Staying on Top While Topical
By Rick Pullen
Let’s face it, no matter what side of the fence you’re on, American politics doesn’t get any zanier than it is right now. That, of course, begs the question, what is a political thriller writer to do? How can fiction possibly top our current political reality?
And if that’s not bad enough, think about all of the people who are so emotionally exhausted from the daily barrage of politics, they’re now tuning out—many of them potential readers of political thrillers.
James Grippando, who writes legal thrillers that sometimes bleed over into the realm of political thriller, says he’s taken the advice of a former book editor: “Don’t get into the ‘can you top this’ category.” Instead, he says, “You’ve got to get into the human element and not go for the shock value.”
Grippando’s new novel, THE BIG LIE—the 16th in his Jack Swyteck series—is actually a legal thriller wrapped in the political setting of a presidential election.
THE BIG LIE opens at the close of a presidential election in which the challenger received five million votes more than the incumbent, but lost anyway. Sound familiar? Something similar has happened twice in the last five presidential elections. But in THE BIG LIE, only four electors must be turned to hand victory to the challenger. And thus lies the temptation to do just that.
But can members of the Electoral College legally do that? Enter lawyer Jack Swyteck, who reluctantly takes on the case of gun lobbyist Charlotte Holmes, one of Florida’s 29 electors, who has had a change of heart and wants to vote for the challenger even though the president won Florida’s popular vote.
Grippando’s novel is a gripping tale. If you judge a novel by where it takes you and whether it goes down the road less traveled, then we’ve got a winner here. Fortunately, Grippando takes us through a series of legal twists and turns on a political path you don’t see coming. The elector’s life is threatened and her reputation is soon in shreds simply because she has decided to vote her conscience. But in today’s political world—as in Grippando’s novel—nothing is ever simple.
Grippando’s story is timely because the issue of whether a disloyal elector could throw an election is very real. The concept for THE BIG LIE surfaced in late 2018 and was completed last year, long before this February’s launch. Yet the Supreme Court has just taken up the issue of electors switching their allegiance and will rule later this spring. Some states are also considering laws to change who their electors vote for depending on who won the national vote count. Prescient novel? You bet.
“It’s sort of eerie for me that this issue is coming to a head now,” Grippando says.
Grippando has a history of taking on topical issues in his books. But he protests that they’re “ripped from the headlines.” Instead, he says, they are “about tomorrow’s headlines…I try to look for the issues that are percolating out there and will soon come to a head.”
His last Swyteck novel, 2019’s The Girl in the Glass Box, tackled immigration issues. Immigration laws were changed the day he handed in his manuscript. After publication, he received hate mail, he says, because he portrayed his immigrant characters in a sympathetic light.
“It’s gotten to the point that people don’t want to read about fictional characters whose opinions are different from their own…and it’s almost impossible for me to ignore the political scene seeing that my series protagonist, Jack Swyteck, is the son of a former Florida governor,” he says.
Just check out his president, Malcolm MacLeod, in THE BIG LIE. He comes complete with a tanning bed and a White House hair colorist. He also sports an attention span about as long as his torrent of 280-character tweet storms. Sound vaguely familiar? Grippando acknowledges a bit of dark humor there. Will the hate mail follow?
Of his 29 novels, only three have had a political bent. His first was his 1998 novel The Abduction, about a black man running against a white woman for president. The second was 2009’s Born to Run, about a presidential candidate who hides the truth about his place of birth outside the US, making him ineligible to become president.
In 2017 Grippando was the sixth writer to win the Harper Lee Prize for legal fiction for his novel Gone Again, about a lawyer working with the Freedom Institute to save an innocent man on death row. Anyone who has watched the recently released movie Just Mercy (or read the book it’s based upon) can identify. Grippando called the prize the highlight of his career.
He also recently wrote Watson, a play about how the Nazis used IBM software and census data to find Jews during the Holocaust. The play was recently produced in Florida and ran a full month. It may soon reopen in another theater across the state. He says putting a play together is a lot different than getting a book published. “You have to look at it as: you’re part of a team.”
To say Grippando doesn’t dodge the difficult in his writing—even when he’s writing a play—would be an understatement. But he’s also quite savvy about what he writes. His publisher, HarperCollins, expressed no interest in him turning his play into a book, even though they love the story. Why? Because it would take away from his brand as a writer of legal thrillers.
HarperCollins is also savvy about the political stretch he takes in his latest novel. Concerned that political news saturation might turn some readers off. it deliberately released THE BIG LIE early in February to avoid competition with the clamor of a presidential campaign this summer and fall.
Grippando isn’t worried about political noise. “What makes my novel less vulnerable to the exhaustion factor is it’s still another piece of Jack’s evolution as a character,” he says. “There should be zero exhaustion for fans of the series.”
He’s right about his loyal fans. Grippando’s first novel, The Pardon, was published in 1994. Over the years his work has been making the bestseller lists and selling in seven figures and in dozens of languages around the world. The Pardon has a fanatical following—at least from one famous fan. Joe Scarborough, former Florida congressman and now host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, loves the book. Too much so, it seems.
Although it debuted in 1994, The Pardon hit bestseller status for a second time 21 years later in 2015. That’s when Grippando appeared on Scarborough’s show to promote his latest book, Blood Money. Scarborough, however, was so taken by The Pardon that the entire segment focused on it, much to the dismay of Grippando’s publisher. But as a consolation prize, the publicity launched The Pardon to the New York Times digital bestseller list—something that did not exist 21 years earlier.
Grippando has shown us how to keep plots topical and overcome reader reluctance. He has loyal readers looking for the next Jack Swyteck legal thriller, and this time he has delivered one with a side of political chum. In fact, he’s handed us a textbook on how to write about contemporary issues and keep thriller readers eagerly engaged.