After Jayne Jones and Alicia Long left former Sen. Norm Coleman’s (R-Minn.) Washington office to pursue new opportunities, they decided the stories they had collected over their years on Capitol Hill were too good not to share.
The result is Capitol Hell, a novel released earlier this month. The story follows Allison Amundson, a young new Senate staffer straining to adjust to life in Washington.
Q: How’d you hatch the idea to write a novel together?
AL: Jayne and I have been friends for 10 years. We had worked on Coleman’s campaign back in 2002, and we both ended up working on Capitol Hill. We both had our own experiences there and obviously made various friends on the Hill. And you just get to see so many crazy, different things, and it’s such a high-pressure atmosphere — and you get to see the best in people and the worst in people.
After we left the Hill, I went to law school, and Jayne returned to Minnesota, and we just started reminiscing, “Remember when that happened, etc.,” and we were like, “Holy cow, we actually have a lot of funny stories, and I think it’d be great to incorporate these into some sort of book.”
Q: What was your writing process like?
JJ: Alicia wrote the first chapter, I wrote the second chapter … We kind of piggybacked that way. No notes, no outline, we didn’t really talk about the specifics of each chapter; occasionally we would talk about a timeline.
AL: It was kind of surprise every single time, and it was sort of fun, too. We would edit as we went.
JJ: To add in the juicy parts — funk it up a little bit, add a little groove.
Q: Were there any difficulties in that writing arrangement?
AL: No. Jayne and I have not only been friends for a really long time, we’ve worked together professionally, and I almost see her as a big sister. I think we work really well together and really respect each other. I don’t know if I could work that well with anyone else.
JJ: I know it sounds spooky, but I always say we share a brain.
Q: You include a disclaimer that this is a work of fiction and that any resemblance to anyone is purely coincidental. Do you think people are actually going to buy that?
JJ: It’s a fictional book. A good girl never kisses and tells. There’s a bunch of stories that we collected from offices on the Hill, and we dumped it into this fictional office.
Q: What kind of feedback are you expecting? Do you have a ready response to people who claim to be depicted in your book?
AL: It’s fiction; that’s why the disclaimer’s in the book. I think anytime you write about politics, there’s going to be a certain level of speculation. I don’t think this book is any different than The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada. And we’re writing about a certain entity, and people know that we’re drawing on our own experiences. I think there are some things in the book that people would be like, “This is so ridiculous, there’s no way this’d ever happen.”
Q: Does your former boss Norm Coleman know about the book?
JJ: I’ve never had a conversation with Norm about the book directly. He’s a great friend; he’s been a great recommendation to both Alicia and I.
AL: He’s got his own thing going on. It’s a fiction book. Obviously he knows Jayne and I and we know him. There are other things we’ve done that we haven’t gotten feedback on, and I don’t know that he would necessarily provide feedback on this.
JJ: He was a tremendous boss, and I call him a friend. I know Alicia does, too. He’s a friend and a mentor.
Q: How would you characterize your time on Capitol Hill?
AL: I would not trade my time and experience on the Hill for anything in the world. I had an absolute great time. I definitely grew up a lot and learned a lot and got to work with fantastic people. That being said, it was definitely an eye-opener. You learned how to work under pressure and see how the sausage got made.
The book is filled with the hard parts of working on the Hill, but part of that is because nobody wants to read a book about people who like working on the Hill, and everyone’s fantastic and it’s a great story.
JJ: I teach political science at Concordia University-St. Paul, and I give my students two options: You can go to law school, and you can work on the Hill. I think [Capitol Hill] is great up until age 30. It’s a learning experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Would I say Alicia and I were both naïve, coming from small towns? Absolutely.
When Alicia becomes a senator, I’ll be her chief of staff.
Q: Would either of you ever go back?
AL: I worked for a couple of different Senate offices and had a great time and kind of got to a point where … it was time to go to law school. Now I’m focused on being an attorney. That being said, if the right opportunity came up, yes.
JJ: I got engaged and am becoming a stepmom to a 13-year-old, so the idea of going back to the Hill is absolutely not on the radar screen … But I think we both have public service in our hearts.
Q: What advice would you give to new Capitol Hill aides?
AL: No. 1: Be ready for anything. No. 2: Be willing to take advantage of any opportunities thrown your way, and if that means answering phones, answer phones. If that means making copies, make copies. No. 3: Get a hold of the schedules of all the receptions. As a new staffer who might not get paid more than $20,000 a year, you’ve got to get free dinner somewhere.
JJ: Make sure you have ATD — attention to detail. ATD will take you a long way.