In a town known for abrupt transitions, few were as dramatic as Valerie Plame’s 2003 ejection from the CIA after her covert status was blown by a State Department official. Plame, who now lives in New Mexico, has fashioned a new career as a public speaker—and a novelist: Her second thriller, Burned, cowritten with Sarah Lovett, is out this month. Here she talks about how she made the switch.
Get Out of Town
“We made a conscious choice to leave the bustle behind. Here in Santa Fe, if there are three cars ahead of me at a traffic light, I get mad.”
Reset Your Priorities
“Many interesting things come my way, and I’m grateful, but I’ve also learned to say no. That’s helped me evolve from my CIA-centric notion of who I am. I’m constantly switching gears, and my life is overscheduled—but it’s my own.”
Mix Things Up
“I have the opportunity to get involved with things I care about—nuclear nonproliferation, local politics. I don’t think of myself as a novelist, because I do so many different things.”
Play to Your Strengths
“I’m endlessly curious about people and their stories. I use listening skills that I developed in the CIA to turn the stories I hear into novels, screenplays, and TV projects.”
Use What You Know
“My protagonist, CIA operative Vanessa Pierson, knows what a stakeout’s like: You wear the same clothes for days, you smell! No high heels for her—when she gets dressed for work, she dons flat boots that won’t trip her up in a chase.”
It’s Not About the Money
“Like working for the government, being a novelist is something you do because you love it—it’s certainly not for the pay.”
This article appears in our October 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Any attempt to talk with Dan Fesperman about his work—his superb 2009 novel, The Arms Maker of Berlin, or his new release, Unmanned—quickly becomes a discussion of other recent literary thrillers. Fesperman reads voraciously, a habit formed while reporting for the Baltimore Sun from the Mideast, Berlin, and Pakistan. The novelist, in other words, does his homework. That’s why Unmanned is so unsettling: When Air Force drone pilot Darwin Cole breaks down after accidentally killing Afghan children, a group of freelance journalists chasing reports of military misconduct encourages him to follow the trail of how drones are being misused. The novel rings uncomfortably true for anyone on whose behalf drones are doing their work.
Let’s talk about your title.
Unlike, say, an F-16 pilot, who is in the cockpit alone, a drone pilot constantly has someone looking over his shoulder. It’s also about being broken by events—and yes, it could be a woman. Third, it’s about the drones themselves, so eerily without human faces in the cockpit.
You visited Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
I knew before I went that there’s a disconnect between pilot and target. What blew me away was the disconnect between the pilots and their lives. There’s such intensity and intimacy in the hours spent watching a location, waiting for orders. Then, after blasting away people in a different time zone, they go home to dinner.
You juxtapose your protagonist, Darwin Cole, against three journalists.
Their world is all about control and interpretation of information, like his, but in an utterly non-institutional way. They feel untethered from publications. The only way forward is to become contractors.
And warfare becomes a private act, too.
It’s cheaper to let others do things, isn’t it, than to let a government pay for it?
How did you research this book?
I was able to do a lot online, where these people are—on message boards, in forums, blogging. They were very welcoming, which was terrific for me as a writer, and odd.
Did you fly a drone?
I didn’t, but it occurred to me, after seeing how easily they let me in, that someone could come along and say, “Hi, my name’s Osama, and I’d love to learn.”
This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
After her father, Anthony Battista, was indicted for distributing the 1972 porn-film classic Deep Throat and her mother attempted suicide, Kristin Battista-Frazee’s life might have become a parable of innocence lost and the inability to “unsee.” But in her memoir, The Pornographer’s Daughter, the McLean resident has a surprising take on her parents’ marriage and pornography.
Why write this book?
I was fascinated by the challenge of telling what was for so long unmentionable, a story my parents skirted because of my age then and family and friends avoided because it caused so much trauma for my mother.
You say you have no problem with pornography, despite the events of the book.
Pornography is an expression of adult sex—on film, in the case of Deep Throat. My parents made clear it was not something bad. The peace I’ve made with what happened is largely because of my mother’s not having any problem with pornography. She was troubled by my father’s long absences, his behavior with other women after he began running a strip club, and his ignorance of her concerns and needs.
What I did hear from them was how unstable their relationship was, due to their youth and unmet expectations. When that imbalance met the crisis of my father’s indictment, trouble was inevitable.
What does your father do now?
He said after the trial, “If they wanted me to be a stockbroker, they shouldn’t have arrested me.” He bought an adult book-and-video store in Florida and wound up owning several.
