Political thrillers Marilyn Quayle, sister turn out a novel

March 18, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

WASHINGTON — They're just like any other first-time authors: anxious to see how their new book is received, thrilled at the prospect of people picking up their Washington mystery and reading it. "It's amazing to see people on airplanes carrying our book," one of them says in the hotel room, and there is wonder in her voice.

Typical rookie writers, Marilyn Quayle and her sister Nancy Northcott are -- except for those two grim-looking Secret Service agents with walkie-talkies who are standing in the hall.

For when your name is Marilyn Quayle, and your husband is the vice president of the United States, you do not enter the publishing world quietly. When you meet the press to discuss "Embrace the Serpent," the thriller that you co-wrote with an older sister, there are unsmiling guys in dark suits with American flag pins on their lapels who stand guard outside. Visitors are screened with chilling precision -- will they know if I ever wrote a rubber check? -- before being admitted into the plush suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.

This is not exactly like arguing 20th century American fiction with Norman Mailer over a beer and a corned beef sandwich at an East Side deli.

What it is, though, is intriguing. There's something quite irresistible about the notion that the person married to the No. 2 politician in the United States -- Mrs. Heartbeat-Away, if you will -- has co-written a political thriller in which Fidel Castro dies on the first page.

And there's a lot more: Cuba is thrown into turmoil, as long-suffering anti-Castro rebels vie for power with Russian-backed Cuban officials; Russia, itself in disarray, tries to enlarge a toehold in Cuba into a stranglehold.

Meanwhile, a weak U.S. president and gullible senators -- Democrats, of course -- observe all this without having a clue of what to do ("This Democratic President, as was true of the Democratic Congress, had little understanding of either defense security"). The liberal press likewise is mushy-minded and uncomprehending. But a brave black senator from Georgia, who just happens to be conservative and Republican, works with the anti-Castro rebels to forestall certain political disaster in Cuba.

As for the motivation for writing "Embrace the Serpent," Ms. Quayle talks not of literary pretensions, but of an aspiration that sounds more like one drawn from the Andy Rooney/Judy Garland movies -- "Hey, kids, let's put on a show."

"We've read a lot over the years, and we'd always say to each other, 'We can do this,' " says Ms. Quayle, dressed in a spectacularly bright green dress that would accommodate any St. Patrick's Day obligations for years to come. "We always shared books back and forth, and about 10 years ago we said, 'We ought to sit down and write a book together.' So right after the [presidential] inauguration [in January 1989], Nancy said, 'It's now or never.'

Writing the book took some chutzpah. Not only is Ms. Quayle's husband in a highly sensitive position, but she had never written fiction before -- "just law briefs and a lot of speeches." And whether "Embrace the Serpent" will make Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy look for other work is questionable, although Mr. Clancy, a fellow Republican, wrote a very nice blurb ("Superb pacing. Snappy writing. One hell of a good thriller").

Crown Publishers thinks enough of the book to give it a respectable first printing of 75,000, and now Ms. Quayle and Nancy Northcott, who at 47 is five years older than her more famous sister, are beginning a 10-city publicity tour.

They'll be doing the biggies, of course -- the "Today" show (WMAR Channel 2) tomorrow morning, the "Morning Show" on CBS (WBAL Channel 11) and the "Larry King Show" on CNN Friday -- but also will be giving newspaper interviews and appearing at book signings. It's a way to show that "Embrace the Serpent" is not a dilatory exercise -- that, as Ms. Northcott says, "This is a profession for us at this point. We view this as something we'd like to continue doing."

Indeed, says Ms. Quayle, sitting with her sister on a love seat in their hotel suite, their agent specified to all publishers who read the manuscript that "they could not exploit me. They had to understand that this was a serious effort, and they had to approach the book as if I were a regular author. Crown was amenable to that, and our relationship has been totally professional and away from political wifedom."

They are already working on a sequel to "Embrace the Serpent," although Ms. Quayle, alluding to the upcoming presidential campaign, says dryly, "I'll be pretty busy in the next several months."

(Richard Marek, Crown's editor in chief, concurs: "Both she and Nancy are dead serious about this as a career." And though Ms. Quayle's name is prominently displayed at the top of the book, her biographical information on the dust jacket reads, with slight preciousness, "Marilyn T. Quayle lives in the Vice-President's House in Washington, D.C., with her husband and three children.")

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