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David Rothman - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 28 / 7 / 2009

David Rothman - Interview


American journalist David Rothman's political debut novel, 'The Solomon Scandals', has been thirty years in the writing. He chats to Lisa Torem about the influence of Bob Dylan on it

Can Bob Dylan fit into a Washington novel? Actually yes, if you go by 'The Solomon Scandals' (Twilight Times Books). Investigative reporter Jon Stone loves to swap “Dylan albums and pulpy old spy novels” with a friend. Stone’s fictional memoirs–inspired by such realities as a U.S. senator’s hidden investment in a CIA-occupied building–are in fact Dylan-sardonic. In 'It's All Good', Bob Dylan sings, “Big politicians telling lies/Restaurant kitchen, all full of flies… Buildings are crumbling in the neighborhood/But there's nothing to worry about, 'cause it's all good." Sure enough, in journalist David Rothman’s new D.C. novel, the Vulture’s Point high-rise on the Potomac River may crumble with more than a thousand IRS and CIA workers inside. Jon Stone’s editor is cronies with the builder Jon wants to expose. Will life “get” Stone “in the end”? Pigeonholing people by Washington subway etiquette, a drunk PR man in the book talks of “right-steppers, left-steppers and parkers” on the Metro escalators. Right-steppers are laidback worker drones–they let others pass. Parkers, their bosses, drive into town without even bothering with the Metro. Left-steppers are the ambitious people in a hurry to change the status quo. Stone is a left-stepper. In discussing 'Scandals', let me say my family knows David Rothman. A complete stranger at 'The Washington City Paper', however, agrees with me and gave 'The Solomon Scandals' a memorable recommendation (“we get to relish his chatty first-person narrator spinning characterizations of D.C. with the same dark zeal Hammett held for 'Frisco or Chandler had for Los Angeles”). A Golden Globe Award judge considers 'Scandals' to be prime movie fodder because it is both “unique” and “outrageous.” I myself was captivated by the labyrinthian plot and believable characters who both pushed and decried the envelope of corruption. David has an exceptional eye for the human soul. The Web site about 'Scandals' and the related history is at www.solomonscandals.com. David elaborated on his debut novel with Pennyblackmusic. PB: 'Scandals' has been some 30 years in the making - why tell this story now? DR: Yes, I worked on and off on 'Scandals' long after an early version had a near-miss at Warner Books. The novel is actually more timely now than when conceived in the 1970s. My friend Sy Solomon is mostly a do-it-yourself influence peddler, aided by a venerable but sleazy law firm. But now Capitol Hill swarms with whole armies of lobbyists, and more than a few think-tankers are lobbyists in disguise. Washington is in large part to blame for bloated CEO salaries, much of the damage from Wall Street crookedness, a smaller percentage of our national income going to the average worker, and thousands of Americans dying each year for want of decent health insurance. Corruption has been with us since the dawn of the Republic, but the Democrats back in the 1970s helped pave the way for Bush-Cheney, at least indirectly. The Democrats’ own sins, such as real estate shenanigans of the kind found in 'The Solomon Scandals' shrank their moral authority over the long run. As for newspapers today, even the best can struggle with conflicts between their editorial responsibilities and business pressures. None other than 'The Washington Post' offered lobbyists “access” to public officials and others,including journalists, who were to attend “salons” in home of the publisher. The salons’ corporate underwriters were to pay up to $25,000. Laudably 'The Washington Post' backed off. But the paper’s ombudsman still called the scandal “an ethical lapse of monumental proportions.” PB: Protagonist Jonathan Stone is a D.C. investigative reporter, and the story–set in the 70s–revolves around a fictional real estate catastrophe. Stone is principled and diligent but stumbles into roadblocks, even at his own paper. How closely does Stone reflect your personal experiences as an investigative D.C. journalist? DR: I highly fictionalized my travails at the General Services Administration, the government’s housekeeping and real estate agency. My prolonged Freedom of Information battles with GSA made the CBS evening news. In the end I needed help from Senator Ted Kennedy’s committee staffers to win access to the approximately 400 office leases that I examined for irregularities. My work triggered a congressional investigation. Actually I had it tougher than my protagonist did. For the sake of pacing, my imaginary GSA bureaucrats had to surrender the leases faster than the real ‘crats did. Blessedly, Jon’s newspaper is fictitious. A friend wanted my 'Telegram' to be nicer, because 'The Washington Post' would never be crooked like 'The Telegram' no? But I wasn’t writing about 'The Post'. Rather I invented a mostly fictitious Washington just as Allen Drury did for 'Advise and Consent'. That said, I’m still baffled why the D.C. papers didn’t carry my disclosure that a prominent senator had held a secret and illegal investment in a CIA-occupied building owned by his friend the government landlord. I’d broken the story through the old States News Service and the Connecticut papers. NBC and the New Republic picked up my scoop, a good indication that muck existed to write about. For the novel, I promoted the senator to President and invented a fictitious real estate tycoon and friends to corrupt Eddy Bullard; well, further corrupt him. In real life, 14 workers died and 34 were injured when a high rise collapsed at Skyline Plaza in Northern Virginia. Many more perished some years later in West Virginia in America’s worst construction accident, which ideally might have been avoided