Eron Shosteck has a story to tell. It is about a place not so far away where spin is equally revered and despised. A land where its most upstanding citizens are supposed to stay on message and do and say only what they are told. The underlings or staffers barely keep things running, rarely get any credit for their work and get blamed for all mishaps. There, life is inherently mired in scandal and the media devours it like bread and butter, as if it were a necessary part of every balanced meal. People just love to take themselves seriously.
Does this place sound familiar?
It should, according to Shosteck. But our raconteur, a former press secretary for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), isn’t bitter at all. He just thinks Capitol Hill needs to lighten up.
Shosteck, 37, recently published his first — and last, according to him — novel, “Potomac Beach,” a political satire based on his experience working on the Hill and living in our nation’s frenetic capital city.
In the book, a freshman Congressman from a small district in Idaho gets in way over his head as he struggles to cope with staffers, media and constituents in a hotly contested re-election campaign during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. With that kind of setup established, Shosteck gives himself ample opportunity to poke fun at what he calls the “political vice and folly of the governing class,” which doesn’t discriminate along party lines or between Members and their staff.
“I tried to put a humorous spin on what were some of the most difficult years for people who worked in politics, on either side of the aisle,” Shosteck said. “I thought it would be a good idea to provide people with some levity up there. It’s designed to be comic relief for those who take politics too seriously.”
By these standards, Shosteck would once have been his own target audience. In the early ’90s, he was a young press secretary just out of college. Hastert was nearing the end of his second term and just starting out on the campaign trail for a third. Shosteck was as idealistic as they came and took himself and his job very seriously; he thought he could change the world and he acted like it.
Yet over time, the walls of deference slowly came tumbling down. It all started when he found out that Congressmen didn’t respond to constituent mail personally.
“I was flabbergasted when I found that out,” Shosteck said. “There’s an old Chinese proverb that goes, ‘He who carves the Buddha never worships him.’ Once you are behind the curtain and helping to put on the charade, you lose your veneration for it. And I think that happens to a lot of Congressional aides. Not all, for sure. But certainly a lot.”
After three years of working for Hastert, Shosteck decided it was time to move on, but he can’t say that he hasn’t looked back. The characters in his story might not have been based on any particular Member or staffer; they might not even have represented a composite of any number of characters. But Shosteck knows he could not have written what he did without having first worked on the Hill.
Four years after leaving the Hill and while working at National Journal’s Hotline, Shosteck started to write the novel about his former workplace. He had dabbled in fiction in the past, “in fits and starts,” but he had never made it very far. A few dozen pages here and there, but nothing substantial.
The writing with which he was most familiar was the communications office fare of press releases, speeches and breaking news stories. Presumably, it would have made more sense for Shosteck to stick with what he knew best and drive away the writing bug with a little nonfiction account or a memoir. He didn’t think so.
“I think most of the nonfiction stuff coming out of the Hill today is dreary at best. Those kiss-and-tell memoirs aren’t entertaining, and I wanted to tell an entertaining, funny story,” he said. “This was the best way I knew how.”
What made the fit and start of his fiction writing successful this time, Shosteck said, was the simultaneous alternate reality taking place just down the street from him every day.
At the time, Washington, D.C., was embroiled in the Lewinsky scandal and the Hill had never before been as divided. Add to that the emergence of the Drudge Report and Internet-driven traditional media, and you have more than enough fodder for political fiction.
Shosteck started writing after work most nights and would often continue into early mornings, making sure to keep up-to-date on the goings-on in Congress. Work on the days following was nearly unbearable and always exhausting, but within two years he had finished more than 400 pages and began the rewriting and paring process. All told, the project took four years and went through 22 different drafts. Unfortunately, it would be another four years until his story would get published.
During that time, Shosteck went through two different literary agents and rejection after rejection from publishers across the country before turning to Publish America, a print-on-demand publisher with a relatively low threshold for acceptance. Yet after years of similar rejection letters he had received for short stories and other assorted half-started fictional projects, his expectations had been tempered.
“I got to the point where just getting the story published was satisfying and enough of a reward that anything beyond that in the way of royalties, sales or positive feedback was just gravy,” he said.
“Potomac Beach” was finally published in June, and Shosteck celebrated with book signings at his parents’ house and the office of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, where he is now director of communications.
Shosteck said sales have exceeded his initial expectations. He also has received some speaking requests from university writing programs and has just collected on his first royalties check. He’s even passed the book on to some former colleagues and Members of Congress, though he doesn’t expect the book to affect the current atmosphere.
“The Members and staffers who would probably benefit most from it would probably have the biggest blind spot toward it,” he conceded. “They are the ones who would probably see parts of themselves in it and would be the ones who probably wouldn’t get the joke.”
He still wouldn’t mind, though, if “Potomac Beach” was made required reading for all Members.
“It certainly would help my sales,” he joked.