In Aimee Agresti’s new novel Campaign Widows, a group of women (and one man) deal with life alone in Washington D.C. while their significant others are away on the campaign trail. Only, they’re not really alone.
Cady Davenport moves to D.C. with her new fiancé, but when he promptly hits the road for the upcoming presidential election, she soon finds herself navigating her new life (and job) in D.C. with the help of a group of fellow campaign widows that includes a political speechwriter-turned-mommy-blogger, a potential first lady, a fabulous and influential Georgetown socialite, and a magazine editor.
The novel’s sharp pace, witty turn of phrase, and nonintrusive social commentary draw the reader into the glittery world of Washington during campaign season, and the widows succeed in making politics fun.
EW caught up with the author to learn how her life in the capital inspired the story, about casting rappers as presidential candidates, and about one story that was taken straight from real life.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide you wanted to tell the story of those left behind when their partners go off on the campaign trail?
AIMEE AGRESTI: This was an idea that was in my head for forever, for years and years and years. It’s funny, the idea was sparked by my experience as a campaign widow, but the book really is all fiction. A million years ago, when my husband was just my boyfriend, he was a staffer on Capitol Hill and came home one night and announced that he had joined the re-election campaign for a senator from Louisiana, and he was going to be shipping out to New Orleans for several months to work on his campaign. I didn’t know anything about how campaigns work. I’d never been to New Orleans and was a freelance writer with a lot of time on my hands, so I just said, “Great, I’m going to come visit every weekend, and we’re going to drink hurricanes!” He looked at me and said, “No, no, no.” He explained he was going to be working 24/7 and would have no time for fun, so he would see me when he came back after the election. So that was my first experience as a campaign widow. I quickly learned just how insane that campaign world is. They work so hard around the clock, and it’s just this intense world that I didn’t think about, so that sort of planted the seed. This was a group of people I never knew existed, all these people who were left behind when their loved ones go off on the campaign trail. Luckily, nothing crazy happened when my husband was on the trail!
On the surface, the novel is about what happens when you’re the one left behind and the strains it can put on relationships, but ultimately, it’s about friendship and women (and Jay) finding their way.
Yeah, the book is really about unlikely friendship which happens so often when you have all these people thrown together by circumstance who share this common bond of being left behind. I feel like with all of the women there’s that desire to try and have it all and figure out how to do it, to try to have the career, the relationship, and have it all going at 100 percent all the time. Cady, for example, is trying so hard to be a supportive girlfriend but also build her own life in D.C., and both are equally important to her. I wanted all of the women to struggle with that in their own way. They’re all trying and working so hard for every sector of their lives, but they’re just not sure that they’re doing as well at all of them simultaneously — which I think is what every woman feels.
So Reagan is a mother of two whose husband is off on the campaign trail. Is any of her story based on your experience as a mom and campaign widow?
Not really. She knows a lot more about politics than I do, that’s for sure. Some of the general mom stuff is definitely from real life; I mean my house is a mess, and the kids do crazy things. Though the one part in the whole book that was taken from real life is from Reagan’s story. You know the scene where her kid runs wild at the White House? That really did happen to me. We were really lucky, and we got to trick-or-treat with our kids at the White House a couple of years during the Obama administration, which was totally amazing. The first year we went, my oldest was 4 and my little guy was 1, and it was incredible. It’s like a circus come to life, and there were people on stilts and a whole theme and cookies and candy. It’s total sensory overload, even for adults, and they gave you the whole run of the lawn, but there’s this one area that they didn’t want anyone to go — this little patch of grass right outside the West Wing, and there’s Secret Service guys and everything. The four of us were just walking along about to go right past it, and my 4-year-old just takes off running right past the Secret Service guys. My husband and I were just frozen in shock. So the Secret Service guys take off running after our child, and I start yelling to my husband to get him before the Secret Service does. It was so embarrassing, and we’re all dressed up as Star Wars characters. Of course, the Secret Service guy gets there first. We’re like, “We were just leaving!” I knew it was just too good and had to go in the book. Not a great moment in parenting, but a good story to tell.
Let’s talk about some of the political candidates. Haze is a famous celebrity rapper and potentially an unlikely president initially, but then again, in the current climate maybe not that unlikely.
Right, she’s an outsider and has a tough fight to be respected in the race. I really took great care developing the character because I wanted her to seem like she was totally out of left field in the very beginning, but then you find out she’s actually incredibly informed and involved in global humanitarian efforts. She also has such bold ideas and is interested in uniting people. So I tried to make her seem like a crazy choice in the beginning and then end up being someone who is really well-respected by the end.
And, as we know now, people like to vote for the extreme candidates. Another somewhat extreme candidate in the book is Hank, who is similar to Donald Trump in that they’re both these huge business tycoons who think they’re good at running a company and will therefore be good at running the country. Was that correlation deliberate?
Well, I definitely didn’t do that on purpose, but I did want to have somebody who goes into it just because he’s used to winning things. Hank’s done very well in his world, and he thinks that’ll translate to politics. But politics is its own beast, and if you are very successful in your own field, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to translate. Then I just loved the idea of having a woman as his spouse trying to sabotage him. I like that nobody in her world is even imagining that she’s doing it on purpose. She was really fun to write, and there was probably some wish-fulfillment there [laughs].
I love how you incorporated news stories and text messages throughout the novel. What was the hope behind adding those as a literary device?
Well, I realized we were only seeing in the heads of the characters who were actually the widows. Adding in Skye’s articles and other characters’ text messages was a way to get a feel for the other absent characters. With the Skye/Jay story, it was a good way to show their collaboration but also how far Skye’s articles were evolving throughout the course of the book. It’s just also fun for the reader when they get to read little snippets of things, and the texts are fun because it’s fast and immediate information, especially when people are in different places. I like the liveliness of that.
The novel ends in a place where there are plenty of stories to develop further. Was that intentional? Are you planning a sequel?
I left it the way I did just in case. I spent so much time with these characters that I still have thoughts about them and ideas about what they’re doing now. I miss them, so I wanted to leave things a little bit open so I can come back to it — if anyone wanted me to! But, yes, I definitely left it hanging.
Campaign Widows is out now.