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Political-Ish Summer Reads

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With the long primary season over and the presidential race gearing up, political wonks might need a break from the "real world" this summer. Escapism via a novel is one solution. To ease any separation anxiety from the world politique, I selected the six top new political-fiction books and soon realized it was hard to engineer a complete escape from today's news and politics. So I sought out the authors, who range from the former executive director of the Christian Coalition to the author of the new Indiana Jones novel, and here is what they had to say about their new political thrillers...

Ralph Reed on Dark Horse

Q: You started this book in 2006 but it has a lot of similarities with today's election (there is the first African-American presidential nominee ever, controversial African American minister and the first woman on a national ticket since 1984). What were you thinking when you started writing your book about the 2008 election? Did you think your fictional book would touch so closely to the truth?
A: No. I can't claim any particular powers of clairvoyance. When I was writing in the fall of 2006, I assumed what everyone assumed: that if Hillary Clinton was alive, she would be the Democratic nominee for President. I outlined the book and wrote the first chapter 32 years ago, so these characters were not created to mimic what is unfolding in 2008. But there is no question that in many respects life is imitating art or vice versa. The only campaign more bizarre and unpredictable than the one we are witnessing right now is the campaign described in Dark Horse.

Q: You have worked on seven presidential campaigns. How much of this book is what you experienced and saw?
A: I guess I'm either too young or too loyal to write a memoir. I'm old-fashioned, and I believe the relationship between a campaign strategist and a candidate should be sacrosanct, similar to that between someone and a priest or rabbi, or between an attorney and his client. So I fictionalized what I saw and experienced over a quarter century of political campaigns. Dark Horse may be fiction, but everything in the book happened to me or someone I knew. It's real, and it is truer than most non-fiction.

Q: As can happen in great fictional books, almost everything that goes wrong does! But besides a great story, what do you want people to take away after reading your book about the real political landscape?
A: I wanted to pull back the curtain and take the reader into the back rooms of a bitter, hard-fought presidential campaign that goes all the way to the wire. The best way to describe that process is total chaos. I lived through the Florida 2000 recount and I wanted to recreate some of that suspense. In addition, I wanted to show the relationship between a campaign and the reporters covering it -- the breaking of scandals, the give and take between politicians and the press. Readers will see the sausage being made, so to speak, and while some of what they see will be troubling, in the end Dark Horse has an optimistic view that this is the best way for a free people to choose their leaders.

Q: If we can briefly talk about the presidential race, since you were the executive director of the Christian Coalition. How well do you think Obama and McCain will play with voters of faith?
A: McCain has some work to do, but he is making progress among religious conservatives. According to a recent Calvin College poll, he is winning 59 percent of the evangelical vote to Obama's 28 percent, or more than 2 to 1. That's about where George W. Bush was at this point in 2004. McCain will probably not reach the 78 percent among this constituency that Bush did four years ago, but anything north of 70 percent will allow him to carry a virtually solid South and be very competitive in places like Ohio and Missouri. Obama will make a run at these voters and will not concede them to McCain, but given where he stands on marriage and the abortion issue (as well as the lingering damage of the Jeremiah Wright controversy), I think 30 percent of the evangelical vote is a ceiling for him. But we shall see. There's a lot of time left in this campaign. The veep picks will matter, as will the conventions and the fall debates.

Q: To escape real politics this summer, political wonks should read your book because....?
A: Not just political wonks but for all readers interested in politics or the 2008 election, this book is a fictionalized, behind-the-scenes realistic look at how presidents are chosen in the modern era of the Internet, a 24 hour news cycle, and $1 billion presidential campaigns. It is also a page-turner and a thriller. Some have described it to me as John Grisham meets Allen Drury with a splash of Joe Klein's Primary Colors. It is fun and entertaining but with a serious point. You don't have to share my politics to appreciate Dark Horse. It is for everyone who loves politics and believes that, for all its sometimes unsavory aspects, it is ultimately a noble and hopeful undertaking.