The business has changed. It used to be male-dominated, but now he stocks lingerie, vibrators, and Fifty Shades of Grey.
It's not much of a leak, especially not in this town, but still: The National Book Foundation's National Book Awards Fiction Longlist was meant to be shared, sedately, on Thursday, September 18, at 8 AM (at which time, of course, all us book folks would be all a-twitter on The Twitter).
Alas, these days everything's subject to premature revelation. Even serious fiction, supposedly of little interest to the My Personal Screen generation, gets its veil whisked away too soon. Here's the list, published on HuffPo. It's a strong one, and even if you don't agree, you have to admit it's a better balance between male and female writers than the pathetic Non-Fiction Longlist.
UPDATE: They took the link down from HuffPo, but the New York Times has typed it all up for your delectation.
Hey, if it's in the New York Times, then we can publish it here. Right?
Chuck McCutcheon’s new book, Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs & Washington Handshakes, started with a single word: “disingenuous.” After nearly two decades covering Capitol Hill, says McCutcheon, he realized that the term had a different meaning in politics than it does in the real world.
“It’s the polite way to call someone a liar,” McCutcheon, co-author of National Journal’s Almanac of American Politics, said at a book signing at Politics and Prose last Saturday. “Not just a liar, but an especially clueless and out-of-touch liar.”
The realization led him to team up with former Politico senior editor David Mark, now editor-in-chief of the website Politix, on a translation guide for a political jargon that can feel a lot like a foreign language. “It took about four months of interviewing dozens of people for their favorite terms and definitions,” says McCutcheon.
As Washington-speak evolves, McCutcheon and Mark will continue to add to their collection of terms and phrases via their website and on Twitter (@ChuckMcCutcheon). In the meantime, here are some of our favorites, excerpted* from the book:
I’m just raising the question: A way of bringing up negative, even conspiratorial, information about an opponent without looking like the bad guy.
I’m sorry if I offended anyone: A classic non-apology apology that makes it clear the public figure is sorry for being caught, not for what he or she actually said.
I want to spend more time with my family: One of the most pervasive euphemisms in the government and business worlds, it’s the lame excuse when someone doesn’t want to provide the real reason for departing a job.
Grownups: The description of serious legislators who would rather accomplish something than gain publicity.
Wing nut: A lawmaker or activist known more for his or her proclivity for making outrageous statements than for accomplishing much legislatively.
Nontroversy: A conflation of “non” and “controversy” to describe an incident or utterance that’s seen as wholly undeserving of any fuss.
Not in a position to: A willfully ignorant phrase by a media spinner to deny knowledge on a subject they could reasonably be expected to discuss. It’s a press secretary’s way of painting him/herself as a cog in a larger machine, to deflect giving a straightforward answer.
*Excerpted from Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs & Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of America Political Speech by Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark. Published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England.
A month or so ago a fellow critic and I lunched and chatted about books, as we do, and one of the books we discussed was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The critic had read it; I hadn’t. “Oh! There are so many inconsistencies in that book!” said my colleague, going on to list several of them. While I mentioned that I’d loved St. John Mandel’s previous novels (which is true, although I had a couple of problems with her first one, Last Night in Montreal), we shared a good snicker about books that don’t close their own loops. Yes, I’m keeping it real, folks; when book people gather, we sometimes say things for our own amusement.
I kept the caveats about inconsistencies in mind when I finally had time to pick up Station Eleven this week. One that we’d talked about seemed glaring to me (and I’m going to attempt to analyze this without spoilers): Why didn’t the characters ever camp out in private homes? Since even the most cursory reviews of the novel will tell you that it’s about a near-future version of our society after “civilization’s collapse,” no one’s reading will be ruined when I say that I originally hypothesized that people were avoiding any structure that might be occupied. But I could be completely wrong, and after reading several dozen more pages, I realized this: It doesn’t matter one bit.
Yes, St. John Mandel is writing dystopian fiction with science-fiction shadings--and I know that many fans of such fiction love inner consistency in their reads. (Not that my aforementioned colleague falls into that category.) She is also writing the kind of high-concept book that puts its author on the high wire: How will she connect her cast of characters? isn’t simply a brain-teaser of a question. It’s one that adds a layer (or layers) of meaning to the book. When you go beyond plot and beyond theme to the next level of symbolism and purpose, then add plot devices, character connections, and atmosphere, you’re writing a high-concept book. It tickled me that Mandel references Justin Cronin’s wildly popular The Passage in Station Eleven, not just because she’s tipping her hat to a master of “Armageddon Lit,” but also because it seems like a “Look Ma! No hands!” moment where she admits that hers is no step-by-step survival guide and is instead a book about references and ineffabilities, like the Lufthansa scarf one male character wears. Even when no one else remembers why he keeps it around his neck, he does.
