Ellen Emerson White was an 18-year-old freshman at Tufts University when she wrote her first novel, Friends for Life, a prep school murder mystery that was published in 1983. Her sophomore effort (written, fittingly enough, during her sophomore year) was The President’s Daughter; it centered on Meg Powers, daughter of the nation’s first woman president. Two sequels followed: White House Autumn (1985), where Meg copes with her mother being shot by a would-be assassin, and Long Live the Queen (1989), in which Meg is kidnapped by terrorists and barely escapes with her life.
Nearly two decades later, Meg is back. Feiwel and Friends (the Holtzbrinck imprint founded by White’s longtime editor Jean Feiwel) will publish Long May She Reign, in which Meg deals with the aftermath of her kidnapping while starting at Williams College, where a hard-won friend turns out to be Susan, heroine of Friends for Life. Feiwel and Friends will reissue the three earlier President’s Daughter books, subtly updated by White to reflect the current era.
What made you return to characters you created over two decades ago? And what was it like to come back to them?
[Revisiting the characters was] like coming home, in many ways. I would have thought it would be difficult. No. In an instant, the voice came.
When I wrote the original books I was Meg’s age, certainly the same sensibility. Now I get the mother in a whole different way. It’s much more clear to me why she behaves the way she does. In many ways I think the book is more about her.
I last wrote about Susan a very, very long time ago, but she too came back right away. I wrote [Friends for Life] when I was a freshman in college. Who else [but Susan] could stand up to Meg?
I thought I was finished with the President’s Daughter [books] entirely, to the degree that I allowed a reprint house to take them and do a bad job with them, which led to Long Live the Queen being plagiarized.
Jean Feiwel was your editor on the three earlier President’s Daughter books. Was Long May She Reign something she specifically encouraged you to start writing?
I think if Jean had known I was [planning on] writing this, her [initial] feeling would have been “no.” We’re friends, so we discussed it at various points once I’d started.
Was it a given from the start that Jean would be your editor for Long May She Reign?
This book is very much an adult book. Initially I planned to go with an adult publisher, but I knew that working with Jean I would have a better book. Jean and I know how to work together and I respect her opinion. In the end I thought, 'What matters more: that I hit the adult audience easily or that it’s a stronger book and that it eventually crosses over?'
Weighing in at over 700 pages, Long May She Reign is a big book, to say the least. What was it like, working on a project of that size?
The book took three and a half years to write, from start to finish. It was very rare that I worked less than 14 hours a day. And in the last few months it was closer to 18--20 hours a day. I want to work that hard. It was fun.
Many writers are more talented, in fact most of them are, so I figured out very early on that I needed to work hard. I’m a similar athlete. I don’t have the natural gift, but I can work hard. I can outwork people and that way I can keep up. Or at least mostly keep up.
I want [my readers] to have a pleasant flight. I mean, when I read, I want to be entertained. I want to have a fun time.
The rewriting, the honing, and the polishing and the tinkering. It takes forever. Just--every word. Jean would tell you, we’ve had fights that have lasted hours, about a comma.
What first inspired you to write about Meg?
I love politics! Always have. My mother is an old Adlai Stevenson person. I grew up hearing about Adlai. Many of my earliest memories revolve around politics and Dr. King being killed. When we were in fifth and sixth grades, all of our teachers wanted to watch the Watergate hearings, so we watched all of them, and I became a complete political junkie. So it was inevitable that I would write something like this. And right now, we’re in the most confusing and troubling but interesting time of history I’ve ever experienced. I can’t even imagine how this is all going to play out. I wouldn’t want to be the next president. He or she is in for a really hard time.
Did you enjoy the process of writing the new book?
There were two great luxuries with this book. One luxury was that despite Meg's overwhelming arrogance, ego, whatever word you wish to use, she is able to give way to other characters. [She doesn’t] need to hold center stage, as a main character--and is quite willing to let other characters move in--and steal scenes right out from underneath her.I have found that most main characters inevitably dominate everything, and it caught me off-guard that a character as strong and commanding as Meg seems to step back naturally and allow others to have a turn. I don't think I ever would have predicted that she would be a main character who would play quite so nicely with others.. I suppose that as you grow older, you do learn a few things.
