The Hopefuls: Jennifer Close examines political charisma in new novel -- exclusive
When Jennifer Close, author of Girls in White Dresses, moved from New York City to Washington, D.C. for her husband’s job on Barack Obama’s campaign, the strangeness of the Capitol — and its residents — inspired her.
The seed was planted for Close’s next novel, The Hopefuls, out in July, which follows two D.C. couples as one, Jimmy and Ash, begins to soar politically, while the other, Beth and Matt, languishes behind. EW can exclusively reveal the cover for The Hopefuls below, and caught up with Close about the unnameable intrigue of political charisma.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it about the atmosphere in D.C. that inspired the book?
JENNIFER CLOSE: I moved from New York, and it’s such a different city. There was so much to get used to. In New York, you have friends in publishing and finance and random things that you don’t really know about. We moved here and everyone was working in the government. Then I became fascinated with the idea that some of the people I was meeting, some were in their late 20s, some were even younger, already had plans to run for office one day, which I just think is a bizarre job that I would never want to do..
So I was really fascinated by that idea, and then I became even more obsessed because there were a few different couples that I was meeting that broke up along the way, because the other person in the couple was like, “That’s great that you want to do that, but I don’t want my life to revolve around this.”
Which is brave!
I know, but it’s so different from any other job! You really have to sign up for it.
You become like a professional spouse.
Right, and who wants to do that? I think that sounds awful. The character of Jimmy was one of the first [that I created], and then I knew Beth and Matt were a couple that had met really, really young and gotten married young. I knew they had been together for a long time and that this was kind of throwing them off a little bit. I started writing it right when we moved here, and I knew she hated DC. I will admit, I gave her a lot of my first opinions about it.
What is it about politics and politicians that fascinates you, and maybe scares you?
I think so much of it is just that, sure, you’re working to make things better around you, but that so much of the job is showmanship, and how charming you are. That, to me, is fascinating, and it is disturbing. It’s a little weird that even though someone might be more qualified for the job, we’re all drawn to someone who sounds better when they talk, or seems more likable. I think that, to me, is really interesting. It’s almost like being an actor.
But I think that was really where I got my characters. I knew that I wanted Matt to be so smart, but not be able to come across in this charming, charismatic way. And I wanted Jimmy not to be stupid, but to be someone who wasn’t as driven, but was really good at talking to people, and have that be just the thing that was going to make him be more successful.
There’s a scene I loved where Jimmy, who’s running for office, and Matt, his campaign manager, are talking to these women. When Matt jumps in, you write that the women’s eyes just glaze over while they wait for Jimmy to speak again.
Yeah. There is something that people have that makes them charismatic, and you don’t know what that is.
Was Jimmy inspired by someone in particular?
He was inspired by a lot of different people. It’s so funny, because one of my friends thinks that he’s the inspiration for this, and I’m like, “You know that this character is a lot dumber than you, right?” And he’s also not that nice! He’s not a mean character, but he’s just sort of the typical, charismatic person. That’s what I wanted him to be. The kind of person that everyone wants to be around at a party.
Jimmy and Ash are from Texas, and eventually both couples move to Texas for Jimmy’s campaign. Why Texas?
The original title of the book was Southern Efficiency, from a J.F.J. quote, so I knew Jimmy was Southern. I wanted him to have an accent. There’s something about politicians from the South who have this weird charm, this homey feeling. I probably ended up picking Texas randomly… and because Texas is a weird place.
Was it difficult to write about that intangible charm that certain politicians have? You did such a great job describing how Obama, for instance, seems super genuine when he’s talking to people in a room, even though he can’t possibly know who each person is.
Thank you. You know that section where I talk about how Matt’s words sound better when Jimmy says them? That part was so hard for me to write, because it is this unnameable thing, right? You can call it charm, you can call it charisma, but it’s just this thing that some people have, and some don’t. It was hard to describe without it seeming creepy, either. I wanted Jimmy to be someone who people just want to be around. And you know people like that — people that you just get good feelings from, that have a really good aura, for a lack of a better phrase.
I keep thinking about that story Jimmy’s mom tells about a day he was late for preschool, and when he gets there, all the kids are so happy they reach out their hands to him. Was that a real story you’d heard, or did you just make it up?
In college, I worked at this special needs preschool. It was great. And there was this little kid there — he was so cute — but all of these other kids were obsessed with him. These are three- and four-year-olds. Everyone always wanted to sit by him, and they’re so little at that age, it’s not like they can say, “Oh, he’s popular.” He was three. But there was something about him. They were just so excited to see him whenever he walked in.
When he came in late one day, everyone was sitting in a circle, and they were holding up their hands and calling his name. It was like, “How is he a famous person as a three-year-old?” That was something I just always remembered, because it’s one of those things that, sure, in five years you can use the word popular, or magnetic. But to say it about a three-year-old? It’s such a weird thing.
Was there one part of writing The Hopefuls that was the most fun for you?
That whole rant Beth has about all the things she hates about D.C. was one of the first parts I wrote, so that was fun. And also just trying to capture the personalities that are here. Everyone here is in some way doing the same thing, and they’re so focused, and the people they hang out with are also the people they work with. It’s almost like college, this tight community with the people that work together in the government that I think you don’t find anywhere else. Especially people that have worked on the campaigns together, they’re like this weird family.
They’re traveling together, they’re staying up late, and all this stuff — it’s like this crazy bonding experience. And they really are like a family: Even if they don’t like each other, they all end up loving each other, and they all support each other in this weird way because they’ve been through this experience that no one else has. No one else understands it. So, making fun of D.C., and also trying to capture the relationships, and the energy of the city. It is such a different place to live.
The Hopefuls hits shelves July 19.