Where Do Book Ideas Come From? The Story of The Swamp

Perfect headline/photo from the Express #snowquester

Where do book ideas come from?

In my novel The Swamp, a drone crashes into the White House, changing the course of history forever. Where did that come from? A bad weather forecast.

The Triggering Incident

On this day in 2013, Washington was supposed to get an epic snow storm. There was a run on milk and toilet paper. The federal government shut down. The local TV channels suspended programs and went to wall-to-wall coverage. Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel even flew in to witness the snowy carnage.

And it rained. I watched it all day, waiting for it to turn to snow, but the precipitation remained persistently non-frozen. It was the city that cried snow, to quote the Washington Post Express.

Around 4 PM, I gave up and went to happy hour, walking deserted downtown streets to be the only customer at a bar. The weatherman on TV said that there was a layer of hot air over the city; it was snowing in the suburbs.

Layer of hot air…. If you’re a writer, this is one of those amusing details that you file away.

Collecting Information

Ironically, I had recently started working in communications at the National Weather Service. A few months later, I had the chance to visit the Weather Forecast Office in Sterling, the office that had issued the bum forecast.

I didn’t ask them about that. Instead, I was shown how they used computer models and data displays to customize local forecasts. I was also shown a weather balloon, which carried a radiosonde designed to transmit atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed data.

“The Secret Service visited after we had balloon end up on the White House lawn,” a meteorologist told me. Another interesting detail, filed away.

At the same time, I was annoyed by the ever-increasing level of security theater in DC. Public spaces and parks have been stolen by the Secret Service and other agencies in the name of security. The perimeter around the White House expands ever outward, seizing Lafayette Park to the north and the Ellipse to the south, grand public spaces that are routinely closed off. This is done despite the Secret Service’s failure to prevent fence jumpers and other miscreants.

Then, in 2015, a man crashed a drone into the White House in what was described as a drunken lark. It made a mockery of security theater. How can you keep the President safe in the age of the drone? Another interesting detail.

If you’re a writer, you constantly collect information – even if you don’t realize it, filing away interesting stories and amusing incidents for future use.

Write What You Know

I had a recently finished writing a mystery novel, Murder on U Street. It’s a dark comedy in which I kill off hipsters.

For my next book, I wanted to write a satire with a political edge, like Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

What could I write about? The image of the drone disappearing into the night stuck with me. It would be a great way to open a book.

Write what you know. What did I know? The National Weather Service had taught me about weather forecasting and government bureaucracy. I knew security theater, for I had seen places I loved locked away by fences. And I had heard enough anti-Washington sentiment to understand that a good chunk of this country wanted this city to disappear.

So, where do book ideas come from? Putting all of these thoughts together, I had my idea for The Swamp:

A meteorologist, humiliated by a bum forecast, puts a drone into the layer of hot air over DC to measure its strength. It crashes into the White House, triggering a security scare. The nation is outraged. How can we keep the President safe from drones? By moving him, and the rest of government, out of Washington.

Now, I just had to write it.

Hail Caesar! Three Books About Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

Three books about tyranny provide lessons for Americans about overcoming dark times.

Heavily marketed, The Storm Before the Storm is a book that I desperately wanted to like. This work of popular history about the end of the Roman Republic has so many parallels to our time – at least according to the sales copy – but the book itself is a tedious examination of the political issues before Rome became an empire. Praetors, consuls and legates come and go in a swirl of assemblies, riots and wars, a mix of similar-sounding names and titles adding to the confusion.

Rome wasn’t a democracy, but a republic, ruled by a narrow set of wealthy families jockeying for political power in a country grown wealthy from foreign conquest. The original 1%, they governed through a series of norms and traditions that became degraded with wealth and privilege. Citizenship was narrowly construed (even Italians outside Rome couldn’t be citizens) and the masses restless, seeking cheap grain for the cities and land for ex-soldiers. Failure to resolve these contradictions, and defend their sacred institutions, led to Caesar and the Roman Imperium.

Left unsatisfied by The Storm Before the Storm, when I saw Dictator sitting on a shelf at the beautiful new West End Library, I had to pick up another book about tyranny. This novel by Robert Harris, the last in a trilogy about ancient Rome, does a far better job at explaining Roman politics and the end of the Republic. His Cicero is a tragic, deeply flawed figure in a brutal age. The novel starts out beautifully, with Cicero on the run from his enemies, lucky to escape into exile. He’s lost everything. But, through his genius and dogged work, he regains his property, his stature and his reputation.

