Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Chris Interviews Author Steven Wright

Today (Wed, April 15th) was the day - our event with Madison's Steven Wright, author of The Coyotes of Carthage, was planned for this evening. Well, that's not happening, and more's the pity, as Wright's novel is one of my favorites of 2020 so far. It's dark political comedy, a grimly hilarious assessment of one microcosm of the American body politic. Dre, a political fixer desperate to save his career, has a quarter million in dark money to convince a small town in South Carolina to let a company strip mine the local nature preserve and poison the water.

Allow me to heap on the outsider praise, in case you don't want to take my word for it: Tod Goldberg, with a glowing review in Monday's USA Today, calls it "a crackerjack debut," and Wright's book earned a starred Library Journal Review. John Grisham, noted king of the legal thriller, even adds, "With this splendid debut, Steven Wright announces his arrival as a major new voice."

In lieu of our in-store event, we still wanted to give you a chance to hear from Wright, so I sat down (virtually) to ask him a few questions about his work, writing, and this fantastic book. So let's get to it.

Chris Lee: Steven, thanks so much for taking the time to reply and answer some questions about your novel, one that, let me say, I absolutely love.

Steven Wright: First, thanks for having me. I'm heartbroken that we won't be able to meet this April in real life. I love Milwaukee and I love Boswell, and I had a bunch of former students, now prosecutors and defense attorneys in Milwaukee, each of whom had promised to attend the event to lend their support. I'm very proud of them, and I hope we'll still be able to talk about the book together at Boswell.

CL: Your book takes us behind the scenes of a Washington consulting group’s meddling in a hyper-local election - in fact, you could have maybe titled it “The Corporatist's Guide to Buying Elections.” What’s something in the book, or maybe didn’t make it in, that you wish the average American, regular voter or not, knew about the electoral process?

SW: To answer your question: I want to start with a picture. Take a look:

You probably saw it on Twitter. This picture shows the border between two Florida Counties, and the image conveys the story of two local governments. Duval County, on the bottom, the sand without people, decided to shut down its beaches to prevent the spread of the virus. St. John’s County, on the other hand, chose to stay open. And thus, you can see, on the St. John's side of the border, plenty of beachgoers enjoying the surf and sun. 

This picture shows why local government is important. Local governments make decisions that impact people's lives. Local governments pick the books our children read in school, and local governments pick the laws our police officers choose to enforce. Today, we are beginning to realize and appreciate the role that local governments play in our public health policy and our response to the pandemic. Just look at the beaches.

And yet, despite their importance, local governments are woefully underappreciated. Most people don't vote in their local elections. I've seen local elections with turnout as low as five percent. Frequently, local elected officials run uncontested, and, in my experience, the candidates in contested races usually don't have huge war chests. 

We think a lot about federal elections: the president, our senators, members of the US House, but I wanted to remind people that local elections are important too. We rightly worry about corporate money influencing politicians in DC, but we should also worry about corporate money influencing our local elected officials.  

CL: Your novel feels so real and is so obviously written by someone who knows the intricacies of what’s going on. That said, as I was reading it, I kept catching myself shaking my head, mumbling, no way!. So I can’t help but wonder - what’s made up? Or rather, what I really want to know: is there anything that seems completely unbelievable in the book that’s totally real?

SW: The novel was influenced by my experience as a trial attorney, working for the US Department of Justice Voting Section. Duke Boshears is a composite of a type of local politician I would often meet. He likes to project that he's a strong business success and that he's a great leader, but he's run his business into the ground and he's a terrible leader. Everyone hates him, including his wife. 

He thinks he's beloved. He thinks he has all the answers. He can’t fathom that anyone wouldn’t vote for him. But he's completely oblivious. He's so self-absorbed, so self-confident, a lesson in the perils of parents teaching their children to believe in themselves. You meet these types of men a lot: in politics, in law, in academia. 

CL: You’re far from ‘just a writer’ - Associate Professor at UW Law, you co-direct the WI Innocence Project, you spent years as a trial attorney in the Voting Section of the US Dept of Justice and litigated cases to enforce things as important as the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and you’ve written and provided commentary for places like NYRB, Wake Up Wisconsin, and WPR. I think it’s fair to say that you’ve spent much of your career working within and writing about the intersections of race, law, and politics. So with this book, what did you set out to say or what did you find you were able to explore about those subjects and where they meet that maybe you haven’t before?

SW: I’m a big believer that people learn best through narrative. Stories - no matter fiction or non-fiction - help people better understand and appreciate problems. Stories also help us better understand each other. So, when I wanted to convey many of my experiences - visiting poor, desperate communities like Carthage, or talking to black men who’ve been changed by their experience in the criminal justice system - I knew I could only share and explore my experience through a novel. 

CL: There’s a lot of cynical, dark humor (and it is often, let me say, a hilarious book, and that’s no easy thing to write!) about the electoral process throughout the book, but to me, so much of the book’s beating heart is hope - that maybe Dre can salvage his career, or set right some things from his past, or maybe even just the hope that he can recover some of the decency and humanity within himself. So, without spoiling anything, what do you hope for him? What’s the one piece of advice you wish you could give Dre?

SW: That's very kind of you to say it’s funny. The strange thing about writing the book - especially writing a book with humor - is that I didn't know whether a line or scene would get an actual laugh. I knew some lines were funny to me when I wrote it. I knew some lines were still funny to me when I revised. But I had no clue whether the reader would find it funny. Part of me wants to ask every reader - did you laugh at the joke on page X? Was it a big laugh? A smirk? An acknowledgment? 

A quick aside: I have two dogs. And every day I write, and every day I read them what I've written. They sit at my feet, while I write and read, and I ask them: What do you think? Is that funny? Obviously, they don't answer (I’m not sure I’d want their honest opinion anyway), but I've had extensive conversations with them about whether a line is funny or not. 

So, to answer your question, what do I want for Dre? I think Dre is cynical, bordering on paranoid, and he clearly has trust issues. This experience, in Carthage, probably didn't help. So, I really hope that he finds friends and family in whom he can place his trust and faith. 

I took a workshop with the awesome Garth Greenwell a few years back. And I workshopped part of this novel. One classmate said: "I don't know if I like Dre, but I really just want to give him a hug." And that's really the reaction I wanted to get, and so, I don't know if I'd give Dre advice, but I'd definitely give him a hug. 

CL: Speaking of - a lot of the laughs from the political operators in the book remind me of the kind of gallows humor you get from journalists when they’re chatting off the record. What is it about staring at the way things work that brings out such a dark sense of humor in people?

SW: I’m not the first guy to get a chuckle at local government. Now’s a good time for people to catch up on Parks and Recreation. But I think, sometimes, politics - and local politics in particular - attracts eccentrics. And some of those eccentrics are power hungry. And some of those power-hungry eccentrics are deeply incompetent. And that’s a comedic dream: an incompetent, power-hungry eccentric. You’d be surprised how often you find this personality type holding offices of municipal leadership. I concede that this personality is terrible for local government, but the personality really is great for stories. 

CL: Finally, here’s the ‘you may also like’ portion of the interview, a little bit flipped. If you were me, and you had to convince someone to pick up your novel today, how would you finish this old bookseller's chestnut: You’re going to love The Coyotes of Carthage if you loved...

SW: Wolf Hall or the Sellout.

I cheated, which is what Dre would have wanted.

Speaking of bookselling, a final note from the bookseller - The Coyotes of Carthage is a current Boswell Best selection, discounted 20% off the list price! Snag a copy today - worth every penny, at any price!

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