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The K Street Affair

What was the inspiration for The K Street Affair?
A: I'm a huge nerd, and a bit of a political junkie. I've always been fascinated by the nexus of money and politics. At this point in our nation's history, large corporations hold unprecedented sway over laws and lawmakers. Which is problematic, because as Lee Raymond, the CEO of Exxon/Mobil famously said, his multinational corporation isn't a U.S. company, so he doesn't make decisions based on what's good for the United States.

Think about that. These are the people with nearly bottomless resources. They employ armies of lobbyists and spend mind-boggling sums to shape the laws of the land in their shareholders' favor. Since the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, there is no way to prevent corporations and even foreign interests (whose agendas may conflict directly with our country's economic and national security interests) from making enormous donations to political causes.

In writing THE K STREET AFFAIR, I set out to answer two questions: What if a politically wired multinational corporation set out to start a war to advance its own economic interests? And if one relatively ordinary citizen stumbled upon their plans, should she risk everything, including her life and the lives of her family members, to stop them?

The K Street Affair is very different from your debut novel, The Hazards of Hunting While Heartbroken. What inspired you to go in this direction?
A: I actually wrote a draft of the novel that would become THE K STREET AFFAIR before I wrote THE HAZARDS. The most interesting rejection that manuscript received said something along the lines of "You can write, but the world isn't ready for a female Jason Bourne. Try something less far fetched." I shelved the project and focused on THE HAZARDS, which is a less quirky women's novel. Once THE HAZARDS was published, I decided to dust off THE K STREET AFFAIR. It was a fascinating exercise. Plots involving secret offshore money laundering and terror finance (whether witting or unwitting) by politicians and their corporate friends somehow seem less far fetched that they did five years ago. Ultimately, both novels feature a young woman protagonist forced to find her backbone through a series of unwanted events.

Did you do extensive research into politics and corporate America while writing The K Street Affair?
A: Yes! I cite some of the books I devoured in the Author's Note at the end of the book. I had extensive conversations with a private equity executive, who for obvious reasons wishes to remain anonymous. He was the first person to whisper the words "offshore money laundering" to me, and for that I am grateful. The central crimes in THE K STREET AFFAIR wouldn't have been feasible without the series of blind trusts and blocker corporations the villains set up outside the reach of the IRS.

As for the scenes in the law firm, where Lena works surrounds by roomfuls of documents, I've seen big firm law practice firsthand. The normal associate's work day is not nearly as glamorous as all the lawyer shows on TV would make you believe. Junior lawyers spend hours, even years, of their lives reviewing documents and reporting their findings to senior lawyers, who get to do the sexy stuff, like devise strategy and go to court.

What is your typical writing day like?
A: Sometimes I wish I had a typical writing day. I usually write while my son, a newly minted three-year-old, is in preschool, which gives me up to twenty hours a week (if I'm lucky). I wish I could say I'm one of those people who can work late into the night, but I'm exhausted by the time my son goes to bed. Whenever I work during the wee hours, I write the most awful drivel, which I inevitably end up deleting. Once in a while, if I'm on a roll, I'll hire a sitter. I get nothing done if I try to work while watching my kid. Because he's three, he's permanently set to self-destruct mode. I'm pretty sure that any parent who claims to work while minding a preschooler accomplishes very little. Small kids are wired with invisible antennae that alert them to rivals for parental attention. In our house, my work is my son's nemesis.



The Hazards of Hunting While Heartbroken

Zoë is young, and you're, well, a real adult. Why not write about your own contemporaries?
A: Zoë's story started to percolate in my mind several years ago. Life got in the way, and it took a while to get Zoë and her friends into print. I do find the dilemmas of late twenties/early thirties professional women fascinating. So many of them are conditioned to go full throttle at their careers, but then at the same time, they're expected to get married and make their families top priority. And whatever they choose, millions of other women will tell them they're wrong.

Your book reads like light fiction, but Oscar's secret is the farthest thing imaginable from light and fluffy. Were you afraid of turning off readers?
A: Yes and no. In the earliest draft, Oscar was a simple cheater. It felt too formulaic, and I wanted Zoë's story to be more about self discovery than about finding out that her Prince Charming is indeed a toad. In the second draft, Oscar was a white collar criminal, a hedge fund manager engaged in insider trading. I had two problems with that: To carry off a believable insider trading plot, I'd have to set up a pretty complicated financial crime, and while that might be interesting, it didn't mesh well with the tone of the novel. Also insider trading and other "pure greed" crimes might not have set off the visceral disgust I needed Zoë and the reader to feel. I didn't want any lingering maybe-they-will-get-back-together nonsense.