Caesar is a dangerous man who indulges Cicero – to a point. The orator, however, doesn’t know when to shut up, even after being warned by Caesar’s generals. Is this due to vanity or a genuine commitment to democratic institutions?

The most practical guide to our times is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Early in this spare tome, Timothy Snyder, who has written extensively about the Nazi regime, makes this observation:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Germany was a democracy, just like us, yet they fell into catastrophe. Why? It’s not just “good men doing nothing”, it’s the systematic corruption of an entire society – the media, courts, even truth itself. On Tyranny is a guide to defending democratic institutions, and this slim little book provides practical advice on how to do so, drawn from the dark history of central Europe.

Are we Rome? Are we Germany? The founders of this country studied history, and books about tyranny, so as not to repeat the errors of the past. We would do so too, if we are to prevent tyranny in our time.

The Swamp: Early Reviews of My Book

Meeting Mandi, one of my readers in Orlando, Florida.
Meeting Mandi, one of my readers in Orlando, Florida.

One of the most gratifying things about being an author is hearing that people enjoyed your book.

And readers have enjoyed THE SWAMP!

Here are some early reviews of my funny new novel about Washington, DC, and the times we live in now.

Even better than experiencing good reviews is meeting readers, like Mandi in Florida! Her extended family has been some of my biggest supporters. Her aunt Rachel (the cool aunt) designed the cover of my novel.

Check out the hilarious world of THE SWAMP, available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.

Michael Wolff: The Biographer the President Deserves

Sold out of Fire and Fury at Kramerbooks

There’s a tendency to think that people at the top of large organizations are smarter than you. After all, they’ve made it to the top. They must brilliant people guided by devoted staff and working within a well-organized system.

The truth is more like the moment Dorothy peeks behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz – it’s all chaos, a sham of smoke and mirrors aimed at concealing the very human weakness of the person in charge, as Michael Wolff’s reveals in Fire and Fury, his takedown of the Trump administration.

I’ve worked in communications for major organizations in Washington, DC. Everywhere, it’s the same – you may have smart staffers, and a process designed to to prevent embarrassing mistakes, but the work is driven by the whims of The Boss. If he (and it’s almost always a he), wants to put out a press release announcing his birthday, then one is produced.

I read Michael Wolff’s book Burn Rate back in the 90s. This was the era of Silicon Alley, when New York dotcoms aspired to be the next Excite or Yahoo. Wolff, a journalist, founded a company and then proceeded to burn through VC cash before walking away from the wreckage. The book mocks Internet pioneers and the industry.

He’s a loathsome character, with the attitude of a con artist putting one over on the rubes. In this case, the marks are his employees, who he stiffs, and investors, who lose their money. There’s a scene at the end of the book (and it’s very novelistic) where he succeeds at unloading the remains of his business on someone else though his media company is little more than a Filemaker database, a feat that Wolff gleefully recounts.

Whenever I’d see his name in the media, I’d think, “Ugh, that guy.” After burning Internet bridges, he went on to excoriate Rupert Murdoch and other billionaire/tyrants, his villainous headshot atop gossipy columns in Vanity Fair and other publications.

A simple Google search would’ve revealed all this.

Inviting this devious miscreant into the White House is the greatest act of communications malpractice this century. Instead of warning staff not to talk to this unreliable scribe, Sarah Sanders allowed this New York creature to observe the Trumpian chaos from a comfy couch. He’s a journalist who specializes in ripping apart media figures – what did they think he was doing there?

As Drew Margary in GQ writes, it takes a rat to catch a rat. Promising a nice book, and then writing a nasty one, Wolff worked the long con to perfection. For a change, Trump was the one being tricked.

Unethical, self-absorbed and steeped in the values of the billionaire elite, Wolff is the biographer that Trump deserves.

The Worst: 2017 in Review

inauguration protesters set limo on fire

Most Americans voted against Trump. Elected by a disaffected rump of the population, the crass New Yorker governed like a tyrant, his models being Putin, Erdogan and Chavez. The country was saved solely by the incompetence of the man, who turned out to be more Mussolini than Der Fuhrer.

Still, 2017 was a deeply traumatic year, where the infection of politics found everyone, even those who sought to avoid it, like myself, naively thinking that I could ignore the new President as helicopters whirred overhead on Inauguration Day.

That was the moment I was radicalized, hearing Trump speak of American carnage while I watched real carnage on the streets of DC. I spent my life avoiding politics in Washington, feeling it to be a pointless exercise. Yet, by the end of the year, it seemed essential that every American, including me, resist incipient tyranny.

reading at Kramerbooks

Ironically, a few weeks earlier, I was sympathetic to Trump voters, representing my beliefs in the short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction competition. Yet, after my reading at Kramerbooks (the highlight of the year for me), events pushed me left.

