JFK AND BEYOND
Writing What They Know
Even If It’s Not Completely True
SOFT POWER. The globalization of human rights. Cost-
benefit analysis in policy formulation. Pick up a book by a Kennedy School author and these are the phrases you’ll likely find.
But wait. We also have torrents of passion. Bandaged stumps. Murder!
As one newspaper recently put it, the “wonks have gone wild.”
Or at least they’ve gone fiction. Kennedy School writers like Michael Ignatieff, Susan Froetschel MPA 1989, and Joseph S. Nye, Jr., are just a few of the faculty members and alumni who have recently turned their public policy know-how into novels.
But before anyone thinks they’re just having fun until the next serious project comes along, all three authors want to set the record straight: writing novels is serious business. Harder, in fact, than writing the heavy-duty, nonfiction books and articles they’re most known for.
“My advice is, never write a novel unless you have to,” says Ignatieff, laughing. “If you can say everything you need to in nonfiction, stick with it because fiction writing is just so hard. It’s not a holiday from nonfiction by any means. It’s like throwing yourself out of a seventh story window and trying not to hurt yourself. I can’t say I didn’t break my wrists.”
He has, in fact, written three novels, all connected in some way to what he knows (the first rule of fiction). The latest, Charlie Johnson in the Flames, is about a war correspondent who returns to Belgrade to avenge the death of a peasant woman.
Froetschel, who writes freelance articles for newspapers and magazines and had her second novel, Interpretations, come out in November, says that “without question, writing fiction is more challenging for me. With nonfiction, writers follow a set series of events, and the writer has guideposts for analysis. With fiction, the outcome is wide open as curiosity and imagination join forces, and every choice reflects the writer’s thought.”
Nye says that although his new political novel, The Power Game, set in Washington, DC, allowed him to explore the moral dilemmas of power and policy in ways he can’t in his academic writing, structurally it wasn’t easy to pull off.
“It is much harder to get away with a clunky sentence in fiction than in expository writing,” he says.
And of course, there’s also the ribbing in the faculty lounge.
“Some of my colleagues have been enthusiastic in their reactions,” says Nye, “while others seem bemused that I would waste my time on fiction.”