Interview - Claire Handscombe

Claire Handscombe

Steve Taylor-Bryant talks to the editor of the fascinating collection of memories that make up Walk With Us: How "The West Wing" Changed Our Lives, Claire Handscombe...

A while ago, via social media platform Twitter, I stumbled across a project that really spoke to me as a fan of The West Wing. This was no ordinary book, it wasn't an academic look at the show, it wasn't about the cast or the writers, it was about how the show had affected real people, it was about the power of the show on the real lives of those who had become fans. It is a stunning read (review here) and anyone who reads the articles on our site knows how the show had a huge personal impact on my own life so the chance to talk to Claire Handscombe who put all this together was one not to be missed.

Firstly Claire huge congratulations on a wonderful book! What first drew you to the show?

Thanks! I’m really proud of it and I hope the contributors are too.

People had been telling me for ages that I should watch The West Wing, but I wasn’t that interested in American politics. And then one night I borrowed my flatmate’s laptop to watch Friends – I ejected the DVD that was already in the computer, and it turned out to be The West Wing, so I gave that a go instead. It was the second disk of Season Two – where Ainsley Hayes is introduced. I didn’t understand a lot of what was happening, but I knew straight away that this was a highly intelligent show and that’s definitely one of the things that drew me. Plus, also, if I’m being honest – Rob Lowe is very easy on the eyes.

Why the interest in fans and their stories rather than the show itself? This must have been quite the undertaking?

The show changed my life – I started writing again because of it, moved from Europe to DC because of it, got interested in politics again because of it – and I suspected I wasn’t the only one. There have been other books written about the show from an academic standpoint, and also both official and unofficial companions to it, but I didn’t know of anywhere I could go to read about its impact on the lives of others. As part of my MFA in Creative Writing, I took a class in Literary Journalism and wrote one of my pieces on this topic after interviewing a number of fans. It helped convince me that there was plenty of material out there!

How do you go from an initial idea to planning such a remarkable project to actually pulling it off in such style?

Thanks for the compliment! It took a considerable amount of time and energy, but it was a labour of love. At the very beginning, I started a Twitter account, @wwchangedme, to put out a call and see if anyone would be interested in talking to me. I paid to promote the tweet and it was also retweeted by a few high profile people – not least the West Wing character role play accounts. I then contacted and interviewed people. I did that in three rounds over the course of about a year and a half. I listened to the interviews and picked out what I thought were the most salient quotes. I also advertised in Poets and Writers and put out a call for submission on various writers’ websites, because I wanted people to write their own essays too. After that, I chose the best ones – the best written, and those that told a good story of how lives have been affected in a variety of ways – and my amazing and eternally patient proofreader and copy-editor, Jenny Bogart Jaquith, helped me finalise the interior design. I had an Indiegogo campaign at the beginning to help fund some of this, too, and also to help build early buzz.

Was there a particular memory or story that was shared with you that became a favourite or really nailed your reasons for doing this?

I spoke to the parents of a remarkable young woman called Heather Kornick – she has passed away, but her love of The West Wing inspired her and drove her during her life and when she was fighting cancer. I came close to tears when I was speaking to them. But honestly, all these stories struck a chord on some level. And it was just wonderful to get to nerd out for extended periods with several hardcore fans of the show.

What do you think is the main reason that so many years after the show finished its still held in such regard by fans?

That’s the $64,000 question, which I hope this book goes some way towards answering! I think it has a lot to do with how intelligent the storytelling is – Aaron Sorkin has said that we shouldn’t assume that people watching television are any less smart than people making television, and kudos to him for that. We need more writers like him in the TV world. The acting was superlative, too – everything about The West Wing was superlative. I don’t know anything about directing, but even I can tell the genius of some of that, like in the last sequence of In Excelsis Deo, which was discussed on The West Wing Weekly podcast recently. Such care was taken at every level, and it shows.

Fandoms can be a strange breed and very protective of their shows. Were you ever worried that what you were trying to accomplish wouldn't be received well? Or were the West Wing fans as lovely as I imagine them all to be?

You’re right – we like to think that fandoms are all sweetness and light but there can sometimes be an element of competitiveness. Most people have been so supportive, and it’s been so fun to watch people nerd out about this book and tag their Facebook friends who they know would love it. I did see someone tweet, semi-jokingly, “why weren’t we consulted”, and that makes me sad – I tried my best to reach as many West Wing fans as I could with the call to submissions, but you can’t get to everyone, especially with limited funds and zero fame.

What is your abiding memory of the show? Any favourite episodes or character interactions?

I have so many! My favourites are Josh and Donna – I love their interactions and their relationship. I often want to quote the show in daily interactions, too. “Stand there in your wrongness and be wrong” is a particular favourite. The episode that is the most special to me is actually a double episode, at the beginning of Season Two, where we learn the characters’ backstories. I think it subconsciously taught me about writing characters’ backstories and motivations – Sorkin’s writing in general has hugely influenced mine, particularly when it comes to writing dialogue.

What next for you and for the fans of West Wing?

I’d love to publish an updated and longer version of this book in a few years’ time – maybe for the 20th anniversary of the pilot, in 2019. I also have another idea for a bit of a niche West Wing project but I’m keeping quiet on that until I launch the Kickstarter – possibly next year. I have a ton of other writing projects too and my agent currently has what I hope will be my debut novel out on submission.

I’m also heading to the Austin TV festival in June, where quite a lot of the cast will be reuniting for a panel. I can’t wait! I’m hoping to give Walk With Us to them too – I hope they’ll read and love it. I dedicated the book to Aaron Sorkin, but it’s really a huge thank you to all of them.

Image - Claire Handscombe.