Hillary Clinton: Politician turned novelist | Sunday Observer

Hillary Clinton: Politician turned novelist

5 December, 2021

Title: State of Terror
Author: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny
Genre: Fiction/Thriller
Publisher: Macmillan
Pages: 512

In the Sri Lankan context, politicians do not write novels, though they write other books – one political novelist we have heard about in Sri Lanka is T.B. Ilangaratne, but it is some six decades ago.

However, in the Western world, politicians turned novelists are not rare. For instance, the former United States President Jimmy Carter wrote a novel; ‘The Hornet’s Nest: A Novel of the Revolutionary War’ in 2003 which is the first novel written by a US president. In Germany, there are many politicians turned novelists such as former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, another Chancellor Willy Brandt and current Green Party co-chair Robert Habeck.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once wrote a novel, ‘The Goldfish Pond at Chartwell ‘which he proclaimed later not worthy to read. Britain’s former member of Parliament Jeffrey Archer wrote dozens of hugely successful novels and became the first critically acclaimed such novelist. Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator, is also believed to have written four fables and a poetry book.

In this backdrop, more recently former US President Bill Clinton collaborating with James Patterson penned two novels: first, ‘The President Is Missing’ published in 2018, and the second, ‘The President’s Daughter’, was launched in late June. Then, just after four months after releasing Bill’s second novel, his wife, former US Secretary of State, Hillary R­odham Clinton, released her debut novel ‘State of Terror’ on late October 12. She collaborated with Canadian bestselling crime writer Louise Penny in this venture, and the book, which is considered an international political thriller, has already topped the US bestsellers’ charts.

Announcing the release of the novel in October, Clinton tweeted, “My first foray into fiction! It was a labor of love with my friend (and favourite mystery author) Louise Penny, and I can’t wait for you to read it.”

And in an author’s note, the co-author Penny has acknowledged that after a career of writing crime novels, the idea of tackling a political thriller felt awfully intimidating.


The novel features female protagonist Ellen Adams, a former media magnate and a two-time widower in her fifties. She has been appointed the Secretary of State by the newly elected US president Douglas Williams – he was the very president she campaigned against, and he became the President after four-long years of chaotic administration in the history of American politics. Though former President Eric Dunn was expelled from power, the repercussions of his actions are yet to be seen.

However, as soon as Ellen Adams takes over her new responsibilities, she has to face more challenges: A bomb explodes in London shocking the United Kingdom altogether. And the young Foreign Service officer Anahita Dahir receives a puzzling text from an unknown source which is a coded warning about the London blast.

This is followed by a series of bombings in Europe – from Paris to Frankfurt. The attacks were carried out by a new terrorist group led by a Bashir Shah, an evil Pakistani arms dealer “intent on creating a hell on earth” – they are on a mission to develop their own nuclear weapons. Shah was secretly freed from prison with the blessing of the previous US President.

He hates Ellen, whose media company once laid bare his crimes in a devastating documentary; he may have even killed her husband using an untraceable poison.

Meanwhile, Ellen tries to recover from the damages done by former president Dunn as he had withdrawn certain international policies during his term all of which leads to the current scenario.

In the process, she is convinced that Eric Dunn not only misused his power but also betrayed the country.

Reality behind the novel

In these pages, readers meet not the character Eric Dunn, but Donald Trump, and not Ellen Adams, but Hillary Clinton. She, in fact, indirectly describes what it was like to run against Donald Trump, the mistakes she made, how she has coped with a shocking and devastating loss, and how she found the strength to pick herself back up afterwards. She describes what it took to get back on her feet — the rituals, relationships, and reading that got her through, and what the experience has taught her about life. She also speaks about the challenges of being a strong woman in the public eye, the criticism over her voice, age, and appearance, and the double standard confronting women in politics.

According to her, the 2016 Presidential election which Hillary contested was marked by an unprecedented assault on the US democracy by a foreign adversary. By analyzing the evidence and connecting the dots, she shows readers how dangerous the forces were that shaped the outcome, and why Americans need to understand them to protect their values and democracy in the future.

Not the work of a novelist

But is it a real novelist’s attempt that Hillary did in writing her book? Definitely, it is a political retaliation against former President Donald Trump who defeated her. She also lashes out America’s political opponents. For instance, there is a character in the book as Maxim Ivanov which represents Russian President Vladimir Putin. And there are other world leaders in the novel and they are harshly criticized by her. So is it a novel with fidelity in her job as a novelist? No.

According to book critic Colin Dickey, a lot of newer novels by political leaders just reduce their stories into a binary of good against evil. There isn’t any enlightenment of life in their attempts and it is very much relevant for Hillary’s book as well. But if narrative control or life lightening is not the ultimate intent of a former politician turned author, what is?

“I do think politicians write to stay in the public’s mind,” said Jacob Appel, a New York-based author, book critic and expert in psychiatry who has studied the psychological and physical health of American presidents. “Not necessarily because they think this will get them elected in the future — I doubt Hillary Clinton thinks she’ll get more votes someday if someone thinks she’s a gifted novelist — but because they enjoy the limelight and believe that they have stories worth sharing.”

US Republican and the former speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich adds a new dimension to why leaders like himself are motivated to write fiction. He himself has written alternate history novels such as ‘Pearl Harbor’ (2007) and ‘Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War’ (2003), and knows exactly what he wants from writing novels. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal in May, Gingrich spoke about his goals in mind while writing books. As he said he has three goals in writing books: “One, educate the reader about something significant. Two, educate myself. And three, make a little bit of money.”

He explains that money as motivation goes beyond party loyalties. “Bill Clinton doesn’t write a novel to get his name better known. He writes a novel because if you combine him and his co-author, they’re going to sell a tremendous number of books,” Gingrich said.

A novelist has a special kind of sensitivity, sensuality and world view. Invariably, he is an introvert interested in his own thoughts and feelings, and has never been a public character.

Hillary Clinton cannot be such a character as husband Bill Clinton is. So, ‘State of Terror’ by Hillary, albeit a novel, won’t be a treasured fiction in American literature. However, by her attempt, she could start a new discussion on politician turned novelists and their novels, which is commendable.