WASHINGTON -- Washington novelist Barbara Raskin has always looked at the city a little differently. For her, it's never been a place of Great Men/Great Monuments. Perhaps that's because, upon arriving here in the late 1950s, she got to drinking Lyndon Johnson's booze and sleeping in his office.
She and her first husband, Marcus Raskin, had taken jobs oCapitol Hill, which, she recalls, "seemed like a campus. I had just come from the University of Chicago and we got an apartment on First Street, right across from the Senate Office Building, in a furnished room with no air-conditioning."
An early Washington friend was William Brammer, the administrative assistant to Johnson, who then was Senate Majority Leader. "Billy Brammer was working at night, writing 'The Gay Place' [a now classic political novel] in Lyndon Johnson's office," Ms. Raskin relates with some relish. "Our apartment faced Lyndon's office, and Billy would say, 'Come on over and cool off.' And we would go crawling in the first-floor window of the Senate Office Building on Constitution Avenue. We'd tap into the bourbon supply and put on some records and stay there and cool off, and sleep on the floor and the sofas there."
She smiles at the memory. "That's why it's really hard to think of Lyndon Johnson as the president or the vice president. To me, he was Billy Brammer's boss."
This view of Washington from the inside pervades her five novels. Ms. Raskin writes not to write of super-power conflict or ,, great men locked in mortal power struggles; she writes about the women of Washington -- women who stood by their famous men and paid for it emotionally, financially and spiritually; who raised the children of their celebrity mates and then watched in disbelieving anguish as their men blithely took up with women half their age; who drew strength from each other as marriages faded, children moved away and their own careers were diminished or abandoned.
Her first three books sold few copies and were written under extraordinarily difficult situations: a painful divorce, raising three children while teaching at Washington universities and writing at night. But her fourth book, "Hot Flashes," was one of the surprise publishing successes of 1987. A chronicle of four "fortysomething" friends, "Hot Flashes" sold 1.5 million copies in hardcover and softcover, and earned "a couple of million dollars" for Ms. Raskin, who says her first book, "Loose Ends," generated $333 in royalties when published in 1972.
Her latest novel is "Current Affairs," just published by Random House, about the sibling rivalry of two sisters. It throws in a cocaine-conspiracy theory that peripherally involves Fawn Hall amid sharp observations about the city's street life, its black-and-white relations ("Washington is one of the few American cities where a white person can feel what it's like to be the Other. The Outsider") and political junkies ("Washington's political types are like little children who can sense immediately if their parents aren't home. When the president goes to Camp David for a weekend, lots of Washingtonians remain uneasy until he returns to the city"). Befitting a now successful writer, "Current Affairs" earned her a seven-figure advance and a solid first printing of 150,000.
ABarbara Raskin is 55, of medium height, with soft eyes and a soft voice that can rise and fall with just the right inflection when telling a story. Her emotions come to the surface easily; in conversation, she moves easily from delight one minute to despair the next. Like most of her fictional characters, she is a longtime liberal who was both a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War and an active member of the civil rights movement.
Ms. Raskin admits to being pleased, a little dazed and a little anxious about her long-awaited success.
"It's very hard coming from behind a best seller -- that's a cliche in the industry and it's true," she says, while sitting at the kitchen table of her large and homey Adams-Morgan town house. "The publication of 'Hot Flashes' was an enormous pleasure and every day was perfect. I mean, I had waited a long time -- I had published my first short story when I was 12.
"It was just enormously gratifying and identity-clarifying. I was very happy I wrote that book because it articulated a lot of feelings and attitudes of women in my generation -- I mean, women would stop me and tears would well up, and they would hold my hand. It was like a perfect love affair, and so I had to do it again. I don't know if it's the nature of 'Hot Flashes' or the nature of a best seller, but there's a bit of a letdown and a bit of
resignation to start up again."
"Current Affairs" tells the story of two sisters. Natalie, an earnest social worker in Washington, has always felt overshadowed by her glamorous, self-aggrandizing, shameless younger sister Shay. Natalie complains:
"Frequently when Shay gets drunk, she brags that she's slept with Muammar Qaddafi, Fidel Castro, Michael Manley, one of People's sexiest men alive, one Nobel Prize winner, one MacArthur 'Genius' Fellowship winner and two Pulitzer Prize winners, whom she never names, out of respect for me, since one of them is my husband."
Shay is not the only glamorous woman who takes some shots in "Current Affairs." Ms. Raskin sets her sights as well on Fawn Hall, who was Oliver North's secretary when he worked in the White House and who admitted to being a weekend cocaine user at that time. In the book, an interview the Drug Enforcement Administration conducted with Ms. Hall is leaked to the national press and a furor ensues. But, Ms. Raskin says ruefully, it was not so in real life.
"One day, when I was about to start this book, I came across this article about her in the Washington Post in which she confessed to being a habitual weekend cocaine user while working in the White House," she says, and the old liberal outrage begins to surface in her voice. "That's pretty far out, I think, to be in a top security position. She had access to world-shaking plans and she was a cocaine user -- and nobody did anything about it."
One reason, Ms. Raskin concluded, was "she looks like -- I don't know -- a blond bombshell or whatever, and if she looked that way, she could do that. So she got in my head. I'm interested in women who are glamorous, and how that blinds people. A lot of our glamorous figures in New York or California or whatever in business or politics, they get away with murder because even sober-minded people are a little bit dazzled by the glamour."
Now she is at work on a new novel, called "Heading South," which will center on Washington, of course, but also Richmond, Va., where a daughter lives. Not for a minute does she miss the bad old days of life before "Hot Flashes."
"That was a grueling ordeal," Ms. Raskin says, and she gives a long sigh that speaks volumes. "I would write at night as long as I could stay up, then still have to get up at 7. It burned me out and burned out my marriage. I couldn't stop -- it was like I was addicted to writing."
BFinally, "about '82 I started 'Hot Flashes.' I plodded on and kept working and, oh, went through this divorce. Everything looked terrible, but I kept writing, and finally it comes out in '87 and I'm this overnight success story. Then somebody said, 'Why did you keep writing?' It never really dawned on me to say, 'Stop, you fool, you're going nowhere, you're more anonymous now than you were 30 years ago, you're not going to get a break.'"
Along with the writing success has come long-awaited financial security as well. "I can't tell you how good that part has meant," she says. "I paid all of my kids' tuition loans. .. And, finally, I have no excuses and a lot of freedom to write -- no kids around, no husband [her second marriage, to journalist Anatole Shub, ended in divorce in 1987]. I can go upstairs and spend all day up there at the computer and nothing can stop me. God, that feels good."