was unique. He was a writer and a natural historian and a cosmopolitan. Our politicians tend to be professionals, monochromatic people who are of no particular interest outside of politics.
Anyone remind you of Reagan?
To a certain extent, Romney reminded me of Reagan. He projected an image of niceness but behind it a feeling of formidable personal force. The difference, though, is that with Reagan it was crystal clear what his political beliefs were.
There's a chapter in your new book, This Living Hand, about how biographies differ from history; biographies need narrative as much as facts. Is this true of campaigns too?
Unfortunately the stories we're presented, embodied by presidential candidates, are often fictional. In Gore vs. Bush, what we were doing was voting for a pair of novels. Each was fictional and not very compelling.
Could Roosevelt still be elected?
I can't see him doing well in a campaign today, because he was in person so explosive with his snapping teeth and his strange, high, harsh voice and his punchy gestures. He would fracture every TV screen in the country.
Who'd be a better biography subject, Obama or Romney?
I don't find either of them complex enough to want to write a biography about them, but I guess President Obama would, because he's so articulate and his background is interesting.
Virginia Woolf said fiction will always outlive biography. Was she right?
No. I think fiction now is becoming less and less interesting and important. Many of the things fiction used to do are done better on HBO or in other media.
If you were writing your controversial 1999 Reagan biography, Dutch, today, would you still use the technique of imagining yourself as a character in his life?
I think that technique would be less controversial now, because since Dutch came out, a lot of very imaginative biographies and nonfiction books have been published using techniques deriving from fiction but still maintaining scholarly honesty.
There's talk of a movie being made based on your first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Do you have any say in who plays T.R.?
Well, authors, as you may know, are the most despised species in Hollywood. I'm sure I won't be consulted.
You've also written a biography of Beethoven. Is it true the composer saved your life?
We were listening to a symphony, my father and I, in the dark one night in Nairobi. If I'd been less poleaxed by the music, I'd have gone over to turn on the light, and I would have stepped barefoot on a cobra that had snuck in. But fortunately my father put on the light and we saw the snake.