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Politics Daily Book Club: Is That Bob Woodward in 'The Room and the Chair'?

5 years ago
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Let the first meeting of our bloggy book club come to order. This week, we are meeting virtually to discuss Lorraine Adams' "The Room and the Chair" with the author.

Though I had never crossed Lorraine's path before reading her new novel, I have now learned that she is a warrior. The "Chair" in the book's title refers to a CIA-papered black ops chairman, on the James Angleton model, whose clandestine agenda intersects with the internal politics of an important newspaper's newsroom.

In a not even slightly veiled roman a clef, the "Room" in the title mirrors The Washington Post, where Lorraine worked for 11 years. Her sharp-eyed descriptions of the divas and pedigreed drudges must have some of D.C.'s very large reportorial community reminiscing about long-held tales of palace intrigue. All will recognize some version of Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee in the newsroom royalty of Lorraine's fictional publication. However, her Bradlee character is fused with the actual internal politics that played out against the Post's other crown prince, Bob Woodward, in the most embarrassing moment of his career. The co-author of All the President's Men was in 1980 considered responsible for the five-star debacle centered on Janet Cooke, a young city reporter under Woodward's direct management who wrote a Pulitzer-winning story that, though riveting, was also entirely false.

One assumes that Adams and Woodward were colleagues at the paper, but her portrayal of him is not kind. Adams provides key words linked to the actual mortifying incident for anyone who cares to Google them and also stirs up dust from the Watergate star's history of keeping scoops meant for the paper to break in his best-selling books. The dish is delicious in D.C., but it's also brutal, folks. The people who get to play in this league are a tough crowd.

Adams also shows off her own shoe-leather skill as a reporter through her most likable character, Vera, whose gathering of string and her eye for coincidences, take her into the neighborhoods surrounding Langley, Va., on the very doorstep of the hidden-in-plain-sight black-ops HQ.

Adams' jacket photo is quite attractive and the copy suggests she is partnered with a famous man. I get the impression, though, that she was never really part of Georgetown patio entertaining and wonder if she has more in common with another of her characters, a fighter pilot, whom she diagnoses with "Occasional emotional lability. No cognitive disorder. Affect flat."

As a reader, I had difficulty reconciling Lorraine's many well-drawn scenarios and struggled to see her insightful observations as a cohesive narrative, but her book did make me very curious about the author. Luckily, with the immediacy we've grown accustomed to in Web optics, PD's uppity Woman UP collective invited her to hang out with a few of us to discuss her book.

Melinda Henneberger:

Here's what you have accomplished, Lorraine: You actually have me feeling for Sally Quinn! Not sorry, exactly, but like I wouldn't mind baking her something and dropping it off when she's not home -- despite knowing full well that the woman you've left sitting on the wet grass in Dumbarton Oaks, so disastrously mistaken about the meaning of her assignation that she's relieved to be wearing lace underwear, is really not to be confused with the septuagenarian mean girl who recently made news in these virtual pages.

The most damning thing about the Ben Bradlee-Bob Woodward character (and his equally oblivious imitators in the newsroom) is that their interior lives are not even worth going into. With the exception of Stanley, the Room's night editor and moral GPS, these important men are interpreters of a world they paradoxically have no real access to, trapped as they are inside their own heads and career dramas. The Sally character, Mabel Cannon, tells Stanley that "if the world had an honest deity, you'd be its best king.'' Instead, of course, it's her own husband who rules. (Think Lear if he'd held on his kingdom.)

Taken as I was with "the Chair," and the story of the female fighter pilot drawn into special ops, I have to agree with Bonnie that the heart of the story happens in "the Room." This isn't some pissy, wounded exercise in score-settling, but the far more devastating story of how the great American newspaper -- "an organism sensitive to status, especially its own, but deaf to smaller bells" -- became too self-regarding to register much of anything beyond the Room. (And surely, with the whole business in survival mode, this can only be getting worse.)

The enemy of good journalism was never political bias – if only! – but pecking order, pride, and many, many penises; in the real "Room," the White House wouldn't have had to call, the vice president wouldn't need a mole, and the heroine of a night cops reporter would never even have been invited to the come-to-Jesus meeting.