For a while, I was at a loss as to what Oscar's criminal second life should entail. Then I heard Lisa Goldblatt Grace from My Life, My Choice speak at an event here in Boston. What an eye opening experience! All the statistics about child exploitation in the book are true. If I can open a few eyes to this real, misunderstood and fixable problem in our society, then I think that's a great thing.

But can someone so privileged, impressive and charming really have such a despicable second life?
A: Absolutely. We've all heard the charming serial killer stories, right? When I was an associate at a law firm, one of the partners told me about a case from the early nineties. A wildly successful, happily married, civically active young professional was arrested for using his luxurious waterfront second home as a studio to create and distribute the most disturbing, exploitive images imaginable. His wife had no idea.

The defendant in that case was allegedly molested by a priest as a child. Obviously there is no excuse for what he did, but many experts believe that severe childhood abuse can throw off a person's moral compass. Making Oscar the survivor of a cult also served another purpose, in that his memoir was a handy cover story for his wealth.

In the beginning, Zoë is frustrated because "doing what she's supposed to be doing" hasn't gotten her very far in life. But she's fallen into her career, so how can you say she was doing what people expected?
A: Zoë got engaged to her college sweetheart, largely because it seemed like the proper next step. She walked away from her gallery aspirations because headhunting promised more money and less pain, which when put that simply, appeals to many people facing a career crossroads.

Don't you think you're a big wimp? If you're such a feminist, shouldn't Angela have terminated her surprise pregnancy?
A: In the earliest draft, everyone was three or four years younger, and Angela did indeed have an abortion. When I made everyone thirty-something instead of twenty-something (various early readers thought Zoë was too young at 28), I realized that a thirty-three-year-old woman might start wondering if this was her chance at motherhood. Angela comes from a functional, close family. She loves her career. She ends the novel trying to have it all, but she's mature enough to know her career will take some kind of hit. Maybe I'll check in with her four or five years down the road and see how it worked out.

Every great heroine of chick lit has a gay male BFF. Why the heck is Kevin straight?
A: Zoë has a gay male friend in her colleague, Marvin. So the chick lit police will need to be satisfied with him and his silly neck ties.

Kevin is straight because I wanted to delve into the age old questions surrounding opposite sex friendships between heterosexual adults. Here's what I think: by a certain age, most straight people are done making new, close platonic friendships with members of the opposite sex. Friendships of this nature dating back to people's student years or youth can of course endure, but only if the sex question is off the table on both sides. It wasn't for Zoë and Kevin, and by the time they turn forty, they will either be a hard and fast item or they will be estranged. I think Zoë is right about that.

Come on. Do you really think a person can live with another person and not notice something as major as their sexuality?
A: Definitely. Some people go to great lengths to hide their true selves, and many of us suffer from an adaptation called willful blindness. It's a story as old as Shakespeare: Sometimes people see only what they want to see, and often they end up paying a high price for their refusal to open their eyes.

In the beginning, Zoë craves a relationship and Angela is all about her career. Did you reverse their ambitions on purpose?
A: Yes. I thought the juxtaposition worked well with the self discovery story. Angela, like so many women, finds there's room in her Type A life for someone else, and Zoë yanks her head out of her posterior and stops waiting for some guy to solve her problems.

A: For Zoë, probably not. Maybe for Angela. But it's not my next book, or the one after that.

What books are on your nightstand right now?
A: The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani—My book club's pick this month tells the intertwined stories of two young people from the Italian Alps who emigrate to America before the First World War. A well researched novel, told in a charming voice and presented on a nearly epic scale.

The Constant Gardener by John LeCarre—The espionage master's best spy novel ever, in my humble opinion. I saw the movie years ago but never read the book until this summer.

Drift by Rachel Maddow—I'm going to start this next. I hope Ms. Maddow's critically acclaimed examination of the American military-industrial complex won't inspire an eleventh hour re-write of THE K STREET AFFAIR. Kidding! The advance review copies have shipped.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier—I don't keep a diary, but this engaging tale of women's friendship, stressful times and the magic of lifelong journal writing may inspire me to start.

Previous books on Mari's nightstand

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A: I'm shocked and flattered by the number of inquiries I receive from aspiring authors. I'm still new at this myself, and by no means an expert. But, if you still want my insight, here it is:

  1. Get your story written.
  2. Put the manuscript away for at least three weeks.
  3. Revise it.
  4. Then, and this is KEY: Show it to someone who writes/edits for a living. Repeat steps two through four as needed.
This may sound too blunt, but in my view (and this is just my opinion), if you write something for years and never show it to anyone, then you're really a diarist. And there's nothing wrong with that. But writers with commercial ambitions can't indulge a fear of outside opinions.