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Jean Carnahan taps fictional friends in latest book

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 10, 2012 - After writing five books on generally serious topics, former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., is trying her hand at humor. Titled “A Little Help from My Friends," the purple-covered book delves into the everyday situations – like buying a new tube of lipstick – that most people, especially women, deal with.

“It gives me a chance to laugh at a few things and show a different side of my personality," Carnahan said.

She added that she is seeking to channel the spirit of the late humorist, Erma Bombeck, by highlighting the quirkier things in life. And Carnahan admits to using a little imagination to get her points across.

The episodes in the book are “95 percent true, 5 percent embellishment," the former senator said. And the oft-quoted “friends" who offer pithy observations are fictional.

“You have to do a lot of explaining if you use real people," Carnahan said with a laugh. “With make-believe people, you get by with a little more."

But reality also can be unexpectedly funny as well. During the telephone interview, the former senator repeatedly had to answer the doorbell to her Clayton condominium.

Each time, nobody was at the door, but the hall was smelling increasingly of “skunk,’’ Carnahan said.

Jean Carnahan’s previous books were a bit weightier, beginning with the first “If Walls Could Talk.’’ Published in 1998, the book was a history of the governor's mansion and the families who lived in it. At the time, Jean Carnahan lived there, as the wife of Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat who was her childhood sweetheart.

The governor and their eldest son, Randy, died in a plane crash on Oct. 16, 2000 (along with aide Chris Sifford) while the elder Carnahan was campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

After he posthumously defeated Sen. John Ashcroft, a Republican, widow Jean Carnahan was appointed to the post for two years.  She lost a bid to fill out the term in 2002 to Republican Jim Talent.

Soon after, Jean Carnahan wrote “Don’t Let the Fire Go Out,’’ an autobiography in which she also recounted the tragic events that look the lives of her husband and son and the aftermath that resulted in her going to Washington.

Her more recent books, including this one, have focused more on the challenges – and benefits – of growing older. Carnahan is now working on a novel, although she admits facing quandaries about plot and character development. The novel is to take place in Arkansas in the 1970s and ‘80s.

And that book isn’t her only project. “I have a whole night table full of half-finished books,’’ Carnahan quipped.

Maybe one of them will tackle the topic – either the true account, or fiction -- of that alleged skunk in the hall.

Carnahan’s first book signing of this latest book is scheduled for 7 p.m., Thursday, April 12 at Left Bank Books, 399 North Euclid.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.