22 Oct 2018
Peter Stone on his first novel—a political thriller set in DC—and the science of writing in sparse spare timeby Julia HannaTopics:
At his 2012 wedding, Peter Stone (MBA 2008) received an unexpected compliment, in addition to all of the expected well wishes and toasts. Bestselling author and guest Margaret Stohl told Stone that she was impressed with the vows he’d composed for the ceremony. Was he a writer?
Stone told Stohl that he wrote emails for work. But what she’d said planted a seed that would become The Perfect Candidate, a young adult thriller published this month by Simon and Schuster that centers on Cameron Carter, a recent high school graduate who lands a plum internship with his hometown congressman. When a fellow staffer is found dead, Cameron, trying to do the right thing, is sucked into DC’s dark side.
“Like the protagonist in the book, I grew up in a small town in central California—Modesto, in my case,” says Stone, who served as an intern for Gary Condit, the California congressman who would become the focus of intense media scrutiny after lying to investigators about his relationship with Chandra Levy, a 23-year-old whose remains were found one year after her disappearance in May 2001. Witnessing the fallout from those events tempered his idealism, says Stone, but his work as an intern was formative. “As is the cliché with most teenagers, I was dying to get out of my hometown,” he says. “For me, Washington was that break. It was the most eye-opening, confidence-building experience of my life up until that point.”
Now based in Tokyo with his wife and two young sons, Stone is a marketing director at Netflix.
Writing a novel while working full-time is no small task. How did you do it?
When you’re the parent of young children, the hours that are your own become fewer and fewer.
You learn to operate on criminally low levels of sleep. I worked after dinner, dishes, and putting my two sons down to sleep. By that time it was 9:30 or 10 p.m. at night, and figuring out what one teenager was going to say to another teenager was the very last thing I wanted to do. Writing can make cleaning up toys look really attractive. So there was a bit of discipline I had to exercise.
There’s also some insecurity that is inherent in writing—in being vulnerable and creative. Every time you sit down you wonder, Are all of the words gone? Are all of my ideas gone? Every time you sit down, it feels like a leap. And in almost every case the words are there. They’re like stepping stones, one word after another, then one sentence after another, then a paragraph, and a page, and suddenly you’ve written a chapter.
Is there any way in which your job at Netflix was useful in the experience of creating something of your own?
More the other way around—the creative challenge of writing a novel actually made me better at my “day job,” so to speak. Working in the entertainment industry, we’re interacting all the time with actors, writers, producers, and directors. I wouldn’t put myself in the same league, but having a small taste of what it’s like to create something and hand it over—the insecurity that you feel in doing that—has made me way more empathetic. As a result I’m a better listener, a better strategist, and a better overall executive. I did not see that coming at all.
Another way that it’s helped is that when I write, I start with a plan. But sometimes you realize the characters or plot are taking you in directions you wouldn’t have anticipated. And oftentimes it’s that allowance for improvisation that makes a sentence, chapter, or entire book better. The analogy to the business world is clear—you start with a plan and a strategy, but just as important is a willingness to adapt.
Why did you choose to write from the perspective of a young intern with no political power?
I’ve read so many political thrillers written from the point of view of presidents and power brokers. I wanted readers to see what this world was like from the point of view of people on the front lines. Often it’s those with the smallest titles who end up having the most power.
Obviously, we’re living in pretty extraordinary political times, with people feeling very strongly on both sides of the issues. But one thing I think we all can agree on is the benefit of young people being more engaged than ever in politics. That lines up well with Cameron, who takes a stand against people in power. If young readers take anything away from the book, I hope it’s the realization that they’re capable of far more than they think.
You went back to Washington after your internship and worked as an intern at a think tank. I understand you were also Newt Gingrich’s Spanish tutor?
Yes—there are few weirder experiences than sitting in the green room of the O’Reilly Report trying to teach Newt Gingrich the difference between the preterite and imperfect tenses in Spanish.
But you did shift from policy to business at a certain point. Why?
I really enjoyed my time in Washington, but it became disillusioning for a number of reasons—and not just because of the media circus that surrounded Condit. Even in the short period of time I was there I lost patience with the slow pace of change. And regardless of where you stand on the political aisle, the acrimony inherent in a two-party system was disheartening at times.
So if politics was my first love, entertainment and media is my second—specifically film and television. I was drawn to that world, and began to realize that Hollywood and Washington are sister cities. They’re both industry towns, and in many ways the marketing campaign for a movie or a television show is not unlike a campaign for a political candidate. You’re trying to inform people, arm them with information, remind them about a date, and then get them to show up and act. In many ways it’s some of the same skills and rhythms I was drawn to as a teenager, just employed in a different way.
Class of MBA 2008, Section D