through the lessons learned in the Virginia collapse. Writing 'Scandals', I came up with a rickety office complex called Vulture’s Point where more than 1,000 bureaucrats work. For suspense reasons here, I won’t say if anyone ends up squished. PB: There is exquisite detail attached to the major characters in the book. Social class, regional dialect, gender and non-verbal communication patterns have clearly been given deep thought. Were these characters drawn from actual individuals you have known? What strategies helped you flesh out these characters? DR: Of course, the details of my experiences were still fresh in my mind when I wrote the first draft more than three decades ago. Remember, too, that I have a newspaper background. I’m not Dickens, but, like him, I found journalism to be a wonderful way to learn how people talk–not just the sounds but the sights, the body language. I saw the novel as an exercise in eternal truth, not newspaper-style fact. I made my GSA landlord a big, muscular ex-bricklayer with two missing fingertips, while the King of the Leases in real life was a small balding man, an accountant or bookkeeper type. A journalist writes up things as they exist; a novelist, as they should be–while trying to avoid stereotypes. Solomon as an ex-bricklayer served the book well by giving me an excuse to use the missing fingertips as a possible harbinger of the possible building collapse. This also played against some people’s notions about white-collar crooks. Solomon with less grooming, and cheaper clothes, would have resembled the blue-collar variety. PB: Who were your literary influences? DR: Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and Philip Roth; yes, a rather motley quartet. The biggest influence of the four was Sinclair Lewis, who lacks Dickens’ emotional range or powers of prose; but what an observer he was of the American scene! George Follansbee Babbitt–I still remember the middle name–was invisible to the literary world. In a U.S. middle-class context Sinclair Lewis discovered the greed-driven respectable or at least fully fleshed him out. Dickens’ reportorial love of detail actually influenced me through Lewis. I turned to F. Scott Fitzgerald for the elegance of his prose and for the depth of feeling that Lewis’ work often lacks. I’m not Fitzgerald, but 'The Great Gatsby' at least serves as that proverbial green light at the end of the dock–something to row toward. Thomas Wolfe, whose style differed greatly from mine, was inspiring because of the honesty with which he wrote about Asheville, North Carolina–including its real estate community. I ended up at the University of North Carolina partly because I admired Wolfe. Philip Roth influenced me through his mordant Jewish-American humor and loathing of hypocrisy. All four share a strong awareness of class differences. And of course Lewis and Roth are satirists, while Fitzgerald and Wolfe can sometimes venture into the same territory. Robert Penn Warren, in his insightful treatment of corruption in 'All the King’s Men', was yet another influence. Notice how retro my influences are? So be it. Besides, it was the 1970s when I started 'Scandals'. Of course I’ve kept reading since then–not as a literary scholar, which I’m not, but rather for pleasure and to grow as a writer. And now here’s the irony. The new technology has made me more retro. I used the internet to summon up the writings of George Gissing, Charles Dickens’ bookworm of a younger cousin, so to speak. I love 'New Grub Street'. PB: When did you finally say, “Yes, now I’m a writer”? DR: When I defied my creative writing teacher at UNC and wrote my unpublished first novel in spite of him. I’d always been a contrary type. In elementary school–perhaps sixth grade–other children wrote of summer vacations while I told of Nazis burning up babies in concentration camps. The pattern never stopped. At UNC my creative writing teacher hated Sinclair Lewis-style satire. He himself wrote Southern-sweet. I couldn’t stand his work, and he hated mine, just as he hated Lewis’s. He was partly right. I had a lot of learning ahead, and I am better for his criticism. He himself recognized that other people, especially Europeans, might enjoy my writing. One of his best pieces of advice was to distrust memory, and he related how, post-therapy, certain psychotherapy patients discover they enjoyed happy childhoods after all. To extrapolate a little–since he probably never quite said this–maybe the basic facts stayed the same but the truths changed. The big lessons here? Well, first, you don’t need anyone’s permission to be a writer, and second, you can learn even from teachers critical of your work. But wait. I have a little twist. A friend of my parents knew another creative writing professor–a New Yorker once a top editor at Crown Books–and he looked at my work and told me in effect that my UNC teacher was full of crap. So I actually ended up with permission after all. PB: You reference “a hiking buddy and fellow reporter Al Bergmann with whom Jon hiked up the Appalachian Trail and shared “Dylan albums and pulpy old spy novels.” Do the following Dylan lyrics accurately describe the mood or tone of 'The Solomon Scandals'? Would Stone direct these words to Solomon? Dylan’s latest album 'Together Through Life' features the apocalyptic and coarse closer, 'It’s All Good'. 'Masters of War' states, “Let me ask you one question/Is your money that good?