Aimee Agresti’s first novel for adults (she’s also the author of the Gilded Wings YA series) is a scintillating escapist story centered on a fictional 2016 presidential election and five “campaign widows,” women and men whose significant others have been sucked up by the political arena. Campaign Widows is big drama in an ultra-fun package, made all the more thrilling by Agresti’s insider knowledge—as she was once a campaign widow herself.
The idea for Campaign Widows—my novel about a group of friends left behind in Washington, D.C., when their significant others are out on the campaign trail—was indeed first sparked by my own experience, even though the events in the book really are fiction. (Thank goodness none of this drama happened in real life! Well, except for one scene involving the Secret Service scooping up a child running wild at the White House on Halloween . . . which is based on my son. But otherwise, yes, all fiction here.)
I’ve been a “campaign widow” three times, all during Senate elections, and I’ll never forget that day a million years ago when my husband, Brian—who was then just my boyfriend—came home from work as a Senate staffer on Capitol Hill and proudly declared that he would be joining his first campaign—to help re-elect a Louisiana senator. He would be shipping out to New Orleans immediately and living there for several months. How fabulous! I’d never been to the Big Easy, and it sounded so exciting! I imagined weekends spent sipping Hurricanes on Bourbon Street and looked forward to, at last, truly grasping the difference between étouffée and gumbo—I was a freelance magazine writer, so I had time on my hands. Unfortunately, Brian quickly snuffed out my plans: While he appreciated the support, he would be working round the clock and would see me in November after the election. (It actually ended up being December. . . . There was a run-off!)
I didn’t know anything about campaigns at the time, and since I’m a writer, I tend to have an overly active imagination, so I had all these crazy ideas of what he was heading into. I imagined a Venn diagram where Raucous Spring Break intersected with High School Debate Team, some kind of wild camp for intellectuals. It also set my mind off running in scary, extreme directions. (For instance, what if he never came back?!)
Though I didn’t much understand the pressure cooker he was entering when I bade him a teary goodbye at the airport, I quickly came to appreciate all that goes into that kind of job. It’s grueling, relentless work. Living and dying by poll numbers. Eating, sleeping and breathing this shared goal of getting your candidate elected. It was also a great adventure and bonding experience with colleagues. I was incredibly proud of him.
But of course, back home, life goes on . . . which is how the novel began percolating. The book lived in my head—and in the Notes app of my phone, an endless file cluttered with brainstorms and character sketches and flashes of scenes and snippets of dialogue—for years before I ever truly began writing the manuscript. (I don’t start until I have everything figured out; I’m a planner like that.) I worked on other books and projects. I soaked up Washington life. I absorbed politics by osmosis. But I waited—I just had to find the story first—because luckily, the story wasn’t mine. My widowhood was wonderfully devoid of drama: The senator won; Brian came back to work on the Hill; we got married; he joined another campaign and then another.
But I kept coming back to the idea of what it might have been like if just the opposite had happened. What it might feel like to be left behind and find your relationship in complete turmoil. All the things that could go wrong, how an election could wreak havoc on partnerships in a gazillion different ways. And how, if you found yourself in the middle of that kind of emotional rug-pulled-out-from-under-you upheaval, you might reach out to anyone, a complete stranger, who also understood that same intense world that you were orbiting. I envisioned vastly different people united in this ultra-exclusive kind of sorority. It eventually hit me that what I wanted to write was really a book about unlikely friendships.
So I dreamed up a cast of characters who might not otherwise travel in the same circles: the new-girl-in-town TV producer, the mommy blogger who misses her political days, the head-over-heels arts editor, the Georgetown doyenne and the First Lady Hopeful who secretly doesn’t want the job. I tossed in the villain: a zany, topsy-turvy election stocked with unexpected candidates (and bearing no resemblance to anything in the actual news at the time).
And then I set them all loose. The outcome? I like to think it’s the kind of fun, upbeat, escapist read that is perhaps even more satisfying than real-life. Sure, only one candidate may prevail in the election in this novel, but there just might be many victors in the pursuit of happiness.
Photo credit Abby Greenawalt