Friday, October 24, 2008

How I got the idea for The Henderson Equation

Of all the questions asked of fiction writers, the one most common is: Where do you get your ideas? It is a crucial question that goes to the heart of the storyteller's art. One might generalize and assert that it comes from an amalgam of one's life's experiences, stories told by others, books read, movies seen, dreams and fantasies, and the molten mix in the cauldron of one's imagination. This is one writer's attempt to pinpoint the spark that ignited the idea that became the story and its aftermath.

Living in Washington in the seventies, we were treated to an endless drumbeat of stories in The Washington Post by the young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about a brewing scandal involving the Republicans and the White House. Eventually the stories created an explosion that rocked the country and caused President Richard Nixon to resign after winning a resounding victory for a second term. The event has gone down in history as “Watergate.”

I had been a consultant to the Republican National Committee and the Nixon White House and knew many of the players that were involved in the scandal. It was fascinating to be an observer to this bizarre situation in which a couple of young newspaper reporters, backed by their intrepid editor Ben Bradlee and the approval of the paper’s publisher Katherine Graham, were able to bring down a sitting President.

From my vantage point as a mere observer who knew many in the cast of characters in this ordeal, I was able to enjoy a smorgasbord of ready-made research into the dynamics of this struggle between the media and the political elite. Also, I had been a newspaperman, starting my career as a copy boy for the New York Daily News and going on to be the editor of the largest weekly on Long Island.

I knew the turf, knew the inside story of the political scene and the way in which stories are assigned, written and placed. Viewing this story unfolding before my eyes provided the raw material for the idea of my novel.

If a newspaper had the power to bring down a sitting President, did it not have the power to create one?

That was my central theme. Since I lived in Washington, I had some cursory knowledge of the history of The Post and the personalities that ran it, including some very private behind-the-scenes material that I had picked up through the gossip mills of Washington. We were very much a part of the media/political social scene, circulated freely, listened and observed, picking up material like a giant sponge.

My publisher at Putnam, then a family business before movie moguls and the mega corporations overran it, liked the idea and gave me a small advance. I wrote the novel. Because of my inside knowledge of the backstage story, it contained elements that could be considered a roman a clef, although I was careful not to come too close to the bone of what could be considered reality. Nevertheless the people at The Post considered it such and totally ignored it in their pages. In fact, the media fraternity considered it an attack on the system and it was hardly reviewed and mostly dismissed. But I had it right, and it is as fresh today as it was when written nearly thirty years ago.

The story doesn’t end there. A few months after publication my wife and I spent the Christmas to New Year’s holiday at a spa in Mexico where, of all people, I got very friendly with one of the guests, Katherine Graham, owner/publisher of The Washington Post. We played tennis together and generally bonded as people do when thrown together in a relaxed atmosphere. All she knew about me was that I wrote novels, lived in Washington and was very familiar with her newspaper and the circles in which she moved. I found her one of the most interesting people I had ever met in my life. In fact, I adored her.

But sometime during the holiday, she discovered from people back in Washington that I had written this novel. The perception was that it did not treat the people at The Post kindly and was a vicious attack on their integrity. She had also perceived personal references in the character of my fictional publisher and assumed that they were unfavorable references to her and her family.
Journalists have thin skin and think of themselves as perpetually under attack by people who doubt their motives. They truly believe they are worthy of canonization as truth seekers and see the world in stark terms of black and white. In this self-characterization, they are the good guys and they consider all critics of their work the bad guys.

Apparently, Kay Graham bought their characterization and treated me to a three-hour emotional confrontation insisting that The Post didn’t bring Nixon down, but that his own foolish act destroyed his presidency and any personal references suggested by my fictional character were insulting to her. I was quite shaken, but listened carefully to her accusations. She had not read the book, but from the information she was given from the home office, she determined that I had been vicious and inaccurate. My only defense, of course, was that this was a work of fiction and, while admittedly it did contain characters and events with some peripheral similarities, it was a work of the imagination.

She had a point of course. There is a thin boundary between fact and fiction and while she hadn’t read the book, those around her had, and were quick to characterize it as a roman a clef with nasty intent. The fact was that the idea was loose and no amount of explanation on my part could expiate my supposed sin. I will admit to being somewhat ingenuous, both then and now. In her place, I might have reacted with the same anger and emotion. Nevertheless the deed was done, and I felt awful that I had hurt my new friend, who I admired enormously.

After her outburst, she settled down and while hardly forgiving me, we did enjoy the rest of our holiday and saw each other on occasion in Washington. My admiration for her has grown with the years. In my mind she remains a heroic figure, a paragon of womanhood. Her autobiography, published a few years before her death, was one of the best I have ever read, beautifully written and honestly told, revealing the same vulnerable, charming and forgiving human being that had crossed my path briefly but memorably at that spa in Mexico.

That said, I nevertheless defend my novel as a truthful, insightful and accurate snapshot of that moment in time.

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