Newsletters

Get Well+Being delivered to your inbox every Monday Morning.

The truth behind Reggie Love's memoir. By Matthew Cooper
Love, shown with his boss at an Olympic basketball game at the Verizon Center in 2012, remade the role of body man from “chief of stuff” to First Friend. Photograph by Leslie E. Kossoff/Landov.

Attending every powerful man or woman in Washington is a host of enablers. At the top of this class are clerks at the Supreme Court, legislative assistants on the Hill, and special assistants throughout the federal government. They have important work to do—overseeing schedules, providing counsel, relaying confidences from other bigwigs. But a large part of the job is managing the ego of the man or woman they serve, anticipating their boss’s needs, accepting his or her disdain, imparting bad news—rarely. Suffering these indignities is the price of proximity.

Among the coolest and most humbling of these gigs is the personal assistant to the President, better known as the “body man.” Invariably the young man (if Hillary is elected, the gender will change) makes sure the leader of the free world’s water is carbonated, not still; sees that his suits are pressed; and hustles him to his next meeting. Body men keep a low profile, endure a good share of abuse from a tired boss, and are granted a remarkable view of history.

Though essentially factotums, body men—who usually carry over from the presidential campaign—are political animals, climbers who graduate to fine business careers. Kris Engskov, one of Bill Clinton’s body men, is a Starbucks executive in London. Jared Weinstein, who worked for George W. Bush, runs a capital firm in New York. But because they tend to fade into the background after their presidential tenure is over, we rarely hear from them again.

Until now. Reggie Love, a body man from the 2008 presidential campaign through the first years of the Obama administration, has made headlines since leaving the White House in 2011, once revealing that he played spades with the President while Navy SEALs hunted Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Love has released a memoir,
Power Forward: My Presidential Education.

Now Love has released a memoir, Power Forward: My Presidential Education. The title is a triple entendre, playing on Love’s athletic career (he played basketball and football at Duke and was briefly enlisted by the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys), his rise from middle-class kid to presidential body man, and his things-I’ve-learned counsel to the rest of us.

Much of the last of those three hits somewhere between Tony Robbins and a TED Talk. “Every day doesn’t end or start with a slam dunk,” Love consoles those of us who would settle for toothbrushing. His big finish aims to inspire: “ . . . I know there is no music as beautiful as the swish of a net, that there is nothing we can’t achieve, if we just stand tall, take the ball, and power forward.”

As White House memoirs go, Love’s isn’t scholarly hagiography, like Arthur Schlesinger’s JFK Oval Office account, A Thousand Days. It lacks the ungrateful barbs of George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human, about the Clinton years. Love’s recollection is more akin to Ten Minutes From Normal by Karen Hughes, the longtime George W. Bush adviser, whose most mundane moments seem meant to impress, as when she shares how bizarre it is to be shopping for produce while taking a phone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Love’s humblebrag comes one morning on the campaign trail, when Obama walks into his hotel room while the body man is entertaining a, um, guest. In Love’s telling, his date has the sheets up to her neck and Obama politely apologizes. Love, who seems to want us to know both how tight he is with the President and how he can score on the road, comes off as less modest.

Other tales speak piquantly of the longueurs of the job—watching the health-conscious President pick M&M’s out of his trail mix, nearly getting fired for misplacing Obama’s bag. At one stop, Love has tossed out the taquitos Obama is craving. Fortunately, the body man finds some at the next stop. “I earned some respect that day,” he writes.

J. Alfred Prufrock measured his life in coffee spoons. For the body man, it’s about sticks of meat and cheese.

The Case of the Missing Taquitos will be enough to tempt political junkies to buy this book. But a close reading offers a glimpse into Obama’s character as well. Love doesn’t get into it directly, but you can see why the two men became so close.

Yes, the President famously loves basketball and loves his guy Friday’s ability to talk hoops at all hours. The two share other bonds, however. Each went, with considerable financial aid, to private school—Obama to the prestigious Punahou School in Honolulu, Love to Providence Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Each went through a bad-boy phase before settling down.

This common history throws their differences into relief. As a basketball player at Duke, Love lived the life of a rock star. At Columbia, Obama was reclusive, by his own account, residing off campus in New York City’s then seedy Morningside Heights. I was a year behind him, Stephanopoulos a year ahead; neither we nor any of the future pols on campus I’ve since asked ever knew the President-to-be.

Love’s African-Americanness, too, must have appealed to Obama, in the same way eventual First Lady Michelle Robinson’s did. Love had none of the dreams-from-my-father angst that plagued “Barry” Obama as he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia of mixed race and with multiple caregivers. Love’s touchstones were church, rootedness, and middle-class values: “. . . [T]he things that give me satisfaction don’t change. Sweet tea. . . . The stirring swell of a church choir. . . . My mother saying she’s proud of me. My father shooting hoops with me.”

Love emerged from that upbringing with a mix of hubris and modesty that’s simultaneously endearing and infuriating. To his credit, he’s quick to say he has screwed things up, from a DUI at Duke to being a jerk to flight attendants aboard the campaign charter. It’s a rather self-deprecating account for someone whose college years were rife with friends and hangers-on.

At times, he can appear blind to himself and the culture of Washington. At one point, Love invites friends to a DC bar to celebrate his birthday, but when word gets out, a crowd of nearly a thousand people shows up, desperate to touch a little power. Love is stunned by this throng.

He shouldn’t be, as he himself is a bit like the crashers. Had he not wanted to get close to Obama, Love’s followers wouldn’t be following him. But when it comes to his desire to cozy up to Obama, his candidness dissolves into “aw, shucks.”

Love—who left the White House before the President’s term ended (most body men do)—got an MBA from Wharton and is now a partner in Transatlantic Holdings, a financial holding company in DC. His ambition and smarts would likely have gotten him there anyway, together with his standing as a commanding athlete and his Duke degree. But his life has been supercharged by a superb ability to manage up and render himself indispensable. That makes Love a lot like the rest of us who harbor ambition and chirp, “Great idea, boss.” We’re all body men.

