How a political speechwriter dumped the pols, fled the office and found honest work.
By Susan Isaacs
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page BW05
Big deal, I was no Peggy Noonan. Nevertheless, early in the ’80s, when I ran into the borough president of Queens, my former boss, I got his four-star greeting. We were at a fundraiser in a hotel ballroom that smelled of years of stuffed chicken breasts. Anyway, I got his widest smile and a bear hug, the greeting that in New York signals “I am vaguely fond of you.”
“Sue, you back to writing speeches?” he demanded.
I shook my head.
“I’m writing fiction these days.”
“No kidding! You went legit!”
Earlier, during the late ’60s and early ’70s, I was writing advice to the lovelorn at Seventeen magazine by day. Longing for work that felt more legit than “How to Say No to a Boy,” I became, by night, a freelance political speechwriter. My Democrats were mostly outer-borough types who lacked the clout to have a speechwriter on staff. For occasions on which they hoped to sound eloquent or, in one or two cases, able to utter a simple declarative sentence, they hired me.
Some of my passion for politics was merely love of the game. In high school, JFK and the Democrats began to fill the emptiness I had felt since the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Politics also satisfied my need for strategic thinking: coming up with a plan of action to achieve a specific goal. “How do you win a ball game?” became “How do you win an election?” Okay, comparing the World Series of October and the first Tuesday in November might seem frivolous, but actual governing, too, demanded strategy. How do you get a bill you care about past a recalcitrant legislature or an indifferent executive?
Also, having lived through the murders of the three civil rights workers Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, I knew how much politics mattered. America needed competent people not only to run its governments but to attempt to heal what was broken.
As I was writing speeches on capital budgets or day care, I never realized I was picking up one of the prerequisites to writing fiction: drawing out the person, listening until I could reproduce his unique voice. I had to pay attention: I didn’t want my pols to make fools of themselves. Back then, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, nearly everyone in office or running for it wanted to speak in the same voice: John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s. I had to inform the guys I worked for that not only couldn’t they sound like JFK, but I couldn’t write like Theodore Sorensen, his adviser and speechwriter.
However, simply by listening to their diction, finding out what they wanted to get across and to whom, I learned to capture the voices of my politicians — and my characters. An “Our Crowd” patrician running for governor should not speak the same English — or New Yorkese — as a second-generation Italian American running for City Council; that’s as true in art as it is in life. When my characters talked, I listened.
Anyway, after my children arrived, I continued freelancing speeches, but I wasn’t particularly good at marketing myself. So in the early ’70s, besides wallowing in Watergate while my kids were napping or at nursery school, I passed my time reading mysteries. Many mysteries: four or five a week. And I said to myself what most aspiring novelists probably say at some point in their reading lives: I can do this. I began to write my first novel, Compromising Positions. Like me, the novel’s protagonist, Judith Singer, was a Long Island housewife with two children, a husband who worked in the city and a yearning for adventure. Needing a murder for her to investigate, I decided to kill off a philandering periodontist.
I turned my back on politics. Compromising Positions certainly was not a political novel. True, many relationships have a political aspect, like struggles for economic control and the pervasive who’s-on-top business. But that definition of politics was and is far too broad for me. Characters vying for power within their own relationships do not make a novel political.
What does? Here’s what I think: A work of fiction is political when the conflict between characters does not just affect them directly but also has an impact on their particular universes (All the King’s Men or I, Claudius). It can also be political when the forces of government, caste or the economy have an immediate impact on the characters’ lives (1984, The Grapes of Wrath or Cry, the Beloved Country). In other words, a work meets my politics test when there is conflict between the private lives of the main characters and forces in the public sector.
After I handed over my first novel, my brand-new agent informed me: “I’ll sell it. Now get back to your typewriter where you belong.” But what next? I recalled an old saw: Write about what you know. Okay, I know lots of things: how to bake a bundt cake, what it feels like never to have completely finished the Sunday crossword puzzle. But what that advice really means is: Write about a universe you understand well enough to portray with authority.
Thus the protagonist of my second novel, Close Relations, wrote political speeches for a New York Democrat. It wasn’t a mystery — no corpse, no detective. The only death occurred in the first chapter and was accidental: The governor, communing with constituents in Queens, chokes to death on a knish.
Still, though the action takes place during a Democratic gubernatorial primary (thus assuring the novel’s comic tone), it was not a political novel. Unlike in say, Primary Colors or The Handmaid’s Tale, neither the pursuit nor the consequences of politics dominated my protagonist’s life. Speechwriting was her job, not her identity. Yes, Marcia Green loved her work and was at it 10 or 12 hours a day. But her narrative was personal, about how she dealt with family pressures, sexual independence and, okay, equity in the workplace. Politics was the background, not the story.