My journey, and the journey of millions like me, was summed up in a tweet:

Running was a consolation, even in mid-winter, pounding around the monuments useful stress relief. I aimed for 300 miles this year. Not much for some, but more than I’ve ever run, and nearly got there except for injury.

Women's March crowds on 14th St

In March, cherry blossoms bloomed and then were covered in snow – it was that kind of year. By then, protests had filled the streets for months, from the comedic geekery of March for Science to the staggering crowds of the Women’s March, every one of them exponentially larger than the paucity of people that greeted the Donald to DC.

The year saw me increasingly politicized, especially after witnessing the heartless attitudes of Trump tourists toward refugees and visiting a South clinging to Civil War memories. The eclipse brought the country together, but only briefly.

eclipse in black and white

Meanwhile, I was thinking of The Swamp, doing some freelance work while I hammered my comic novel into place. Originally titled Drone City, and about 90% done at the start of the year, I revised it extensively for an era that was stranger than fiction, my selection of the title a clapback at the Trumpkins who think America can survive without a government. In my book, I gave them their wish.

My books are a cynical look at DC, while my photography is a romantic vision of the city. I like wandering the streets and taking photos, even in the snow, like the shot of the Spanish Steps which won the Mitchell Park Photo Competition and admission to the French Ambassador’s residence, a fancy event I attended in a ripped jacket.

A better fit for me was the wonderful Community Collective show, square views of the city curated by friends of mine. In addition to being the unofficial photographer of #BikeDC, I was also a Brand Ambassador for Enterprise CarShare and took trips to Gettysburg and Little Washington.

2017 was the year that money seemed to slosh through the economy, just out of reach for real people, but readily available for questionable notions like coworking and dockless bikesharing.

this could be a millennial-themed ad

Some of that free stuff found its way to me. I got to sample Uncle Nearest, the bourbon with a fascinating backstory. My bike dreams came true with a Brompton for a day. Through my friends at InstagramDC, I got to experience the interactive art of Artechouse.

But this was the year that America, and its Baby Boomer overlords, said, “Fuck it. We’re not even going to try anymore.” Their parents won a war, built infrastructure and sent a man to the Moon. Boomers spent money on themselves as America fell apart around them. I asked, Does Anybody Make Real Shit Anymore?

I won’t blame Boomers for one loathsome plague: brunch. Sloppy, gross and everywhere, it defined the horror show of America, 2017 edition. One of my last memories of the year was waiting for a friend to finish brunch (I refused to go) while Millennials arrived by Uber and were removed by ambulance, unable to handle their mimosas.

Just when you think that things couldn’t get worse, it got worse with Nazis marching and murdering in Charlottesville. The year saw me reading about the collapse of democracies and how ordinary men ended up standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Tyranny is no longer academic in America, for a good chunk of the population longs for dictatorship – that’s the lesson of 2017. And why you should resist in 2018.

Elizabeth Warren

Our institutions are under attack. I worked for a few months at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a wonderful agency designed to protect poor people from financial scams. The Trump administration is now taking it apart from the inside. Elizabeth Warren came to protest, trailed by a media scrum worthy of a presidential candidate.

Thank god for biking, and a record year of it for me, and for books. It was the kind of year where you read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, as well as great novels like The Sympathizer and A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. Plus, some less great books that I picked up at Carpe Librum (used books for less than $4) like A Good Year, a wine caper that I thoroughly enjoyed, and reads from DC’s rejuvenated public library system (hello, West End!) including Everybody Behaves Badly.

The Swamp - proof

After much editing, rearranging and reorganizing, The Swamp came out toward end of the year. My friend Lynn Romano edited it, while Rachel Torda did the cover. Publishing through Amazon, the book is available in print and Kindle. If you’re in DC, I’ll sell you a signed copy for $10.

The Swamp starts with a meteorologist who thinks that he can predict the weather, if only he had a little more data. Things go badly from there. The theme of  the novel is that it’s foolish to think that you can forecast the weather – or anything else.

I will make no predictions for 2018. But I know what I’ll be doing. I’m going to write and resist.

The Swamp – Get This Funny Book About Washington

The Swamp - coverMy new novel, THE SWAMP, begins with a bad weather forecast. A meteorologist predicts snow for the nation’s capital. But snow turns to rain over the city, for it is protected by a layer of hot air in this funny book about Washington, DC.

