Politics & Policy

Amanda Bright – The Interview

Terror in Riyadh

The scale of the carnage in Riyadh is still unknown as I write. The toll will be calculated quickly enough. Other answers, I suspect, will take longer to arrive.

The relationship between the Saudi authorities and the al Qaeda terrorists is murky and maybe intentionally so. On the one hand – al Qaeda seems to wish to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and has waged a terror campaign inside Saudi Arabia since 2001. On the other hand, money flows to al Qaeda from important Saudis, including the wife of the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. The Saudis have frequently refused to cooperate with U.S. authorities in the investigation of terrorist acts inside the kingdom – and have even sentenced two Westerners to death and tortured a third to sustain the illusion that a 2001-2002 bombing campaign in Riyadh was the work of “bootleggers” rather than Islamic terrorists. Hitherto, al Qaeda terrorism inside Saudi Arabia has refrained from targeting locals; al Qaida operatives, in turn, seem to operate with remarkable impunity inside the kingdom. There is a lot more to understand – and our grief and horror at what has just taken place in Riyadh should spur us to acquire that understanding.

#ad#Baathists on the Rampage

Who is responsible for the upsurge of violence in Baghdad? A friend on the scene suggests that we are seeing a coordinated campaign by Baath party militants, seeking to fulfil Saddam Hussein’s threat that his overthrow would lead to chaos equivalent to that inflicted by the Mongols when they sacked Baghdad in 1258.

Amanda Bright – The Interview

As promised, an interview with Danielle Crittenden, author of Amanda Bright @ Home. The novel was originally serialized by the Wall Street Journal in the summer of 2001; Danielle has since revised and expanded the book, and it was published in hardcover by Warner Book on Monday. This interview was conducted on the train from New York to Washington after Danielle’s appearance on the Today show that morning. In private life, Danielle Crittenden is Mrs. David Frum: We have been married for 15 years and have three children.

Q: Welcome to NRO, Danielle Crittenden. I have to warn you that we ask tough questions here. Let’s start with this one: Amanda Bright is an ambitious young woman who finds herself unexpectedly and not very happily at home with two little children. She lives in Washington and is married to a government employee who gets caught up in a Washington controversy when his wife says something indiscreet to a reporter. You also point out that this husbandly character could stand to lose a few pounds. So – how autobiographical is this book?

A: Darling, I’m confident Ben Affleck will play you in the movie version.

Q: Just so long as it’s not Ben Stiller. But seriously – this is a novel packed with familiar-seeming Washington characters and scenes: celebrity infobabes, Internet execs who golf with the president and fund his campaigns, adulterous billionaires, and even a guest appearance on Crossfire. Yet Amanda is not very much like you – she’s a registered Democrat for instance, and her mother is a feminist founding mother, which your mother thank God is not. How much is drawn from life, and how much is made up?

A: You really want me to go there, do you? Yeesh, I thought the one person who WOULDN’T ask me these questions would be my husband. Remember when Amanda was appearing as a serial in the Wall Street Journal, and you were still at the White House, and Amanda and Bob (her Justice Department husband) began having marital “issues” and your colleagues began looking at you funny…? And then there was the husband of a good friend of mine, who persuaded himself that HE was in fact Bob, and began looking at ME funny….

A: In any case, the short answer is no, Amanda is not me, BUT we share many of the same reactions, and same insecurities about being Former Career Women Turned At-Home Mothers. I’ve been lucky in that as a writer and journalist, I’ve always been able to keep up the image at least that I’m not really at home cleaning Cheerios out of the carpet, but am writing Serious Things behind a closed door. Well you know how that is (and why you sensibly keep an office downtown). It reminds me of those scenes from “Night of the Living Dead,” when the corpses keep coming at the door with the live people locked behind it. I manage to write a few sentences when all of a sudden there will be a terrifying scratching sound, followed by banging. Then a plaintive, “Mama!!” preceding a long heart-wrenching scream. And those are the GOOD days. On top of that, there are the endless interruptions by delivery men, electricians, plumbers, cable guys, and phone solicitors. The two older kids need to be picked up by three, I have errands to run, groceries to fetch, and dinner to make (and with our toddler, dinner now often requires three separate seatings: at five, six, and later for us, at seven-thirty). So when Amanda is going comically out of her mind, wondering how on earth a woman of her education and ambition turned into a nanny/cook/chauffeur/housekeeper, yes, I suppose you could say she and I are very much alike—just like every other mother in our situation.

Q: Well what is that situation? Women have always stayed home to care for their children. How is Amanda different?