Brad Thor on The Last Patriot

Q: You have traveled all over the world and love travel. Part of your book focuses on the Uranah Valley of Mount Arafat in Mecca in 632 A.D. How did you conduct your research in order to draw a picture in your head of that location, to then transfer that picture to your readers?
A: I like to visit as many of the locations I write about as possible, but for Saudi Arabia I was forced to make an exception. This was partly my choice and partly their choice.

Saudi Arabia is an interesting and often terrifying place, especially for non-Muslims. My mother was imprisoned there while a flight attendant for TWA, simply for offering food to a poor child on the street. The Saudis have a horrible tradition of human rights abuses and vehemently target women, homosexuals and those who decide they no longer wish to be Muslim. That alone was enough reason for me not to want to do research there. But then there was the Saudi side of the equation to consider as well.

The Saudis strictly forbid non-Muslims from ever visiting Mecca and Mount Arafat. To render the verisimilitude readers expect from my thrillers, I relied upon multiple first person accounts and wove those into my work.

Though The Last Patriot is a thriller set in the present day, I also touch upon Miguel de Cervantes years in a 16th Century Muslim dungeon, as well as Thomas Jefferson's life in 18th Century Paris.

The process of drawing information into me and then guiding it out in story form is hard to explain. My grandfather, who used to play trombone in a couple of Al Capone speakeasies, could play music brilliantly by ear. When I asked him how that was possible, he would shrug and say, "It's what a musician does." I feel the same way and can only say that taking information and painting a mental picture for a reader via words is what an author does.

Q: You were a former member of the Department of Homeland Security's Analytic Red Cell Program and in your book you have a Homeland Security operative. How much of Scot Harvath's character comes from your experience inside the Department?
A: Any scenarios that I have developed for DHS stay at DHS and are never used in my thrillers. That said, I develop the ideas for my novels much in the same way I have done for DHS.

I really believe a writer is someone who has trained their mind to misbehave. I read constantly and try to stay up on everything that is going on around the world. I like to look at things from different angles and say "What if?" What if things happened this particular way? What if what we think happened a certain way actually didn't? And so on and so forth.

Facts are the bedrock of my plots. From there I like to build exciting, edge-of- your-seat storylines that are compelling and believable. When someone reads one of my thrillers, they are giving me the most valuable commodity they possess - their time. I owe it to them to give them the most exciting read they have ever had.

Q: It has been said that "What Jason Bourne was to the Cold War, Scot Harvath is to the War on Terror." When you set out to be an author was it your intention to write these kinds of adventure stories about terrorism?
A: Absolutely, but the funny thing is I didn't know it at first.

The worst piece of advice aspiring writers get is to write what you know. What a crock. If that were true, we'd never have great authors like J.K. Rowling or Ray Bradbury.

I tell people to write what you love to read. That's where your passion is.

I have always been a big fan of international thrillers. The authors who have inspired my writing career are all masters at setting their gripping stories against glamorous international locations - Sidney Sheldon (The Doomsday Conspiracy, Memories of Midnight), Trevanian (Shibumi, The Eiger Sanction), Alan Folsom (The Day After Tomorrow, The Day of Confession) and David Morrell (Extreme Denial, Burnt Sienna).

Q: Glenn Beck said, after reading just the first three chapters of your book, "My friend Brad may lose his life for a fiction book." Why did he say that and how has the reaction been to your book?
A: The Last Patriot is based upon the premise that Mohammed had one final revelation that could forever change the face of Islam and when he revealed it to his disciples, they assassinated him to keep it quiet.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Mohammed was assassinated, including his own testimony to that fact. To suggest, though, as I have, that his companions killed him is considered blasphemous in Islam. To suggest that his companions did so to keep material from the Qur'an and that the Qur'an is thereby incomplete and imperfect, is also considered blasphemous.

