They may have left Capitol Hill, but Alicia Long and Jayne Jones still use the tactics they learned as Senate staffers to accomplish their goals, including their latest: writing and promoting a novel.
Just as glued to their BlackBerrys as they were as staffers for former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Long and Jones launched their book, Capitol Hell, as they would a political campaign—with a powerhouse trip through a swing state. They hit 12 Minnesota towns in just two days to plug the novel.
“Because the book does talk about life on the Hill and also there’s a little of the campaign side, that’s just the way we approached it,” Long said. “A lot of the skills [you learn in politics] are transferable. It’s getting a message out there.”
Even the process for writing the book reflects their Hill background. Just as the House and Senate usually draft legislation separately, Long and Jones each drafted individual chapters, passing them back and forth, both “jazzing up” the other’s work in a kind of reconciliation process.
Capitol Hell centers on Allison, a recent college graduate itching to work on the Hill. She lands a job as scheduler to the newly-elected Sen. Anders McDermott III of South Dakota and spends the bulk of the book navigating Washington and the Hill, juggling outlandish demands from her boss and condescension from coworkers. A friendly legislative aide, Janet, helps her avoid major pitfalls—though Janet has more than a few scrapes of her own.
The “A” and “J” names of the novel’s central characters—and their familiar back-stories—make it easy to assume that Long and Jones have embellished their own lives for the book. But both are quick to insist that they are not the characters—and that not all the Hill stories in the book are culled from their lives.
“Some of the stories definitely occurred or are based on something that happened to either she or I or one of our friends,” Long said. “That being said, I will say a good girl never kisses and tells. I think part of the fun is to read the book and to try and figure out what you think actually happened to someone and what you think is embellished. Some of the stuff we completely made up, too. That’s kind of the fun, especially for anybody who’s ever worked on the Hill.”
Quite a few Washington favorites make the book—Roll Call’s “Heard on the Hill” column is mentioned, as are restaurants Tortilla Coast and The Oceanaire Seafood Room. And the office has its share of recognizable characters, including a pretentious prep-school press secretary named Blair, a catty legislative director, and even a dreamy and hardworking legislative aide, Cam. Easily the least-likable characters are the novel’s lawmakers.
“Nobody wants to read the book about two girls who have everything figured out and they go and work for a great boss who brings both sides of the aisle together and everyone sings ‘Kumbaya’ and it’s great. That’s a boring book. Somebody has to be the antagonist, and I think politicians are usually pretty easy targets for that,” Long said. “One of the reasons it was so fun to write Senator McDermott is that we kind of got to draw on the worst parts of different people, different stories that you hear, and then to put them all into one fictional character.”
Both Long and Jones are quick to point out what the book is not: Capitol Hell is neither a partisan diatribe nor a romantic beach read, they said. The characters are Republicans, as are the authors, but they wanted both sides of the aisle to identify with the Senate office they fictionalize. And despite the pink high heels in the upper corner of each page, the book is not about Allison’s quest for love, they said.
“Nobody has sex in our book because they’re all working so hard. There’s no time! There’s no time for a relationship,” Jones said, adding, “Seeing the hot pink cover, it looks like ‘chick lit,’ the girl chasing the guy. But this is the farthest thing from ‘chick lit.’ This is a book about a girl chasing her dream to be a successful policy worker.”
Writing the book took the pair about four years, though the editing process was rushed from a year to about three months because the publisher wanted the novel on shelves before Election Day.
“We never had one hiccup, no fights, no arguments over any word or word choices—never,” Jones said. “I don’t think I could write a book with anyone else.” Long echoed the sentiment.
The authors, who met on Coleman’s 2002 Senate campaign, have remained fast friends despite leaving the Hill. Long, who left Coleman’s office to work for Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., eventually returned to Minnesota to get her law degree. She now works in Arlington, Va., in administrative law and civil litigation. Jones left the Hill to work for Minnesota’s House speaker and now teaches political science at Concordia University.
Like their readers, both are eager to see what happens next in Allison’s career. They haven’t planned it yet, but Long hints that Allison might move down the street to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“I would like to see [Allison] navigate her way through the White House,” Long said. “I can see her maybe bumbling her way through a state dinner or something like that. I would definitely like to see her grow and learn and come into her own.”
This article appears in the Sep. 13, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.