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American University Alum Receives Critical Acclaim for Debut Novel

Lara Prescott

During her time at American University's School of Public Affairs, Lara Prescott, SPA/BA ’04, knew she wanted to be a writer. After years of working on political campaigns after graduation, she took a risk, quit her “day job” and devoted herself to blending her love of politics with her love of writing fiction. Flash forward to the present day and her new book, The Secrets We Kept, has sold for $2 million at auction and has been optioned to be made into a movie.

“I was thrilled and almost in disbelief for a few months after all these things happened,” says Prescott, who lives in Austin, TX.

After graduation, the Greensburg, Pa. native worked for nearly a decade on political campaigns and as a political consultant for nonprofits. Prescott helped elect Rahm Emanuel mayor of Chicago and Jerry Brown governor of California, writing ads, stump speeches, and digital media messaging. But the years of being embedded in campaigns, writing in candidates’ voices, left Prescott drained. She really wanted to write books.

“I’m really interested in words and how words can function in changing the hearts and minds of people,” said Prescott.

In 2015, Prescott took leave from her political career to dedicate herself to fiction writing. She enrolled at University of Texas in Austin’s Master of Fine Arts program at the Michener Center for Writers.

In the first year of graduate school, she began writing a fictionalized story about how Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago, was used by CIA as a weapon of propaganda. She entered it in a writing contest. She didn’t win, but the submission caught the eye of an agent who signed her as a client.

“I said I was only 25 pages in, and it would be a couple of years, and he said he would wait. He kept the faith,” said Prescott.

She did intensive research and traveled to Moscow to learn as much as she could about Pasternak and the era. In 2014, the CIA released documents that revealed its role in smuggling Doctor Zhivago due to the book’s emphasis on the importance of individual freedom, behind the Iron Curtain where it was banned.

“I thought it was a fascinating story—that during the Cold War people believed literature could change the world,” Prescott says. “I had to find out everything I could about it.”

Prescott wrote her novel in two-hour spurts working at a coffee shop. After three years, she delivered the manuscript to her agent, having no idea what the interest would be from publishers.

The Secrets We Kept went up for auction and, to Prescott’s surprise, a bidding war followed. Alfred A. Knopf won, purchased the rights, and published Prescott’s debut novel earlier this month. The book is published in 28 languages and will be adapted for film by The Ink Factory and Marc Platt Productions. The windfall allowed Prescott to make her career change permanent.

“Now I am able dedicate myself to writing full-time, which I never thought would be possible,” Prescott said.

Prescott says she loved her time at American University, including the opportunity to study abroad and be immersed in Washington, DC.

“I had a number of internships that guided my career and interests,” said Prescott. “Going into something with all your heart is so important because if you are afraid to make mistakes, you will never do anything new."

Prescott, who has started a new novel, is now on an international book tour, which includes a stop at Politics and Prose in Washington on September 27.