All because of Aaron Sorkin: how the West Wing changed me

The internet is aflutter with excitement about Aaron Sorkin’s new television show, The Newsroom. All kinds of questions are being asked: how will Sorkin write a Republican protagonist? Where’s Bradley Whitford? Will The Newsroom air anywhere besides the US?

Here’s what I’m asking: will it change lives?

Because The West Wing changed mine.

For a long time, my friends in London had been telling me I should watch it. “It’s all about politics,” they’d say. “You like politics.” They were right. Once I gave in, the show took over my life. I began to get irresistible cravings for episodes. At the end of season seven, bereft and grieving, I began to tweet my sorrow at there being no new episodes, and that was the beginning of several beautiful friendships – with Twitter itself, and with several fellow fans whom I met along the way.

And something surprising happened in me as I watched: I fell in love with the English language.

As a child and teenager, I wrote prolifically — in French, which is my mother tongue. When we moved back to the UK, and English became my dominant language, I did not feel so inspired. French, I was convinced, was superior. It was beautiful. English was not.

But that was before Aaron Sorkin convinced me otherwise. His mastery of the language awoke something in me that had been dormant for years. “Oratory should raise your heart rate,” says one of his characters, and that is exactly what his words did for me.  I began to devour novels. I began to itch to write again.

Sorkin assumes an intelligent viewer, and yet still teaches them a multitude of things. He doesn’t shy away from difficult or controversial issues. And in the language itself there is poetry, too, and rhythm:

“Nice job on the speech,” says one character to another, Sam Seaborn, in the third season.

“How did you know I wrote it?” he asks her.

She quotes some of its phrases. “We did not seek, nor did we provoke… We did not expect, nor did we invite…”

“A little thing called cadence,” Sam replies, and you get the sense that Aaron Sorkin is winking at his viewers through those lines.

Sorkin is also skilled at developing complex and memorable characters, avoiding, for example, the liberal temptation to paint all Republicans as evil.  Life is not black and white, and nor should fiction be if it is to be believable.

Josh Lyman – deftly played by Bradley Whitford – is one such character: arrogant, brilliant, and deeply wounded. He is also at the center of a will-they-won’t-they storyline which kept many viewers hooked; I wanted my writing to do that, too. The restraint which Aaron Sorkin showed in not getting Josh and his assistant Donna together too soon – and the resulting tension – is one of the defining features of the show. I wanted to create characters as compelling as Josh and Donna; I wanted my stories, like Sorkin’s, to reflect the complexities of life in general and romance in particular.

So it was that walking home one summer Saturday after a morning of French teaching, an unexpected thought occurred to me: wouldn’t it be fun to tutor Bradley Whitford?  And that was the start of my first novel, in which someone very much like me teaches French to someone a little like him, who inspires her to move to Washington DC and (many years later) become a Senator.

Given the source of my inspiration, it was perhaps inevitable that politics would provide the backdrop to the story. My friends in London had been right: this wasn’t a new interest. I chose Sociology in my last two years of high school and almost studied Social and Political Science at University. I was once passionate about that stuff. And The West Wing prodded at that, too. Prodded and poked and awoke the beast.

And of course, I had to visit Washington, and the city stole my heart. Maybe it was the majesty of the monuments or the colors of autumn: we don’t have the deep, deep red of the maple tree in Europe. Maybe it was the surreal sense of stepping into a fictional world that had seemed only to exist on screens and in my imagination. Maybe it was eavesdropping on high-level conversations in classy restaurants. Maybe it was the abundance of literary events and of bookshops with names like Politics and Prose. Maybe – most likely of all – it was the fact that my writing feels intricately bound up with DC and the corridors of political power. Hard to tell. But I knew I wanted to live there.

Writing, by then, had become a serious passion; I began to dream about studying it full-time. And when I dream, I reach for Google. I typed in “MFA” and “DC”, omitting “two birds”, “one stone”. And it came up with American University, a place which not only offered exactly what I needed in terms of the course but which also –  oh, happy day! — was rated number one nationally for its political involvement.

I applied but wasn’t accepted. Would Donna Moss have let that deter her? No, she would not. I worked on my admissions essay and sent in a better writing sample the following year, and this time it was a yes.

I’ll be moving to DC in August. Perhaps to embark on a whole new chapter of my life complete with best-selling novels, a part-time voluntary job at the Democratic Party, and my very own Josh Lyman. Or perhaps just for a two-year adventure. But either way, it’s because of Aaron Sorkin. It’s because of The West Wing.

6 Books to Look for in 2016

So much good reading to look forward to this year!


In Other Words - Jhumpa Lahiri

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (9th Feb)

Jhumpa Lahiri is known for her lyrical prose, and the former language tutor in me is beside herself with excitement about this memoir. Lahiri wrote it in Italian, and the original and its English translation by Ann Goldstein come together in this book to tell the story of her love affair with Italian and where this obsession has led her. In Other Words promises to be a wholly original book, touching on themes that resonate deeply with me: exile, belonging, and the pursuit of a new writing voice in another language.


