Tales from the Hill: Authors share experience of working in D.C. in first novel
"Capitol Hell" is a fictionalized account of a female Senate staffer working in our nation's capital. But how much of the book is based on actual experiences?...
"Capitol Hell" is a fictionalized account of a female Senate staffer working in our nation's capital. But how much of the book is based on actual experiences?
Only authors Jayne Jones and Alicia Long and maybe a few of their former colleagues know for sure.
Jayne, a Minnesota native, and Alicia, who hails from Hartford, S.D., just outside of Sioux Falls, first crossed paths while working on Sen. Norm Coleman's campaign in 2002.
"It was our first foray into politics," recalled Alicia during a recent "campaign stop" for their book in Worthington. "I was still in college, and Jayne had just graduated from law school."
"We had to share a desk. Coleman's campaign slogan was 'Bringing people together to get things done,"' injected Jayne. "Well, he brought two people together --us!"
The two women cliqued almost instantly as they were put in charge of recruiting volunteers and worked on other aspects of Coleman's campaign.
"We don't have sisters in our own families, so that's the role it's become. Alicia is my sister," said Jayne.
After Coleman was elected, they both were given opportunities to join the newly elected senator's staff in Washington, D.C.
Jayne, a graduate of William Mitchell College of Law, worked for Coleman from 2002-2006, then returned to Minnesota, where she was the executive assistant to the Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, Steve Sviggum. She now teaches political science at Concordia University in St. Paul and is starting a summer academic program for teens to master public policy. Her college students have gained national attention for their legislative activities, including the passage of the Kyle Herman Bill of 2010, working with federal and state officials on legislation to curb child abuse in the classroom and most recently the "No Boozin' and Cruzin'" legislation to eliminate state legislator immunity from impaired driving.
Alicia worked in the U.S. Senate from 2002-2007, first for Coleman, then John Thune of South Dakota and George Allen of Virginia. Her job titles included scheduler, caseworker, intern coordinator, legislative correspondent and legislative aide. She already had a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Minnesota and decided in 2007 to pursue a law degree from the University of St. Thomas. During law school, she clerked in the U.S. Attorney's Office and Minneapolis City Attorney's office. Upon receiving her law degree, she was selected as a Presidential Management Fellow in the Department of Justice, where she worked as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in the criminal justice division of the U.S. Attorney's Office. Currently, she is employed in the Chief Counsel's office of the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington.
Their career paths may have taken divergent paths in different locales, but Jayne and Alicia have maintained their close friendship, communicating via phone, text or email on a daily basis and visiting each other whenever possible. It was on just such a visit that the idea for writing a novel together was sparked.
"We were reminiscing four years ago on my couch, reminiscing and laughing," recalled Jayne. "When we'd share stories from the office we had worked in, people would always say, 'You have such funny stories,' and we both have a funny sense of humor and the ability to write. Writing a book had been on both our bucket lists. Alicia took a stab at the first chapter and sent it to me. I wrote the second chapter and sent it back to her. We piggy-backed the whole thing."
"We never had an outline, never talked about what was happening in the story. The storyline never came up," Alicia added.
There were weeks and months when no progress was made on the book, but they finally decided to "jump off the diving board and get it done," said Jayne.
They sent the finished manuscript off to a publisher and prepared for what they assumed would be a long wait and a rejection letter. But to their astonishment, the call came just two days later. The publisher was interested in the project and especially saw potential with the political campaign season looming.
"We get ourselves into the craziest situations," said Alicia.
"The normal process takes about a year, but they fast-tracked it to three months," said Jayne. "We worked with two editors and three proofreaders in order to get the book out before election season."
"And we both have full-time jobs," Alicia added.
"I never knew, after the manuscript was done, how much work still goes into it," Jayne said.
The manuscript was analyzed and tweaked from beginning to end, but the authors were pleased that most of the changes were minor.
"None of the stories got taken out, none of the characters changed," Jayne explained. "They just tightened it up; it mostly stayed the same."
The end result, they assert, is a work of fiction that is based on different congressional stories that are "some fact, a lot of embellishment and some made up," according to Jane.
"That's part of the fun of reading the book -- figuring out what's made up," Alicia said.
Alicia and Jayne describe "Capitol Hell" as "'The Devil Wears Prada' in the U.S. Senate." The official publicity synopsis goes like this:
When recent college graduate Allison Amundson, a small town girl from South Dakota, lands the highly sought after job of scheduler to the newly-elected and rising star of the United States Senate, Senator Anders McDermott III, she thinks she is on the fast track to success. However, she quickly learns that crazy co-workers, a high maintenance boss, an over-the-top family and an unexpected Presidential bid make Capitol Hill seem even more dysfunctional than portrayed on TV. In fact, it is Capitol Hell.
The second Allison sets foot in the prestigious Senate Russell Building, things begin to go awry. Allison soon realizes her co-workers consist of a Chief of Staff who has little to no control over the antics in the office, a Press Secretary who is not only pompous, but primping and preening, and worst of all, the Senator himself, who cares more about his rise to fame than the people of Minnesota.
As Allison struggles to juggle a new career, her blooming love interest in Cam (a quiet but loyal Legislative Assistant), and her ever-declining bank account, she is comforted only by her co-worker Janet, a fireplug who spends the majority of her time on-line dating, trying to land a Senator of her own. Just as Allison and Janet begin to figure out the ins and outs of Capitol Hill, their lives are turned upside down when Senator McDermott announces his bid for President of the United States. Soon, Allison and Janet find themselves at the center of one of the craziest campaigns in history.
"Capitol Hell" was just recently released, but already Alicia and Jayne have gotten plenty of feedback, particularly from former Capitol Hill colleagues.
"We've got a whole list of new stories people have told us, so we have material for book No. 2," said Alicia. "It's just all the misadventures that people get into."
The women stress that the political atmosphere and circumstances of working in Washington are easy to poke fun of in a work of fiction.
"This is not a story about Sen. Norm Coleman," asserted Jayne. "He opened so many doors for us, and we wouldn't trade the experience for anything. But it's highly demanding, a pressure cooker, and you work your butt off."
So far, Alicia and Jayne's foray into the publishing world has been a whirlwind, but they are grateful for the doors that have been opened to them on so many levels in their careers.
"We are so thankful to our parents, because they pushed us to get an education, take chances and work hard ... that instillment of Midwestern values, and we both share that," Jayne said.
"They also instilled the importance of public service," added Alicia. "My dad's a firefighter, my mom a nurse, and they showed me that it was important to give back. And we definitely talked about politics at the dinner table."
After many years of campaigning on behalf of other "candidates," Jayne and Alicia are having fun campaigning on their own behalf and their joint writing project.
"So many things that Jayne and I do, we jump in feet first without checking the depth of the water," explained Alicia. "I can't imagine going through this with anyone else."
"Capitol Hell" is published by Beaver's Pond Press. For more information, go to www.capitolhellbook.com . The book is also available at amazon.com, barnesand noble.com or through www.beaverspondpress.com .