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

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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.

But the book had other origins independent of what I had witnessed in Washington, some going quite far back. My parents, for example, had two friends, both actresses, both of whom had been propositioned by President Kennedy. One had said yes and had a tryst with the president in London, the other had proudly declined ("Please tell the president I don't do that," was what she reportedly told the emissary who had delivered the invitation). When my parents told me about the first of these -- I must have been 14 or 15 at the time -- I was full of unanswerable (and, alas, unaskable) questions: How had he made his move (a crucial question for an awkward adolescent with infinite faith in the savoir-faire of a very suave president)? Did she call him "Mr. President" or "Jack"? How had they said goodbye? Was there any pretense of something personal or authentic having occurred?

Writer's questions, I realize in retrospect.

And also, as Maureen Dowd once discussed in a New York Times column, my father and mother had an arrangement: If Frank Sinatra ever propositioned my mother, she was permitted to go off with him without any repercussions in the marriage. This whole deal was presumably to be understood as occurring purely on the level of marital banter, and was never intended to be put to the test -- a safe assumption -- but still, it raised interesting questions in my mind: Why would a famous or powerful or otherwise imposing figure be accorded dispensation denied the rest of us? What was the nature of such a person's appeal, and why did it negate ordinary rules?

There were obviously any number of ways to tell my story. Telling it from the young woman's point of view would have been one approach. That would probably have turned it into a tale of a young woman's passionate encounter with a powerful married man, a species of romance novel, in which her heart is broken, but she emerges wiser in the ways of the world. Or a bittersweet tale from the president's point of view: A weary, harassed, noble world figure finding unexpected solace in the arms of a younger woman who restores his energy and renews his sense of purpose, even though both know their affair is doomed from the start.

Both perfectly valid approaches, but neither of the slightest interest to me.

But a story told from the point of view of the one person usually ignored in this sort of transaction, the victim, the boyfriend of the young woman, who suddenly finds himself cuckolded by the most powerful man in the world, a rival literally in possession of his own army and air force...that suggested dramatic resonance. That promised a deep well of conflicting emotions and a complicated moral calculus. That took the kind of powerlessness most of us feel in extreme situations and raised it to the nth degree.

And so I can only hope, now that the novel, some 13 years after its initial appearance, is being republished as an e-book, it will be read the way it was first conceived: Not as a gossipy expose, which was never my intention, but as a brooding meditation on power and powerlessness and their noxious influence on human relations. I never breathed a word of this during that first book tour, so absurdly anomalous (as well as grandiose) would it have seemed in the atmosphere surrounding the impeachment trial, but my model when I was writing wasn't one of those Fletcher Knebel-like political thrillers, nor an Allen Drury-like act of political mythologizing: my model was, in fact, Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground.

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Erik Tarloff is a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist.

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