Crush - Alter and SingletonCRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush, edited by Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton (5th April)

For me, it was Jason Donovan, back in the late eighties: an innocent-looking blond twenty-year-old pop singer. He’d come out of the terrible but popular Australian soap opera Neighbours (and dated Kylie Minogue for a time, both on and off-screen). The day when my mother allowed me to put posters up in my room was one of the most triumphant of my young life, and I still think of him fondly. I could write my own memoir of celebrity crushes, and I can’t wait to read this collection of essays on the subject by such varied contributors as Stephen King and Roxane Gay, as well as my friend Karin Tanabe and my creative writing professor Richard McCann.

the gilded yearsThe Gilded Years, by Karin Tanabe (12th June)

Speaking of my friend Karin Tanabe, I also can’t wait to read her third novel, The Gilded Years. Karin and I met in 2013 at the signing for her first novel, The List, which, DC scandal being my favourite kind of literary scandal, I really enjoyed. We bonded on Twitter over our love of (what else?) The West Wing and our Belgian roots. I’ve heard a lot about this book as she’s been writing it – including the nail-biting decision about its title – and it sounds fascinating: it’s historical fiction based on an African American woman whose pale skin enables her to post as white and thus be accepted at Vassar.

One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid (12th June)

I fell in love with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s writing in the first few pages of her first book, Forever, Interrupted, and I’ve read each of her subsequent novels within weeks of their publication. Her fourth, One True Loves, is an auto-buy for me not only because of its author, whom I now faithfully follow, but also because it deals with one of my favourite tropes: the return of the long-ago lost love. Emma believed Jesse to have died in a helicopter crash; she has found a fresh start with Sam, her new husband. But what happens when Jesse comes back? I can’t wait to go on this emotional journey with Emma and explore what happens to love after mourning, and whether new love can ever compete with first love.

the inside of outThe Inside of Out, by Jenn Marie Thorne (5th July)

I loved Jenn Marie Thorne’s YA début, The Wrong Side of Right, which I read because of my love for campaign novels. I found it smart, surprising, unpredictable, and emotionally complex. The bar has been set high, but I’m confident that this sophomore novel can meet my expectations. Emotional complexity certainly seems to be on the menu again: Daisy’s well-intentioned championing of gay rights after her best friend comes out has all sorts of unintended and unexpected consequences.


shiny broken piecesShiny Broken Pieces, by Sona Charapoitra and Dhonielle Clayton

The stakes don’t get much higher than for June, Gigi and Bette in this follow-up to Tiny Pretty Things. Each of them is convinced that their entire lives have led up to a place in the American Ballet Company. But there’s only one place, and which of them will be found worthy of it? Will it be June, who is finally learning to believe in herself as a dancer? Bette, who is back after she was suspended for her part in Gigi’s injury? Or Gigi, whose sweet nature has been embittered by the desire for revenge? If, like me, you gasped and groaned your way through Tiny Pretty Things and love a good ballet novel, you won’t want to miss this one.

What books are you most looking forward to this year?

Claire’s Week in Books: 18th to 25th October

It’s all happening in my book world! My novel is on submission with editors; I’ve become an official Book Riot contributor; I’m frantically making as many book related lists as I can on The List App, and I’m even reading a little too!


diabetes with owlsLet’s Talk about Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris

I really enjoyed David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day when I read it in Belgium years ago. I was teaching languages then, and his stories about learning French spoke to me on a deep level. And I loved this quote: Paris, it turns out, is where I have come to dream about America, not least because that was exactly what had happened, completely unexpectedly, with me and Brussels. I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy hear him speak – I’m not a huge fan of most comedians – but when my friend asked if I wanted to come and see him with her, I thought I’d give it a go. So glad! He was fun and smart and it was great being part of the test audience for some of his new material.

Family Life, by Akhil Sharmafamily life

Sedaris gave the first few minutes of his time on stage to Akhil Sharma, an author whose novel he blurbed. At first, I thought, oh how lovely of him to help a struggling new author! Turns out, Sharma’s not exactly struggling – his book was named one of the ten best by The New York Times in 2014. But I really enjoyed the few minutes we got of him, and so when the offer was made to bump us to the top of the Sedaris signing queue if we bought his Family Life , my friend and I took him up on it.

thirteen ways of lookingThirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann

The next day, I was back in another signing queue, this time at Politics and Prose for Colum McCann. I love his so writing so much that I wrote a scene in my novel in which the characters disucss Let The Great World Spin – one of my all time favourites. I got to tell him that, too. I have heard great things about Thirteen Ways of Looking – unsurprisingly – and I’m looking forward to reading this. I’m also quite excited about it being a novella and three short stories, because I’m having trouble finishing novels at the moment.