How much hot air is over the city? To determine this, the meteorologist sets a drone aloft over the skies of DC, triggering a comic chain of events leading to the end of the country as we know it. Welcome to THE SWAMP.

DC always seems to be on the rain-snow line and with another questionable forecast in the air, I decided this weekend was the perfect time to launch THE SWAMP. This dark satire of Washington, DC is now available in print and Kindle on Amazon.

A five-star review described the book as a “dystopian thriller that will have you wondering..what if? or if only?”

THE SWAMP is set in a mercifully Trump-free era. It’s an alternate history of DC, in which sleazy TV correspondents, mommy bloggers and jaded politicos struggle to control a world spinning away from them. If you like dark comedies filled with complex characters and ironic plot twists, then you’ll love THE SWAMP.

Coming Soon – THE SWAMP

When an errant drone crashes into the White House, it triggers a chain of events that leads to the end of the country as we know it.

Welcome to THE SWAMP, my new novel mocks the city that America has come to hate.

THE SWAMP begins on Christmas Eve, when a drone crash causes a security scare at the White House. Fox News screams, “How can we keep the President safe?” A crackpot idea from a cynical TV correspondent – let’s move the nation’s capital to an underground bunker – becomes an uncontrollable political movement. Can the President and the rest of official Washington contain this red state rebellion or will it swamp them all?

From mommy bloggers to scheming bureaucrats, THE SWAMP is a love letter to this city – and a wish for its destruction – packaged together in a black comedy reminiscent of Christopher Buckley and Evelyn Waugh.

Read the first chapter to get a taste of THE SWAMP.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

While The Subtle of Art of Not Giving a Fuck contains revealing and profane stories of personal dissipation and blogging-fueled awakening, at its core is the timeless message of the Stoics: life is short. Make better choices with your time.

Despite its roots among the ancient Greeks, Stoicism is a philosophy that’s still relevant today. First practiced by men such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, its core tenet is that while we can’t control circumstance, we can control our response to circumstance. Born from troubled times, the Stoics admired people who played the cards they were dealt, no matter how bad, searching for a way out of difficulty.

The Obstacle is the Way in other words, a (much better) book that popularizes this ancient belief system with examples from throughout history.

What makes The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck unique is its rejection of happy talk. Mark Manson shreds the relentless positivity of the self-help industry which is not helpful at all. Divorce, illness, joblessness – sometimes life is just going to suck and trying to talk yourself into happiness won’t get you there.

In fact, as with writing, concentrating on being happy will just make you less so, for it is an emotion that flies from you as you seek it.

Manson prescribes the doctrine of the ancient Greeks: don’t worry about happiness, for you will be dead soon.

Instead, focus on being useful. Put aside your illusory dreams of riches and fame. Be a better person today, to the people around you, for that is the ultimate measure of a life.

Books and Beer: Everybody Behaves Badly

Bell's and behaving badly
A Hemingway-themed beer to go with a Hemingway-themed book.

For the friends of Hemingway in 1920s Paris, everything was dated B.S. or A.S. Before the publication of The Sun Also Rises, their lives were complicated and largely anonymous. After Sun, their flaws were exposed to the world.

The story of the making of this literary masterpiece is told in Everybody Behaves Badly, an account of Hemingway, his friends and the events that inspired the first modern American novel of the 20th Century.

I paired the book with Bell’s Two Hearted. One of the early IPAs, it’s been a favorite ever since it first surprised my taste buds on a 100 degree day at the Capital Fringe Festival. Tangy and citrusy, it defines summer to me.

Named after the Two Hearted River in Michigan, a favorite vacation spot for young Hemingway, and the setting for one of his most famous short stories, it’s perfect the beer pairing for a book about Papa at work.

And it was recently named the best beer in America.

What does it take to create a novel? For Hemingway, it meant betraying nearly everyone in his world – mentors, drinking buddies, literary rivals and even his wife – as he strived to become a giant in American letters.

The Sun Also Rises was a revolution when it was published in 1926, a fusion of high/low style, in which Hemingway took postmodern “less is more” prose and married it with a scandalous story of dissipation among the idle rich. What lifted it above a drunken yarn was the epigraph from Gertrude Stein, “You are all a lost generation.” This defining quote, as well as the title, turned the novel into a representation of youth scarred by war, seeking for a meaning in a landscape without God or authority.

The novel is less a story and more transcription of a disastrous trip to see the bullfights in Pamplona. Following the debacle, Hemingway wrote the book in a period of weeks, not even bothering to change the real names of people that he used in the first draft.