Once finished with Close Relations, I figured goodbye politics, hello . . . whatever. There had to be other universes for my characters. And there were: show business (by that time I’d written the screenplay for the movie adaptation of Compromising Positions), because I wanted to write about celebrity; upscale suburbia, since I felt the need to skewer the values of the acquisitive upper-middle class of which I had become such an enthusiastic member.
But politics wouldn’t leave me alone. Researching Shining Through — set in World War II in New York, Washington and Berlin — I sat in the library for weeks, as captivated by the internecine intrigue and machinations of the top guns in the OSS (the CIA’s forerunner) as I was by the reports of the agency’s derring-do. So those politics got woven into the story, not simply because I found them interesting but because Linda Voss, my bilingual secretary-turned-spy, began waking up to what was going on in Washington.
Likewise, as I was finishing the first draft of Lily White, a contested election for district attorney managed to creep into what was otherwise a novel about betrayal. Somehow, Lee White, my criminal-lawyer protagonist, let me know that justice demanded that the DA be challenged. In the two cases, my characters’ awareness of both the game of politics and the critical job of governing enriched the novels.
All except one of my novels got started when a main character meandered into my consciousness and demanded that I be his or her biographer. Red, White and Blue, my political novel, was different. That book arose from my concern, some time before the Oklahoma City bombing, about the burgeoning menace of the radical right in the United States. What was its allure to formerly run-of-the-mill conservatives? Citizens once merely opposed to big government — since our nation’s founding, a legitimate political position — were beginning to view their own government not as a klutzy bureaucracy but as a predatory evil. What was changing in America that could meld conservatives with crazies? And who was funding the growing number of homophobic, racist and anti-Semitic groups? That’s when my main characters, a reporter and an FBI agent, emerged to investigate for me.
By the time I got to Red, White and Blue, I knew that I would never really get away from politics. It was more than a hobby. After all, I didn’t observe the world through a needlepoint canvas. I needed politics to understand what was going on, to zoom in on what appeared, from a distance, too disorderly to comprehend. I also needed it as a lens that offered a panoramic view and a broader understanding.
Politics was a game to me, and it was deadly serious business. Because it was so integral to my way of seeing the world, it became part of the universes I created. Writing speeches, I never felt completely at home in the sphere in which I was working. Eventually, I found my home in fiction. Now when I’m writing, I always feel legit.
Susan Isaacs | Shining Throughout
Spend enough time with an author and you learn what a difficult business writing is: the wheel of rejection, the struggle for recognition, the cruel calculus that seldom rewards excellence with a good wage. Rare is the writer who can negotiate it all gracefully.
Susan Isaacs has. By 15, she had learned a writer’s essential lessons: 1) reading is the best teacher; 2) an outsider has an enviable vantage; 3) politics, in any form, is grist for drama. But that wasn’t all — she had a library card, a mother who urged her to read without restrictions, and a father who loved tall tales. Shortly after her 12th birthday, her father, an electrical engineer, moved her small family from Brooklyn to Cincinnati, and her world changed. She met her first Protestant. She played with children who adored Nixon. She went from a Jewish neighborhood to the heart of conservative America. She didn’t know it then, but those three years in Ohio were a blessing: Discomfort, like air, is what a novelist breathes.
Much of her story she tells above. After four years at Queens College, she landed her first job as a slush-pile reader at Seventeen magazine. She rose to senior editor but left office jobs behind to live in the suburbs with her husband, a federal prosecutor, and raise their two children. She wrote speeches for political campaigns. By her mid-twenties, she had published a novel, Compromising Positions (1978), and it was chosen as a Book of the Month Club dual main selection, along with The World According to Garp. It made the bestseller lists, as every novel of hers since has: among them, Almost Paradise (1984), Shining Through (1988), After All These Years (1993), Red, White and Blue (1998) and Long Time No See (2001). She wrote a screenplay (“Hello Again,” starring Shelley Long) and saw three of her novels made into movies. In October, she will publish Anyplace I Hang My Hat, about a political reporter who goes in search of the mother who abandoned her as a baby.
A past president of the Mystery Writers of America, Isaacs attributes her success to her taste for a good mystery story. “What a smart form of writing!” she says. “It taught me everything I know.” As she dictates her novels into speech-recognition software, she is blissfully free of pencils, pens, keyboards, writer’s block — all obstacles that can stand between her and the page. “I’m desperate to write,” she says. And she does. Every day. Like breathing.
— Marie Arana