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Secret Lives of Senators

Barbara Boxer’s Satire Follows a Familiar Path

Reading Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) first novel, “A Time to Run,— is a game. Trying to figure out which characters and circumstances she drew on from real life keeps readers hunting for details in the story of Ellen Fischer, a young woman who is elected California’s new Democratic Senator after her candidate-husband dies in a car accident.

In her sequel, “Blind Trust,— the game is more complicated. Now-Sen. Fischer has been in Washington, D.C., for almost eight years and has married a liberal Republican Congressman. As she prepares to oppose the White House nominee for secretary of Homeland Security (her old opponent, Republican Carl Satcher), rumors are aggressively circulated about her finances.

Much of Boxer’s fiction is drawn from real life, the Senator admits. She acknowledges that characters and plotlines are loosely based on people she has encountered and situations she has faced — though the characters are composites and situations are more dramatic than in real life.

For example, Fischer clearly has much in common with Boxer. A liberal California Democrat passionate about children, the fictional Senator is petite and fierce, much like the author. Yet Boxer sees the character as a better version of herself.

“Ellen’s kind of my ideal,— she said. “I wish I could be like Ellen.—

Fischer’s new husband, recently retired Rep. Ben Lind, is modeled after liberal Republicans Boxer said she admires. The two characters met when Fischer convinced him to support the Child Protection and Enforcement Act, which “made any crime against a child a federal crime.— A fellow widower, the Congressman asked the Senator to marry him not long after their legislative accord, and he persisted when she hesitated at first.

“He asked her again the following week, over lunch at the private table way at the back of the ornate Senate dining room. He still remembered what they had to eat — a cup of navy bean soup, fresh crab salad, and one giant corn muffin split righteously between them — just as he remembered every detail of their too-few times together. He refused to call them dates’ — the word was inappropriate and childish and this relationship was anything but,— the character recalled in the novel.

Though Lind is a new character in the sequel, Fischer’s chief of staff, Derelle Simba, is a holdover from the first novel. In fact, one compelling element in both novels is the presence of vivid characters who are also staff members. Fischer met Simba as a troubled teen when she led a children’s center. Simba then got into politics, and the young woman eventually became her closest confidante after her first husband’s death. Reminiscing about her chief of staff’s contributions in the book, the Senator described her definition of an ideal staffer.

“She recalled midnight sessions in her own office, Derelle’s keen mind seizing the issue of the day, running with it, considering it from all angles, and stripping away the nonessentials, her valuable instincts honed from years of street living when a wrong call could have meant injury or worse. How often were you blessed with a staffer like Derelle, who could be counted on always to tell the truth — even when you might not want to hear it?—

Boxer noted that her husband coached her real-life chief of staff, Laura Schiller, in soccer when she was young, but they had fallen out of touch before Schiller ultimately joined Boxer’s office.

One thing Boxer said she wanted to reveal to readers was the importance of Congressional staff. Simba was just one of the Capitol Hill aides mentioned by name in the novel.

“I really think staff doesn’t get enough credit,— the Senator said, noting that early in her career she was an aide to Rep. John Burton (D-Calif.).

The process of writing this novel was different from the first, Boxer said, explaining that it took seven years to write “A Time to Run.— She started that book on her own and struggled to piece it together until her agent suggested she collaborate with British author Mary-Rose Hayes. Having established the partnership then, the women only had to get back into the routine for “Blind Trust.— Boxer said sometimes she would write the first draft of a chapter and then Hayes would work on the second draft, or the opposite would happen.

“In this book it was a little easier because we did storyboards,— Boxer said.

The Senator explained she needed extended periods of time to work on her rewrites, so she used flights to and from California for that purpose. She said it took three years to write “Blind Trust.—

The story ends in a cliffhanger of sorts, leaving the door open to a third novel. At this point, though, Boxer said she’s dealing with other priorities.

A new novel has “been mentioned by our story editor, but I am not there yet,— she said.