/Will it buy you forgiveness/Do you think that it could?I think you will find/when your death takes its toll/All the money you made/will never buy back your soul./You that never done nothing’ but build to destroy/you play with my world//like it’s your little toy.” DR: I like Dylan’s sardonic wit and honesty–he is a favorite. I love such masterpieces as 'A Hard Rain’s-A-Gonna Fall',and these days, via 'It’s All Good',as you’re aware, there's even a shoddy-building angle. Remember Sy Solomon’s dodgy construction practices and the political corruption that made them possible. But would Stone send Sy annotated Dylan lyrics? Hardly in character.Still, he might use Dylan lyrics as a soundtrack to accompany his private thoughts. Jon grew up under the same musical influences that I did. Certainly he would agree with Dylan about lying politicians and the crooked regulators. What’s more, I believe that Dylan’s music may have affected the tone of 'Scandals'; who says influences on a novelist are necessarily all from books? PB: What else shaped you and 'The Solomon Scandals'? DR: Newspaper work influenced me, in terms of the prosaic matter of paragraph lengths. A wise friend suggested I shorten them to make 'Scandals' more readable. Besides, she said, that’s how an actual newspaper guy like Jon might write. Exactly. PB: One delicately-drawn character, wealthy,Vassar-educated Wendy Blevin works alongside Stone at 'The Telegram' as a gossip columnist, writes about the social climbers, but also has compassion for community activism. 'Pretty in Pink' by the Psychedelic Furs has these lyrics: “All of her lovers/all talk of her notes and the flowers that they never sent/And wasn’t she easy and isn’t she/pretty in pink? Do these “punk” lyrics describe Blevin? DR: Some of that would apply. But I really can’t comment without giving away too much of the plot. We’ll let the lyrics tantalize prospective readers. PB: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young wrote the protest song 'Ohio' in response to the Kent State Killings in May of ’70. “Four dead in Ohio” is sung as the harmonies retract over jangling guitar chords. What was your reaction? DR: I was outraged that Governor Rhodes and the Ohio National Guard would treat American students like Viet Cong. It was bad enough to read of the U.S. treating VC like VC. My continuing anger is with the “big politicians” rather than the soldiers. James Rhodes said the antiwar protestors at Kent State were worse than communists. The Kent State deaths also reminded me that some people perceive reporters as just another breed of commie agitator, and that journalists might have died. When Billy Graham came to Ohio, I asked the wrong questions at his press conference and got thrown into a locked room at the Oberlin police station. No charges, but the incident taught me a lot about so-called authority and its abuses. Something about Graham set the stage for this to happen. Nixon and Rhodes cleared the way for the Kent massacre, and I doubt they would have wept if bullets had opened up the skull of a reporter or two. Kent also showed how certain trogs cared more about property–the burned-down ROTC building–than about human life. Most people in the vicinity of Lorain, the factory town where I lived and worked, shared the grief of the parents of the local boy killed at Kent. But the true horror was not just in the killings, it was also in the enthusiastic reactions of certain hard hats. Why not punish the commie bastards? In fact, some patriots wrote hate letters to the parents of this ex-Eagle Scout and rejoiced over his death. I reported the funeral for 'The Lorain Journal' and fictionalized it in 'The Solomon Scandals' in an appropriate context–life vs. property rights. PB: You chose a real-estate scandal. Was this based on an actual event? DR: Well, events found me–I didn’t choose them. From a family friend I heard of Senator Abraham Ribicoff’s friendship with a large GSA landlord. Abe held investments in non-government-occupied properties but denied having invested in the others. I showed that a Ribicoff trustee had actually invested $20,000 in the CIA-occupied building in Arlington, VA, without Honest Abe’s name on the partnership papers. In fictionalizing, how could I not write about a real estate scandal? PB: Your screenplay of Scandals' may be garnering Hollywood interest - what kind of music would enhance the script? DR: Hollywood is always iffy, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed. Let me dream and wonder if Dylan couldn’t do a soundtrack of quasi-period music. 'It’s All Good' shows he’s still in fine form. PB: You said you’re “an old text-guy. But my years on the Net have taught me to think beyond words.” Your screenplay “has wordless scenes where music and the images help establish the mood.” How’d you hopscotch from “old text-guy” to “multi-media, state of the art guy?” DR: Because it became quite clear that’s what people want. What’s more, I actually did a draft of the script some three decades ago and got some encouraging words from a studio then. That said, I remain an old text guy. Just a more flexible one. The revised script is far more visual, which is just good movie-making anyway. PB: Some fascinating plot twists occur - so the element of suspense stays strong throughout the read. With an odd, murky charm that recalls 'The Maltese Falcon' and epic characterizations which parallel Rand’s 'The Fountainhead'. Which audiences will “Scandals” attract? DR: All kinds. Literary majors, literate political activists, fans of suspense and Roth-style sarcasm, and lots of ordinary people who just want a feel for what’s happening in Washington, D.C. The issue isn’t one of age; rather, sensibility. Some of the biggest fans are in their 20s, like the Yale literature graduate who reviewed me for 'The Washington City Paper'. 'Scandals' could well be of interest to people outside the United States, since America leads the planet in so many ways–both good and bad. The book is orderable from some UK stores and some as far off as India. PB: Final question, What other projects will be coming your way? DR: Psst! Military secret. I’d rather not discuss my projects until they’re further along. PB: Thanks, David, and good luck with 'The Solomon Scandals'. Further information about 'The Solomon Scandals' can be found at http://www.solomonscandals.com

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David Rothman - Interview

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