A: True, but I think Amanda, like me, belong to a uniquely unprepared generation. I think this is why I find the whole motherhood/work question so interesting—and such good fodder for fiction. Every time a newspaper of TV show picks it up, it’s unfailingly painted in stark, black and white terms: Working mothers—Good or Bad? And it’s not just that the question is more complex than that, but that every woman making the choice to stay home or work faces so many complications and ramifications that she doesn’t even realize—can’t realize in advance. The decision will not only affect her and her children, but it will also affect her marriage, her friendships, her future dreams. These things only unfold over time. Amanda grew up in an era when it was considered embarrassing to express a desire to be a mother, and certainly motherhood wasn’t something you formally factored into your plans. Indeed Amanda’s mother was a prominent feminist activist, who made sure her daughter got a good education, encouraged her in her career, and cautioned her against marriage and motherhood. It is then doubly heretical of Amanda to a) get married and b) quit her job when her second child is born. So heretical is it that Amanda is afraid to tell her mother, just as she has been afraid to admit to herself that it is what she wants to do. (She fears, too, her husband’s reaction: after all, he is modern guy and had thought he had married a modern woman—not this increasingly neurotic, Twenty-First Century June Cleaver.) The home is a completely new frontier for Amanda—it was the workplace that was for her safe and familiar (the reverse of our grandmothers’ time). She can’t cook. She doesn’t know how to clean the house. And at some level she doesn’t want to know how to cook and clean house. This is not why she got a BA. So Amanda feels stranded, alone, a pioneer. A pioneer who must listen to Raffi.

Q: So is Amanda a victim of feminism?

A: Yes, you probably could say that, although certainly Amanda herself would not see it that way. She feels forced into full-time motherhood out of guilt, and retains very liberal ideas about raising her children and running an egalitarian household and marriage. She spends half the novel plotting a return to work, because that’s where she feels she belongs. Amanda’s struggle is to learn not just to accept, but actually value what she does as a mother. Otherwise she is never going to be happy—not at work, where she is haunted by guilt, nor at home, where she feels demeaned. And I’ve made it that much more difficult for her by setting the story in the shark-tank of Washington political circles, where nothing you do counts unless it makes the talk shows or gets you a White House appointment. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Amanda is pulled along by her up-and-coming husband to a cocktail party at the McLean, Virginia home of an Internet billionaire. The evening amounts to a string of humiliations for poor Amanda, as she gets snubbed every time she is introduced as “wife of” or an at-home mother. Finally she bumps into one of her good friends—who, to make Amanda feel smaller, also happens to be a fabulously successful and beautiful TV pundette, but at least deigns to recognize Amanda.

Q: I think many men find it easier to accept the value of women’s work in the home than women themselves do. Maybe too easy – how have male readers responded to Amanda? Do they see your novel as a women’s story? Or do they get so distracted by the Washington power-broking scenes that they miss the women’s story altogether?

A: When Amanda ran as a serial, I was frankly amazed by the number of emails I received from male readers. As difficult as these work/home choices are for women, they are every bit as difficult for men—or I should say, at least the fall-out is. Men wrote in to thank you for helping them better understand their wives, and the insecurities they feel at home (translation: Oh, so that’s why my wife threw a diaper at my head when I walked in the door and asked what was for dinner!). And to be fair, men themselves these days are being asked to take on a double-burden: to be both old-fashioned breadwinners and perfectly sensitive, New Age, egalitarian husbands and fathers. I have lot of scenes capturing the underlying tensions and powere struggles between Amanda and Bob over little daily things, like unloading the dishwasher and whose turn it is to mind the children.

A: But it is true that men responded most to my Washington subplots. When I knew I was going to write for Wall Street Journal readers, I took Trollope’s view that there had to be something in the novel for everyone. And I needed a story line that, for dramatic purposes, would have Bob’s career taking off at precisely the moment Amanda felt at her worst being at home. For some reason—and I honestly now forget how I stumbled on to this—I decided to make Bob the lawyer in charge of the Justice Department’s historic anti-trust case against a giant software firm called “Megabyte.” I don’t know, Dave – perhaps I’ve been hanging around your wonky friends too much. The result: after each new chapter was posted every week, I would receive emails from women saying they didn’t want any more of that antitrust stuff—get back to Amanda and her problems–and more email from men men complaining that I was straying too far from the Megabyte plotline with all this maternal whining.

In the end, though, both sexes seemed to enjoy it. And is it wrong of me to take a certain amount of literary pride in working the antitrust case into Chick Lit? Surely it’s a first. But as we mothers like to say, it’s all about maintaining a balance.

Q: So what is for dinner?

A: Duck. No – I mean, you’d better duck.

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