Dan Cluchey's debut novel, The Life of the World to Come, is a love story that explores sincerity over fantasy, death, reincarnation, religion and the ecstasy of reality. Although a departure from his day job as an Advisor and Senior Speechwriter, Cluchey's novel has received strongly positive reviews. With a B.A. from Amherst College and a J.D. from Harvard Law School, he was a prolific speechwriter in the Obama Administration for the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services and the Export-Import Bank. Now working in the private sector, Stay Thirsty Magazine was pleased to visit with Dan Cluchey in New Haven, Connecticut, to explore these Five Questions about his life as a speechwriter and as a novelist.
STAY THIRSTY: Your debut novel, The Life of the World to Come, has been called "engrossing," a "smart, weird, heartful book" with "beautiful moments." How does it feel to be judged as a novelist instead of as a speechwriter? Is there a difference in how you approach a reading audience versus a listening one?
DAN CLUCHEY: When it comes to judgment, speechwriters usually have the luxury of being well-hidden behind a more conspicuous target; it's a key feature of the job, and the shield does not discriminate between blame and credit. An American hears "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," and she or he isn't going to think, boy, that Ted Sorensen sure knocked it out of the park with that one. There's both safety and occasional frustration in that arrangement, but, as a speechwriter, it is emphatically what you've signed up for. The novelist doesn't get to hide anywhere, as it turns out. For me, that has felt dangerous and exciting so far, but before long I sort of know that it's going to break my heart.
As to how to approach a reading audience versus a listening audience, I imagine that there is supposed to be a difference; I just didn't have the good sense to suss it out. Write for long enough with the rhythm and music of the language intentionally in your mind, and it becomes hard to shut it off. Working on this novel, I did not break my usual habit of reading everything out loud to myself to find out – the meaning of the words aside – if it sounded nice.
STAY THIRSTY: With a background in law and political science and a resume that includes positions as a Senior Advisor and Chief Speechwriter for several governmental agencies in Washington and now in the private sector, how difficult was it for you to pivot from telling someone else's story to telling your own? Is being a writer of fiction the real Dan Cluchey?
DAN CLUCHEY: Well, The Life of the World to Come is my own story in the sense that I wrote it, but it's still a story about people who, strictly speaking, aren't me. The audiences and outputs are different when you're dealing in the world of politics and law, but the machinery of writing seems largely to be the same whether it's a novel or a strategy memo or an email or a song: you're just trying to make an authentic story out of images and words in order to persuade someone of something. In politics, that authentic story is hopefully going to be nonfiction, but the telling of it, in my experience at least, isn't all that different from novel-writing.
Also, ha: "The real Dan Cluchey?" I'll never tell.
STAY THIRSTY: Did your law background help or hinder your ability to become a novelist? Did legal writing ever get in your way?
DAN CLUCHEY: Law school helped me to become a novelist in an entirely practical way, in that, after I graduated and took the bar exam, I had four free months before starting my job with the Obama Administration – time I used to write this first novel. I had never really taken a crack at creative writing prior to then, but I imagine that, if I had, law school would also have reined in some of the worst excesses of what I'm certain my pre-law prose style would have been like. Legal writing enforces discipline and economy of language, neither of which are strong suits of mine, even now. If I hadn't been forced to draft all of those bone-dry briefs and memos and whatnot, this novel would probably have three times as many la-di-da semicolons and adjectives, and it's already fairly stuffed to the gills.
STAY THIRSTY: As a speechwriter, what are the three most important elements that make a speech exceptional? What do you look for when listening to a speech that you did not write?
DAN CLUCHEY: Different speechwriters will have different answers to this question, but for me one of the elements has to be cadence. My favorite speeches across all eras are closer to music than prose, and while they absolutely need to be delivered deftly to succeed, that rhythm has to come from the writing. People underestimate the emotional impact that comes from the swoops and the crescendos and the well-executed staccato and the exact right pitch of the refrain. Getting that whole symphony correct on the page is what elevates a good speech to a great one.
The second element is a call to action. A speech can be inspirational, educational, memorial, or anything else, but if it doesn't ask something of the audience, it won't accomplish much of anything after the moment it ends. Lincoln didn't just consecrate Gettysburg; he asked Americans to rededicate themselves to a new birth of freedom. Dr. King didn't just convey a dream; he told his audience to "go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina," and march on in creative, nonviolent protest. Margaret Chase Smith's Declaration of Conscience, Teddy Roosevelt's New Nationalism – the best speeches always end with some version of a noble homework assignment.
The last element I listen for is the thread that weaves the whole of the speech together, the framing device that takes it from a collection of pretty lines and anecdotes and statistics to a unified package with a comprehensive emotional color scheme from beginning to end. Gloria Steinem's 2007 Smith College commencement address is one of my favorites, and it uses the thread of time (specifically, half-century increments of time) beautifully throughout the speech to hold everything together and to, among other things, tee up one of the great last lines of all time.
STAY THIRSTY: What is the most important, impactful project you ever worked on as a speechwriter and what was the outcome of your work?
DAN CLUCHEY: Bearing in mind that a speechwriter's role in any important policy initiative is, at best, small and supporting, all I can say is that I've been fortunate to have the chance to contribute in an infinitesimal way to some projects that have done a great deal of good. Note well, though, that it's the projects that are important – not the speeches.
A lot of my early work with the Obama Administration was on health care in the time leading up to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which to me (and especially at that moment) was the quintessential example of good policy freighted down by false messaging. Our charge was to convey the truth of what was coming, and we were up against something in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars being spent on spreading misinformation about the law in order to fuel skepticism and damage the President. The speeches I (and many others) worked on as part of that effort faced long odds, and to a certain extent, they didn't succeed – at least not to the degree that was needed at the time.
Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act is now speaking for itself: more than 20 million previously uninsured Americans now have the security and peace of mind that comes from having access to quality care, premium increases have slowed to their lowest rate in more than half a century, birth control and many preventive services are now free and accessible, and new studies show that Americans – particularly minority populations and the chronically ill – report feeling that they are in better health than they were before the law took effect. I've done my bit to chip in on a number of issues, but when I think about what good health means to a person's life, and how vulnerable a feeling it is to not to be able to count on getting the care you or a family member needs, I'm not sure I'll ever have a chance to work on anything as impactful as that in terms of delivering on a truly human service.