DC Trip, by Sara Benincasadc trip

While I was waiting for the Colum McCann signing queue to go down, I wandered around the store, and scared some fellow customers by squealing “That’s not supposed to be out yet!” when I spotted Sarah Benincasa’s DC Trip on the shelves. I’be been looking forward to it for months – it’s about a group of schoolkids who come to DC on a school trip – and since it’s not out as an ebook yet, I sprung for the hardback. Which is probably better anyway since that way I will have something for her to sign when she does her event at Busboys and Poets on publication day. I’ve read half of it already – in two days – which is fast going for me


Still shamefully empty…


So many. So many. Starting to despair that I will ever finish another book. Thank goodness for DC Trip, which has temporarily yanked me out of my reading slump.

Claire’s Week in Books: 11th – 18th October 2015

My reading slump continues to dog me, but at least this week I’ve written about books, even if I haven’t read them all that much.

4 x 4: ways to get an agent and what’s great about having one

IMG_3506My first even Book Riot post! I am so excited, and even more excited that I got to write about one of my very favourite books.

Political campaign novels

chocolate warsBooks about chocolate

And, most excitingly! The List App. It’s better than Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. It’s the best new app/social network ever. And I’ve written some bookish lists – including one about podcasts, which got featured. Achievement unlocked. Come and join me! I’m BookishClaire over there.

As to what I’m reading…


God is Closer Than You Think, by John Ortberg 

I’ve read this before, eleventeen times, but it’s a great refresher – easy to read and full of soul feeding truth .

What do You Think of Me? Why do I care? Answers to the Big Questions of LIfe, by Edward T Welch

A brand new (to me) book given to me by a lovely friend at Church. I think this, too, is going to do me good.


Shamefully empty.


I started reading Bret Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This for work purposes, but I really want to finish it now! It starts where many novels about disappearing teenagers end: Justin comes home. And the family readjusts. Or not. It’s psychologically insightful, and beautifully written in places, but also quite dense so I’m finding it hard to wade through at the moment. Could be just me, though. It probably is. The author, by the way, was incredibly gracious and giving of his time when I interviewed him for my piece.

remember me

Claire’s Week in Books: 28th Sept – 4th Oct

My biggest book news is really life news. My little novel goes out on submission from my agent to editors this week! Eek. I’m excited, nervous, terrified, and getting ready for another round of the emotional roller coaster I am familiar with from my agent-querying days (are those really behind me? Still seems too good to be true!).

But in other book news, and borrowing from Book Riot’s Inbox/Outbox/In The Queue model, here’s what I’ve been up to this week.


ally hughesAlly Hughes Has Sex Sometimes, by Jules Moulin

I logged into my Audible account to check if they had Ferrante – they do, of course they do, what was I thinking? – and it warned me I was about to lose a credit. Audio book buying is a complex thing these days – I used to first check whether Scribd had it, then if they didn’t and I still really wanted it, I’d go to Audible. But since Scribd have switched to a one-audiobook-per-month model, that makes the calclulations a lot more complicated.

The Ferrante book are hours and hours long, and I suspect I would enjoy these more as a physical book anyway, so I went in a completely different direction. I heard about this one on the All The Books! podcast, the weekly show of “news and enthusiasm” about that week’s new books by Rebecca Schinsky and Liberty Hardy of Book Riot. Rebecca loved it. She says, among other things, that the pacing is perfect. She also says that Jules Moulin used to write for The West Wing, so, you know – there’s no chance I’m leaving this one on the metaphorical shelf. It’s the “hilarious and heartbreaking” story of a mother and daughter who both fall for the same guy, and it’s also about a long-lost love reappearing in someone’s life – this is what Book Riot calls my genre kryptonite, the thing I can’t resist reading about (or one of them, at least). It’s also one of the things I love to write about.


Drama, by Raina Telgemeierdrama

I surprised myself last week by spontaneously picking up a graphic novel at Strand Books. Crucial to my decision was probably its purple cover – and look at it, so cute! It’s about middle school theatre nerds, and I loved it! I really enjoyed the illustrations. My one quibble: if you’re going to have identical twins in the story, maybe help your reader out by distinguishing their names more completely? But that’s such a tiny nitpick. This was a delight, and a fun, easy read. Plus, I loved the ending, but I can’t say why without spoiling it. #BookNerdProblems and all that.


remember meSo many! My queue keeps growing. This week I’ll be binge reading Remember Me LIke This a 2014 New York Times Notable Book, so I can write about it for work. From what I’ve seen about it and the few pages I’ve read so far, it’s a literary thriller with emotional resonance about a boy who goes missing from a family and what happens when he is found.

In the Unlikely Event, by Judy BlumeIn the unlikely event

I have also been reading Judy Blume’s In The Unlikely Event for far too long now – I started a couple of months ago, then realised that a book whose plot is centred around plane crashes maybe wasn’t the best thing for anxiety-prone me to read before flying to the West Coast and back. I’m back in the swing of it now – mostly listening to it (thanks, Scribd) – and enjoying it. There are a few too many characters to my liking – I have trouble keeping them all straight – but it’s very engaging. And nobody, nobody writes teenage love like Judy Blume.