Perhaps it was because today is the last hurrah before A-listers head off to the beach and the mountains to escape summer’s dog days. Whatever the reason, Michael’s was jumping today.
I was joined by CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, whose new book Amanda Wakes Up was released July 25. I read it in three nights and enjoyed it thoroughly.
News junkies and veterans alike will find it a well-paced, enjoyable read and also have fun trying to decide who these characters are supposed to be in real life. Alisyn, wearing a fire-engine red dress by Black Halo to echo the book’s cover, told me she’s glad she didn’t know what it took to write a novel when she decided to turn “a bunch of stories” that she’d written about her own experiences in television news into a book. “It was harder than I thought,” she admits.
Alisyn did, however, have a head start on many aspiring novelists as she certainly didn’t want for material. The co-host of CNN’s New Day with Chris Cuomo has covered several presidential campaigns and has been the subject of Donald Trump’s ire (more on that later). Prior to joining CNN in 2014, Alisyn logged sixteen years at Fox News, ten of which were spent at Fox & Friends. Earlier this year, Alisyn went public with her story of being sexually and emotionally harassed by the network’s chairman and CEO, the late Roger Ailes. See, I told you she had the stuff for a good page-turner.
Amanda Wakes Up has gotten good notices from USA Today, Vanity Fair and AP among other outlets and is also the beneficiary of some fortuitous timing. Cable news is pulling in plenty of eyeballs these days and is being talked about and dissected more than ever before, thanks to the television-obsessed occupant of the White House. “Years ago people would come up to me in airports and restaurants and say, they liked me or that they watched the show,” Alisyn told me. “But now they come up and say, ‘Thank you for everything you’re doing. Keep it up.’ Before they wander off. There’s this new level of gratitude [from viewers]. People seem to want us to hold those in power accountable.”
Not so coincidentally, the heroine of Amanda Wakes Up is Amanda Gallo is a morning anchor at FAIR News, a cable news network that brands itself as “True and Equal,” favors right-wing politicos and likes its female anchors blonde and bronzed (at least their legs). The roman à clef puts a TV star turned presidential candidate named Victor Fluke (really), long on bravado but with a decided deficit of conscience, at the center of the story. Sound familiar?
Believe it or not, Alisyn says she’d didn’t base Fluke on Trump. She started writing the book in 2012 at a time, she says, when she was interviewing a slew of presidential hopefuls including Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann. A year later, it was her agent that suggested she set the story in the middle of a presidential race. “I essentially had to rewrite it. I figured Victor Fluke would work one way or the other.” But, she admits, “There was really no time before Donald Trump. He was on Fox & Friends a lot as a political pundit before he was a candidate. I interviewed him regularly.”
Now, said Alisyn, she joins the growing list of banned reporters the president will not talk to. “He blacklisted me. During one of the debates on Fox News they used a clip of me at CNN asking him about saying he was against the war in Afghanistan instead of the war in Iraq. He insisted he said ‘Iraq’ and I read him the transcript where he said ‘Afghanistan.’ Word came back he was angry about that.”
But there have been no shortage of the president’s foot soldiers willing to come on. When I asked Alisyn what was going through her mind when the blink-and-you-missed him former White House director of communications called in, she broke into a smile. “We were told ‘The Mooch’ wants to go live. We’re going live.’ He’s a colorful character. We’re always trying to pierce the veneer [of political operatives and politicians] and he is just a very unvarnished guy. I was just listening and taking notes while Chris asked questions. I didn’t know where he was going.” Apparently, neither did he.
This administration has made the already grueling job of anchoring a morning news program an Herculean task. Alisyn has been getting up at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am for years but what’s different is what’s waiting for her when she turns on her phone. I used to prepare for my morning show by looking over my notes, reviewing the lead stories and seeing who the guests are,” said Alisyn. “Now [overnight] there’s new leaks, new tweets, someone’s been fired.” The news cycle for the last presidential election was “nothing like I’ve ever experienced in twenty-five years,” but its head-spinning aftermath is “like that, but on steroids.”
