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Timing is everything with Senator Boxer's debut novel



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WASHINGTON - Sen. Barbara Boxer's career has been marked by eerily good timing: elected to the Senate in the "Year of the Woman" in 1992, re-elected on the pro-Democratic tide sparked by President Clinton's 1998 impeachment, and victorious again last year after drawing an underwhelming Republican opponent.

So it's no surprise that the Californian's first novel, the tale of a liberal female senator trying to derail a controversial, female Supreme Court nominee, will hit bookstores in the wake of Harriet Miers' nomination - and subsequent withdrawal - to the high court.

"I think she hit that one really lucky," said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly.

But in life and literature, Boxer has helped make her own luck.

A big reason female candidates were so successful in 1992 was the outrage of many women over the treatment of Anita Hill's sexual-harassment allegations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas - allegations that Boxer helped pressure the Senate to air. Boxer's political skills and aggressive campaigning have been a major factor in top-notch Republicans' declining to challenge her although her strong partisan views continually make her one of the GOP's top targets.

And the boost that "A Time to Run" may receive from its coincidental release during what would have been Miers' confirmation fight masks the seven years of work Boxer put into the 368-page book, co-written with San Francisco novelist Mary-Rose Hayes. Boxer wrote much of it longhand on yellow legal pads during her frequent cross-country flights.

"My day job, my Senate job, is all-consuming. It's hard to get away from it," Boxer said Wednesday over lunch at Hunan Dynasty, one of the Capitol Hill restaurants featured in the novel. "This actually was relaxing. It was getting me into this other world."

The world that politicians usually write about is the real one, their books normally autobiographies or policy tomes, like the one Boxer wrote in 1994 about her `92 campaign and the role of women in the Senate.

But occasionally a politician dives into fiction: Former President Jimmy Carter wrote his first novel in 2003, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has written three books set during the Civil War and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., has penned two mysteries.

Boxer, who was a journalist in the early 1970s at the weekly Pacific Sun newspaper in her adopted home of Marin County, said she has always loved writing. From the time she entered politics Boxer thought it would make the perfect setting for a novel.

After a tough re-election battle in 1998, Boxer decided to channel her experiences into a fictional character - a short, feisty, liberal named Ellen Fischer who becomes a U.S. senator and is the central figure in "A Time to Run."

Although there are obvious parallels to the short, feisty, liberal Boxer, the character - and others in the book - are composites, she said. Fischer, for example, is 15 years younger than Boxer (who is 64) and childless (Boxer has two children).

Still, "A Time to Run" offers a much more flattering portrayal of liberals than conservatives as it follows the lives of Fischer and two friends from the University of California-Berkeley into the cutthroat world of national politics.

"Saints' fend offsnakes' in Boxer's political novel," was the headline last week in the conservative Washington Times.

Boxer said her characters are more complicated, but admitted: "I write the book with a point of view. I'm not ashamed of it. I don't think it's shocking that liberal issues and liberal positions would be favored in the book and the way that I see the world would be shown."

The novel originally ended with Fischer's election to the Senate. But Boxer's editor at San Francisco-based Chronicle Books wanted to add more Washington flavor to it. So, about a year and a half ago, Boxer and British-born Hayes (who came on board about three years ago) decided to add in the Supreme Court nomination battle.

"It turned out to be amazingly topical," Boxer said.

The book, for which Boxer received a $15,938 advance, has earned good reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist magazine. Kirkus Reviews was less impressed: "Short on subtlety and insider dish, this political page-turner will nevertheless rally the blue and annoy the red."

Nelson of Publishers Weekly said being a senator no doubt helped Boxer get the novel published. Boxer's name on the cover is three times the size of the book's title.

Boxer doesn't deny her name recognition helped, but said it probably will hurt with conservative readers. Liberals, she said, may like the book better, especially since they've been having a hard time winning real political battles in Washington these days.

"If after reading my book the liberals come away happy, it's OK with me," Boxer said. "We haven't had that much to cheer about."

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(c) 2005, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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