By Kris Kitto - 10/20/10 10:00 AM EDT
After working as President George W. Bush’s communications director and as an adviser to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential bid, Nicolle Wallace decided to try her hand at something new. The result is Eighteen Acres, a novel about three women working in the White House, one of whom is the nation’s first female president. Wallace will discuss her book and sign copies at the Borders in Bailey’s Crossroads, Va., (5871 Crossroads Center Way) on Monday, Oct. 25, at 7:30 p.m.
Lots of people write tell-alls after leaving the White House. Why did you decide on a novel?
I wouldn’t have written a very good tell-all. I think when you leave, some of what’s so healthy about leaving is getting your head out of the things it was on in a campaign, especially a losing campaign. I’ve been on both sides of presidential campaigns, winning campaigns in 2000 and 2004, and the losing side on 2008, and it’s so hard … I think what you decide to do has as much to do with where your head is. And my head, after 2008, was in desperate need of getting out of the nonfiction world, and fiction was such a fun and unexpected challenge for me. So it ended up being the right choice.
It wasn’t something that I really pondered very much when I worked in the White House, but these three characters came to me very soon after the 2008 campaign ended, and I think the creation of Charlotte Kramer was part of my emotional reaction to what I saw Hillary Clinton, and to a lesser extent Sarah Palin, go through in 2008.
It still impresses me that Hillary Clinton is the secretary of State for her former opponent, who said to her, “Hillary, you’re likable enough.” I think women have a great talent for suffering an indignity and then find[ing] strength to, in her case, become a part of a team that she was once opposed to.
How much of the plot is based on real-life events? The story includes a surprise pick for a vice presidential candidate, who ends up enlivening the campaign. Coincidentally, you worked with Sarah Palin during John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid …
I started at the beginning, and I never outlined a story, I never worked ahead of the chapter I was writing. I never worked ahead of the next character … so I didn’t really know where the story was going. There were certain things that were happening in 2008 and 2009 that I thought just really captured the moment of our politics. And one of them was this collision of someone outside established politics and our incumbents, and I think that’s really relevant to what’s going on now with the Tea Party movement. So I think it was more about my wanting to spend a little bit more time exploring the culture clash.
The novel also seems to be a bit autobiographical. Dale, the White House correspondent, started her TV career in California. You had a TV career in California. Charlotte, the president, was the California governor previously. You worked in California politics before coming to Washington.
The one piece of advice that I received was to write about what I knew, and so I thought as far as places went, the places that I know are very well-represented in the book. I otherwise had no interest in autobiography, and to the extent I projected myself on any of these three women, I apologize.
Another line in the story caught my attention: At one point, Melanie, the chief of staff, wonders if “it was time to step off the treadmill and get out of politics. Her sister urged her to come live in New York, and Melanie was considering it.” You now live in New York and don’t work in politics anymore.
I never met anybody with whom I couldn’t have an hours-long conversation about when we were going to leave. I promise you, I don’t know a lot of people in the Obama White House, but after work, and after a beer or two or seven, that’s one of the favorite topics of conversation — “How long can I take this?” Everybody in the White House has an exit strategy, because it’s unsurvivable without one. It’s so grueling.
You’re a Republican, and Charlotte, the president in your novel, is a Republican. Yet she chooses a Democrat for her running mate, and the story includes a brief discussion about them both being centrists. Is there an underlying message you’re trying to get across here?
The idea of Sen. McCain picking Sen. [Joe] Lieberman [I-Conn.] as his vice presidential nominee completely captured my imagination. I wasn’t deep inside the talks of him considering Sen. Lieberman.
The idea of political upheaval … excited me. Why not have the conversation in fiction, where it wouldn’t threaten anybody?
Another issue raised in the story is staffers’ relationships with reporters. How would you characterize your relationships with reporters when you were communications director?
In the 2008 cycle, my relationship with the press came under close scrutiny when our candidate [Sarah Palin] presumed I had a reporter’s interest ahead of hers. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time in that in real life, but in fiction, I wanted to show how there is a pretty robust dialogue between reporters and staffers.
There is a flow of information that the larger public might not be aware of but is part of how it works, and I kind of wanted to pull a curtain back on that a little bit. And I wanted to show its limits and how it can corrupt a relationship.
Who did you write this for? Who do you hope will read it?
Two-part answer to that. My favorite TV show is “Entourage.” It’s not my world, but I love knowing that I’m watching something that’s so close to how that world might really be that I feel like I’m seeing inside a world that I don’t know.
It was the same way I felt when I read The Devil Wears Prada. I got a little glimpse into that world. I love books that get the place really right.
Also, I have two younger sisters and a younger brother, none of whom are interested in the White House in the slightest. None of my siblings have ever voted for anyone I’ve ever worked for. For me, to have spent 13 years in politics, I could never talk politics. I had to call home and tell stories about the people. I think I had 13 years’ experience in trying to tell amusing stories about a day in my life.
The story ends just as the president is starting her second term with her new, Democratic vice president. It seems like a great place to pick up for a sequel.
Yes. The sequel is about two-thirds of the way written. It’s due at the end of the year and it’ll come out at about the same time next year.