Allison Amundson, the young, ego-battered protagonist in Capitol Hell (Beaver's Pond Press, 2012), has much in common with one of her creators, law alumna Alicia Long '10 J.D. Though Long, an attorney in the Domestic Criminal Law Section of the Chief Counsel's Office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, now is more well-versed in the ways of Washington, she once was a near carbon copy of Allison: a South Dakota-bred political newbie who arrives in D.C. wet behind the ears and unprepared for the tantrums and tribulations that accompany working as a scheduler for a high-profile U.S. senator.
Long worked for Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) in St. Paul before relocating to Washington, D.C., to work as the senator's scheduler when she was 22. Like a seasoned pro, she's content, and probably wise, to keep tight-lipped on how heavily she dipped into the wells of her own experience but readily admits that she and her co-author, Jayne Jones, "did pull a ton of the stories in the book from real-life experiences, whether they were our own, stories our friends shared with us or things we had heard or read about."
The writing duo enjoyed writing a novel based on their hellish experiences so much that they are working on a sequel, which they hope to have published in 2014.
Long received a B.A. in political science from the University of Minnesota and moved to D.C. immediately after graduation, where, in addition to serving for Coleman, she served with John Thune (R-S.D.) and George Allen (R-Va.) and took on a hodgepodge of political positions, including legislative correspondent, legislative aide, intern coordinator and caseworker. In 2007, she returned to Minneapolis to pursue her J.D. at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, from which she graduated in 2010.
After graduating, D.C. beckoned again, and Long returned, though this time landing a job as a Presidential Management Fellow for the Drug Enforcement Administration, which allowed her to go on a detail as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C. Neither would require that she shop for birthday presents or do laundry for her bosses.
Would she ever move back to the Midwest? Maybe. "For the right thing, I think I could. I absolutely love Minneapolis, although I will say I HATE the winters. But it's got great theater, sports, music, people, and you can't beat the lakes. Part of me really misses it, but for now I am pretty happy where I am," she admitted.
Long answered some questions via email about her insider's view of Washington, D.C. and living to tell, or rather write, a tale about it.
While you were working for U.S. senators Coleman, Thune and Allen, were you based in D.C.?
I actually started working for Senator Coleman in his St. Paul office while I was still in college. After I graduated, they moved me to D.C. to be his scheduler. I did that for a year and then worked for Sen. Thune in his "leg" shop (pronounced "ledge" shop, which is the slang term used on the Hill for the legislative division of any Senate or House office). While I was doing that, I worked part-time on Sen. Allen's campaign in Virginia.
How much of Capitol Hell was pulled from your personal experience working in politics? Can you be specific about anything?
Jayne and I like to say that a good girl never kisses and tells. That being said, we did pull a ton of the stories in the book from real-life experiences, whether they were our own, stories our friends shared with us or things we had heard or read about, which is part of what makes the book so much fun. People love trying to guess who's who. And that being said, we definitely added our own take to some of the stories to make them more fun and entertaining. But hey, that's part of the fun of writing fiction right?
When did it occur to you that you wanted write a novel about Capitol Hill? Was it cathartic to write?
Funny you should ask! I don't think either of us had ever considered actually writing a book before. But after we finished working on the Hill and began to tell people about all of the crazy things we saw, the common response was, "You should write a book!" So, one day we just did. Not only was it cathartic, but it was also so much fun rehashing memories with one another.
I remember reading that before John Grisham made it big, he awoke really early to write before hitting his day job as an attorney. Timewise, you are in a similar situation. Was it difficult to strike a balance?
Jayne and I actually started writing Capitol Hell while I was in law school. And yes, it was hard to find the time. We started it over my Christmas break 1L year and it took us nearly four years to finish. We just kind of wrote whenever we could find the time and got most of the writing done over the summer and on my school breaks. Sometimes months would pass and not a thing was written. But the good thing is, we always had one another to help keep each other on track. We were constantly picking it up and putting it down and writing when we had the time. Now we try to focus more on writing. The second one won't take four years – we promise! (But maybe we should try to be as disciplined as John Grisham!) In my current role, I work at least 40 hours a week. I am lucky, though, because I don't work for a big firm where I am expected to work 70-plus hours a week, so I am able to do other things, including a second novel. Timewise, if you want to be really productive, I think it's best to set aside a certain amount of time at the same time each week to write. Just like anything else, having a schedule always helps, and if you treat it just like any other job and stick to it, you are more likely to be productive. That being said, there are definitely times when I should follow my own advice, because with everything going on, it can be tough to stick to a schedule.
