To view the latest edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter, click here. To sign up for our monthly newsletter, click here.
North Melbourne Books Talks to Beck Dorey-Stein
North Melbourne Books: In 2012, quite by accident, you found yourself employed in the Obama administration as a stenographer. From the Corner of the Oval Office covers your five years travelling, recording and transcribing President Obama’s interviews, briefings, conference calls and speeches. The book is rich in detail: people, conversations and fly-on-the-wall observations. How did you get so much of it down on the page? Did you have any particular method?
Beck Dorey-Stein: My particular method was a frantic and inconsistent purging of emotion, mostly when I was feeling the most alienated. Whether it was writing at my kitchen table at sunrise or journaling in my bed at night, writing has always been my salve for scorching isolation. And while working at the White House as a stenographer was thrilling and a blindside tackle of honor and privilege, it was also profoundly isolating. I constantly thought to myself, “What am I doing here? And how did I get here? And where am I going?” Feeling like a weirdo outsider makes for lonely moments but also inspires lovely reasons to write.
NMB: The book is in many ways confessional. You reveal in compelling detail the many twists and turns of your romantic relationships while working at the White House, in particular one with a fellow staffer. What made you want to write with such brutal honesty?
BDS: It’s the only way I will write. My tolerance for polished veneers is not great — mostly because perfect or impersonal is boring. Life is tough and magical and gross and funny and awkward and heartbreaking and beautiful...why pretend it’s anything less complicated when all the imperfections and struggles are what connect us?
NMB: It was interesting to read about the ambitious and career hungry people who throng the halls of power: despite their success, many are not particularly happy. Was that an irony that struck you particularly while working at such a high level?
BDS: Yes, very much so, although Tennessee Williams had warned me in his essay, “The Catastrophe of Success,” which I thankfully read on a beach the year before I moved to Washington. Success is dangerous because, as Williams wrote, “Security is a kind of death...” My politically-driven friends knew they had peaked when they arrived at the White House and that’s as upsetting as it is wonderful. Struggle is key to survival because it sharpens our senses. It makes us fight tougher and love harder. Complacency, which so often chases success, is the true soul-crusher — not struggle or even failure.
NMB: Your book, while being essentially a memoir, is also a search for meaning. It asks what should we do with our working lives, how to spend our time most effectively. Is there a message you hope people take away from the book?
BDS: I learned from President Obama no one is too busy or important to be kind and respectful. It’s important to look up and recognize the humanity in each other. Be kind. It’s not that difficult.
I also learned from President Obama that you need to do the work if you want to get what you want. I lucked out with a Craigslist ad, but I’d still be typing other people’s thoughts and not writing my own words if I hadn’t hustled. Fight for what you want, sure, but more importantly, work for what you want. Our biggest adversaries are so often ourselves.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
BDS: I’m concurrently reading Alisyn Camerota’s Amanda Wakes Up and Margalit Fox’s Conan Doyle for the Defense. They are both a true joy and gift to read.
From the Corner of the Oval Office: One Woman's True Story of her Accidental Career in the Obama White House, by Beck Dorey-Stein. RRP: $35