When Glenn Beck made the prediction that I would be dead within the year, people (particularly in the Islamic world) sat up and took notice. With the release of the book's premise of Amazon and other sites, the threats against my life began.

Sam Harris recently wrote an excellent article here in the Huffington Post entitled, "Losing Our Spines to Save Our Necks." For those who haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

In the article, Harris makes several interesting observations about Islam. I will cite two I believe relate to my novel:

"The position of the Muslim community in the face of all provocations seems to be: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn't, we will kill you. Of course, the truth is often more nuanced, but this is about as nuanced as it ever gets: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn't, we peaceful Muslims cannot be held responsible for what our less peaceful brothers and sisters do. When they burn your embassies or kidnap and slaughter your journalists, know that we will hold you primarily responsible and will spend the bulk of our energies criticizing you for 'racism' and 'Islamophobia.'"

And:

"Muslims appear to be far more concerned about perceived slights to their religion than about the atrocities committed daily in its name."

I have repeatedly stated that my goal is not to inflame, but to entertain. I am a thriller author and that is my primary job. I believe Islam is no more above scrutiny, discussion, examination, parody, or fictionalization than any other religion. I also believe that my right to write whatever I like is equaled by another right just as powerful - the right not to read it.

Q: To escape real politics this summer, political wonks should read your book because....?
A: The Last Patriot is a fascinating thriller that people from both sides of the aisle can lose themselves in, and which will keep them guessing right up until the very last page.

James Rollins on The Last Oracle

Q: Your book has a mixture of information from large historical insight to medical issues. How did you go about doing the research for this book?
A: I love to do research, so much so, in fact, that I now limit myself to ninety days. On that ninety-first day, I must start writing. Otherwise, I could just keep exploring and rooting through the thousands of intriguing details that make up a novel. For The Last Oracle, I spent time in Russia and Greece. At the time, my brother worked for the commerce department at the US embassy in St. Petersburg, so I gained much firsthand experience. But a majority of the research into a book is a more internal process: reading, sifting through stacks at the library, interviewing scientists and historians. It's amazing how many people are willing to talk to you if you preface a discussion with "I'm an author looking to write a novel about your field of expertise." It's opened doors in NASA, the CIA, even the NORAD complex at Cheyenne Mountain. On second thought, maybe I'd better not be saying that out loud.

Q: Many of the concepts in your book stem from the news, or even scientific journals. How much of this fictional novel stems from non-fictional events? Which parts?
A: I must say that most of The Last Oracle is actually rooted in fact. At the end of each novel, I do lay out what's true and what's not, along with my source material. For this book, I tackle current theories about autism and autistic savants, I delve into the organic source of human intuition (does it exist, and if so, where does it arise?), along with some cutting-edge research into the bioengineering of the human brain. But that's just the science. The book also explores historical mysteries--like the true origin of the Gypsy clans and the tragic fate of the ancient Greek oracle of Delphi. More topically, the novel also broaches modern global threats. For example, few people realize the extent of the nuclear legacy left behind by the old Soviet-era war machine. In fact, there is a lake in the Ural Mountains of Russia that is so radioactive that if you stand at the shore for an hour, you'll be dead a week later. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the concepts and details that are incorporated throughout The Last Oracle.

Q: On another note, I must ask, you wrote the latest Indian Jones novel. What was it like to pen the character Indiana Jones?
A: Of course, I was thrilled to be asked to pen this project, but I do remember reading the script for the first time and experiencing a moment of raw panic. After Indy's absence for 19 years, expectations for his return were huge. Including my own. I was going to have to do him justice. But as I began working on the book -- deconstructing the script, creating internal monologue, expanding some scenes, adding others -- I found myself getting lost in the character. Soon I was cracking that whip and crawling through those ancient ruins alongside Indy. Plus George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg gave me a relatively free hand in the construction of the novel. So, all in all, it was a fantastic experience.