Posted at 07:00 AM/ET, 02/27/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer want to change the outdated, inefficient author-agent relationship. By Matthew Shaer
Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer in their Alexandria office. Photographs by Eli Meir Kaplan.

In January of last year, Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer, founders of the literary agency Javelin, purchased a 6,000-square-foot building in Old Town Alexandria, setting up their office one flight up from a ceramics showroom. The space is bright and airy and minimally decorated, with graphics intended to be representative of the various services Javelin provides its clients: a computer, for website design and digital marketing; a radio mike, for media deals; and a typewriter, for ghostwriting.

“One of the first things we discovered about the publishing-agent industrial complex, or whatever you want to call it, is how absurd and outdated it can be,” Latimer says. “Like, as an agent, this idea that you do not do promotion for your clients. Or that you do not help them create websites. It seemed silly, so we thought, okay, let’s just reinvent the whole process of being an agent. Let’s reinvent it and see what happens.”

Latimer is 40, with graying hair, Peter Gallagher eyebrows, and cheeks the hue of Fuji apples. A former speechwriter for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush, he left politics in 2008 to write a tell-all called Speech-less: Tales of a White House Survivor. The book sold briskly and earned him a spot on the New York Times bestseller list as well as the enmity of a few Bush-administration colleagues, who felt Latimer had aired too much dirty laundry.

About two years later, he opened Javelin with Urbahn, 30, another former Rumsfeld speechwriter. The two took the firm’s name from the Secret Service handle for Rumsfeld’s wife; they liked how “distinctly un-Washington” it sounded, Urbahn says. Neither Latimer nor Urbahn—an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserve—had a lick of agenting experience. Still, both were consummate readers and experienced writers, and as successful entrepreneurs often can, they’d spotted an opening.

“We knew that typically, with political books, the publisher puts it out there and gives it a week of attention, but if something big happens three weeks out that could help benefit the book, it’s like, ‘Oh well—too late,’ ” Urbahn recalls. “We’d gotten to know all these Washington reporters, and our thinking was that we could use that to help publicize books. And we could use our experience as writers to collaborate with authors, or even book-doctor some projects, if we needed to. That was going to be our niche.”

Left: George W. Bush with speechwriters at the White House. Latimer, who later wrote a tell-all, is third from the left. Right: Urbahn and Latimer with Donald Rumsfeld, their former boss and eventual client. Photograph of Bush with speechwriters courtesy of Javelin; Urbahn and Latimer with Rumsfield by Katarina Pearson.

Their first client was their old boss. Latimer and Urbahn had helped write Rumsfeld’s previous book, a memoir called Known and Unknown. Washington superagent Robert Barnett had handled the sale. But according to Latimer and Urbahn, Barnett had been unenthusiastic about the new project, a compendium of flinty Rumsfeldian wisdom. (Barnett did not comment for this story.) Barnett believed Rumsfeld would be “lucky” to get $200,000 from a publisher, Urbahn says. Sticking a thumb in Barnett’s eye, Javelin sold Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life to HarperCollins for nearly $1 million. It also organized a social-media campaign, arranged TV bookings, and built a website with a searchable index of sources.

“What impressed me was that they were able to leverage all this technology in a way that most people my age couldn’t,” Rumsfeld says. “There are few agents who know anything about promoting in the 21st century. Keith and Matt did.”

In May of 2013, buoyed by a glitzy television tour—“I see you as ‘Yummy Rummy,’ Today’s Kathie Lee Gifford purred to the former Defense Secretary—Rumsfeld’s Rules debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. Latimer and Urbahn had made their bones, and Washington was taking note.

A string of high-profile projects followed—a big book by Fox’s Lou Dobbs, another by Washington private investigator Terry Lenzner. In April, Javelin took a memoir by Texas senator Ted Cruz to auction in New York, reportedly winning an advance of about $1.5 million. (Urbahn says it was “not [Javelin’s] place” to discuss specific advance amounts.) The Washington Examiner breathlessly noted that the advance was the largest in years for a conservative politician—bigger even than the $1.25 million paid to Sarah Palin in 2008.

“It’s extremely impressive, what they’ve managed to do,” one DC literary agent says. “I think maybe there was some skepticism at first that these guys could compete in Washington, but then the Cruz deal happened and everyone sort of sat up and went, ‘Okay, maybe this is actually legit.’ ”

And if it is, the hoary old model of Beltway book dealing could be in for a big change.

• • •

In Javelin’s early days, Latimer and Urbahn worked out of a one-room office in Arlington’s Courthouse Square. Latimer says he’d come into the office thinking, “This might not work. We might not be here at the end of the year.”

A lawyer by training, the Michigan-born Latimer prepared himself for the possibility that the venture could fall apart. For his part, Urbahn, who grew up in Connecticut and studied religion and Arabic at Yale, told me if he hadn’t started Javelin with Latimer, he would have applied to business school. (His father is an airline executive.)

“Back then, we laughed at ourselves,” Latimer says. “We had no illusions. We didn’t go to agent school, you know? We were totally figuring it out as we went along.”

He says purchasing an office instead of renting—it cost more than $2 million—was an investment decision, but he also describes it as a bit of a professional motivator: “A permanent office was a big step, because buying an office meant a mortgage and a real commitment to fill the space with people.”

Today Javelin has ten employees, including a booking expert and several PR specialists. The team oversees a rotating stable of roughly 30 authors. Once a week, staffers gather to run air-traffic control. This fall, they invited me to sit in on one of the meetings. Rachael Dean, a PR manager—and former press secretary to John McCain—was on hand, as was Javelin staff writer and onetime Supreme Court clerk Justin Walker, who beamed in via webcam from his home in Kentucky.

