Sympathy for the Bureaucrat

Karen Olsson
On Writing

All the Houses by Karen Olsson

Karen Olsson on where fiction touches the real, where our empathy most easily attaches, and how the true-life scandal of the Iran-Contra affair revealed itself to be the perfect backdrop for her sophomore novel, All the Houses, which NPR has called “funny, sweet and beautifully written.


All the Houses by Karen Olsson
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I never intended to take on the Iran-Contra affair. My characters dragged me into it. I’d been writing about a woman in her thirties named Helen Atherton who returns to her hometown of Washington, D.C., and as the story took shape I perceived that her father, Tim, had worked as a bureaucrat and had lost his job as a result of a political scandal in the 1980s. From there it was a short slide to Iran-Contra. An actual scandal, one that remains mysterious to this day, seemed to me to be much richer than whatever I might’ve cooked up from scratch—fictional shenanigans at the Department of Commerce? Nothing like that could’ve matched the documented misadventures of certain Reagan administration officials in 1985-86.

Or that’s how I think of my unplanned descent into Iran-Contra—I am not responsible! I was taking orders from someone else! My first impulse is to pass the buck, just as some of those officials did when it came time for a public accounting of the whole mess. But because I’m blaming my own characters, I’m on even shakier ground than President Reagan’s good soldiers.

In the spring and summer of 1987, when the scandal blew up and Congress held televised hearings, I was fourteen and not especially interested. I was old enough to absorb some of what was going on, but mostly I liked basketball and daytime soap operas. I didn’t pay close attention. As I grew older, Iran-Contra took on the enigmatic quality of something half-remembered, something that seemed more significant than I’d given it credit for being at the time. This kind of loaded partial memory fit the story of All the Houses, in which a woman attempts to parse certain half-remembered incidents from her teenage years. For her Washington family, the wrongdoing in the White House turns out to have been behind some of those incidents, and the scandal’s elusiveness becomes a foil for the cloudiness of the family’s past.

Iran-Contra is tough to digest, regardless of whether you were an adult or a child or not yet born back then. The historian Theodore Draper says that rather than call it the Iran-Contra affair, we should say Iran-Contra affairs, plural, to recognize that there were two separate covert operations being run out of the White House: one to sell weapons to Iran—though it violated our own embargo—in a bid to gain the release of hostages in Beirut; the other to secretly advise and supply an anti-government uprising in Nicaragua, after military aid to the Nicaraguan Contras had been banned by Congress. (The two became linked because profits from the weapons sales were diverted to the Contra forces.) The story only gets more tangled from there. Draper, in a comically plaintive introduction to A Very Thin Line, his meticulous chronicle of the affairs, explains that he’d expected to spend about three months completing his book, having already written several articles on the subject. Instead, he found himself buried in some 50,000 pages of documents, which he spent years reviewing.

The narrative murk, the lack of clear resolution—these also sucked me in, much more than any of the stories that fuel the more mundane political scandals—the predictable ones of corruption or campaign malfeasance or sexual improprieties—ever could have. As a handful of White House officials began to creep into my book, I was struck by their hubris, their naiveté, and especially by the stories they told themselves about what they did. As a novelist I developed a sympathy for them—for these fictional officials—that I’d never felt as a citizen toward their real-life counterparts. If my original characters, the members of the Atherton family, had pushed me to spend time with the likes of Robert McFarlane and Oliver North, then McFarlane and North influenced how I understood their fictional colleague Tim Atherton, who shares some of the same beliefs and is beset by some of the same pressures and rivalries.

As for the scandal writ large: by 1987 the Washington scandal machine had arrived at full maturity, and if the complexity of the Iran-Contra matter represented one obstacle to understanding, the sound and fury of the investigations and hearings and reports didn’t so much remove that obstacle as create more barriers. Neither an independent counsel looking for crimes, nor a press corps looking for scoops, nor members of Congress looking for publicity could offer much in the way of context, much less clarity. Much was left for the historians to mop up.

And the novelist? I don’t attempt to offer the big picture in All the Houses. (For that I’d recommend Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus’s engaging Landslide: The Unmaking of the President 1984-1988, as well as Draper’s book.) I still wouldn’t say I’ve written a novel about Iran-Contra, not exactly, and at the same time Iran-Contra is integral to the book. I’ll just say it was the small picture I was after, what happened not in the official buildings but in living rooms and kitchens, and how lasting the consequences might have been for one family, even after the rest of the world has moved on.

All the Houses by Karen Olsson

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