Q: To escape non-fictional politics this summer, political wonks should read your fictional book because....?
A: Because not enough people die in those nonfiction books. First and foremost, I write to entertain. That is my primary goal, to create a book that has to be read until the wee hours of the morning, a book that gets the blood pumping and the eyes straining for the next page. But I also firmly believe to construct such a novel, it's important that the characters be real and the subject matter be relevant. That's one of the reasons, I set my thrillers in the real world and embroil them in threats and dangers that could truly arise. I also think it's important to leave readers with something to contemplate after they turn that last page. One of the best compliments I get from readers is when they state that a certain novel intrigued them enough to explore on their own some detail raised in that book. Then I know I've done my job well: to entertain, to intrigue, but also to leave something to explore afterward. And like I said before, a few dead bodies along the way never hurt, too.

Phillip Margolin on Executive Privilege

Q: With the election coming up, people are focusing on a candidate's character. You ask the question of whether or not the president could be a serial killer. How did you come up with this idea and how did you start generating the President's character?
A: It's not unusual for me to take years to develop a plot. I first thought of the possibility of a president being a serial killer in the mid-nineties. Presidents have been involved in burglaries, sexual scandals and financial wrong-doings. Writers push the envelope and I wondered if a president, with the Secret Service and the media watching him, could commit serial murder. Over the years, I fleshed out the plot. Then it was revealed that an Oregon governor slept with his babysitter, a minor. I developed the character of a president obsessed with young girls and asked what would happen if these teenage mistresses were found dead on both sides of the United States, apparently the victim of separate serial killers. I didn't write the book until two years ago when I finally figured out the surprise ending. I won't write a word until I know my ending.

Q: President Clinton, during his presidency, told the press he was reading Mark Rozell's non-fiction Executive Privilege. Do you think President Bush should read your book Executive Privilege? Why?
A: It would be great if President Bush read any book. Quite frankly, as a citizen, I would prefer that he read books on the Middle East and Global Warming, subjects he appears to know very little about.

Q: What would you want politicians who read your book to take away after reading it?
A: It's unfortunate, but many politicians think they can do anything they want once they achieve power. This often leads to humiliation and, sometimes, prison. Executive Privilege is a fun thriller and not intended as a lecture on morals, but it would be good if it acted as a cautionary tale and deterred a politician who was tempted to stray.

Q: To escape non-fictional politics this summer, political wonks should read your fictional book because....?
A: I was a criminal defense lawyer for twenty-five years. I handled many murder cases, including death penalty cases. To escape from the pressure of my work I would read thrillers. I might have a judge and a DA picking on me, but at least I didn't have a Tyrannosaurus Rex or assassins after me. Hopefully, Executive Privilege will help politicians and the people who follow politics escape from the pressures and frustrations of this campaign season.

Steve Martini on Shadow of Power

Q: The major inspiration for writing your novel was slavery and especially the "code words" that are still visible in organic law. Can you elaborate?"
A: The original Constitution retains three specific provisions dealing directly with authorizing and recognizing slavery. Avoiding the word "slaves" or "slavery" through the use of euphemisms including "such Persons" "other Persons" than citizens, and "Persons held to Service or Labour," the Constitutional Conventions Committee on Style employed code words to remove the naked and obvious pejorative edge from the nation's founding document. All three of the provisions of the Constitution are still in evidence in the document. They are Article 1, Section 2 counting slaves as three-fifths of a vote for purposes of taxation and representation in Congress and for election of the President under the Electoral College; Article 1, Section 9 establishing a ban on Congress's ability to prohibit the importation of slaves until the year 1808 and limiting the import tax on such slaves to ten dollars; Article IV, Section 2, the so-called fugitive slave provision requiring the capture and delivery over to their owners of any escaped slaves who might reach any northern non-slave states. Because of the fashion in which the Constitution is amended language which is repealed or superseded by later amendments is never actually removed from the document, even though it may be 'dead letter law' and no longer enforced. Such is the case with the language of slavery, which was effectively repealed by the Thirteenth Amendment. For this reason it is still visible in the Constitution. If we are offended by the display of the Confederate Flag before state houses in this country, how much more offended should we be by the continued appearance of the language of slavery in the organic law of the nation.

