More than 100 aspiring authors gathered at Rochester Riverside Hotel a week ago. All had signed on for Writers & Books’ The Ladder Literary Conference. Aspiring authors, all levels of wordsmiths, both fiction and non-fiction, sizing up each other, evaluating the odds that their brilliance might be recognized by one of the literary agents on the panels. Panels such as “Crafting Character” or “How Not to Be an Amateur Poet.” Perhaps these aspiring authors would pick up a brilliant morsel of advice that opens the seemingly airtight door between them and literary acclaim.
We were quietly asking each other: “Sooooo, what’re you working on?”
“I’m thinking of kind of a dystopian thing…,” My Friend Patrick said.
Dystopian. I heard that word quite a few times over the course of the day-long conference. Not exactly a word that comes up in everyday conversation. Let’s look it up.
Dystopian (adjective). Relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.
Here are some well-known examples. The titan of dystopia, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” the temperature at which books burn. H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” imaging a world in which Japan and Germany win World War II. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” for our conservative friends. Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange.” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a world in which women are reduced to breeding machines. And most recently, Omar El Akkad’s “American War,” published in 2017, a story of civil war fought over climate change.
That’s just a sampler. I’ve read most of them. Tragedies for any taste. I guess I like bad news.
That was the vibe I was picking up on, from these writers at The Ladder. Writers, they’re the barometers of bad times.
And what storm is it that now drives these thoughts, sending them flitting across our laptop screens like pages from a newspaper blown down a deserted street? Donald Trump, of course. Dystopian Donald. The new inspiration for today’s fiction writers.
And, the man who destroyed my dystopian novel.
I wrote it a few years ago, after My Friends Paul and Liz allowed me to paw through a handful of first drafts left behind by Liz’s father, who had died a few years earlier. Leslie Waller wrote best sellers such as “Dog Day Afternoon.” He even ghost-wrote the book accompanying Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The challenge: update for the contemporary reader one of Waller’s in-utero manuscripts, pounded out on his typewriter. I selected from the pile a thriller about eco-terrorists kidnapping a Nixon-like president. Working feverishly at the crack of dawn virtually every morning, I updated that character as a president who now sounded suspiciously like George W. Bush.
In “The President’s Confession,” I used Bush’s actual words to create a portrait of a corrupt, morally-challenged former president who lies the nation into folly and is now being tortured into confessing the sins of his administration. Lies that are broadcast to the rest of the world.
I even worked on this thing for months with a veteran agent, before she seemed to lose interest. I’ve had a few experiences like that on other manuscripts; agents who are like kittens playing with a ball of yarn, until someone tosses a new ball of yarn onto the floor, and they start playing with that one.
Either the idea of an American president as the center of an international thriller is brilliant, or it’s too obvious. Because last year former President Bill Clinton teamed up with mega-typist James Patterson and beat me to the publishers with “The President is Missing,” a best seller – I hear it’s also going to be a Showtime mini-series – featuring a president who slips away from the Secret Service so he can do his work unencumbered by watchdogs.
My president, Frederick W. Field, does the same thing.
So, partially because of the new literary team of Clinton and Patterson, I guess “The President’s Confession” is dead. But mostly, it’s dead because my fiction can’t top the reality of today’s White House. The women paid hush money to keep silent about affairs, the threat of war used as political theater, obstructing justice by firing the people investigating him, creating distractions such as a disease-bearing caravan of immigrants bearing down on our southern border, caging children, deregulating environmental controls, disputing science, mining the presidency for personal profit, golfing on taxpayer money, colluding with Russians, saying he’d welcome dirt offered by foreign governments offered on his political opponents, ignoring the murder of a journalist ordered by the Saudi Arabia and selling them fighter jets, ignoring Russia’s cyber attacks on our political system, calling neo-Nazis “good people,” encouraging violence against Muslims and journalists, stripping women of the right to control their bodies, mocking fellow citizens, criticizing the work of American intelligence agencies and the FBI in favor of what Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il tell him, and the lies, lies, lies, a Niagara of lies. And more. Amazingly, there is much more.
“The President’s Confession” simply can’t compete with all that. For a writer, it’s implausible to create a character who is that corrupt.
But I did nail one detail. An excerpt, from Chapter Sixty-Five, the scene is an outdoor concert celebrating the creation of a political party ostensibly driven by concern for the planet, but with darker intentions:
One by one, Urs the Father spits and roasts the chemical companies, the politicians, the arms manufacturers, the corrupt enforcement agencies, the killers of wildlife, the destroyers of forests and the nuclear industries. Fearless in a nation of banking, he includes the banks that finance all of this.
“Who is to be held accountable?” he bellows. “There! There is the Specter of Greed and Death itself!” He turns and points over his shoulder, beyond the stage. “There!” he shrieks. Thousands look skyward as artificial smoke billows from behind the vast video screen, with yellow and red lights flickering deep within it, as though a tunnel into hell has opened. Something is moving in the darkness, something huge, obscuring the night-sky stars. An unwieldy bulk, growing larger, looming over the stage like a zeppelin. A head, then two outstretched arms, then a torso. “There!” Urs the Father shrieks. “There!”
“It’s him!” Zimmerman screams to Jane over the exploding roar of the crowd, also recognizing the image depicted by the giant balloon. Indeed, the boogeyman chosen by Free Your Mind to be the face of evil is the former American president, Frederick W. Field.
That’s right. “The President’s Confession” foresaw The Trump Baby.
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