Dressed in a pink button-down and slim-cut jeans, Urbahn called the meeting to order. Compared with Latimer, he’s serious and serene—the natural choice, Latimer says, for president of the company. (Latimer’s title is founding partner.) On this day, Urbahn appeared fatigued. A week earlier, he and Latimer had signed Barbara Bowman, one of the women to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault. So far, Javelin’s PR team had agreed to an NBC interview with Bowman, declined one with Entertainment Tonight (“diminishing returns,” Latimer said with a wave of his hand), and was weighing another with 20/20.

The book-sale prospects were also looking good. “We’ve got seven publishers that have already signed nondisclosure agreements to read the proposal,” Urbahn said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a few that want to fly Barbara to New York for a meeting.”

Next up was a children’s book on free-market economics—“It could find an audience with parents who think their kids aren’t getting a good education on Hayek and Friedman and all that stuff,” Urbahn said—and even more promisingly, a new title by Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.

“The editors love him,” Latimer said of Jindal. “He’s got enthusiasm. On one of his calls, he talked for 45 minutes straight!” (Jindal’s project, tentatively titled Hinges of History, sold in December for a mid-six-figure advance.)

Dean, the PR manager, jumped in. The next morning, she was scheduled to fly to Nova Scotia for the Halifax International Security Forum, where she hoped to obtain a few new clients. “I’m kind of obsessed with two women,” she said, smiling. “One is Alaa Murabit, a women’s-rights activist from Libya. She was on Qaddafi’s list of the most wanted. She’s young and smart. She’s been out there a bit, but she hasn’t written a book.”

Urbahn was skeptical: “We’d have to find the larger story there. The bigger narrative.”

He was much more enthusiastic about the prospect of securing an audience with Tulsi Gabbard, a personable 33-year-old Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii. A surfer, an Iraq veteran, and the first Hindu in Congress, Gabbard had recently been appointed vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. “I wonder if we could get her to write about the future of the Democratic Party,” Urbahn said.

For a literary agent, no skill is more important than the ability to find talent before the other sharks in the tank take notice. But for Washington agents on the make, this doesn’t always involve scouring literary journals for some unknown gem. In fact, it’s not that different from the work of the political pros Urbahn and Latimer used to be: They’re seeking rising stars whose electoral potential or cable-TV appeal could keep them in the news—and their books on bestseller lists—for decades to come. Though the agents want to expand into history or culture books, their main skill is identifying people, not authors.

Latimer asked Dean how she was planning to approach Gabbard’s team. “Well, I don’t know how this is going to go down,” she joked. “Who knows what might happen if the lobster keeps flowing.”

“I’d go with the soft sell,” Latimer said. “Just tell them about the books we’ve done and ask for another conversation.”

Meeting adjourned. Or almost: Latimer had one more point to bring up. For months, he’d been trying to make contact with Joe Biden, whose 2007 campaign tome, Promises to Keep, had sold poorly and earned the then senator a relatively measly $112,500 advance. Latimer believed he could help Biden craft a blockbuster post-White House book. He’d already penned one letter to the VP without any luck. But he’d recently made contact with a relative of Biden’s and was now preparing a second note. “I’m optimistic,” he said. “I think if we can get this in front of him and detail all these new projects, we’ve got a shot.”

Later, Latimer told me Biden was more than a white whale—he was an opportunity to boost Javelin into a class of agents currently occupied by only one other person.

“We’d love to represent Biden. We’d love to represent Obama,” Latimer said. “People think it’s crazy to say that, and I imagine Bob Barnett will probably do Obama’s next book, but why? He doesn’t have any special talent that we don’t have. Why shouldn’t it be us?”

Urbahn and Latimer--at work in the office building they bought last year--think the book business is begging to be disrupted. Photograph by Eli Meir Kaplan.

Literary agenting in Washington is a big-money game, and no DC agent in history has earned more cash for his clients than Robert Barnett. His run effectively began in 1985, with a seismic $2.4-million deal—$5.3 million in today’s dollars—for David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director. Barnett’s track record since then would take pages to recount. It’s probably best to stick to the highlight reel: Edward Kennedy’s memoir True Compass ($8 million, reportedly), Bill Clinton’s My Life ($10 million, ditto), Hillary Clinton’s Living History ($8 million, ditto), Tony Blair’s A Journey (roughly $7 million, ditto), George W. Bush’s Decision Points ($7 million, ditto), and Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, a book that has helped make the President a very wealthy man.

Barnett has represented Amanda Knox, the college student accused and acquitted of murder in Italy; Queen Noor of Jordan; Prince Charles; thriller novelist James Patterson; and bestselling author Khaled Hosseini of The Kite Runner fame. But his real brand is American politics, a world in which he’s seen as both powerbroker and—per Mark Leibovich’s not particularly flattering portrait in This Town—the epitome of “the Suck-Up City operator who plays all sides, is tireless in his self-promotion, and is mercenary in his alliances.” (It may be worth pointing out that Latimer and Urbahn, who secured their first deal, and thus their reputation, by dint of their association with Rumsfeld, have benefited from their own type of insider alliance.)

A Democrat, Barnett has sold books by Karl Rove and Sarah Palin. He has also leveraged a network of industry contacts to negotiate extremely lucrative media deals, including a $3.4-million exit package for outgoing Wall Street Journal editor Marcus Brauchli, who eventually wound up, for a time, atop the Washington Post. (Soon thereafter, Leibovich points out in This Town, the Post published a sugary profile of Barnett.)

Traditionally, a literary agent takes a 15-percent commission on all royalty and advance money. A lawyer at the white-shoe Washington firm Williams & Connolly, Barnett charges an author a flat hourly fee, allegedly in the neighborhood of a grand. Big bucks, obviously. But considering the amount of money he’s able to get from publishers, he probably often saves his clients money. After all, 15 percent of $8 million is $1.2 million, and Barnett almost certainly charged Hillary Clinton less than that for his work on Living History.

