Mothers and sons in words and pages

Not everyone would write a political thriller with a character based on their mother. I can hear her reaction now.

“Hey Mom, I put you in my book about the presidential candidates getting assassinated.”

“Well, I hope I’m not the assassin. Wait, depending upon who’s running, maybe I do want to be the assassin.”

When I wrote my latest novel, The Campaign, back in 2006, the characters were ok, blandly ok. But there was not much empathy, no emotional eye to the chaotic storm that fell on a nation experiencing the death of all of their presidential candidates in a 48 hour period. I took the James Patterson and Dan Brown approach to writing a thriller: keep it fast, keep the chapters short, keep readers guessing. But I missed something that those two have down pat: there’s got to be an emotional tie to the story.

If you’ve been reading my blog (thank you so much, by the way) you know the backstory to The Campaign. My mother died of pancreatic cancer in December 2010. I rewrote the book to include a character based on her, which was both my way of honoring her memory and helped me deal with the void of her absence in my life. I took the spring of 2011 to recall many experiences with her; the kind that I wanted Dallas Police Chief Scott Turner, the hero of the story, and his mother to recollect while Scott took care of her while she was in hospice in his home. As the story unfolds, Scott gets word that the first assassination takes place in Dealey Plaza, the site of the JFK assassination over four decades ago. His mother immediately knows that Scott will be torn between staying with her and doing his job. As the tough, Texan woman she is, she makes his decision for him: go do your job or feel the full impact of a mother’s wrath.

In writing The Campaign, I rediscovered just how powerful the mother/son relationship is. They span the entire relationship spectrum. Some are wonderful; some are pitiful. Some grown men can never tear loose of the apron strings, some sons can’t wait to tear loose from underneath their mother’s thumb and never look back. Whatever the relationship may be, the mother/son relationship is as strong a bond as any. As I see it, only the father/daughter relationship is as strong. It is these relationships that provide the fertile soil from which good novels, the kind that readers don’t want to put down, the kind that they tell their friends they must read, the kind that helps the writer cope with his or her own demons and even gives him or her a chance to honor the person that meant so much to them over their lives, are grown.

Should political thrillers reflect today’s political climate?

Novels aren’t true stories. They are created with the intent to entertain. But can a novel influence the way the reader interprets the world? Do certain novels have a duty to reflect the world around us?

When I think of the novels that have a wide influence on our society, The Grapes of Wrath immediately comes to mind. As he prepared to write The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].” Steinbeck also famously said, “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” When it was published in 1939, the novel was publicly banned and copies of it were even burned. In the end, however, it was The New York Times best-selling book of 1939, and it also won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Steinbeck, while he was called a propagandist and a socialist from both the left and the right of the political spectrum after the book’s publication, won the Nobel Prize for Literature for writing The Grapes of Wrath in 1962.

While Steinbeck didn’t have 24 hour news media, reality TV and the Internet to battle against for people’s attention, shouldn’t we as authors have the same temerity as Steinbeck did to question our own status quo? With political thrillers, while they are written to entertain, shouldn’t there be some of the same, “let’s throw back the curtain and see who’s pulling the levers and, more importantly, why they are pulling the levers!” Isn’t that a responsibility that we have? We authors may be able to spin a good yarn, but shouldn’t we try to send a message, too?

But wait; if we’re trying to send a message with our scribblings, isn’t that just muddying the waters? Isn’t that trying to sway people to our way of thinking? The answer is yes, yes it is. I don’t pin myself to either political party, and my books reflect that fact. In fact, in The Brink, I made sure to not give away the political party affiliation of the president or any of the politicians involved (most of the time, in literature and film, the Republicans are the bad guys, go figure). My platform is that I just want to bring up the subject and hope that my readers take a little time to reflect on it a while. The Brink uses America’s debt crisis in its plot. The Campaign focuses on, spoiler alert here if you haven’t read it yet, our place in the rapidly-changing world and what are leaders are doing to cement that place. I think those are just some of the subjects we need to be focusing on as a team – because that’s what we are as Americans, we’re all on the same team. And right now, our team isn’t doing very well. Wouldn’t it be nice if something, a book, a TV show, the next Internet sensation, would come along and make us all stop being so divisive and start reading from the same playbook? I’m sure John Steinbeck would agree.

What went into writing The Campaign?

In a nutshell, my latest thriller, The Campaign, takes place over a 48 hour period during which all three of the presidential candidates in the race for the White House are killed. Our hero is Dallas Police Chief Scott Turner, who must lead the investigation into the deaths while trying to cope with losing his mother, who is only days away from dying of cancer.

I first thought about the plot of the book several years ago. In fact, I wrote the first version of The Campaign back in 2006 and I went so far as to narrate an audiobook version, hoping to market it during the 2008 presidential campaign. But the funny thing was, after hearing myself read it out loud, it didn’t have the suspense and flow that I thought it should. The main character was someone that readers couldn’t root for, he wasn’t sympathetic enough. So I shelved it.

Then, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In her final weeks in 2010, she came to live with my family and I while she received hospice care. One of the ways that I dealt with that experience is writing about it, everything from her daily medications to the wonderful moments we shared recalling the good times and bad. After she passed, I reflected on how best to honor her memory, this woman who had been there every day for me. As she was a lifelong book lover, I thought there would be no better way than to base a character on her and to show readers the kind of tough, yet relentlessly loving person she was. Having never cared for someone in hospice, I also wanted to include that experience in case readers wanted to get a glimpse of how to it works. Even though The Campaign is a work of fiction, the way hospice works in the book is how it works in real life (well, except for a few things thrown in to heighten the suspense. The book is, after all, a suspense thriller.)

