Washington insider and nonfiction author Rosenstiel makes his fiction debut with Shining City, about the nomination of a Supreme Court justice and a serial killer.
How does writing a novel compare to writing nonfiction?
With nonfiction, I know much of what I’m trying to say before I write. The writing is then a process of marshaling the evidence and telling your story as precisely as possible. I find fiction is much more a matter, as Stephen King has said, of imagining characters in compelling moments in their lives and discovering how they will react. The characters take over. You are unearthing their stories. That for me involves tapping into memory, imagination, senses, and emotions.
Did you immerse yourself in contemporary thriller literature to prepare?
One challenge, I think, is not reading anything too close to what you’re writing. Instead, I read a lot of European thriller writers, many of them deeply psychological—Henning Mankel, Karin Fossum, Tana French, to name a few. In the U.S., John Sandford explores villains exquisitely, as does Daniel Silva. Thomas Mallon, who writes historical fiction about Washington that mixes real and fictional people, has said you cannot write any character well unless you have some empathy for them. That is true, I think, even in the mind of someone evil.
Which novels about Washington, D.C., politics have most influenced you?
The great era of political novels may have been the 1960s, starting with Advise and Consent in 1959, and continuing with books like Fletcher Knebel’s Seven Days in May. I think Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Burr are wondrous, as are the novels of Ward Just, and Charles McCarry’s Washington espionage novels, and again I love Thomas Mallon. Outside Washington, I admire the sweep of Alan Furst, the realism of Michael Connelly, the wit of Ian Rankin, the economy of Elmore Leonard. And at the risk of sounding fancy, the greatest political novelist is Tolstoy, which just shows you that politics hasn’t changed as much as we think.
Will your bipartisan spinmeister consultants, Peter Rena and Randi Brooks, return in another novel?
I’m very fortunate that Ecco has signed up two books, so Rena and Brooks are already deep into another crisis. I hope, if I’m lucky, we can see more of them in the future. The great thing about exploring politics and power is there is always new material. To paraphrase an old Lily Tomlin joke, you can never be too cynical about politics—it’s just hard to keep up.