Barnett has said he represents almost 300 authors, but in an average year he’ll close only a dozen deals—another sign, in a way, of his prestige. He has no need for the small deals that sustain other agents. He gets to pick and choose his bets, and he almost always chooses right.

As PublicAffairs founder Peter Osnos has argued, “Nobody games the system better than Bob Barnett.”

Indeed, to speak to other agents about Barnett is to hear a mixture of naked jealousy and grudging respect: The man, whatever his faults, gets it done. Not only did he essentially create the market for big-money political memoirs, but he has kept it cornered, year after year.

“You learn to think that there are the type of clients that you’ll be able to snag and the type of clients that are going to go for Barnett,” one young DC agent says. “Basically, there’s a momentum that accrues—if you’re a retiring politician and Barnett has made millions for all your friends, you’re going to sign with Barnett, too. I don’t take offense at that. I adjust.”

Compared with New York, with its dozens of agencies, literary Washington is a claustrophobic place. There’s Barnett, there are a couple of one-person operations, there are some New York agencies with DC offices, and there are Sagalyn Literary Agency and Ross Yoon—two local shops with deep benches of author talent. But although Sagalyn and Ross Yoon sell big political books—Sagalyn did the bestselling George W. Bush-administration history Days of Fire by Times scribe Peter Baker; Ross Yoon handled Gabriel Sherman’s The Loudest Voice in the Room, about Roger Ailes and Fox News—neither has demonstrated much success with the politicians and heads of state who constitute Barnett’s client base.

That’s the market Latimer and Urbahn want.

• • •

Once there are alternatives out there, I think Barnett is going to have a harder time,” Latimer told me. We were sitting in the office he shares with Urbahn, drinking coffee. On the wall behind him, alongside a bottle of ten-year-old Bulleit bourbon, hung a framed version of what he considers his most effective speech—a 2007 George W. Bush number honoring the Tuskegee Airmen.

“This was my one moment I was proud of in the administration,” Latimer said, flushing.

Latimer had suggested that the President salute the airmen, a gesture that provoked tears from the assembled pilots. “President Bush later asked who was responsible for that salute idea and said, ‘Tell that guy he’s a genius,’ ” Latimer remembers.

Javelin’s proposition to authors is that it can offer them that same type of genius. Other agents might tweak a proposal and get it to the right people, but Urbahn and Latimer are available, for a fee, for chapter editing, full-on ghostwriting, and occasional stagecraft.

“We come at it like we would a campaign,” Latimer says. “Months ahead of time, we’re thinking, ‘What is our strategy for the rollout? What about leak strategy? And what reporters do we need to get interested?’ ”

It’s also a different economic model in that fees vary depending on the needs of the client. With some authors, they’ll take the standard 15 percent. For others, they’ll charge an hourly rate for proposal writing, or a higher commission if a lot more work is needed on the manuscript.

“Sometimes we’ll say to people who have never done a book before, ‘We’ll help you with the writing, we’ll help you with editing and the drafts and the research and the copyediting, we’ll help you organize it and structure it,’ ” Latimer says. “Of course, a lot of young or starting-out writers don’t have a lot of money to do this, so basically, in place of giving us a big flat fee, we take a larger percentage of [the sales].”

Urbahn and Latimer say they earned $4.6 million in advance money for clients in 2014, with the average sale in the mid-six figures—a pittance by Barnett standards but no small deal in an era of shrinking publisher budgets.

For the time being, literary representation is the largest single component of Javelin’s business, but the firm is expanding into other sectors: Javelin has overhauled Foreign Policy’s website and built the magazine a new digital press kit and helped design and brand a blog for the John Templeton Foundation. In October, Latimer and Urbahn arranged a deal that saw political reporters Eli Lake and Josh Rogin move from the Daily Beast to Bloomberg View.

Lake and Rogin are, in a way, ideal Javelin clients: young, energetic, and on the rise. They represent an investment of the kind that a Bob Barnett would never have to make. “The hope is to go out and find the people who are going to be reporting and telling stories about Washington for the next 20 years, the next 30 years,” Urbahn says. “To find the talent early and to stick with them.”

There’s a reason most agents have been content to stick with the straightforward 15-percent commission: It can be easy work. You send out a proposal to publishers, you sit in on conference calls with editors, you collect your cut of the advance, and you move on to the next sale. It’s a model that—to use a trendy 2014 term Urbahn and Latimer aren’t afraid to deploy themselves—is begging to be disrupted.

Of course, there are legions of would-be publishing industry disrupters who’ve gone belly-up over the years. Will Javelin’s bet—that writers will opt for a one-stop shop offering a much broader array of services at occasionally higher prices—pay off? To continue to grow, they’ll have to add clients consistently, both up-and-comers and established ones

Perhaps more pressing is the question of how Javelin will define itself. Latimer and Urbahn are conservative; they came up through conservative administrations, and most of their clients are right-leaning. Neither founder is unaware of this: In fact, Urbahn credits it as part of Javelin’s appeal.

“There are a lot of people in this town who became our first clients because they didn’t feel that literary agents gave them the time of day, and yes, sure, a lot of them were sort of Republican conservative center-right,” he says. But he and Latimer hope to broaden Javelin’s reach.

“I could write just as good of a speech for Barack Obama as I wrote for George W. Bush if I knew what he wanted to say, if I knew how he talked,” Latimer says. “The same thing goes for our clients.”

Among Javelin’s newest signees is Tim Naftali, a left-leaning historian who is currently working—with right-leaning reporter Jamie Kirchick—on a book about gay life in Washington. “Intellectually honest people can sell a project that doesn’t necessarily align with their interests,” Naftali says. “To me, the important thing was that Keith and Matt really got the idea and were very enthusiastic. Because let’s face it, if your agent doesn’t believe in a project, editors are going to sense it.”

Others are more skeptical about whether Javelin can attract a broad cross-section of clients.

