News & Politics

Washington, Real and Ridiculous: An Interview With Novelist Kristin Gore

Thirty years ago, Al Gore was a young freshman congressman from Tennessee. A few months into his term, his second daughter, Kristin, was born. Since then, the Gores have become one of those American political families where all of the siblings are in the news at one point or another—whether for good or for ill. (Case in point: In the last week, daughter Sarah’s wedding was written up in the Washington Post; two weeks before that, son Al Gore III made news when he was arrested on drug-related charges.)

After growing up in the spotlight, Kristin Gore loves writing about scandals and headlines, but only as fiction. In 2004, she published Sammy’s Hill, a comic novel about a 26-year-old congressional staffer from Ohio. 

These days Gore is making the rounds touting her follow-up book, Sammy’s House, which follows Gore’s heroine into the White House, where she once again becomes entangled in controversy. This time, there’s an alcoholic, drug-addicted president, an anonymous blog intent on crushing the administration, and a new cast of oddball characters, including a former president with his own reality show. (Read the review here.)

Gore—who now lives in Los Angeles—will be in town reading at Books-A-Million (11 Dupont Cir., NW; 202-319-1374) at noon on Thursday, July 19, and at Politics and Prose (5015 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-364-1919) at 7 PM on Friday, July 20. Read below for an interview with Gore.

I was reading my advance copy of Sammy’s House on the Metro, and a girl wove her way through the crowd to ask me how I’d gotten it. Do you often hear from people in Washington about Sammy’s House or your first novel, Sammy’s Hill?

I hear from a lot of people that DC has such a stereotype of being this sort of old, stiff, boring town. So they were happy the book celebrated something they knew to be true—that DC was a place where there are a ton of young people who are idealistic and passionate and trying to change the world. They also go through various forms of disillusionment, of course, as they get older and get knocked around a bit. But they like that the book tries to reflect that experience and that journey, too.

How much of your childhood did you spend in Washington?

Whenever Congress was in session, we were in Washington. So four months out of the year we were in Tennessee and the rest of the time in Arlington, which is where my mom grew up. Then, of course, in 1992 we moved into the vice president’s house in DC. I was 15 then.

What was it like to transition into living there?

It was very exciting that my dad was part of this new administration—but we did not want to move. So we put it off for a while. For about six months, I think, we didn’t go. I mean, it’s a beautiful place, but it felt very foreign and odd, because it’s run by the Navy. So we had to get used to strangers being in the house and security everywhere. But at that age, we didn’t need any help feeling awkward and embarrassed. We got a lot of help with that, with all the Secret Service being around, at my tenth-grade dance or whatever.

When did you realize that you wanted to write about young Washington?

I didn’t realize I wanted to write about DC until after 2000. Even though I was a comedy writer, I stayed away from that subject on purpose. It took attaining some distance and perspective. It was a way to reconnect in a happy way with that world.

Because you didn’t really know what your relationship with Washington would be?

There was no reason for my parents to be there anymore, so they were in Tennessee. It was always that way growing up—we were in Washington for the job, and we put down roots there, but after 2000 my parents moved back full-time to Tennessee. So the distance and missing it, in some ways, made me want to write about the city.

And then the book deal came about after you met Harvey Weinstein at a charity reception, right? There's a character based on him—"Harvey Weingard"—on the HBO show Entourage recently,  and he seems pretty intimidating.

I haven’t seen that show in a while, but yeah—that’s his reputation. He happened to start talking to me, and he said, “I know you’re a comedy writer and that you write for TV. Have you ever thought of writing about DC?” And I said, “Yes!” It was amazing. In my free time, I’d written Sammy’s Hill—it had started out as a play. I just did it for myself. But certainly, I was very intimidated—just because I love a lot of his movies. He really has created some amazing things.

Have they cast the movie yet?

No, they haven’t started casting at all. The director, David O. Russell [I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings] is signed on to do it, and he and I are finishing the revisions this month. Once we finish, then he wants to cast it right away. We don’t want to get anyone’s voice in our heads while we’re writing the script.

So you don’t have any names floating through your head right now that you want to mention?

I don’t want to get in trouble. But, yeah, they’ve talked about Kirsten Dunst, Drew Barrymore, Rachel McAdams—I mean, I haven’t seen a lot of lead comedy roles for young women. It’s kind of a new thing—which is a problem casting because you think: Who can do this? I hope that changes, because there are so many talented, hilarious actresses out there who aren’t getting good material. It’s a bit of a boys’ club right now, with all these hilarious movies; they’re all very male. We’ll be casting—I imagine—within the next few months.

This is a change of topic, but I want to ask how realistic you consider your book. It seems to me that you wouldn’t have to stretch the truth too far. I mean, look at Senator David Vitter right now and the whole “DC madam” scandal. Just out of curiosity, on a scale of one to ten—with one being reality and ten being totally implausible—how realistic do you think Sammy’s House is?

I think it’s really realistic, actually—I’d put it at one or two. I mean, it’s hard to keep up fictionally with some of the ridiculous stuff that goes on in DC. What I wanted to show is there are certainly important, meaningful things that happen there, but there’s also so much absurdity and nonsense and mayhem.

I read that you wrote Sammy’s Hill in three months. Did Sammy’s House take longer?

It did—and with Sammy’s Hill, it was three months for the first draft, and then the whole thing took a lot longer. But that was also a product of my coming off of a TV writing schedule where I was used to spending 12 hours a day in a writers’ room. It was so terrifying to leave a paying job and take a chance on the novel that I just translated those hours. Then with this one, I did take more time—a year, probably, from start to finish. I had a longer time to shape it. With Sammy’s Hill, I also wrote twice as much as what ended up in the final book. With this one, I knew what I wanted to do more.

Are you more satisfied with Sammy’s House?

It’s kind of hard for me to say right now. I do think it’s a better book for me. My parents were enthusiastic fans of Sammy’s Hill. But they think Sammy’s House is a better book.

I read the letter you sent the Washington Post after your review came out. [Gore refuted the reviewer’s claim that her novel was a roman à clef in which the president and vice president are stand-ins for Bill Clinton and Al Gore.]

Do you normally read your reviews?

I don’t read all of them, but I’m always curious. In that particular case, it was just so wrong. I know, because of my background, it’s sometimes hard for people to understand how much I love writing fiction and to understand that I’m not a political person myself. People assume I have some kind of agenda—and I just don’t, and I just have to set the record straight on that.

I personally didn’t find it to be a roman à clef. [Warning: plot spoiler here.] But there’s a part where President Wye lies directly to the press corps about his substance abuse. I did find that comparable to Clinton’s lying about Monica Lewinsky. Did people—editors, early readers—talk to you about that comparison? How did you decide to include that in the book?

For me, there are so many examples throughout history. I’ve had other people think it’s about Nixon or Johnson. It kind of depends on what people’s touchstone in their own head is. I understand that, because of who I am, people go right there. But it wasn’t modeled on that at all. We’ve had plenty of examples of scandals in the White House throughout our history. So maybe I should have been more worried about that, but it was coming from such a fictional place in me that I didn’t take that into consideration.