Q: If a top lawyer read your book, how would they react? What do you want the law and political community to take away from reading your novel?
A: In actuality I did not write Shadow of Power for the legal or political communities, though I suspect that lawyers will readily recognize the trial sequences and identify with the lawyers and the strategies that are employed in the story. As written, there is never a time during the trial when the defense has the case under control. Each time they perceive that the result is within their grasp it is jerked away by the unforeseen tactics of the prosecutor the travails of evidence and the rulings of the court. As for the political class, I have no clue as to their reception. Whether they are capable of the ultimate act set forth in the story may turn on the depth and width of the partisan divide and bitter rivalries that divide us. Where the contest for power has no bounds and the level of political dogma is heated and severe, there is no telling how far the true believers will go. If we took no other lessons from Watergate, we should at least have learned that.

Q: You say your favorite characters in history are Jefferson and Lincoln. What fascinates you about them?
A: Jefferson is a complete cipher. It is difficult, if not impossible, to really know much about the real man. For someone who is reputed to have written upwards of 20,000 personal letters, this is phenomenal. He was brilliant to a fault, and thin skinned. From all accounts criticism was something that he could not abide. He recoiled from open argument and much preferred to present his case in written form rather than verbally. Without question he possessed a high-powered intellect and was perhaps the best wordsmith of his generation. But even those who spent much of their careers working in close proximity to Jefferson had to admit that in the end they knew virtually nothing about the inner man and his fundamental belief system. He has become known as 'the American Sphinx' and for good reason. In his later years Jefferson spent a good deal of his life posturing and positioning himself for history. He was not alone in this endeavor. Much of the founding generation engaged in the same activity. While Jefferson became the leader of one of the two political parties vying for power in the new Nation, he used political operatives to make his case and establish his partisan policies. This included the employment of James Calendar, the most scurrilous political "attack dog" of his age. Calendar was hired to defame Jefferson's political opponents, including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, among others. Jefferson was once high on my list of historic American Icons. This was true perhaps in my youth. I am not so certain that I hold him such high regard today. His posturing over slavery, his voiced opposition to the institution, vowing to free his slaves, a promise he never kept; his dalliances with Sally Hemmings (now confirmed by DNA) while he held her in bondage; his virulent attacks upon political opponents which he launched from the shadows using paid surrogates reveal serious subterranean character flaws that are only now gaining credence among historians. The unfortunate truth concerning Jefferson is that as additional details surface regarding his conduct and character, the more one reads and studies, the greater becomes the gulf between the public image and the private man. He loved living well, and if this meant abandoning principal to possess the comforts of life and the image of the gentleman farmer, based on the evidence of history, he was prepared to do so.

This was never the case with Lincoln, who excoriated his own wife for her profligate spending while in the White House. While he was no angel, Lincoln comes as close to being the political patron saint of the Nation as we are likely ever to find. There is no question that it was Lincoln's personal resolve and strength of character, his single-handed commitment that saved the country during the darkest days of the Civil War. Surrounded by a divided cabinet of political vipers, almost all of whom believed they should have been President, Lincoln through sheer power of intellect gained mastery over them all. He held a war weary nation together and prevailed when those who opposed him (McClellan and the Democrats) were prepared to concede defeat, to sue for peace and allow the south to secede - a policy that would have left more than half a million Americans dead in a lost cause. The more one studies Lincoln, the greater appear his attributes. He was not perfect. It is true that as a lawyer he abandoned important principles of freedom, including habeas corpus. He jailed political opponents and held them indefinitely during war. But he did not hide behind surrogates. Lincoln accepted the political heat for every decision he made, and he bleed emotionally - and ultimately physically - for those decisions. The only peace the man received was in the grave. He was ambitious to a fault, and his death was no doubt the price he paid for that ambition.