“In a sense, a lot of DC agents have it pretty easy: They don’t have to hustle, they have a couple big clients—they’re incumbents in the market, if you will,” one Washington editor told me. “That means that a disruptive outsider can come and eat their lunch. But the idea, to me, of Javelin going bipartisan is slim. With that client list, are they really going to be able to come to a Democratic event and schmooze and convince liberal politicians to sign with them? I’m not sure.”

He paused. “Then again, there’s more conservative media in Washington than there’s ever been: the Daily Caller, the Washington Free Beacon, and so on. There’s a huge pool of conservative writers that they can tap into, and in that sense, they may not even have to go bipartisan.”

Javelin's weekly meeting. At a book agency built by Washington operatives, the talk focuses less on literary merit than on who has the potential to become a big political name. Photograph by Eli Meir Kaplan.

On a stormy night last fall, a hundred-odd Washington grandees gathered at the Georgetown residence of Michael Pillsbury, a former senior Defense Department official, and his wife, Susan, an arts patron. The occasion was the release of Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington by TV reporter Sharyl Attkisson. In March, Attkisson departed CBS News in circumstances allegedly related to her work on the Benghazi attacks and the flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act; later, she claimed that the government had hacked into her computer in an effort to silence her. (Reports in Vox and the Washington Post, among other places, questioned whether Attkisson’s computer had ever been hacked.)

Outside the house, a line of drivers waited to deposit their BMWs and Benzes with the valet. Inside, there were waiters in white jackets, carting flutes of Champagne, and a chirpy bookseller armed with an iPad and a Square credit-card reader. Budget warrior Grover Norquist was on hand, as were Howard Kurtz and Juan Williams from Fox. Darrell Issa, the House Republican who led an investigation into the Benghazi attacks, gave a short speech praising Attkisson’s tenacity.

Latimer and Urbahn looked on. This was largely a scene of their construction: Pillsbury was a Javelin client, as was Attkisson, whom Latimer and Urbahn had approached, cold, when she was still at CBS.

“She was like, ‘Well, let me think about this,’ ” Urbahn recalled of their first meeting. “But she’s a very fast writer and she pounded out a proposal in four or five days and sent it to us. We gave her some edits and feedback, and then we were ready to go.” Javelin sold the Stonewalled proposal to HarperCollins for a deal in the “healthy” six figures.

“Her story is much more than the stuff that’s made headlines,” Urbahn told me. “It’s actually the story of the decline of investigative journalism in America and the PR flacks who make sure their bosses never hit the news.” He did not note that “PR flack” was a large part of his former job description—and that those dark arts remain part of what Javelin sells to clients.

Latimer cut in: “It’s also about the rise of a mentality which was present in the Bush administration and the Clinton administration and now the Obama administration, which is by all accounts worse than ever, of just denying reporters access to information.”

Attkisson was doing the conservative-media rounds, from the Daily Caller to The O’Reilly Factor, and her book had made a strong showing on the Amazon charts. But Latimer and Urbahn, who had been advising her on the publicity campaign, thought it could shoot higher still. A couple of days after the book party, Urbahn e-mailed me to say “we’ll see on NYT but looking pretty good”—a reference to a possible debut by Stonewalled on the New York Times bestseller list. Sure enough, by mid-November there it was, occupying the number-five slot, just above Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl.

But Latimer and Urbahn were already thinking ahead. Ideally, Latimer told me, “Sharyl would have a very successful first book, and then she’d do a second book where she’d talk about the same themes some more and discuss stories she hadn’t shared in the first book. Or she could take it another direction and give speeches. No problem there—people want her to give speeches all over the place. She could craft a reputation and career on being the whistleblower, if you will, of modern investigative journalism.”

Attkisson could build a brand, and Javelin would help her do it.

A staff writer at Smothsonian, Matthew Shaer has written for magazines including GQ, New York, and Wired.

This article appears in our February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 01:13 PM/ET, 02/06/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Assume joke dead. By Benjamin Freed
Harper Lee is not on Twitter. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.

Middle-school English teachers and other book lovers are rejoicing today in the news that Harper Lee, the author of the 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, plans to publish a second novel later this year. Lee's new volume, titled Go Set a Watchman, was actually composed in the 1950s. But Lee, according to a statement from her publisher, had assumed the galleys had been lost to the years.

Still, a new book from one of America's most celebrated 20th-century novelists is cause for celebration, and, more obviously, lame attempts at Twitter humor. Loads of users, possibly before discovering the name of Lee's upcoming release, came up with a title on their own:

The preceding tweets come from journalists affiliated with, in order, Salon, the Daily Beast, Washington Examiner, the Washington Post, National Review, Jezebel, and Sports Illustrated, all of whom apparently wanted to convey to their followers their deep admiration for the second entry in the The Fast and the Furious film series, the nimbly titled 2 Fast 2 Furious. Great job, folks. In fact, the Beast's Asawin Suebsaeng was so pleased with his quip, he repeated it in an attempt to surpass the others.

Suebsaeng's love of the late Paul Walker notwithstanding, the repeated joke is not even a fresh concoction. Patient Zero for "2 Kill 2 Mockingbird" appears be a user from Perth, Australia, who on October 27, 2011, tweeted it at Bill Boulden, a Buffalo, New York-based deejay who goes by the nom de club Spruke.

To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies since it was first published. Lee's publisher, Harper, plans to print an initial run of Go Set a Watchman of two million copies.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter, not making the same dumb Harper Lee joke as everyone else, at @brfreed.

Posted at 11:50 AM/ET, 02/03/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
It turns out Oscar Wilde and Kim Kardashian could have something in common. By Bethanne Patrick
Oscar Wilde, left, in a portrait taken on his US tour. The Arlington Hotel, right, where Oscar Wilde had an awkward encounter with novelist Henry James. Photograph of Wilde courtesy of the Library of Congress; Arlington Hotel courtesy of John Deferrari.