By the time I was halfway through Station Eleven, any and all holes in its logic mattered not a wit. Jeevan, the EMT-in-training who attempts to resuscitate actor Arthur Leander during a performance of “King Lear”, and his brother Frank mattered more to me than figuring out how many packs of toilet paper Jeevan managed to smuggle back to their apartment before the Toronto power grid shut down. Publisher’s Weekly wrote “...this book shouldn’t work nearly so well,” and they’re right. That’s the magic of Mandel’s high-wire performance. She should fall, leaning so far--but she doesn’t. Our disbelief should not suspend, but it does.
Woven into the scenes of past and present that truly are eventually resolved are chapters about The Traveling Symphony, a group of performers who cart their instruments and costumes wherever they can, embodying their slogan “Because Survival Is Insufficient.” Hidden within the elliptical exchanges (sometimes printed as interviews, sometimes as conversations, sometimes through other bits of media) are very big questions about why we perform, and for whom. No wonder the glowing tents on the cover are there: Within them, people who have survived calamity and tragedy continue to go through their paces as human beings.
Recently a fellow critic asked me how many books I am reading these days; she was curious about the amount of books evaluated for this monthly post. I told her the same thing that I try to say here each time: There is no way that I can read and weigh in on more than 20-30 books each month; the selections I make here are less about which books are best out of all the books available than which books might be of most interest to my audience. (You are out there, aren't you, audience?)
I've considered changing the post title to "Noteworthy Books" or some such, and maybe I will--at some point. For the moment, I just want to remind everyone that these "Top 10 Books" are a wholly subjective list, and I am mindful that you have to depend on my judgment in selecting them.
That's why I want you to know how much time and care I take in choosing the books. First, I make a list of all the books I've read for a particular month and cull my favorites. Then I check publishers' catalogs and trade magazines to see if I've missed anything relevant to DC; if I have, then I request/take a look at those titles. I want to be sure that local authors and subjects get good coverage--but I don't want to cover anything simply because it's DC related if it's not worth a reader's time. Sadly, I can't always cover all of the books I know are terrific--some I miss, some just won't fit, some I know will be amply covered elsewhere.
Finally, although it isn't always easy to balance things this way, I always list five fiction and five nonfiction selections. Not only does this keep things from getting too wonkish, it reminds us all (I hope) that fiction can be just as instructive in teaching us about our region and the world.
As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions. Leave them here, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading!
Here I am, cheating from the get go: Thomas's masterful debut novel was released on August 19th. However, in its heft, scope, and tone, this story of a family upended by illness and grief is perfect early-autumn fare. Eileen and Edmund Leary build a life that revolves around their Jackson Heights neighborhood and their beloved son Connell--but when Ed starts behaving strangely at home and at work, Eileen becomes convinced that a move to Bronxville will solve everything. It doesn't, of course, but it does provide the author with the ideal canvas for his detailed, agonizing, and powerful portrait of Alzheimer's Disease.
I don't feature many thrillers in my Top 10, because most thrillers get loads of attention in other places. However, when a book has blurbs from James Fallows and Chester Crocker, you know it's not the same old, same old. Moss, currently a think-tank executive and Georgetown professor, served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of African Affairs. He knows about "the golden hour"--that short time after a coup in which diplomacy might reverse things--firsthand. Washingtonians of many stripes will find their pulses racing as the diplomat protagonist tangles with intelligence operatives, revolutionaries, and many other villains.
Another genre I seldom write about is YA (Young Adult), again because it tends to get plenty of attention elsewhere. Lauren Oliver has gotten plenty of that for her YA titles Panic, Delirium, and Before I Fall. However, her latest work, Rooms, is for adults--and don't let the fact that it works well for YA readers stop you from enjoying this fantastic ghost story. The Walker family is ready to clear out the country home where paterfamilias Richard spent his last months--and died. As his wife, children, and grandchild attempt to untangle worldly goods and last wishes, several ghosts observe and interact with them, with surprisingly eerie results. Highly recommend.