It was that “breathless quality” of working in television news that Alisyn wanted to capture in Amanda Wakes Up. She told me she would never have been able to do it if she were working at her current job. While she was writing the book, she was working three days a week as a morning news anchor. “I’d get the kids (then 7-year-old twin girls and a 5-year-old son) off to school and go sit in a comfy chair to write and suddenly I’d hear the bus pulling up. It would be 3:30 and I’d still be in my pajamas!”
To help her navigate her way through writing her first novel, Alisyn told me she took a writing class “with real writers” in Fairfield County where she lives. She found the experience of reading her work in progress aloud to the group invaluable. “They were very kind-hearted, but I could hear the constructive criticism underneath,” she said laughing at the memory. Alisyn also learned to summon up her creativity whenever the opportunity presented itself. “I came to love long airplane flights and three-hour delays were great. I’d pull out the laptop and start typing.”
In the book, Alisyn does a very good job of drawing the reader into the world of television news through some terrific dialogue and engaging, well-drawn characters. I found Amanda’s co-anchor Rob Lahr, who she depicts as handsome, sexy and sexist particularly intriguing. As if on cue, Alisyn’s former co-anchor Bill Hemmer, the last one she worked with at Fox, came up to our table to say hello. So who is Rob based on? “There are certain shades of Bill Hemmer in Rob, but not the sexist part,” said Alisyn. He’s a “composite” of several men she’s worked with her in career.
But, not surprisingly, there is a lot of Alisyn in Amanda. In one of the first scenes Alisyn wrote for the book, Amanda is spending a weekend in the Hamptons when she gets a call from her producer to high tail it over to a nearby town to cover breaking news about a shooter in a hostage situation. Not expecting to be tapped to go on air, Amanda is forced to go live wearing only a T-shirt over her bathing suit.
In real life, it was Alisyn who was spending a weekend at the Cape when she got the news from a friend that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane was missing and called into the newsroom. The first reporter on the scene, Alisyn went live in a Chanel jacket borrowed from her producer’s wife over her bathing suit. “It was an unforgettable story. I was on air for ten hours and I stayed for nine days – and had to buy some clothes.” Those types of experiences that foster an esprit de corps among journalists are well used by Alisyn to give the book its insider-y feel and humor. “There is this gallows humor in some of the worst situations. I wanted to capture that. The news never sleeps.”
Alisyn, who was recently nominated for two Emmy Awards (“My first time!”), is having a pretty good month. She’s been making appearances for the book drawing “record crowds” last week at the Barnes & Noble in Westport. And last night it was SRO at the New Canaan library. Tonight, she’s off to Greenwich to be feted at The Perfect Provenance, a luxury boutique, gallery space and café owned by our mutual friend, former publicist Lisa Lori. “I hope the book lives out there in the world for a while,” said Alisyn as she got up to leave. “It’s really a universal story of a young woman navigating her way through her career and what you’re willing to give up for success.”
Here’s today’s Michael’s tables rundown:
1. Barry Frey
2. Leslie Stevens
3. Andrew Stein with Fox News’ Bill Hemmer
4. Esther Newberg
5. Jeane Siegel
6. Joan Jakobson, Mary Murphy and Patrick Murphy
7. Glenn Horowitz
8. Jerry Inzerillo
9. Gus Wenner with his girlfriend, so we’re told…
11. Architect Jeffrey Beers
14. Matt Rich
15. Tom Rogers
16. United Stations Radio’s Nick Verbitsky and Jim Thompson, president of the Broadcast Federation of America
17. Penske Media’s vice chairman Gerry Byrne
18. William Vanden Heuvel
20. Cindy Lewis
21. Clifford Press
22. Lou Forster
23. Drew Schiff
24. Andy Plesser with the EIC of The Drum
25. Tom Goodman and Kenneth Juster, a candidate for US Ambassador to India
27. Alisyn Camerota, Barbara Marks and yours truly.
We’ll be on our summer hiatus for the rest of the month. See you back at Michael’s in September!
[Diane Clehane posts reports from Michael’s restaurant every Wednesday. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.]