Because you so completely drew me in, I have lots of questions I'd like to ask you over a drink some time. (Does Frank awaken? And Clara notwithstanding, are we sure he is straight?) Like Bonnie, I suspect there is more Lorraine than Sally in both Mabel and the Newport-smoking ex-ballet dancer Vera, whom I got all anxious for when she her cell ran out of juice by that awful Amoco. But what I'd most like to know in this format is: Here we are, with the newspapers we loved and left in terrible trouble, but are the way more democratic new media any more humble or less compromised and uncomprehending? Not yet we aren't, because whatever was wrong with the old model, actual reporting is indeed still required, and I've love to hear your thoughts on that.

Lorraine Adams:

Hi Bonnie and Melinda. So you're interested in the newsroom. I'm going to try hard to "play nice," a cautionary line in the novel. (Mary's wingman tells her this just before disaster strikes.) It seems lately whenever I get asked about the mainstream media I get grouchy. And one thing "The Room and the Chair" is not, I hope, is a score-settler. I had a good friend who was with me at The Post read the book for signs of sour grapes or subliminal vendettas, and she judged it free and clear.

OK, call me dim and a little too hopeful, but I'm surprised that many people reading the book see me hating on the powerful male journalists. I think Don Grady, who you guys have taken to calling the Woodward/Bradlee figure, is a complicated man with a capacity for generosity. (I'm thinking of how he behaves in the emergency room, or his genuine if misplaced concern for his wife's feeling eclipsed by his successes.)

I also don't think his sin of keeping material for the best-selling book is a crime against humankind. Although clearly the executive editor character Adam Sanger thinks it is. What's satirized and questioned here is territoriality. In other words, so many times in my career I would see people go ape shit because you wrote for another news outlet, or you talked to an editor in another department about a story. Or you wanted to write a book. And women editors were this way, too. The other thing I was questioning was this feeling -- truly absurd if you think about it at all -- that information can be possessed by a newspaper or magazine, and it's a failure if a competitor "gets" it first.

These are things readers don't care about at all. But the newsrooms and magazine suites do. The things readers care about, newsrooms have usually chosen in the last 20 years or so to pretty much ignore. One example is I think readers hate the dreary diction of newspapers, the formulaic writing in magazines. They want to feel like they're talking to a person. They want to hear a voice. Which is why, Melinda, I think the new media is an improvement on the old in one sense. The Internet invites the language and tone you use in a conversation with a good friend. That's what we're doing here, right now, in this bloggy book club. And isn't that way of writing so much more illuminating than newspeak? Isn't the hilariousness of newspeak why Jon Stewart caught on? And yet, did anyone at any news organization change their delivery after Stewart? Nope.

The other thing I wanted to say once and for all is that Mabel was never ever Sally Quinn in my mind. Mabel is too smart, too honest with herself and too interesting to be based on Sally Quinn. And Ben Bradlee -- he's nowhere at all in this novel. He belongs to the era before the era I'm writing about.

Judy Howard Ellis:

Lorraine, you piercingly captured the newspaper universe. Your characters may resemble famed journalists of the Beltway, but they breathe newspaper oxygen everywhere.

I felt your passion in the tenacious Vera, the dense Adam, the aching Martina and the twisted union of Don and Mable. But I stumbled over several descriptions in the book related to race, in particular the portrayal of Stanley as "the black man who passes." Stanley drew such empathy in his role as the unappreciated night editor that it seemed an odd choice to pull from the pages of the "tragic mulatto" stereotype. Would like to hear your thoughts about this element of Stanley's character. Frustrated ambition and the invisibility of powerlessness were emasculation enough for Stanley. His pain was already transcendent.
Your "Room" uncovered the inner workings of a newsroom so lost in itself that it trampled its own and reveled in its entitlement. The toll the Room took on people -- as real newsrooms can take on real people -- was almost feudal, and you showed that in descriptions like these:

"There on her laptop it was -- the dreaded, half-written, beseechingly awfully conceived proof of her fraudulence, of her incapacity to craft anything more than a few hundred words, to reach any farther than a cocktail napkin, to focus any longer than the time it took to shower and shampoo."