Describe your collaborative writing process with Jayne.
We love this question. I actually started the book and wrote chapter one. I sent it off to her, she added her pizzaz and sent it back to me. She then took a stab at chapter two, and I added my take on things. We literally piggybacked the book like that, and what was so fun was neither of us knew what the other one was going to write. It was always a surprise. We had talked about an overarching theme, but that was it. It was almost like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book.
How do you two know each other, and what brought you together to write this book?
Our love of politics brought us together. Jayne and I actually met each other while working on former Sen. Norm Coleman's 2002 Senate campaign. We were both assigned to the Volunteer Center and even shared a desk. We instantly became fast friends and have been like sisters ever since. We then worked in both his St. Paul and Washington, D.C., offices together. A typical day of writing? Write. Laugh. Edit. Laugh. Send to Jayne. Read Jayne's additions. Laugh. Repeat.
Do either of you have a creative writing background? How much of a learning curve was fiction writing for you?
We both took writing classes in college, but this was really our first foray into fiction. We both have written a ton for work, but this was definitely our first "real" attempt at creative writing.
Legal writing can range from anything from drafting motions, to writing memos analyzing legal issues and providing guidance, to drafting letters. I enjoy my work, but it is definitely very different than writing fiction.
What kinds of books and authors do you read? Any favorites?
I literally love to read everything. Some of my favorite authors include John Grisham, Stephen King and St. Paul native Vince Flynn. But I also love reading a good biography or non-fiction book, and, of course, I love chick-lit. I love it all.
How often do you read fiction?
Not as often as I would like. Between working full time, promoting Capitol Hell in my spare time, and trying to finish Capitol Hell 2 (working title), there just aren't enough hours in a day. But, I do try and read whenever I get the chance. Trips to the beach are great for that.
Who was your favorite senator to work for and why?
Oh gosh. Putting me on the spot! I have to say that it was Sen. John Thune, hands down. Not only is he from my home state of South Dakota, but he is one of the most humble and kind people I know (notice I didn't say politician). He is just a stand-up guy and he was fantastic to work for. I also think he is a fantastic leader who really truly cares about the people who put him into office, which sometimes can be hard to find inside the beltway. I keep hoping he'll run for president.
What kind of work does a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in the United States Attorney's Office do?
I was basically a local prosecutor in D.C. Because D.C. doesn't have any states or counties, the U.S. Attorney's Office prosecutes all crimes. I was just on a detail, which is why I was "special." But I like to think I am always "special"!
Did you find yourself eavesdropping on happy hour conversations for novel fodder?
Eavesdropping? Are you kidding!? You give a Hill staffer a Bud Light or a glass of wine and they CAN'T WAIT to tell you about their crazy day! It's therapeutic! The best way to get through some of those tough days was to make friends with other staffers who know exactly what you were going through. I still have Hill staffers telling me their stories.
What’s the most hellish thing you have had personally witnessed or experienced on Capitol Hill?
Oh gosh, this isn't completely hellish (I can't give away anything in the book), BUT one day while I was working for Sen. Thune, I had gotten up to leave the office with my best friend after a long day. As I walked up to the elevator, she immediately started saying, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh." I asked her what was wrong, but she was too shocked to speak. Finally she just said "your skirt" as she pointed at me, her mouth wide open. As I checked myself over, I realized that I had split my skirt completely up the back and had no idea! I mean NONE! And the split was, like, six inches long. I immediately tied my suit coat around my waist and got out of there. Hopefully I wasn't mooning constituents all day!
Also, and I've given out this little nugget before, but the laundry story in the book ... that is partially true. I was asked to change a senator's laundry on a Friday night because he had forgotten to do so and "didn't want it to mold over the weekend." Ah, the life a of Senate staffer!
