Author of The Dirty Secret Brent Wofingbarger talks to Indian Book Reviews about his book, the research that went into writing it and give writing and editing tips to aspiring authors.
– Shana Susan Ninan
Shana: First off, what’s the “secret” you had in mind when you framed the title, The Dirty Secret?
Brent: It was intended to refer to the fact that the Electoral College is the “dirty little secret” in America’s constitutional system. Until the close election between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000, most people had only a vague perception that Americans do not directly elect their President. The ensuing legal battle that year over Florida’s decisive electoral votes unquestionably heightened the public’s awareness of the Electoral College, but I think the overwhelming majority of people still don’t understand exactly how it works in the real world. Part of my motivation in writing the book was to cast some light on the way it operates at a nuts-and-bolts level, and also to demonstrate how easily the whole thing could be corruptly derailed.
IBR: How did you manage to merge politics and romance and some thrilling events into one book, that, too, your debut work?
Brent: By carefully and ruthlessly sketching out the plot before I wrote a single word of the story. 🙂
In all seriousness, I find it disheartening that our country (America) is so bitterly divided right now, politically speaking. Not too long ago, even when people disagreed about certain political issues, they would still typically treat one another with mutual respect and “agree to disagree” on those political issues without poisoning their overall relationship. So as I was crafting the plot for The Dirty Secret, I found the notion of two fundamentally decent human beings from opposite sides of the political fence cooperating with one another, while slowly healing the rifts in their personal relationship, inherently satisfying. I thought having those two characters’ personal journey unfold in the context of the larger political battle would make the overall story a more enjoyable read. And judging from the feedback I’ve received from reviewers like you, it seems many readers agree. 🙂
IBR: That I totally did! Now tell us, what was the research that went into the story and the characterisation?
Brent: I was blessed to have a lot of election law experience before I started writing the book, but I definitely needed to research how the more modern, computerised voting systems operate to make the story more believable. I also had to dig a little deeper to make sure my understanding of the state and federal laws governing presidential elections was accurate. In fact, I was shocked to learn about the loophole in West Virginia law that is revealed in Chapter 55 of The Dirty Secret, and that discovery required me to adjust the plot’s trajectory somewhat.
IBR: If there are other genres you’d experiment writing in, what would they be?
Brent: Humor. I enjoy making people laugh, and I have thought about writing a collection of short stories about some of the humorous adventures my circle of friends has experienced. But I will definitely have to change the names of those involved, to protect both the innocent and the guilty. LOL.
IBR: Your reading and writing influences…
Brent: One would be John Grisham, of course. He was one of the first to transform legal conflicts into riveting entertainment. I love Stephen Ambrose, and how his passion for history helped him transform some old, dusty subjects like Lewis & Clark’s Voyage of Discovery and the construction of the transcontinental railroad into real page-turners. I enjoy the way John Scalzi and Eric Flint (in his Ring of Fire series) use regular guys with common sense and virtue as their action/adventure protagonists instead of hyper-macho dudes who just kill everything in sight. I love how Neal Stephenson allows his sense of humor to shine through his writing, a trait he shares with Scalzi. I also like how Nicholas Sparks develops an intimate bond between his readers and his characters, because I honestly believe it’s the emotional reaction readers experience when reading a story that separates the good books from the truly great ones. A good book can keep us entertained for hours, but we tend to cherish and remember books that tug at our heartstrings or evoke other strong emotions.
IBR: What was the experience like for you to draw from your experience as a law practitioner into fancying a story so similar to your work/ career?
Brent: Very rewarding. Stephen Coonts is another lawyer from West Virginia who has enjoyed an unbelievably successful career writing thrillers, and he got his start in the business when he wrote Flight of The Intruder, a tale of a U.S. Navy fighter pilot flying missions over Vietnam. Not coincidentally, Mr. Coonts spent eight years in the cockpit as a fighter pilot before going to law school, so he was able to draw upon that experience in crafting his story.
Mr. Coonts was kind enough to share some of his insights with aspiring authors on his website, which I took to heart. And in preaching about the importance of a story’s originality, he offered this advice: “Beginning [sic] writers are well advised to write about something they know. Many beginners try to write about people and places and events that they know absolutely nothing about, and consequently expend vast quantities of time and effort but cannot get the story to read right.”