Did being famous for being famous—credited to reality stars like Kim Kardashian—actually start in Washington?

On January 24, 1882, at the Arlington Hotel on DC’s Vermont Avenue, an uncomfortable meeting took place between British aesthete Oscar Wilde and novelist Henry James. At the time, Wilde—who had yet to write anything of note—was drawing huge crowds to his lectures on art, and in society he was cutting a lascivious figure in tight velvet coats and lavender gloves. Author David Friedman, who tells the tale in his new book, Wilde in America, says James and his friends disapproved of Wilde. Clover Adams, a Washington socialite, referred to Wilde as a “noodle”—a sly knock on his masculinity. Friedman suspects James went to the Arlington Hotel anyway because “he knew this was a dividing line between the past, when you became famous for what you did, and the new age, in which you could be famous just for existing.” James’s visit, Friedman speculates, was a genuflection to this new mode of celebrity.

It seems a kind of historical revisionism to link Wilde with the likes of the Kardashians, but the hallmarks of his approach are certainly still visible. Wilde cozied up to the right sort of people, only to create a commotion—Friedman compares Wilde’s lectures to comedian Russell Brand’s 2013 appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, when he ripped his interviewers for their shallow questions. Lady Gaga or Ellen DeGeneres would recognize in Adams’s nervousness about Wilde the power of forcing people to face their prejudices.

What Oscar Wilde had that today’s “famous for nothing” may lack is an endgame. After his successful US launch, Wilde leveraged the attention into an enduring literary career as the author of The Importance of Being Earnest, one of the funniest plays in English. Kim Kardashian’s endgame, by contrast, is already—so to speak—behind her.

Posted at 09:39 AM/ET, 01/23/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Our books editor picks her favorite reads for January 2015. By Bethanne Patrick

Happy New Year, readers!

There are a few of us left—right? One thing I know for sure: No one resolves to read fewer books. There are people, of course, who can't read (more on that group later this year) and people who don't like to read; but of the people who do like to read, most would be happy to do more reading, not less. Time goes so quickly between each January 1 and December 31.

Time's arrow encourages lists, like the ones we make of resolutions. One of mine, this year, is to get these Top 10 lists up as close to the month's start as possible. That is no small matter, as it doesn't simply involve hitting a bunch of keys; it also means I have to be firm and quick in my choices. Less dithering on my end means more advance notice on yours—so that you can arrange your schedule to fit in more reading in 2015.

NONFICTION

The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing, But You Don't Have to Be by Anya Kamenetz

NPR's lead digital education reporter takes on the bane of most modern parents: Common Core curricula and their increasingly standardized evaluation methods. While many of us would like to bang our heads against the wall when faced with this problem, the author's background as a journalist (o dying breed...) allows her to examine the issue from all sides and show where and why and how it hits that same wall. Fortunately for us headbangers, Kamenetz has some ideas about how to fix things.

Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat by John McQuaid

Each time I think I've read all the books about food—and I read them all, trust me—a new one comes along that reveals something I hadn't yet considered. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McQuaid considers flavor's plasticity "wild and unpredictable;" he has little use for the commonplace notion of "five flavors." His forays into Soylent food-replacement "shakes," the role of genetics in taste preferences, and how the advent of cooking zapped our taste receptors forever are just a taste (geddit?) of this terrific read.

Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal by Michael Mewshaw

My own view of the iconoclastic American man of letters Gore Vidal has long been colored by his dictum that the world doesn't need any more writers. Easy for him to say, I would think, furiously—but now I know that Vidal set those words out carefully as a sort of artistic steeplechase. If you can pass this hurdle and keep writing, then maybe you're worthy. Mewshaw's lovely elegy to a difficult and wickedly smart friend should be a required text for anyone who admires good writing and loves good reading.

Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate by Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries

If I didn't live in Northern Virginia and write for a magazine based in Washington, DC, I might not choose this book, but I do and I do, and I know how Wild West it can be out there in the world of realty. While Zillow Talk has a lot of service-y bits (never put the word "cute" in your listing, e.g.), the book starts out and follows through with the idea that houses aren't simply economic markers and financial investments—they're also homes, places invested with emotions, memories, and community ties.

One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau

Manseau is one of my favorite writers on spirituality (Rag and Bone, e.g.), and he doesn't disappoint in this lively and well researched look into our country's wonderfully checkered religious past. While most of us trace a Christian-centric past from the founding Puritans to a Fundamentalist present, Manseau argues that the USA is the most religiously diverse nation in the world—and backs up his argument with examples ranging from the earliest Wiccans through present-day cults and movements. Fascinating stuff.

FICTION

Descent: A Novel by Tim Johnston

You don't have to take my word for it; Patrick Anderson raved about it in the Washington Post, too—but you should read it, because Tim Johnston's novel is a thriller is a novel is a thriller. In other words, it's that rare thing: A fully realized piece of literary fiction that is also a gripping piece of suspense fiction. As several members of a family grapple with a young girl's disappearance during a vacation, nerves will stretch—but so will many other emotions, and none of them simply to show off the author's range. Highly recommended.

Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce

Say you haven't read any short fiction in a while. Here's the volume I'll tell you to pick up, because Pierce uses the form properly, making each story in his debut as glittering and multifaceted as a single gem—but with a jeweler's eye, stringing pieces together so that they also work as real collection. The characteristics of that collection are strangeness, juxtaposition, and surprise; those qualities work in short stories because belief needn't suspend for long. "Hall of Small Mammals" is both treat and nourishment.

Her: A Novel by Harriet Lane

After devouring Alys, Always in 2012, I longed for another novel by Harriet Lane; she is the one writer I believe could fill Ruth Rendell's mighty (but tiny; Rendell is so petite!) shoes. Lane knows and (more surprisingly) acknowledges the creepy back alleys of the female psyche. In Alys, she vivisected the posthumous stalking of a woman's life; in Her, she brings her scalpel to bear on the delicate membranes of the postnatal new mother's life, revealing how quickly vulnerability can turn into opportunity, with ghastly results.

