I recently had the privilege of a Q&A with one John David Bethel, political thriller writer and author of ‘Evil Town’. While I enjoy a good political thriller, the background and creative process John Bethel shared with me is truly fascinating.
Before we get into the questions, first, a synopsis of Evil Town.
The wife of popular Florida Congressman (and prospective Senatorial candidate) Clegg Caffery is murdered. FBI Special Agent Matt Thurston begins an investigation that leads him from the Pentagon to the small town of Clewiston, Florida in search of a photographer responsible for the photo found in the murdered woman’s hand. He arrives too late. The man has committed suicide. Although Thurston uncovers a strange and suspicious story about the dead photographer that he believes is worthy of continued investigation, he is abruptly steered away from the case by his superiors.
Q: Where did you get the idea for Evil Town?
A: While working on the staff of a Congressman from California I found myself using this political setting to create a number of scenarios that could serve as the plots for novels. One had to do with the murder of a Congressman’s wife. It was a short journey from there to the plot of Evil Town, which finds the FBI investigating a murder that leads from the halls of the U.S. Congress right into the White House.
Q: How much of your own experience do you bring into writing political thrillers?
A: A great deal. Not that I’ve ever experienced the intrigue, murder or underhanded dealings that are reflected in my novels, but they do benefit from an understanding of how the system or systems – the political and legislative — work.
There is also a unique political jargon that I include in the dialogue of my novels, i.e. a subtlety of the “language of politics” — when to say something, when to infer it, and when to leave something unsaid. And there is the special language of the legislative process, as well as that used during the design of public policy.
I think it’s important to note at this point that I write these novels to entertain the reader and I have no political agenda at all.
Q: Did you always want to write?
A: I found early on that I enjoyed writing and I think that comes from being a rather introverted person who found satisfaction and self-esteem in writing and creating a world for myself as opposed to building a social network.
I discovered I had a talent for writing from the comments of teachers in grade and high school. I really never thought much about creative writing as a future and used the skill to make a living as a speechwriter early on in my career. I then then transferred that ability to writing fiction when I had more time after “retiring” from my day job.
Q: Who are your favorite authors, and do you think their influence shows in your work?
A: My favorite authors are Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have always admired Hemingway’s spare approach to writing and Fitzgerald’s ability to describe people and places so skillfully that I was transported to those locations with those characters. As to whether their influence shows in my own writing, I try to keep the dialogue between my characters as direct and simple as possible – which I believe reflects authentic speech patterns – while being very descriptive in describing people and places.
Q: What kind of research did you do for Evil Town?
A: One of the subplots of the novel focuses on the sugar industry in Florida and the effect of this agricultural farming on the environment. I had to do a great deal of research to write knowledgeably and accurately about the issues of pollution, and about the social and political issues relating to this subject.
Q: What was your favorite scene in Evil Town to write?
A: I don’t have a favorite scene but perhaps because I understand politics and the personalities, strategies and communication tactics that define this world, I enjoyed working on the “political language” as well as the uniquely “political” situations in the novel. The writing in these instances came almost effortlessly while I had to work a great deal harder on matters beyond the world of politics.
Q: Do you have many people you shoot ideas off?
A: I have a group of people I worked with in Washington who have been kind enough to read, comment and edit my manuscripts. These include those who worked on Capitol Hill as well as others who spent their years as journalists reporting on Congress and the White House, and those who study politics from their perches in the Ivory Towers of academia.
Q: What is the hardest part of writing for you?
A: Having the discipline to sit down in front of the computer and begin each day. Once the process has begun, the world I’m working on – or in – takes shape as I carry the characters through the situations I create for them. It’s almost trite to say “a book writes itself,” but there is certainly an element to that. But first there is the challenge the writer faces in dedicating him/herself to sitting alone for hours. The writer must commit to carrying the story forward skillfully enough to render a believable world peopled with characters who must find a way to overcome adversity, or create chaos, all the while making certain that the times, places and events are plausible, and the chronology makes sense, etc. and so on. It can be exhausting.
Q: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
A: Someone once said that “a writer writes.” The best way to learn and hone the craft is to write. Write anything. Short stories. Essays. Poetry. Just write.
I’m certain that I’m about to upset some folks by saying I don’t believe writing can be taught in the traditional sense of one person instructing another. In my view, the most effective way to “learn” is to do it yourself. For me, not writing is not an option. I have to write. To paraphrase Descartes: I write therefore I am. If it’s in you, you’ll discover that you have to write.
The subject of success as a writer is another discussion altogether.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m not straying far from my comfort zone. I’m working on another political thriller called Sirens. It’s a political coming of age story in which the main character knocks on the door of a darkened home in the suburbs bordering Washington, D.C. attempting to return a lost wallet. He doesn’t notice that the car parked in the driveway holds the shattered body of the son of the patriarch of one of the nation’s most respected families; the capital city’s ultimate power broker; former Senator and once close friend of the current president.
The murder sweeps the young man into the inner circle of the influential family, where the prospect exists that an investigation of the murder could uncover secrets that will ruin the family name and also bring down the presidency. Long knives are unsheathed to derail the investigation.
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Former Executive Assistant, White House Office of Protocol