Waters, more than any other writer I know of, has created deeply researched, felt, and plotted historical novels whose characters often happen to be lesbian women. I say "happen to" because although Waters creates these characters deliberately, sexual orientation included, she is a writer of such caliber that her deliberate machinations disappear; one is reading simply of humans and their complicated lives. This is even more impressive in books like The Paying Guests, in which a time period's constraints conflict with the characters' wishes. It's a period piece, a love story, a crime story, and a procedural, all wrapped up in one, and it's stunning.
Last fall I had the good fortune to visit London and the London Review Bookshop, which is just steps from the entrance to The British Museum. When I asked the delightful booksellers there to recommend some UK titles, this is the first one they pressed into my hands, with great enthusiasm. Now I can share it with you. McBride's first novel isn't for wimps. It's about a girl, her brother with a brain tumor, family violence, sexuality, and loneliness. It's a book for adventurous readers, the ones who are looking at the margins, the ones who couldn't care less about what makes a good book-club discussion, the ones who like it raw, rough, and real.
As author Fromartz knows, we have very little good bread in DC. Really. It's a cryng shame, and I hope that once he's finished promoting this chatty and informative new book, he'll set about rectifying this lack. After all, this journalist didn't just try baking his own loaves: He went to Paris and apprenticed at a famous bakery, then came back home and learned how to grow his own grains. Thus, this isn't just another memoir about a middle-aged man and a new hobby, but a thorough examination of why humans have considered bread the staff of life for thousands and thousands of years.
Just as you might be tempted to bypass the Fromartz, thinking it just one more cooking narrative, you might overlook "An Inch of Gray" blogger Whiston-Donaldson's book about losing her adolescent son to a terrible accident. Grief memoirs are a dime a dozen, right? Wrong. Whiston-Donaldson, who lives in Virginia with her husband and their daughters, has written something beyond grief, something that will touch every reader who picks it up differently. There's a great deal about God and Christianity here, yes, but there's also a great deal about healing, falling apart, taking a few steps, and falling down again.
Comer, CEO of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Alzheimer's Initiative, has written a painfully revealing account of her husband Harvey Gralnick's struggle with and death from the disease that now affects millions--yes, millions--of Americans. Gralnick was Chair of Hematology and Oncology at the National Institutes of Health when, at 58, he was diagnosed in 1998. As his condition worsened, both spouses were forced to give up their careers, although Comer is careful to emphasize that the real cruelty of the disease lay in its destruction of her husband's selfhood.
If you're over 40, you probably read F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous work in high school and promptly forgot about it. If you're under 40, you probably saw the Leonard Di Caprio film version and promptly forgot about it. But Maureen Corrigan, a professor at Georgetown University and well-known NPR books critic, wants you to remember The Great Gatsby, and to consider its place not just in the literary canon, but in American cultural history. Whether or not you're convinced by Corrigan's partisanship for Fitzgerald, you'll be impressed by her ability to distill literary analysis into literary love and affection.
You have to love journalist Shroder, willing to follow a PhD in paranormal studies to Lebanon and India in pursuit of children whose behavior and memories seem to beat witness to reincarnation. This time, Shroder's truly open mind is subjected to three men--a New Age-y foundation director, an ER doctor, and a Marine with PTSD--who believe that psychedelic drugs like Ecstasy may help some victims of trauma and brain injury. Shroder's careful observation and research make this book serious, but his curiosity and lively intelligence make it a great read.
Politics and Prose, the Connecticut Avenue bastion where Washington’s literate dependably turn out for the world’s literati, turns 30 this month. For an independent retailer, the run is astonishing—and increasingly so for a business depending on the teetering book industry.
The trick to sticking around long enough to be beloved, of course, is to change constantly while extending the illusion of familiarity. P&P’s customers still come and go, browsing, arguing, listening, eating, drinking, and recommending, all the while joining in the evolution of Bradley Graham and his wife, Lissa Muscatine—who took the lead from founders Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade in 2011—from booksellers to literary impresarios.
“The key has been to strike a balance between preserving the store’s ethos and adjusting to new industry challenges,” says Muscatine.
We asked longtime staffers for the P&P guide to surviving the disruptions of the market.
Give customers ownership.
Five years after launching the store at 5010 Connecticut in the fall of 1984, Politics and Prose moved across the street to its current digs. Neighbors’ offers to help turned the move into a mass action, then a national event when NPR arrived to cover it. Over the years, the number of purported participants in the book brigade has grown apocryphally.
Break your own rules.
The store’s first author appearance, in 1984, was by political cartoonist Herbert Block, better known as Herblock. At the time, Meade once told Washingtonian, “talking an author into coming was something we had to work very, very hard at,” but soon they had more requests from writers than they had nights to fill.