Outline: A Novel by Rachel Cusk

While I've placed Cusk's novel in the middle of things, here, consider it so because otherwise its brilliance might blind you. If there's one piece of fiction you read in January 2015—and maybe in 2015, full stop—it should be Outline. You might want to prepare yourself by reading Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me so that you'll truly get what's happening as the flickering, evanescent narrator of Cusk's novel in conversations slowly takes shape. A stunning literary achievement, worthy of its current and future accolades.

Ostland: A Novel by David Thomas

You may think you've learned everything there is to know about the Holocaust—then along comes a novel like Ostland, and you realize the surface of horror has still only been scratched. Based on a true story, Thomas's book follows a young Nazi officer named Georg Heuser, who is sent to Minsk, which is under German occupation. Initially he's investigating a series of murders—then we find out that 20 years later, he was arrested himself for murder. What happened? It's complicated and horrific, but worth reading and pondering.

Posted at 06:03 PM/ET, 01/04/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
These quiet reads offer respite from the year-end holiday madness. By Bethanne Patrick

The usual slate of the year’s best books arrives like another holiday to-do list we’ll never knock off. Here are five brief escapes that bring a little light, warmth, and coziness, to paraphrase Auntie Mame, right this very minute.

Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and Science of Life After Death

by Judy Bachrach

Bachrach, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, tackles this enormous, fantastical topic with journalistic precision, mixing first-person accounts of death experiences—she eschews the term “near death”; her subjects have died—with research that suggests they’re more than the result of physiological responses, in a way that illuminates both.

Rather than testing belief against clinical fact, the author’s clear, compassionate perspective shows the wonder that these “death travelers” hold for scientists, who can’t deny them but still don’t fully understand them.

The Late Starters Orchestra

by Ari L. Goldman

Goldman (The Search for God at Harvard) joins a group of musicians as a cellist, hoping to impress his friends at his 60th-birthday party with a return to the instrument he abandoned more than 20 years ago. Instead, the leap grants him the grace to reconnect with his history. Dotted with beautifully detailed sketches by Eric Hanson, this is a book you think you wouldn't ever pick up—and then, once you do, you can't put down.

The Monogram Murders

by Sophie Hannah

Will fan fiction burnish or bury the legacy of authors we once considered inimitable?

The Agatha Christie estate, betting on the former, invited Sophie Hannah—who headlined this year’s Fall for the Book festival at George Mason University—to pen this Hercule Poirot mystery novel as an homage. Hannah channels Christie’s little Belgian detective, complete with an “exquisite moustache” and excessive coffee consumption—and adds a twist worthy of Dame Agatha herself.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

by Gabrielle Zevin

Set in a bookstore on a Nantucket-ish island, Zevin’s eighth novel follows the hapless A.J. Fikry as he worries over the decline of his shop, books, and humanity in general until the unexpected enters his life in the form of a stranger.

Determined to influence this newcomer through the books that have touched him over the years, Fikry winds up learning from them all over again. In doing so, he ends up showing even the non-readers in his tiny island community that they can be seduced by the right story—or person.

Conversations With God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans

Edited by James Melvin Washington

“Grant, that this highly favored country may continue to afford a safe and peaceful retreat from the calamities of war and slavery,” wrote Absalom Jones in 1808 in “A Thanksgiving Prayer for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade.”

Washington, a former professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and a Martin Luther King Jr. scholar, selects searing prayers by men and women, slaves and free people, prominent and obscure that embody the deep roots and enduring legacy of African-American spirituality in the nation.


This article appears in our December 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 09:09 AM/ET, 12/04/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
David Baldacci will be on stage Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014. By Bethanne Patrick

If you haven't planned any charitable activities yet for this holiday season, you might want to set your GPS for Gaithersburg, Maryland tomorrow evening and come see bestselling novelist David Baldacci talk about his latest book, The Escape.

Credit: Alexander James

Wondering what the charitable angle is? Hint: It's not that they're allowing me to interview Baldacci, although I will be doing so! It's that Baldacci and I will discuss, among many other things, his Wish You Well (TM) Foundation. Named after Baldacci's 2001 novel and founded by the author and his wife Michelle, the Foundation supports "family literacy in the United States by fostering and promoting the development and expansion of new and existing literacy and educational programs."

What does Baldacci mean by "family literacy?" I spoke with him at his David Baldacci Enterprises offices in Northern Virginia recently to find out, and although I've interviewed and spoken with the author several times in the past, I was struck by the intensity and sincerity of his thoughts about how parents and children can bond and grow through reading, both together and apart.

"I was a complete library rat when I was a child," said Baldacci. "My parents didn't have a lot of money, but there was always money for books, and time to spend at the library. My strongest memory of my childhood is my mother reading to me, every night, no matter what else was going on." Readers accustomed to seeing David Baldacci as a successful media figure might be surprised to learn how humble his Richmond, Virginia upbringing was: "While I was raised in Richmond, which is a pretty nice place, my mother's people came from the mountains of southwest Virginia, and my mother neither forgot nor neglected the lessons she'd learned from her own mother there. It was a hard life, but she understood that the way to something better was more educations--and she made sure her own children received it."

But Baldacci isn't committed to family literacy simply for its cozy, homey connotations; as a first-generation college graduate (not to mention law-school graduate), Baldacci knows first hand how much an atmosphere of respect for books, reading, and inquiry can change a person's life. "I've never seen a bad result from books being in the home," Baldacci told me. "Those reading skills that are fostered--if you can't read, you're dead in the water. Wasted opportunities are no opportunities," he says, regarding lack of those for people who are in all sorts of straitened circumstances, from prison to poverty to sheer neglect. The Wish You Well Foundation is Baldacci's attempt to help rectify imbalances that result in communities no matter what the source. "We try to go right to the heart of the problem," he told me. "For example, several years ago when we realized that kids were having trouble getting through school days because they were hungry, we contacted Feeding America so that those kids could have meals--with their family members and/or caregivers."