The characters in Sun are all real, and scarcely disguised from their actual counterparts. The most appalling depiction is that of Harold Loeb, who admired Hemingway with almost slavish devotion. In return, he gets mocked in the novel as Robert Cohn, a Jew who doesn’t know his place, with the temerity to romance Lady Brett, a woman that he certainly doesn’t deserve. It was a portrayal and a betrayal that Loeb never got over and one that he spent decades trying to understand.

After the publication of the book in 1926, there was a craze to be like Lady Brett, the hard-drinking sex symbol of the novel. Like her literary counterpart, Lady Duff Twysden was a broke alcoholic of a dubious lineage. Fleeing debts and family complications, she ended up in Santa Fe, before dying of tuberculosis. Hemingway, cruel to the end, told his biographer that her casket was carried by former lovers, who dropped it at the funeral – a fictitious tale.

Her husband in the novel, Mike Campbell (the real Pat Guthrie), the very model of the dissipated English upper classes, died of a drug overdose, owing money to bars and hotels all over Paris.

Depicted as trying to trick Cohn into marrying her, Frances Clyne (the real Kitty Cannell) went on to one of the most fascinating lives of all the people mocked in The Sun Also Rises. After surviving Paris during Nazi occupation, she become a game show guest, noted for her expertise in everything from timeless glamor to surviving prison. One subject she wouldn’t discuss: Hemingway. She thought he was a bastard from the very beginning.

While the backstories in Everybody Behaves Badly are fascinating, what makes the book great is the story of how Hemingway created his masterpiece. Everybody Behaves Badly is a writer’s book – I’ve never read a book that does a better job explaining how a novel actually gets written, showing how Hemingway took real events and transmuted them into his novel.

One character Hemingway leaves out of the book: Hadley, his wife. The Paris Wife depicts her as crushed by this omission, knowing that she was losing her husband.

By the time The Sun Also Rises is published, Hemingway was moving on from the woman who subsidized his early writing efforts for a richer catch: the heiress Pauline Pfeiffer.

Thirty years later, in the posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tried to blame the pernicious influence of rich friends on his decision to leave Hadley. They said that Hemingway deserved someone more stylish than doughty Hadley.

But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald predicted back in 1926, with every major new book, Hemingway would have a new wife. After Pauline would come Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh.

Write what you know. That’s the cardinal rule of writing. For Hemingway, that meant mining his own life for the material to create The Sun Also Rises. It’s his best book and the novel that frees American literature from its fussy and florid predecessors. Like a good IPA, it’s a sharp and refreshing shock to everything you’ve experienced before.

Exit Right: Lives of the Apostates

The lives of those who abandoned liberalism are examined in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Whittaker Chambers, James Turnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens see their political lives examined in this profile of apostates.

What makes a man switch parties? It’s not just a question of changing an affiliation but often means leaving your friends, family and profession behind. The personal is the political.

Whittaker Chambers was a Soviet spy who discovered the error in his ways, his life a hopeless tangle of Christian belief, suppressed sexuality and a devastating family history. Secrecy was an easy fit for him and he left his world of subterfuge only when realizing that his own life was in danger.

Daniel Oppenheimer makes the point that there’s rarely a “road to Damascus” moment in political conversions. Instead, it’s a slow change in beliefs, often accelerated by practical concerns.

For example, Ronald Reagan faced the end of his acting career following WWII. A Roosevelt Democrat, he found a new calling in touring General Electric plants and speaking to employees. GE executives treated him well, offering a fresh arena, a new stage for the man who longed for the spotlight. Did the Democratic Party leave him or did he discover a more receptive audience on the other side of the aisle?

The saddest case is Christopher Hitchens, whose life marks the sputtering end of the neoconservative movement. A natural contrarian, he railed against dictatorships for years. But liberals, embodied by the poll-testing Bill Clinton, never did anything about the evils in the world. When there was a chance to finally right a wrong, using American power, he took it, reverting to a view of imperial power that shaped his youth. The United States would civilize the world, like Britain once aspired to, a project that lies in ruins in the bloody sands of Iraq.

Irving Kristol, the godfather of the neoconservative movement, once said that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” Neocons watched the Democratic Party move left. They stood still – losing friends, families and livelihoods in the often wrenching process of political change.

Today, we see a Republican Party that has been captured by a conman, casting aside Reaganite principles in favor of a small, mean, America First philosophy. As for the Democrats – what do they believe in? Is the party merely a vehicle for rewarding coastal elites?

In this era of political turmoil, millions of Americans are confronted with the agonizing choices that faced the men in Exit Right. Do you stay loyal to the old faith or do you turn apostate?