Julia Child’s, in 1993, was the first event that sent a line of people winding down the sidewalk. When David Sedaris read this June, the store required customers to secure a free ticket before lining up, but to accommodate them the doors stayed open until 2 am.
Authors, too, sometimes force P&P to bend the rules. For his recent reading of The Good Lord Bird, James McBride brought a band to play music appropriate to the Civil War-era novel.
Be the store.
The owners’ office has always been literally at the center of P&P, its social and intellectual hub.
Meade and Cohen read voraciously, bought all the inventory, and curated the expanding list of classes, readings, and other happenings. Graham and Muscatine remain as involved, writing a note for P&P’s weekly e-mail. You’ll also find them behind the registers and hosting events in the store every week.
Don’t try to get rich.
“There’s a great deal of profit loss when you decide quality is more important than making money,” Meade once said.
There’s always been an appealing immediacy about the place that makes it easy for customers to connect. In the early days, Cohen and Meade had no safe—the day’s take went into a paper bag at regular intervals and got stashed under a seat cushion, to be deposited in the bank when they could.
Today the store has a print-on-demand machine, called Opus, which allows it to publish local authors. A literary journal, District Lines, began last year and recently released its second volume.
Treat staff like assets.
In the day of Goodreads and book-obsessed Twitter feeds, customers still ask for certain booksellers by name—they want to talk over the last one and find their next page-turner.
“We’ve had so many talented, competent, interesting, and funny coworkers who share a love for literature,” says longtime employee Ron Tucker—workers so deeply, widely read that they can track down a definitive book on trail running as easily as they can tout a great World War I history.
Staffers also create the shopping experience, which at P&P is palpably homey. “Over the years, we’ve added structure to the staff,” says Tucker, “but in all the important and best ways, it’s still like the early days. We still care about each other as if we are family.”
Books are only the start.
Every serious bookstore seems to have readings and a cafe; P&P also has a liquor license and sells beer and wine at most events. In addition, it takes customers out—to farmers’ markets with restaurateur Alice Waters, to intimate dinners with New York Times food columnist David Tanis. This summer’s DC-brewery tour promptly sold out, as did the fall poetry class, a favorite that has sold out since it was first offered in 2006.
“Changes in the industry have forced independent bookstores to look harder at what they do best, which is to function as community centers,” says Susan Coll, P&P’s events director (and a novelist).
Those changes have transformed what was once just a very good bookstore into something else, necessary both for its own survival and for a city’s culture: “a place,” says Coll, “where people are welcome to come together and discuss ideas.”
This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Wendi Harris Kaufman, a well-known and beloved author who created and nurtured many facets of the DC literary community, died last night at her Northern Virginia home. Kaufman lost a long battle with cancer, her husband texted a few close friends with the news.
Kaufman's career as a writer had deep roots in this area. She received her MFA from George Mason University, where she met and began working for critic Alan Cheuse's NPR show The Sound of Writing. On that staff was another young GMU MFA graduate, Dallas Hudgens of Falls Church and publisher of Relegation Books and its university offshoot, GMU's MFA-driven Stillhouse Press. "Wendi wanted to start a writing group and asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. Along with three other friends, we've been meeting regularly--and with many laughs--for 20 years," said Hudgens by telephone this morning.
Hudgens noted that Wendi truly "created a community in this area. She was such a good friend to everyone, a giving friend, one who could be an adviser, a protector, and a spark simultaneously."
This year, Hudgens had the opportunity to give back to Wendi Kaufman: The newly founded Stillhouse Press will release Kaufman's Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories. "In her writing," says Hudgens, "I saw the same caring spirit that Wendi shared with her fellow writers, focused on her characters. Her compassion and humor shone in her life and writing."
The September 13 GMU launch event for Stillhouse Press is one that "we really want to be a celebration of Wendy's life and her work," Hudgens emphasizes. The book is available for pre-order.
David Kaufman, Wendi's husband, and her family ask that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Life With Cancer.
Nevertheless, David Gregory's post-"Meet the Press" book deal won't be a tell-all about that show, NBC, or even his career overall. Instead, the book, which Politico reports will come out sometime in 2015, is a take on spiritual journeys centered on Gregory's own Judaism.
According to Politico source Mike Allen, the book "will focus on 'the inner spiritual journey many of us take in our lives.' Gregory is well-known to host Jewish holidays at his home in Northwest D.C. and has studied with a Jewish scholar."
And here I thought Gregory must be a full-blown WASP, due to his mastery of the prep step.