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Hillary Clinton to release first novel 'State of Terror'

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
October 11, 2021

The fiction debut of the former US presidential candidate with mystery author Louise Penny has again stirred a discussion on what prompts politicians to write fiction.

A split photo showing Hillary Clinton on the left and Louise Penny on the right
Hillary Clinton has co-authored her first novel with mystery writer Louise Penny (right)Image: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Jean-Francois Bérubé/AP/picture alliance

Hillary Clinton, former US secretary of state and presidential hopeful in 2008 and 2016, is releasing her latest book and first work of fiction, a thriller called State of Terror, which she co-authored with Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny.

Announcing the release of the novel earlier this month, Clinton wrote on Twitter, "My first foray into fiction! It was a labor of love with my friend (and favorite mystery author) Louise Penny, and I can't wait for you to read it."

Out on Tuesday, State of Terror, published by Simon & Schuster and St. Martin's Press, and by Harper Collins in Germany, is a novel set in present-day United States. It features female protagonist Ellen Adams, a former media magnate who is inducted into the Cabinet of the new US president, Douglas Williams. As secretary of state, Adams must unravel a global terror conspiracy involving Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran with the help of a foreign service employee of Lebanese origin and a US-Pakistani journalist.

A photo of the cover of 'State of Terror,' out on October 12, 2021
Book cover: 'State of Terror'

'A lasting legacy'

Clinton has already penned several nonfiction books, including It Takes a Village (1996), Living History (2003), Hard Choices (2014) and What Happened in 2017, following her electoral defeat to former President Donald Trump. State of Terror, her first work of fiction, has triggered a renewed discussion on why political leaders write novels.

Jacob Appel, a New York-based author, book critic and expert in psychiatry who has studied the psychological and physical health of American presidents, said that just like any other writer, political leaders write books because they want to leave a lasting legacy.

"Political fame and fortune are often transient, so I imagine there is appeal in creating a work that may endure beyond any administration or cabinet. Candidly, politicians are often more concerned about their public legacies than most people, so writing plays perfectly into their psychological needs," he said.

The tradition of politicians writing fiction goes back to Ignatius Donnelly, according to critic Colin Dickey, who writes in Politico. Donnelly was a Minnesota congressman in the 1880s who wrote a novel called Caesar's Column in 1890. The dystopic novel, which became quite popular, focused on technological changes in the future.

In 2003, Jimmy Carter published The Hornet's Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War, becoming the first US president to publish a fiction novel. More recently, former President Bill Clinton co-authored The President Is Missing in 2018 with James Patterson and The President's Daughter, which came out in June. Joining this year's big political names in fiction is Democrat Stacey Abrams, whose novel While Justice Sleeps was released in May.

In Germany, politicians and books almost go hand-in-hand, with one of the most notable authors being former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. A prolific writer, he authored books including The Balance of Power (1971) and The Powers of the Future. Winners and Losers in the World of Tomorrow (2004). Former Chancellor Willy Brandt, who was also a journalist, published several titles, including Arms and Hunger in 1986 and My Life in Politics in 1992. 

However, fiction is not a popular genre among the politically-oriented in Berlin. Current Green Party co-chair Robert Habeck is an exception, having co-authored several novels including Hauke Haiens Tod (Hauke Haien's Death, 2001) and Zwei Wege in den Sommer (Two Paths To Summer, 2006) with his wife, Andrea Paluch.

Powerful leaders, bad novels

But while books by Bill Clinton and Stacey Abrams have topped charts, others like Carter's The Hornet's Nest have failed to woo readers. "Unfortunately, politicians often assume that because they are gifted at public speaking or fundraising or running a country, they will also be good at telling a compelling story," said Appel.

Some political leaders have been successful, though. Jeffrey Archer, a former UK member of Parliament, for example wrote dozens of hugely successful novels including Kane and Abel (1979) and The Fourth Estate (1996). Democrat John Grisham, who was elected into the Mississippi House of Representatives in the 1980s, has also enjoyed immense success as a novelist with books such as A Time to Kill (1989) and The Pelican Brief (1992). But these are more exceptions than the rule.

"My understanding is that Churchill urged potential readers to avoid his only novel. I certainly wouldn't recommend the novels of the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, as great literature," said Appel, referring to the former British prime minister and Nobel laureate Winston Churchill, who won the prize for literature for his biographical and historical works.

The former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, is also believed to have written four romantic fables, including Zabibah and the King and The Fortified Castle, and a book of poetry in the late 1990s.

Why write fiction?

Do politicians write fiction because they can play with their fantasy and exert more control over the narrative, unlike in real life? Appel doesn't think so. "They may think it does, but I'm doubtful. What I do think is that readers and critics can often learn about the psychological makeup of politicians through their writings," he said.

Book critic Colin Dickey's argument is similar. "How a politician structures that fictional universe reveals a lot about his or her worldview," he wrote in 2018, elaborating that ultimately, a lot of newer novels by political leaders reduce their stories into a binary of good against evil.

So, if narrative control is not the ultimate intent of a former politician turned author, what is? "I do think politicians write to stay in the public's mind," said Appel. "Not necessarily because they think this will get them elected in the future — I doubt Hillary Clinton thinks she'll get more votes someday if someone thinks she's a gifted novelist — but because they enjoy the limelight and believe that they have stories worth sharing."

Money talks

A man sitting and a shelf of books behind him
Jacob Appel works at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New YorkImage: Jacob Appel, New York, 2020

US Republican Newt Gingrich adds a new dimension to why leaders like himself are motivated to write fiction. The former speaker of the US House of Representatives has written alternate history novels such as Pearl Harbor (2007) and Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War (2003), and knows exactly what he wants from writing novels.

Speaking to The Wall Street Journal in May, Gingrich said he has three goals in mind while writing books: "One, educate the reader about something significant. Two, educate myself. And three, make a little bit of money."

And money as motivation goes beyond party loyalties. "Bill Clinton doesn't write a novel to get his name better known… He writes a novel because if you combine him and his co-author, they're going to sell a tremendous number of books," Gingrich said.

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.