So what went into The Campaign? I took everything I have inside me – the extent of my background in the political world, my knowledge of police procedures, and the life-changing event that was my mother’s death – and put it down on paper. I think that in order to write our best, we need to let our emotions spill out on our pages. We should laugh out loud at what we conjure up on our computer screens. Anger that spills out onto our pages should make us want to pound our desks. Those passages that showcase sadness should make tears fall on our keyboards. For it is when we capture that emotion that our characters truly come to life. It is those times that we know we have not just a good book, but a great story.

And if you’re interested in downloading The Campaign the Kindle edition is only 99 cents. Download it here.


Why are Politics so Polarized Today?

It seems that with the return of every political season, we hear, “politics and politicians are more divisive than ever.” This division between political parties not only seems to span a Grand Canyon-like chasm, but it has perpetuated a US Congress that has an unprecedented level of gridlock and an unprecedented low approval rating.

But these concerns aren’t new. The majority of viewpoints of the Republicans and Democrats have been both very distinct and very different since I’ve been on this Earth. So when did this polarization begin? Did it start with the founding of our country? Or is the polarization of politics a 20th century phenomemon?  Alan Abramowitz, the Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, and a renowned expert on national politics and elections, shares his thoughts on the subject here.

I do not claim a political identity to either party. I grew up Republican, with a grandfather that idolized Reagan, but with an aunt that challenged him about that viewpoint every step of the way. I like some of Romney’s ideas, but I also like some of what Obama has done. If you were to label me, then I guess I would be a Libertarian. While that term is thrown around a lot and people attempt to define Libertarians as many different things, when I say I’m a Libertarian, I mean that I believe in being economically conservative and socially liberal. For example, I think that as a country, we should have enough money in the bank to pay our bills and enough left over to save for the future. I also think that government officials shouldn’t tell me or my neighbors who we can or can’t marry or whether or not having a baby is the right decision for our family.

I think as a nation, we’d all like to see a lot less division and more togetherness. Like my Uncle Joe said in the eulogy that he wrote for himself (he just passed this last Tuesday) we need to just get mad at each other and get over it. Because this thing called America just ain’t gonna work without each other.

Why is The Campaign different than other thrillers?

Read my novel because it’s different!

My thriller is unique!

You’ve never experienced a book like mine before!

The truth of the matter is, while some books are truly different than anything that was ever produced before it (The Bible, for one; Oh, The Places You’ll Go, for another) most books are pretty similar to other books out there. Most “chick-lit” titles are pretty similar – girl is in love or wants to be in love, girl finds love and invariably is in jeopardy of losing said love, in the end girl either saves that love, discovers that love was a bad love and finds new love, or makes out with a quart of Ben and Jerry’s with her true loves of her life – her friends.

Most thrillers are similar as well – someone, either the main character or someone he/she is helping, is in trouble, commence car chases, assassins trying to kill them, planes almost landing on them, uncovering shocking truths and about 250-300 pages later our “broken” hero either saves the world or saves the girl, as well as saving themselves on some kind of spiritual level. In books, especially thrillers, we know the hero wins, because, well, the hero always has to win. Or why would we read it, right? Right?

In my books, the hero never has an easy way to his or her conclusion. There is always a sacrifice, and a pretty heavy one, that he or she must pay in order to do the right thing. In Five Days in Dallas and The Brink, Danny Cavanaugh is the typical broken hero. He’s raged a lifetime of war against the bottle that is far from over. ( BTW, Many detective/crime fighter types have this type of problem, and that could be a reflection more on the author’s penchant for the bottle as well, but that’s for another post) However, I think that Danny’s a refreshing character in fiction because while he does pretty good in a fight, he’s not an expert in Judo or a retired ultimate street fighter. And while he can put two and two together, he’s not a savant or some kind of soothsayer. And while he’s a cop, he’s not above doing a little wrong to get a lot right. The reason why people like him is that he’s a regular guy. He may have flaws, he may act like a frat boy a lot and he may screw up sometimes, but he’s that friend of yours that would do anything for you if you asked him. And, here’s the main thing about him, he will never give up. Ever.

Scott Turner from The Campaign is the same way. Here’s a guy who is the youngest police chief in the history of Dallas, Texas and he’s trying to keep it together as he literally watches cancer ravage his mother every day. He knows her life is now only measured in days, and then he gets something like a presidential candidate murder dumped in his lap. Then the other two remaining candidates are killed within the next 2 days. His mind is trying to make heads or tails of his investigation, while his heart is telling him to dump it all and sit by his mother’s side in her final hours.

While it’s not an earth-shattering NEW and DIFFERENT story, I think that the premise of Scott’s dilemma is one with which we can all identify. While most of us haven’t been in such a dire situation, we have been in those situations where we wished there was two, or even three of us to handle everything that life throws our way. We want to be there to care for our kids, but we need to put in overtime to put food on the table. We want to celebrate with friends, but work gets in the way. That’s why I think people read novels, especially thrillers. The main reason they read them isn’t for the judo experts or the explosions. They read them to figure out what normal people like them do in extraordinary situations. The difference in a thriller isn’t made in the story, it comes from what’s inside the character. Like James Carville told Bill Clinton during his presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  For us thriller writers, if we want our stories to be different, we need to remember, “It’s the characters, stupid.”