The reel deal

Former congressional staffer Rick Robinson is proof that Washington plots can get Hollywood’s attention. Robinson, who worked for former Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), comes home from his day job as an attorney to write fiction “at least an hour” every night.

His hard work has paid off, as Manifest Destiny, Robinson’s third novel, was recently picked up by Hollywood movie producer Peter R.J. Deyell.

The book centers on Washington intrigue: It starts with the robbery of one of the House’s most hallowed symbols, the mace, and continues to tell the story of the kidnapping of a congressional staffer in Romania.

Robinson talked to The Hill about his story, who he sees playing the main character and his time on Capitol Hill.

Q: In your book, a congressional staffer gets kidnapped while observing an election in Romania. How did you come up with the plot?

The first thing that happened in this book was actually … the stealing of the [House] mace. 

I came up with the idea initially when I was watching the C-SPAN multi-night series on Congress. Having spent time on the Hill, I’m still one of those D.C. geeks who watches those shows.

The show showed they had taken the mace over to the Smithsonian to be refurbished … And I thought, “The mace would be cool to incorporate into my next book.”

From the standpoint of the staffer getting kidnapped … I was able to meet with several of the staffers who were actually the first Americans into Romania following the 1989 execution of [former Romanian President] Nicolae Ceausescu. They had worked for the International Republican Institute.

Q: So that’s why you decided to set your story in Romania?

I sat down with these people who worked in all these countries, and I said, “Where is the most superstitious place you’ve done campaign work in?” And to a person, everyone said Romania.

The funny things sometimes about plots, you’re not quite sure sometimes what’s going to happen.

Q: What was your research like for the story?

I did not go to Romania. I’ve told other writers, if you’re not going to go to the country where you set your story, make sure there’s an Intercontinental Hotel in the major city. They have a video concierge that will let you view nearly anything.

A woman from New York told me how wonderfully I captured her country. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t go.

Otherwise my research consisted of talking to a lot of campaign workers who had worked on foreign campaigns, and a lot of research on the mace itself. You may have 10 hours of research into one or two lines into a book.

Q: How did the movie deal come about?

In March, Manifest Destiny was named the best independent book in America for 2010 by a contest that deals with independent novels called the DIY convention. The producer Peter Deyell, one of his representatives reached out to me and said he’d like to read the book, and that’s really just what started it.

Q: Who do you think should play Rep. Richard Thompson?

I always had in the back of my mind when writing this, Tobey Maguire. I could see Tobey Maguire walking down the street playing the role. I don’t have any say in any of those things, but that’s who I had in my mind.

Q: How involved will you be in the making of the movie?

This is a brand-new type of venture for me … I really don’t know anything on the Hollywood side. Believe me, if they want my opinion on things, I’ll gladly give it to them, but I don’t expect that I’ll be deeply involved in the artistic side of making the movie.

Q: How did you get your start in fiction writing?

My stock line is … I’m one of those people who tells people everybody has one book in them. And I spent 30 years trying to write the wrong one.

When I was 17 in high school, I had gotten a chance to meet Jesse Stuart, the poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize nominee, and was just fascinated by him. I knew from that moment I wanted to write. For 30 years I wanted to try to write the great coming-of-age novel. The one thing standing in the way is that I never really came of age.

Clients said, “Why would you want to write a coming-of-age novel? You have all these great stories from politics; you ought to write a political thriller.” A little light bulb went off in the back of the head, and 30 days later I had 150 pages to start.

 Q: Were you doing any fiction writing while working on Bunning’s staff?

No. I never was, although when I was on the Hill, I did a credit in P.J. O’Rourke’s book Parliament of Whores in helping with the fact-checking. 

Q: What did you like most about working on Capitol Hill?

Working on the Hill is great; going to work every day was such a gas. I always used to laugh — they were actually paying us to do the work. My wife worked for [former GOP Sen.] Connie Mack from Florida, I worked for Bunning, and at the time we didn’t have kids. It was just a fun place to be, a fun place to work, we could go wherever we wanted on the Hill.

Q: You didn’t get kidnapped, but what was the most bizarre thing that happened to you as a staffer?

There’s several bizarre stories, but I do remember one night pulling out of the Rayburn garage and looking out, and some guys went running through the park with what appeared to be weapons. We immediately pulled off to the side and told the security what we had seen. And the swarm of people that came up to the garage was amazing. Turns out it was a bunch of guys, late at night, having a water fight with realistic-looking guns. We were told this wasn’t the best area to do it.

Q: Has Sen. Bunning ever read or been an active part in the making of your books?

He and his wife have both read them and liked them very much. 

Q: Who’s your toughest editor?

My wife, Linda, reads literally everything. She says she has a good idea for how fiction is set up, but she also worked on the Hill, so she has an idea of the nuances I’m trying to get across in the book. So my first editor is my wife, Linda.

If you read the book, there’s a character called the Fat Man, and he’s my law partner, literally — I don’t change too much about my character in the setup of him. He’s the ultimate English major, and he used to edit a law journal, so he sits down to edit.

Then I send them out to some of the sample readers — a couple of them on the Hill. Manifest Destiny had a different ending at first. Several of the readers came back and said, “I’m not buying it.”

Q: When do you find time to write?

You have to literally discipline yourself to do it. When I leave the office every night, I’ll sit down for at least an hour and write. And sometimes the one hour turns to seven, and other times the one hour is spent struggling to rearrange a paragraph. You never know when the muse is going to hit you.