How the Monica Lewinsky Scandal Helped—and Hurt—My Debut Novel

What happens when your novel comes to life -- before you've even finished writing it?

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Associated Press / Pocket

Timing, according to the old showbiz adage, is everything. When my novel Face-Time was published in 1999, it was both beneficiary and victim of timing. But not as a result of anything like calculation. The timing, good and bad, was purely fortuitous.

The novel concerns an affair between a president of the United States and a young female White House staffer. I began writing it in 1998. I was about 40 pages into the first draft when Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky story.

Appalled -- first as a citizen and then, more selfishly, as a writer -- I phoned my agent, who had been reading the pages as I produced them. "What do I do now?" is what I asked him. I liked what I had, and was reluctant to stop, but at the same time, it was impossible to deny that events had overtaken me. I was relieved when he offered his guidance: Just keep writing. It was actually more a directive than a piece of advice.

If I was naive enough to entertain any hopes that this particular scandal would have faded from public consciousness by the time the book was completed and published -- and I don't recall being that naive -- then those too were overtaken by events. The book appeared and I went on my promotional tour while President Clinton's impeachment trial was in progress.

I have no doubt these events increased interest in the book and brought it more publicity than it might otherwise have garnered. They may have increased my sales. But they also distorted the way the book was read: as a satirical commentary on recent events. And they created the notion in some quarters that I might have been writing out of personal experience, an idea that caused me intense chagrin. Not so much on my own account as that of my wife, a very serious and conscientious economist and public servant who occupied a cabinet-level position during Bill Clinton's first term. At no point had I had a moment's doubt about her conduct with the president. Clinton certainly wasn't above flirting with her -- he flirted with everybody -- but it was always within acceptable bounds, light-hearted and even gallant. He was obviously capable of more, anyone who had ever seen him in action knew that crudity was another arrow in his quiver, but he required encouragement, proceeding by successive approximations.

Which isn't to suggest that the book wasn't influenced by our Washington experience, of course. My wife was in the cabinet, and I was occasionally conscripted to help out with presidential and vice-presidential speeches, so we had front-row seats. And we kept our eyes open, if only out of amazement at the sheer surreality of being there at all. I trust I got a lot of the details right and evoked the White House atmosphere accurately. Which would have been an impossibility had I not been granted first-hand glimpses behind the curtain. When the first draft was completed, I gave George Stephanopoulos an advance look and asked him to tell me what I had got wrong. He had a list of 10 or 11 details, and apologized for how picayune they were. But I was able to assure him that those were precisely the kinds of specifics I was seeking. It was important to me that the book reflect reality. The little things mattered.

But all that notwithstanding, when I started the book I had no definitive knowledge that the president was straying -- there were rumors, of course, and the news, when it finally broke, didn't come as a huge surprise, but the gossip had been vague and unspecific, and seemed more like random speculation than actual revelation -- and it certainly never occurred to me that such a story could ever possibly become public. Presidential sexual adventuring was hardly unprecedented, but had always remained secret during each president's time in office. Harding and Roosevelt and Kennedy and Johnson and ... well, let's leave the list there. Those are a sufficient number of names to make the point.

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Erik Tarloff is a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist.

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