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Author James McCourt was in the middle of writing his new novel, Delancey’s Way, when his computer malfunctioned and swallowed 250 pages of text. The transplanted New Yorker was devastated. His initial reaction was to say, “That’s the end—I have to go home. This is a sign that Washington’s telling me to go fuck myself.”

But instead of getting mad, McCourt got inspired. First, he found someone who could retrieve the text from deep in the computer’s guts. (When it came out, McCourt says, “It looked like sludge.”) Then he decided to put his protagonist through the same harrowing experience. McCourt had Delancey—a Washington reporter for the East Hampton Star—return from a night at the Cosmos Club only to find that his computer has gone bonkers. Delancey proceeds to high-tail it to Key West, where he drowns himself in alcohol. Despite McCourt’s frustrations, he now believes that the Key West interlude saved the narrative. “At that point, it was the fourth chapter, and it looked like the plot would be over by the fifth,” he says.

Delancey’s Way takes place in 1995 and 1996, when the Gingrich revolution was in full swing, the government experienced a major shutdown, the Vermeer exhibition drew endless lines of visitors, Marion Barry occupied the mayor’s office, and, for a few days, a 3-foot snowfall knocked out Washington. It has a few real characters (President Clinton, Vice President Gore), some who are thinly veiled (including one Anastasia Harrington), and some who are vaunted Washington archetypes (such as the rogue senator and the countless wonk hangers-on).

The novel was born of necessity. McCourt moved to Washington in 1995 when his partner of three decades, Vincent Virga, was hired by the Library of Congress to help prepare Eyes of the Nation, a multimedia history of the United States. Although McCourt had spent barely any of his first 53 years in D.C., he says, soaking in the political milieu wasn’t hard. “All you had to do is listen,” he says. “I would go to the Hawk and Dove, or the health club, and the staffers would all be in there. Politics is all they would be talking about—how they would kick the shit out of everybody, and so on.”—Louis Jacobson