By Buzz McClain
A thrill runs up my spine as I realize I’m about to be alone in a hotel room with Karin Tanabe.
Tanabe, after all, is a 32-year-old, comely, slinky minx of an author made all the more exotic by her half-Japanese heritage. And she’s a word person! She’s a journalist by trade, with bylines all over creation, including stints as managing editor of the glossy Washington Life magazine and as celebripolitics gossip blogger for Politico.
She’s cashed in on her experience covering the marble halls and red carpets of Capitol Hill by penning a fast-moving, fitfully hilarious tale of sex, journalism and politics called “The List: A Novel”; the politicking takes place in Washington, but the sex takes place in Northern Virginia, which is where we like it.
I’ve arranged to meet with Tanabe in her hotel room to talk about the sexploits of her flirty reporter heroine, Adrienne Brown, who spends the novel lusting after a tall, dark, handsome stranger, which, as it happens, describes me to the T. Or maybe a lesser letter, but still . . .
Adrienne works for a publication called The Capitolist (the “List” for short and thus the title), where she’s compelled to turn in a story an hour—beginning at 5 a.m. at her parent’s home in Middleburg as she readies for her commute—until the last klieg lights of whatever party she’s covering are turned off at night. It’s an ungodly pace, but the demands of modern media and enquiring minds requires the List’s reporters to beaver away on their Blackberries night and day. It can’t be real, can it?
And so Tanabe is waiting for me in her room. But even though I’ve showered, shaved and gargled, it will do me no good. Tanabe is in a hotel in Abu Dhabi, where she’s covering a Hollywood movie premiere for her new employer, ITP Publishing Group, and I’m 7,000 miles away in my living room in north Arlington. She moved in February to the United Arab Emirates, so the interview is conducted via Skype, darn the luck. But my visit with Tanabe is a thrill nonetheless.
Northern Virginia Magazine: First of all, I was fascinated to see Adrienne lives with her parents in Middleburg as a reluctant returning-nester but works in Washington. Can you tell me how on earth does Adrienne manage to drive from Middleburg to Capitol Hill in 45 minutes, as she does at least once in the book?
Karin Tanabe (giggling): She drives very fast! It’s at 11 a.m., so there’s not much traffic. But she might have to break a few speed limits.
NVM: Adrienne’s schedule is brutal at the Capitolist. Did you have to file stories composed with your thumbs on your Blackberry as often as she does when you were at Politico?
KT: It is pretty real. When I was at Politico I was at a section called Click, and I started at 6 a.m. and we went to 6 p.m. in the newsroom and then we covered parties. The White House team when I was there started at 5 a.m. They probably still do. The added “bonus” to the society staff was you get to cover parties afterward and pretend you’re enthusiastic and still awake. It’s a wild ride, but it’s a sport for the young.
NVM: How long did you survive that pace?
KT: I was there for 18 months. Politico is amazing at what they do, they do great with politics. They’ve got their flaws and I think they know that but they’re very good at what they do.
NVM: Did you stumble on any real sex scandals in Middleburg?
KT: Not in Middleburg, per se, but you’re covering society and you know more than you should know; it’s that moral dilemma, do I print something that is none of my business to get the glory or do I not have this be on my conscience the rest of my life? As for sex scandals, I always thought Middleburg would be a real good place to have one. I always thought these guys having affairs at the Mayflower—I mean, I know 10 people when I walk into the Mayflower, and who am I? These are the guys running our nation?
NVM: And now you are covering celebrities and society in Abu Dhabi. That sounds like quite the life.
KT: It beats 6 a.m. in Arlington to get to Politico, I’ll tell you that.
NVM: Do you see the way news is gathered and distributed changing even more so? Is it getting even shorter, tighter, more immediate?
KT: I kind of feel that it’s at a point where it can’t get shorter or more immediate. It might have to go the other way now because there’s nowhere further it can go. I used to do stories off of one Tweet; there’s a scene in my book where Adrienne has to write a piece every hour. That was very true at Politico and very true at other places, too. I think the human capacity for words, that is about as fast as you can get.
NVM: And you’re typing it on a Blackberry!
KT: I had a colleague who could touch-type on a Blackberry without looking down and while doing other things. It becomes such robotic behavior but going that fast and having that pressure burns people out really fast and doesn’t make for lifelong reporters. And you see more mistakes being made, too.
NVM: Because editors can’t keep the pace, either.
KT: I remember the day I wrote the word “public” without the letter “l,” and it went live until someone emailed me. No one’s checking. My stuff just went straight to the site.
NVM: Politico has developed international cachet in just a few short years, something you reflect on with the fictional Capitolist. Adrienne even leaves a glossy in New York to move to D.C. So why would you quit?
KT: It was a lot of things. My section was shrinking and I wanted to get out before the boat sailed. The Click section was not a priority for Politico. When I came there was an editor and six reporters. When I left there were just two reporters. I was increasingly less happy; I was writing tiny blurbs instead of long-form pieces.
NVM: So you quit to write the book?
KT: I actually wrote the book while I was at Politico! I started in August 2011 and was done with a first draft by January. It went very fast.
NVM: That’s impossible.
KT: I have this game that I do, and I think it’s the only way to do it. It’s called ‘Island’ and I sequester myself to my sofa with only my laptop, I turn off my wi-fi, I have water, I have a little food, and I tell myself I have to sit there for four hours and I can’t get off my island until I’ve written for four hours. It really works.