Baldacci believes strongly in the role of writers and stories helping to create "a well-informed electorate;" he knows that people who read are better informed and better able to make decisions that will keep them engaged in citizenship. "Intellectual property is all you have when you're an artist," he said. "Copyright affords you that, and it allows people to pursue creative endeavors and do great things in the arts because they can then sell what they do." While Baldacci knows that novels aren't necessarily the solution to our economic ills, he also knows that writers write lots of different kinds of materials. "I'm terrified that we're going to lose our free press," he told me. "If you don't have a free press, where writers are fairly paid for their work as objective journalists, then you have a bought press."

He practices what he preaches. The day after I spoke with Baldacci at his offices, I watched him brief a Capitol Hill audience on the copyright laws, and he spoke eloquently about the importance of maintaining a vital book culture, rather than a one-silo method of publishing--even though he noted that writers at his level might make more money in the long run.

Of course, if you're a Baldacci fan already (I don't know many people who aren't; his tightly plotted, fast-paced thrillers please so many), you'll want to know more about The Escape--and you will hear a lot about that new novel tomorrow night, too. It's the third in his John Puller series, and this time, Puller's brother Robert is involved. Isn't Robert incarcerated, you say? Shhhhh...no spoilers, here.

Still want to know more? I hope so. Tomorrow evening's event is free--but it's also first-come, first-serve, so you might want to try and leave work a little early in order to get a seat. If your boss asks why you need the extra hour, you can tell her you're heading out to get a head start on getting in the spirit of the season.

Posted at 06:38 AM/ET, 12/01/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The pair reveal an elemental difference in two lives lived extraordinarily in common. By Bethanne Patrick
Writers since childhood, Richard (left) and Robert Bausch both have new novels out. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

Richard and Robert Bausch arrive in the same car for lunch at Katerina’s Greek American Cuisine in Manassas, dressed in roomy jeans, short sleeves, and ball caps—Catalina Island for Richard, the California resident; a red Nats number for Robert, who stayed close to their childhood home.

I’ve been anxious about how I’d keep the identical-twin novelists apart in my mind and my notes. The caps help. Time does, too: Richard’s features tend toward the center of his face; Robert’s are larger and less symmetrical. Other differences crop up. “What are we doing here?” Richard demands as he spots the restaurant. “I don’t like Greek food!”

“They have the best lamb chops you’ll ever eat,” answers Robert.

At the table, Robert touts the red wine and orders a glass; Richard shakes him off and asks for sparkling water. One wants salad, the other not, then the decisions are reversed.

After a few minutes, it becomes clear this is an ancient routine, a ritual sowing of confusion that allows the two to take charge of lunch. They reel off a list of authors they love but skirt a question of literary influences. They recall a famous author’s drunken groping before swearing me to silence. They talk constantly but let almost nothing leave their embrace. When I call them on their easy bickering, asking them for one word to describe their relationship, one answers, “Pals.”

“Confidants,” says the other.

Born in 1945 at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Bausches were toddlers when they moved to Washington with their parents and four siblings. After “a very brief time” on Geranium Street, near the old Walter Reed hospital, they moved to Silver Spring and Wheaton. Their father, a car salesman, and mother were liberal Democrats. “Today they would be ashamed of the Democratic Party,” says Robert, “and shocked that now ‘liberal’ is a bad word.”

Drafted, they instead enlisted in the Air Force and attended basic training together in Texas. After serving stateside, each got an MFA degree, Robert at George Mason, Richard at Iowa. Both had already been writing before adolescence. “When my mother or father wanted to punish us, the command was ‘Go to your room!’ ” recalls Robert. “But that wasn’t a punishment. We had books, drawing pads, paint sets. It was exactly what we wanted.”

“I was the good kid who wanted to save the hero and the world,” says Richard.

“I was more gangster,” chuckles Robert.

Those roles play out in the fiction they’ve produced. Richard—whose Before, During, After, published in August, concerns an Episcopal priest and his new, younger wife dealing with the events of 9/11—tends to be more contemplative. In recent years, he’s piled up awards, including the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Rea Award for the Short Story. When Robert praises Richard’s choice of Natasha for the wife’s name, Richard says, “I got that from Leo”—as in Tolstoy.

Robert’s best known work is his irreverent 1991 novel, Almighty Me, which became the movie Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey as a man with God-like powers. His latest, Far as the Eye Can See, out this month, is a Western tale about a Union bounty jumper.

But if Robert is the maverick, he’s also visited with crises of confidence. After 2005, something “just dried up,” he says. “I’ve had five different publishers. That reveals something—I haven’t always had success I could repeat.” Then again: “George Garrett [the late novelist and director of the University of Virginia’s MFA program] once said to me: ‘Having five different publishers is a sign of a literary troublemaker. You should be honored for that.’ ”

Richard turns protective of his brother. “I’ve always told you that if you didn’t teach so much, you’d have produced more,” he chides. He pronounces himself bullish on Robert’s new novel: “I loved it. Loved it.”

It may be telling that they’re not equally optimistic about literature’s future. Robert believes reading is now so bound up with visual activity that “real contemplation seems doomed to wither away.” Richard points out that printed fiction has survived movies and TV. “Books will be around,” he says.

The lamb chops, however, have vanished. “See?” Robert says. “What’d I tell you?”


This article appears in our November 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 02:00 PM/ET, 11/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
With her second book out, Plame talks about her switch from agent to author. By Bethanne Patrick
Valerie Plame. Photograph by Norah Levine.

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.

"Burned" by Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett.

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.

Posted at 10:15 AM/ET, 10/20/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The author dishes on his most recent literary thriller. By Bethanne Patrick

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.

Unmanned by Dan Fesperman.

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.

Posted at 11:45 AM/ET, 10/17/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()