[The other luxury is that] everybody is smart. I'm writing about the White House and I'm writing about Williams College. Everybody's smart and I don't have to worry about it. It was kind of a treat to be in a situation where I'm not editing anything, not vocabulary, not language, not subject matter. It was really a treat to just let everyone be smart in their own different way.
The cover art for Long May She Reign shows Meg pictured as the Mona Lisa, which seems an apt choice for a novel that’s so much about the contrast between the cool public mask and the roiling interior life. Were you involved in this decision?
When I [first] heard about it, I thought it sounded odd, but I think it works once you see it. The theme of famous paintings is going to continue with the other three books in the series, I gather--but the credit must all go to Jean. She grew up with parents who were serious art collectors, and, I think, is having some fun with these covers.
What was it like to have Friends for Life published while you were still in college?
I didn’t take it seriously enough. I had a sort of “oh, cool” reaction. I spent college mostly going to movies and hanging out in disreputable dives. My friends were very accustomed to the fact that I just wrote every night, from midnight to four. It was considered my quirk or my affliction. I was planning to be a lawyer. I was going to be in the Manhattan DA’s office.
Long Live the Queen includes some very violent scenes in which Meg is tortured by her captors. Was this hard to write?
Arguably, Friends for Life was [also] an intensely violent book. I always loved police dramas. I always had a great interest in all that. It’s very hard to get a child [who is] that protected in a situation where she’s really tested, and Meg is not only tested, but she’s by herself. And this is someone who’s never had a lot of privacy in her life. I think I just wanted to push her and see what happened, and she turned out to be a good character to do that with.
Long May She Reign is clearly set in the current era, and you’re in the process of updating the earlier books. So much has changed since you wrote the first three books. Now cell phones and the Internet are ubiquitous, and the political scene is quite different now, too. What are some of the challenges you found?
[The challenge was] to keep everything, but try to modernize it without re-dating it. I have to be a little bit vague here and there. Here’s an example: In The President’s Daughter, when they come to the Democratic convention, they stay at the Plaza in the original book. But the Plaza is [no longer a hotel]. So now they stay in the Waldorf.
I thought if Meg is just a little bit stubbornly old-fashioned, I can fudge a few details. She doesn’t have to listen to the latest music. I can get away with keeping Joan Jett, which I really wanted to keep, by having her best friend make fun of her for being retro. And New England preppies always dress the same.
Something else that’s changed in the past two decades is the rise of the cult of celebrity, which is a key element in the new book.
If what happened to Meg really happened--I mean she is the daughter of the first female president and she’s a dead ringer for her, and then she has a nearly mythical survival story, coming back from the dead--imagine the level of celebrity. As it happens, she’s pretty quick on her feet, and she likes to engage the media. She’s got a big mouth.
In this book, she’s so completely out of [her mother’s] shadow. In the earlier books, she can never compete with her mother, who’s done everything first and done it better. But in this book there is a level playing field.
Will you write any more books about Meg and her family?
It’s too early to say, but I suspect there will be more than one sequel and they will not be all from Meg’s point of view. I can’t imagine how other people see Meg, and I think that [looking at her from different viewpoints] would be really cool. Certainly the book ends and makes it clear that there are a lot of other places to go.
Now history has caught up to your books and there is a serious female candidate for president. Anything you’d like to say about that?
I would have said politically, 10 or 15 years ago, that the first woman president would be a Republican. But it didn’t play out that way. How this will all pan out, I don’t know. It’s a really strange election.
It’s interesting that we actually have a truly viable candidate, who, if she doesn’t win, it will have nothing to do with gender. I’ve been watching the debates, and her confidence is unquestioned. You can’t stump her. I wish Barack had waited. I think in many ways, the parallel with Meg’s mother, the parallel is a lot closer to Barack. She’s more of a rock star figure. She’s got the young children.
The biographical blurb on the back of your new book states, “Her research about living in the White House is so detailed and thorough that she was actually detained by Homeland Security when she was visiting the White House last year.” What can you tell us about that?
You know, they got that wrong--it was the Secret Service. I was standing in front of the White House, outside of the fence, mind you, with a $100 eBay camera, taking pictures, and I got detained for two or three hours. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by eight or ten people. I raised red flags apparently, for various reasons, not least because I seemed to know too much about the White House.