Q&A: ‘The First Affair’ authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

August 25, 2013

It’s the latest fictional crack at Washington unzipped — complete with an all-too-familiar blue dress on the cover. In their new novel, “The First Affair,” best-selling authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus of “The Nanny Diaries” fame, weave a historic presidential/intern scandal against a present-day backdrop of Twitter, ­iPhones and sequester furloughs.

Below is an edited conversation with the authors.

Your story line follows a familiar series of events from the Clinton presidency but is set against the backdrop of present day.

NK: In reimagining a story like this — something that has happened to women that we know about for decades, going back to Mimi Alford, who was JFK’s teenage mistress, to Monica [Lewinsky], to the women today who were revealed to have been tweeting with Anthony Weiner — we wanted to look at how social media has been a game-changer for these kinds of indiscretions.


(Courtesy of Atria Books)

You tiptoe into pretty dangerous waters, throwing in some allusions to the current presidency, like the Portuguese water dog.

EM: Well, we wanted to set it not in the past and not in the present. We had to choose elements of both. It’s interesting to us how much the idea of an affair with the president is in the zeitgeist. And we wonder if Obama — because he’s so charismatic and at the same time seems so very in love with his wife, such a good father and very healthy in that regard — makes it kind of safe to imagine something like this at a time like this because it feels like it could never actually happen.

You mention the restaurant Graffiato, the National Gallery’s Jazz in the Garden concerts and having to schlep up to the Lincoln Memorial when relatives visit. How did you do your D.C. homework?

NK: We are lucky enough to have friends and family who live in D.C., so we’ve made many trips there over the years, going back to visiting friends who went to Georgetown. And I remember going up that hot, humid schlep to the Lincoln Memorial on my 11th-grade D.C. trip. It stayed with me, so I was glad to finally be able to write that.

EM: There’s something about being a fish out of water in a city that is a place that so many people flock to begin their life. So we tried to bring that same feeling that Jamie is an outsider, so she has an outsider’s perspective and also an outsider’s romance for the city.

Jamie [the main character in “The First Affair”] seems to be in a very similar place in life as your main character in “The Nanny Diaries” — just starting out on her own. What’s the most challenging thing about writing from this perspective?

NK: One of the things that makes it so challenging is that you have no — what you call in theater or in writing — given circumstances. Nothing is locked down, which is freeing, but it’s also terrifying. And I think it can really be paralyzingly overwhelming.

EM: We find that time endlessly ripe for mining because the stakes feel so extraordinarily high. It’s also a time where you’re 360 and freefall. And in our experience, the majority of the material we were coming across prior to “Nanny Diaries” focusing on women at that point in their lives is about trying to find a boyfriend. While that was certainly a part of that age for us, it wasn’t at all where we were idling with our friends at bars. One of the things that drew us to a story like Jamie’s was to tell it from a professional vantage point as a professional odyssey. We wanted to reflect that back at women because that’s the reality of where they are.

Did any of the current portrayals of Washington in popular culture influence your work?

NK: Because of the timing of it, we hadn’t watched “Scandal” until after we finished writing the book — and then we binged on it. And same with “House of Cards,” which we think is the smartest thing ever created. In a way it was good that we were in our bubble, because those shows are so spectacular I don’t think there’s any way we wouldn’t have been influenced by them.

It’s exciting that so many people are choosing to set their stories in this milieu right now. It’s very validating that someone as smart as Shonda Rhimes also thinks that this is a realm that is compelling.

The “Nanny Diaries” movie featured some major names. Any ideas who you would want to play the characters of Jamie and the president?

NK: We’re in love with Kate Mara.

EM: Adam Levine — if Adam Levine would like to go a little gray.

Do you have advice for this summer’s crop of D.C. interns as they make their way back to the real world?

EM: Not to make any rash decisions based on what they went through. Give it some time to marinate.

NK: As scary as it is, we think that your 20s are a great opportunity to bounce around a little bit and not to judge yourself for that or see that as failure.

“The First Affair” will be released Tuesday. Follow the authors via their new Web series, “The Writers’ Block,” on ­newyorknatives.com.

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