What was your most humbling experience while on the job? (and did you work that into the novel in any way?)
Oh good question. Honestly, I don't think I can pinpoint one experience. As I mentioned before, there are so many smart and talented people that you are constantly humbled in a number of ways; it can be anything from learning about a recent policy decision you're not familiar with, to not being caught up with what is going on in the news, to not knowing about the new hot restaurant. I can honestly say, to this day, I think I am humbled each and every day in some way or another. This is definitely a city where you can just continue to learn, and learn, and learn some more, which is part of why I love it so much!
What do you love about working on Capitol Hill?
The people, the pace,and the feeling like you are working in the center of the universe, because the things you were working on literally affect EVERYONE in some way or another. The hardest part was learning how hard it can be to truly make a difference. I truly believe who you work with can make or break a job. You can love what you are doing, but if you don't have good co-workers, it can be a miserable environment. I also love that every day I get to work with law enforcement and promote justice. Really, you can't beat that! As far as the social culture: LOVE IT, LOVE IT, LOVE IT! There are so many educated, well-traveled and just plain interesting people here. Not to mention, there are a ton of people with Minnesota roots. There is always something to do or something to see. I highly recommend it for young people who are looking for an adventure. Love politics? Even better!
From an insider’s point of view, is there anything about life/work on Capitol Hill that might surprise an outsider (i.e., it’s not as cutthroat as it seems … or conversely, it’s more cutthroat than it appears to be, as one example.)
I think all of the ridiculous tasks you are asked to do. We really like to focus on that aspect in Capitol Hell, like Allison having to buy the boss' wife's lingerie … WHAT!?!? People are constantly asking me if I had to do all of the crazy things in the book that Allison and Janet have to do!
Did you think twice about including any specific scenes or characters for fear that the real-life inspirations would be easily identifiable?
We definitely didn't want to write a "tell-all." We wanted to write a fun, light-hearted book that gives readers a glimpse into the life of a Hill staffer, so we were careful to try not to make anyone too identifiable, and I think we were able to accomplish that.
Excerpt from Capitol Hell
Reprinted with permission from Jayne J. Jones and Alicia M. Long
After little sleep, I woke up before my alarm clock went off at 5:45 a.m. Without hesitating, I quickly checked my BlackBerry for any overnight messages. Shit. Seventeen unread messages from McDermott. I fell back onto my bed to scroll through them. They read, in order:
1:45 a.m. Tennis balls? LOL. Anders.
1:46 a.m. Need home number for Chairman Jenkins.
2:15 a.m. Hello? Are you there?
2:16 a.m. I need Jenkin’s number now.
2:19 a.m. Jenkins! Damn it Jenkins!
2:25 a.m. Answer me. Did you receive my messages?
2:55 a.m. Call me.
3:30 a.m. Rose, pls talk to Allison about being more responsive to my needs. Improvement necessary.
3:31 a.m. Schedule lunch with Jenkins for tomorrow.
3:33 a.m. Karma will need a ride to the airport.
4:00 a.m. Anyone home? Anyone working for me? Do I pay your salary?
4:15 a.m. Need kids’ school schedule faxed to Karma.
4:55 a.m. How many frequent-flier miles do I have? Karma? Kids’ account?
5:12 a.m. Apartment is out of decaffeinated coffee. Karma would like some this morning and prefers fresh beans. Can you have Cam drop some off?
5:15 a.m. Allison? Allison? Earth to Allison? Come in, Allison.
5:16 a.m. Charles, need Jenkins’s number and lunch plan.
5:30 a.m. Did not sleep well. Pls. have driver pick me up at 9 and have Cam leave coffee with concierge.
And a terrific top-of-the-morning to you, Senator A--hole—I mean—Senator McDermott.
I dressed quickly and on my morning commute I tried desperately to fight back tears. Charles kept telling me that my position was one of the most sought-after in the Senate. According to him, it was either scheduling for McDermott or he could help me land a job as the official Senate elevator girl. Apparently that gig had a uniform, including hat.