"Everyone in the Room was phoning -- after two o'clock, the racing that was putting stories together had begun. Anyone who didn't have story was feeling antsy about being lazy. Vera did. Her colleagues were byline counters, almost all of them. The more you had, the more valuable you were. The more stories, the more praise, the more good, good, good, everything is good."

"They were in the Room day after day, week after week, year after year, he had never worked anywhere else, nor had she, the Room itself was the same room he had started in at twenty-one in the summer of '71, though of course they had changed the furniture, rearranged and made way for the gray-blue that replaced the Fisher-Price colors. Apart from his parents' home, apart from the two homes he'd lived in with his two families, his feelings were here, right here."

Because your observations are spot-on, I wonder what was the effect of the all-consuming newsroom on you? Was anything redeeming? And, in line with what Melinda mentioned, what about a cautionary tale regarding the media titans of the Internet? Has the same hierarchy of ambition and privilege been transferred to the blogosphere? Is that book up next? I certainly hope so.

Lorraine Adams:

Judy, I'm fascinated to hear your comments on race. I'd like to hear more. Here's my take. Stanley is a heroic figure in the book and one, along with Mary, who came to me the earliest in the writing. He arrived in my mind without any work or agonizing. Some characters just do that. I know what you mean about the "tragic mulatto" stereotype. (Spoiler alert: if you haven't read the book, you can stop here.)

I felt that Stanley avoided the stereotype for a few reasons. For one, he isn't a woman, which was the predominate "tragic mulatto" figure. For two, he doesn't try to pass as white. And as my understanding goes, the "tragic mulatto" usually tries to fit in as white, and then, gets discovered, with tragic consequences -- a fall in social stature, rejection by, most often, a white man who was in love with her. So why did I make Stanley pass as white to some people, but be known to be black to others -- such as Adam, the executive editor, and Vera, the night cops reporter? I wanted a character who understands how deceiving appearances can be. This novel is about the folly and the deep pain that surface interpretation brings. As the novel's hero -- the one who sees beyond appearances -- Stanley also needed in my mind to be mixed, hybrid, complex. Which isn't to say being simply white, or simply black, would mean he couldn't be those things. Does any of that makes sense to you?
I really dig what you say about how "the newsroom was so lost in itself that it trampled its own and reveled in its entitlement." And your observation that it was "almost feudal" is so true. The newsroom always felt that way to me. I never was at home in one. Some things were redeeming. One, for example, was exploring, out of the newsroom, things that would have otherwise not been written about if not for my interest in them. And the other redemption came from certain friendships I had -- built on trust, respect, and sometimes even love. Like Dan Malone, the guy I partnered with to write about civil rights violations in Texas, or the poverty writer Kate Boo, from The Washington Post, now at the New Yorker.
I have to confess I'm not really up on the new media titans of the internet. I don't work in journalism now -- haven't for almost seven years. I'd like to hear more about what you think about them.

Annie Groer:

Ah, Lorraine,

So many pawns, so many manipulators, so many damaged psyches you've served up here. And such riveting machinations inside The Room. (Oh God, Martina, sending yourself roses to get Adam's attention gives new meaning to humiliation.)

The Don-and-Mabel Georgetown dinner party was so spot-on, from its high bloviation quotient to the Architectural Digest-worthy descriptions of sumptuous interiors. As someone who started out covering cops in D.C. for two now-dead papers (without benefit, as far as I know, of even one Washington Star or Daily News editor patronizing teen-hooker "tykes"), my faves in the self-important, daily-and-Sunday Petri dish you and I once called home were the grunts of the un-glam Metro desk, Vera and Stanley.

Of course they were doomed to fail (wrong schools, insufficient arrogance, a functioning conscience, a commitment to news that actually matters).

But what truly sucked me in -- owing to equal parts gorgeous prose and a killer-thriller plot -- was not the world of Washington dead-tree journalism we all knew and occasionally grieve for. Nope, for me it was the doors you opened to the murky military intelligence/anti-terrorism complex as it operates at home, in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the rest of the world). From Mary's struggles in a jet gone rogue and a bombing mission gone horribly wrong to Iranian double agent/nuclear scientist Hoseyn's elaborate charades and spymaster Will's near redemption, I was all yours.

Some reviewer or blogger recently wrote that A-list Hollywood types would not be falling all over themselves to get cast in "The Room and the Chair." I say, let those actors read the book and tell their agents to kiss off.

