The Write Stuff: Members’ ProseBy Erin Mershon
April 6, 2011
These days, Members of Congress write more than ever: Quickie autobiographies and ghostwritten campaign books line the shelves of Washington bookstores.
But novels? That’s a different story.
Only a handful of current and former politicians have dared to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway and Cather. For each, it was part of a lifelong dream.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski wanted to write a novel ever since she read Nancy Drew as a young girl. Rep. Peter King got his start writing for a local paper before moving on to thrillers. And Sen. Jim Webb turned down a job with the Reagan administration to write.
Most have stuck to the sage advice of writing what they know, penning political or historical fiction that is based, however unrealistically, on their day jobs.
Mikulski’s opportunity to write came through her political connections. At the 60th birthday party for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, she met author Marylouise Oates.
“I told her I wanted to write a book, and she suggested we collaborate,” the Maryland Democrat recalled in an email. “We met for writing sessions but mainly wrote on our own. We sent pieces of the book back and forth in the mail.”
Between the daily grind of lawmaking and constant campaigning, it’s not easy to find time to write a novel. King, who wrote out each of his three novels longhand, would block out time to write on weekends or between votes on the House floor.
“Rather than go out and hang out in a bar, I’d sit in the office and just write,” the New York Republican said.
Mikulski’s experience was similar. “Sometimes, during a long filibuster, I would go back to my office and write on legal pads,” she said.
Lawmakers’ writing processes were as different as their politics. Webb took a disciplined and careful approach to plotting his novel. King said he never knew where his characters were going to take him.
“Almost every day I would have things come up that I’d never even thought about before,” King said. “I was almost like a witness to it, an observer.”
One of King’s novels stirred up controversy this year when he held hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims. Sections of his novel dealing with terrorism and the Irish Republican Army were quoted in media reports.
“I wish they’d have done it 10 years ago. I’d have sold more books,” he joked. “I don’t think it had much impact, but I got a kick out of it.”
Still, the hardest part is writing. Webb rewrote his first novel cover to cover seven times and spent a great deal longer than most trying to find a publisher. Despite the intensity, however, the Virginia Democrat said nothing gives him greater pleasure than putting the polish on a particularly strong passage. King agreed.
“The most rewarding moment is when you finish the book,” he said. “It’s a really great feeling to have it done.”
Vale of Tears by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.)
King’s third book follows fictional Congressman Sean Cross, whose experience is loosely based on the author’s. In the book, even chapters look back to Sept. 11, 2001, and odd chapters detail a future terrorist attack in which al-Qaida attacks trains, joining with rogue elements of the Irish Republican Army, a group King himself has supported. The Congressman’s counterpart saves the day by persuading reluctant witnesses to help him solve the book’s mysteries.
“The conversation in the bus was still solemn, very similar, it seemed, to the expressions of the New Yorkers walking the streets — somber but undaunted. But there was nothing at all somber about the scene along West Street as the bus — now going south — approached the vicinity of Ground Zero.
Hundreds of people lined the streets cheering, waving American flags and holding up signs, thanking and encouraging the rescue workers who’d come from all over the region and country to do what they could. The windows of the bus were shut tight, but its passengers could clearly hear the crowd’s defiant cheers of USA! USA!”