If Jefferson and Lincoln were kindred spirits, that linkage was born of their mutual mastery of language. Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence gave birth to a nation, while Lincoln's language at Gettysburg and again in his Second Inaugural Address resuscitated and breathed life back into that nation during the carnage of Civil War. If you are an American, how is it possible not to have at least a passing curiosity concerning these two men? They were giants; even Jefferson with all his personal flaws, when compared to the intellectual and ethical Pigmy's who pose as America's political ruling class today.

Q: To escape non-fictional politics this summer, political wonks should read your fictional book because ....?
A: Quite simply, it is the truth

Dale Brown on Shadow Command

Q: What first struck me about your book is there seems to be such high tech and cutting-edge technologies that could lead to the "end of the world." But recently, in London, important confidential documents were just left on the subway. Simple as that. What is your take on this story and specifically how it just took human error to cause potential damage, not a powerful network of satellites and unmanned aircrafts controlled from space (like in your novel)?!
A: A similar incident happened years ago in my B-52 days: a pilot left a bag with all of the B-52 tech orders in it on the roof of his car in the San Francisco International airport parking lot. Sections of the manual -- including step-by-step instructions on how to pre-arm a nuclear weapon -- were soon after published by Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Incidents like this can certainly cause damage but probably won't affect the outcome of a battle or give a government leader the information he needs to make a decision about a particular situation. The USA needs constant, global, detailed intelligence, and the "high ground" of space is the best place to get it.

Q: You do have so much high tech information in your novel. Can you explain one of these technologies and how you created this for the book?
A: I've featured the Black Stallion spaceplane in Shadow Command and previously in Strike Force. My spaceplane is a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle that can take off and land at any conventional airport, but can boost itself into orbit.

The idea came from a Pentagon paper from 1996. The author, Major Chris Daehnick, wrote about a fighter-sized aircraft that used air refueling as its first stage and could blast itself into orbit (the paper can be read at http://www.risacher.org/bh/spacast3.html). Rather than being a large Shuttle-type spacecraft able to carry 50,000 pounds, the Black Stallion can only carry 5,000 pounds, but its ability to go into orbit any time from almost anywhere and deposit small tactical payloads into orbit makes it just as valuable as the Shuttle. It uses regular jet fuel and common hydrogen peroxide as the oxidizer for orbital propulsion.

Q: You are a former U.S. Air Force captain. So how much of this book relates to your experience in the Air Force?
A: When I first started writing novels in 1983, and for the first several books, it ALL related to my years flying bombers in the Air Force. Every first novel is the author's "fantasy autobiography" -- the young B-52 bombardier takes the controls of his stricken high-tech bomber, defeats the bad guys, saves the world, and gets the girl.

But you can only make the "Old Dog" (my high-tech B-52 Megafortress) believable for so long. The technology changes and gets more exciting; the gadgets I used 20 years ago are almost obsolete. I had to change with it.

My perspective has changed as well. I married a retired lieutenant from the Sacramento Police Department who was in charge of narcotics operations, and before her retirement I always worried about her out there on the streets. I knew there was technology out there that could protect her and her fellow officers, but they would never get to use any of it. It became my mission to write about such technology and tell stories about how their jobs would change if they had it.

Q: To escape non-fictional politics this summer, political wonks should read your fictional book because....?
A: Because my stories talk about audacity, courage, bravery, strength, and daring, something that I think is lacking both on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon;

Because I talk about such things as space not like science fiction or like NASA, but what I think it could be like to really live, work, and fight in space;

Because I study potential adversaries and potential allies and show how we should be dealing with them;

Because I give my readers a glimpse, right or wrong, about how military men and women view their leaders, their enemies, their weapons, and the world at large;

Because when you're burned out from your policy meetings, rallies, poll analyses, blog entries, fundraisers, or debates, you'll really enjoy a break by reading a good piece of military action-adventure fiction written by someone who used to wear the uniform.

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