IBR: Why did you choose an Asian female protagonist for the story?
Brent: Because I wanted my story to be different than all the other thrillers on the market, and it sadly seems there is a real shortage of Asian female protagonists out there. Waves of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent have been successfully chasing the American dream and carving a place for themselves in our country for years, but it seems like their story is being given short shrift when you look at the commercial fiction shelves today.
For some reason, I was drawn to the concept of a strong, intelligent woman with exotic beauty playing the central role in my book. She had to be comfortable in her own skin, yet simultaneously be accepted as part of the community in an area of rural West Virginia that is exceptionally close-knit and is traditionally quite suspicious of outsiders. Casting Rikki as the daughter of the town’s pediatrician – an Indian immigrant who was universally respected for his competence, care and compassion – allowed her to be accepted by the community as “one of its own,” while simultaneously retaining her unique cultural heritage.
Moreover, I liked telling the story of two people who fell in love despite their different ethnic backgrounds and political beliefs. I think many people want to believe that love can conquer all, even though that idealised vision doesn’t always pan out in the real world. When my book begins and readers learn what transpired to cause Dave and Rikki’s relationship to fall apart, and they see the huge gulf that exists between them 15 years later, I like to think readers secretly start rooting for them to get back together. And the latent tension over whether that reconciliation will occur helps move the plot forward and keep readers wondering what will happen next.
IBR: Do you prefer to read single plot stories or have multiple or simultaneous plots in a story?
Brent: I personally prefer reading books where multiple plots unfold at the same time. A prime example would be the three books from Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, which I absolutely loved. I think Jack Shaftoe from that trilogy is one of the most unique, compelling, flawed, and utterly hysterical characters I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter, and I love the way Stephenson weaved together multiple plots in those books. Reading books like that, it feels like you’re in a chess match with the author, trying to figure out how he’s going to tie all these seemingly unrelated threads together in the end. And if the author can pull it off, that makes the whole reading experience even more satisfying to me.
IBR: When are you visiting India?
Brent: It depends on whether The Dirty Secret hits the best-seller list! LOL
I definitely want to visit India so I can personally experience its rich culture, its architectural wonders like the Taj Mahal, and to see for myself some of its vibrant, bustling cities. However, my children are still quite young (I have a three-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son), and I’m pretty sure they would find it challenging to tolerate the 20+ hour long plane ride to India. So my wife and I will probably have to start training them by taking a shorter trip to her Caribbean homeland (Trinidad & Tobago) in order to build up their endurance for the longer pilgrimage to India. 🙂
IBR: Any lines for those debut authors trying their hands at political thrillers?
Brent: Life is too short. Stop thinking about it and just do it! Sit down, think through and outline your plot, and draw up paragraph-length portraits of your characters to help you understand who they are and how they think. Research the story’s aspects you aren’t personally knowledgeable about to make sure your story is as factually accurate as possible. Review The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Then start writing. Remember that Rome was not built in a day, but in order to begin your journey, you have to take that first step and begin writing. Establish reasonable writing goals and try to put aside a set amount of time at least a few days each week (if not every day) to work on your book. Consider using Dragon NaturallySpeaking to maximize your efficiency (but use a high-quality microphone to capture your dictation if you do.)
After you “finish” writing the book, put it aside and don’t even look at it for at least 30 days. Then take it back out and edit it ruthlessly. Cut out every scene that is not crucial to moving the plot forward, and cut out every surplus word that is not truly necessary. For instance, my first draft of The Dirty Secret was over 1,79,000 words, but the final version ended up at just a little over 1.13,000 words! Writers view their books like their babies. But even though we love our children, we realise they need discipline to become the best they can be, and the editing process is just like disciplining your children – painful, but necessary! 🙂
Ask a few avid readers whose judgment you trust to read the book and offer their feedback as “beta readers.” Implement those suggestions you feel have merit and revise the book accordingly. Ruthlessly edit it again and again until you are convinced that you have written the best book you are capable of writing on your own, and then find (and pay) a professional editor to go over it with a fine-toothed comb. I used Rob Bignell and found him extremely competent, extremely affordable, and his suggested changes were great ones.
If any aspiring authors have any other questions, they can look me up on my website at www.wolfingbarger.com.