Have you done any mental casting yet?

Lorraine Adams:
Ah, Annie. Yes, so many pawns, so many damaged psyches, and, as Melinda succinctly put it, so many penises. And, as she so wisely said, if only political bias were the cause of distortions in the news. It's the quagmire of human beings in competition with one another for recognition that distorts news gathering and news writing. It has ever been thus. The one thing the internet gives us is the ability to link within a sentence, and for a link to give us back story upon back story.

If only bylines had back stories, so we could disentangle the web of personal pain, yearning and venality that forms the motives of every writer and commentator. It's certainly what I tried to do in the novel, to show the subterranean levels of the characters so a reader could understand how different the deep interior was from how they acted, or how revealing of why they chose one path and not another.
Thanks for representing for the military parts! I liked writing them the most. And I thought about casting, yes I did. I know one thing, Kathryn Bigelow is my choice for director. And I know that the chances of her being interested are nil. R&C is not Hollywood material. Although I do have an agent who is valiantly attempting the impossible. For Mary I'd like to cast an unknown but serious actress, Genevieve Hudson-Price, who happens to be my boyfriend's daughter. She has the requisite determination, physical rigor combined with a grave dolor that's hard to find. Zoe Saldana is definitely Vera.
Jeff Daniels for Don Grady. Rene Russo for Mabel. Philip Seymour Hoffman for Stanley. Max Martini for Will.
Other than that . . . I'm not sure.

Linda Kulman:

Hi Lorraine,
Since my WomanUP colleagues have explored our collective fascination with the Room part of your book, I'm switching gears to ask about the Chair -- specifically the Chair's trip to Iran. It's as if you had your own Sissy Report detailing a secret mission in-country, and I'm curious to hear how you reported Iran as well as the amazing details of Mary and Frank's stint in Afghanistan.
The scenes between Mary and Will are so beautifully choreographed -- not surprising, given that the book contains the tightest writing I've read in recent memory -- I can't even think what to compare it to, but I remember thinking a couple of times that Tom Wolfe, who loves to describe luxurious interiors and street directions to excess, should take some lessons from you. What also amazed me: your writing about the inside of Mary's cockpit is as expertly drawn as the your description of the tassels in the Cannon/Grady living room.

I couldn't put the book down when I was reading it, but it's left me empty. I know you think Don shows sympathy for Mabel, even if it's misplaced, but the story seems to me to be all about missed connections -- between Stanley and the Room, Mabel and everyone, Martina and Adam, Baby and the world, Mary and Frank, Mary and Will, Will and Hoseyn . . . it's as if we're all walking around in our own bubbles unable to communicate or touch anyone outside ourselves. Mary's final imprisonment doesn't seem that much more confined than her life leading up to it.

Layered atop the missed human connections, there are the projects gone wrong -- Vera had the whole story, but when it was scrapped, the details of Mary's crash were buried with it. And Will and Mary's arduous training was for naught.
It's a bleak view of the world, and I'm wondering, is that what you think? If so, where does it come from?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

Lorraine Adams:

The novel is about yearning. I've always felt that. And the novel is about yearning going unanswered. So you're absolutely right, Linda, to feel as you do after reading it. I wanted it to be an entertaining ride -- I need that from novels I read -- but I wanted the missed connections to seem more than simply unfortunate at the end. They need to produce an emptiness that is difficult to describe, or even sense, any other way than reading the novel.
In some ways, this novel could be pitched quite simply as the death of an American solider -- Capt. Mary Goodwin. If not for so many tiny slips and bigger misses she would still be alive. Her death is the result of a thousand failures, not all of them nefarious, and not all of them innocent.
You say "it's a bleak view of the world," and you're wondering is that what I think, and where does it come from. Yes, it's what I think. It comes from the last decade. I feel more than any other time in our history, we lost our way. I feel the weakness of each and every one of us, including myself, in a time that demanded commitment, selflessness and dare I say this word -- courage. On so many levels, I'm not sure we can even imagine how to put those three abstract words into concrete acts. There's so much chest-thumping -- on all sides of the political debate -- about these three words. But I wonder, who really sacrificed? And who remains to this day, doomed?

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