Growing up, you wanted to be a writer more? Or a State Department bureaucrat?
When I was in high school, I worked at the Cracker Barrel. I grew up in this really small town — there were four interstate exits, and the whole economy was based around these interstate exits — and the Cracker Barrel was the fanciest place to eat. The manager made, like, $60,000 a year, and that was more money than I’d ever heard of in my life. I thought it would be really good to be the manager of the Cracker Barrel.
What town is this?
Manchester, Tennessee. There’s about 8,000 people there. But now it’s the home of [music festival] Bonnaroo. We’ve had 50 Cent, and the Police, and Styx. The Olsen twins celebrated their 21st birthday at the festival. So that was really exciting for us.
The Olsen twins!
The festival was very scandalous at first. People were coming into the Wal-Mart wearing snakes. My brother and sister drove past a funeral home, and it was so hot that the people from Bonnaroo were bathing in the funeral home’s fountains.
And it’s a pretty culturally sheltered place?
When I got to college [to attend American University], nobody could understand me, my accent was so strong. And on my first day of school, I wore overalls.
Before I came here, I didn’t even understand the difference between a Republican and a Democrat. I didn’t know what I was. A friend who was a pretty strong Republican had to give me a quiz: Do you believe in guns? Do you believe in the death penalty?
Why do you write fiction for teens, instead of, say, biographies of Colin Powell?
I wanted to give teenage girls [from small towns] hope that they could do what they wanted to do. The teenage girls I know here in D.C. are completely different than how I was raised, and there are plenty of books written for them. I don’t think I could have identified with those books. I might as well have been reading about a princess.
Does your day job make you a better writer?
D.C. gives you a lot of structure. You don’t succeed unless you work really hard, and you don’t get anywhere if you don’t have drive. But after working a 12-hour day on some summit, coming home and writing a book for teens is relaxing.
Tell us about a quintessential D.C. moment.
I was working on this summit, and there was a big meeting at the White House. I was probably the most junior person in the room, so I was sitting in the corner taking notes, and all of a sudden this door opens, and I feel this pressure on my shoulder. I think, who’s touching me? I don’t like strangers touching me. Everyone else in the room stood up, but I couldn’t, because this person was leaning on me.
It was George W. Bush, wasn’t it?
It was really hard to get up. He’s a strong guy.