NVM: And this was while you were doing the crazy hours at Politico?
KT: It was! And it was a very crazy time in my life. And I ran two marathons in that time, too.
NVM: When did you sleep?
KT: I never slept. I didn’t sleep for six months. I was very ugly. I gained eight pounds, my hair was dull and I was not very happy. But the appeal of fiction is, If I only can be the next Candace Bushnell [journalist-turned-author of “Sex and the City”] then there will be buckets of gold for me.
NVM: You take on the celebrity-ification of politics in the novel. It seems there has to be a pop culture icon involved in everything.
KT: Every bill, every law, every charity. You need to have someone famous attached to it. It’s good that these celebrities are giving their time but sad that people don’t care about autism or whatever without seeing Jennifer Aniston or what have you. D.C. is becoming more and more celebrity obsessed as more celebrities get obsessed with D.C.
NVM: By the way, did you clear it with James Franco to use his name? He plays a part in a significant turn of the plot.
KT: I’m sure the Simon and Schuster legal department did. (Laughs.) I did interview him for real. He was very interesting and he told me he was leaving social media that day and I broke that story, so he was a nice guy.
NVM: Anything you miss about home?
KT: I really, really miss old things. Everything in the UAW was built yesterday. I miss old bricks.
NVM: Middleburg’s Goodstone Inn, where you have a senator and Adrienne’s rival consummate their relationship, several times, is made of old bricks. Did you have first-hand experience there?
KT (blushes, laughs): I did an article on the gardener there and shadowed her for a day, and it really stuck in my mind how you could drive into the hotel and park and walk on the property and get to your luxurious cottage without going to Reception or having anyone see you. I went there a few times to check for my book. I had no trouble whatsoever trespassing on the property.
NVM: I’m sure security is getting beefed up as we speak! Anything else you miss?
KT: I really miss nature. I’m a big runner and run with the Northern Virginia Trail Running Club and we do a lot of runs out by Lake Anne [in Reston] and I loved it. Those runs kept me sane when I was working those crazy hours at Politico. I miss dirt and grass and trees. [In fact, Tanabe runs ultra-marathons of 32 miles.]
NVM: Now that “The List” is in stores, do you have a second novel in you?
KT: Yes, and it is not a sequel. It’s about the auction industry.
NVM: I was hoping for more Adrienne Brown. When I was reading the book I kept thinking that in the inevitable movie version Adrienne, who is witty in an out-of-left-field way, would be played by Tina Fey.
KT (big laugh): Wow, that’d be great! She’d just have to dye her hair blonde!
NVM: Is there a real-life Sandro, the steamy hunk Adrienna craves?
KT (laughs): No. My first childhood crush was Andy Garcia, he was way old for me when I was a kid, but I pictured him in my mind for Sandro. I wanted to have a different kind of heartthrob, not your Brad Pitt-looking cookie cutter white guy. Hopefully Sandro comes across as pretty sexy.
NVM: He does, vividly. Which makes me wonder if you have a boyfriend.
KT: Yes, I have a boyfriend; we’ve been dating for three years, but he’s back in America. He played football for Nebraska, he won a national championship with them when they were good. And he works on the Hill. He fact-checked my stuff near the end of the book regarding immigration bills.
NVM: Have you always wanted to write books?
KT: I did. I grew up in a house exploding with books. My dad was one of the editors the Washington Post’s Book World [Kunio Francis Tanabe] and he brought me home a book a day, every day, for my whole life because he got every single book on earth for free. I knew I wanted to write fiction, but it’s like saying, ‘I want to be a rock star, mom.’ So I thought I’d try journalism first to see if could get me there.
NVM: So until “The List” hits, you’re on UAE red carpets chasing down movie stars.
KT: I’m really, really good at screaming at celebrities. I have this whole shtick that I do, and I really never let one pass. I’ve burned some shoe leather chasing celebs.
(And here, she demonstrates how she got Richard Gere’s attention at a recent premiere. It consists of repeating “Richard” in a high register until the star has no choice but to respond simply to save everyone else the agony.)
NVM: Oy. That’s quite a skill.
KT: It’s so annoying! And the other reporters think you’re annoying. But if that doesn’t work, I run to the other end of the red carpet to catch them on the way out and elbow the keeper out of the way. If you don’t get your quote your time is wasted and you get beheaded by your editor.
NVM: You have to really swallow your humility . . .
KT: Oh, absolutely. John Cougar Mellencamp told me to go to hell during an Inauguration. Ben Affleck, I spilled coffee on and he probably said worse to me.
NVM: You can’t afford to be shy.
KT: It’s a great way to get over shyness, which I was. My first interview ever was Edward Norton, I was about 25-years old and I can’t believe I didn’t faint. I was just freaking out. But one of my last interviews for Politico was with Robert Redford and we were just chilling out in a room together for about 45 minutes and I was as cool as a cucumber. It’s amazing how as time passes that your humility and common sense just goes out the window.
NVM: And here we’ve turned the tables. It’s me stalking you now. And as your book takes off and becomes a best seller and eventually is sold to the movies, you’ll be the one on the red carpet avoiding the annoying gossip reporters.
KT: Fingers crossed! But let me tell you something, if I’m ever on the red carpet on the other side I will stand there for five hours if anyone wants to talk to me and I will tell them anything they want because I know how frustrating it can be to be a reporter and get ignored.
“The List: A Novel” is available in bookstores and online in February.