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When Louis Bayard, a veteran of Capitol Hill’s political wars, sat down to write his first novel, he made a point of writing the most apolitical book he could. “The red phones and the shadowy government cabals—I wanted no part of that,” Bayard says. “And I didn’t want it to be about what people did for a living. That drives so much of the talk in D.C.”

Instead, Bayard wrote Fool’s Errand, a 486-page romantic comedy set in Washington’s gay community, of which Bayard is a member. The novel—released last year—tracks a 32-year-old protagonist, Patrick Beaton, as he sets out singlemindedly to find a man in a cranberry-colored sweater whom he met groggily at a Sunday brunch. Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “Bayard’s snappy dialogue manages to be more funny than people really are, and utterly convincing at the same time.” The Washington Post’s reviewer called the novel “wise and sweet” and Bayard “damned likable.”

“This is a good city to be gay in,” says Bayard, who lives with Don Montuori, his partner of a dozen years, in Capitol Hill. “It has a small-town feel. The novel has some strange plot twists, but in my experience, they’re the kinds of things that happen here. I plundered freely from my friends’ lives.”

Bayard, 36, grew up in northern Virginia. At Princeton University, he majored in English and creative writing, studying under the novelist Joyce Carol Oates. Bayard—who went public with his sexual orientation after earning a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University—spent several years as a Capitol Hill press secretary before becoming a full-time novelist and freelance writer for environmental groups. He recently finished another novel, Nativity Scenes, which tells the story of a gay man who wants to have a child and considers all sorts of alternative childbearing techniques to make it a reality.

Fool’s Errand has sold 6,000 copies in the U.S. and 1,000 overseas—”not Harry Potter, but decent for a first novel,” says Bayard. Getting shelved in the gay-interest section, he says, “is a nice pigeonhole—otherwise I would have been just another unwashed first novelist.” But some copies found their way to unexpected places. “A farm wife in rural Maryland found it in her library,” he says. “I’m not sure how it got there. But she enjoyed it.” —Louis Jacobson