Hartmann Interviewed on Deadly Election
(1) Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new political thriller, Deadly Election, is about? What is it trying to communicate?
In Deadly Election I explore what would happen if a right-wing administration in Washington definitively crossed the line between democracy and dictatorship. What steps would they take? Who would resist them? The book is also about the frailties and strengths of the human character, of both villains and heroes alike. As a novelist, I’ve always been interested in how political passions shape personal choices and how an unchecked lust for power has a corrosive influence on individuals. The book’s a fast, scary read, but the characters are multi-dimensional and their stories intertwine in interesting and unanticipated ways.
The book has been described by Kai Bird, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, as “an elegant mystery story that confronts the darkest imponderables of our post 9/11 world.” Michael Klare writes, “Betsy Hartmann has taken our darkest fears of the Bush administration and carried them one terrifying step further.”
(2) Can you tell Znet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?
Shortly before the 2004 presidential election, I had just started work on a novel about oil politics in Central Asia when someone told me the Nixon administration had conducted focus groups to see how the public would respond to the suspension of elections. While I was never able to confirm the truth of the story, it suddenly got me thinking about that possibility. After all Bush and Cheney had already done – the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, the erosion of habeas corpus, illegal surveillance, war on Iraq – the prospect of the administration declaring a state of emergency and suspending elections did not seem so far-fetched. Politically, I felt more and more compelled to write a novel about it, and I also thought it would make a great story.
I did some background research for the book, especially on the Supreme Court, as one of the main characters is a moderate Republican justice. His vote will decide whether or not Salim Mohammed, an African-American convert to Islam hauled up on terrorist charges, will lose his citizenship and all the legal rights it confers. Paul Wellstone’s death in an air crash in Minnesota spurred the creation of another character, a strong-willed, civil libertarian female senator from that state. The collapse of the dollar and an impending recession also figure in the book, somewhat eerily predicting what is happening today. While the book clearly has parallels with current Washington politics, it is a work of imagination and is not intended to mirror the Bush administration exactly. It’s a larger parable about the risks of creeping authoritarianism.
3) What are your hopes for Deadly Election? What do you hope it will continue to contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?
I am a believer in what I call “strategic paranoia” – spinning out worst case scenarios in order to figure out how to make sure they don’t come true. Deadly Election is a cautionary tale, designed to encourage political reflection. While hopefully the Bush-Cheney regime will not suspend elections, we cannot entirely rule out that possibility. The necessary architecture may already be in place: for example, the National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive issued by the White House in May 2007 that defines a state of emergency very broadly and a Supreme Court with a conservative majority.
As for triggering events, I am growing more concerned by the day that the administration will find some excuse to attack Iran. We also cannot rule out the possibility of another terrorist attack. I hope my book not only entertains people, but encourages them to get more involved in actions that prevent a worst case scenario from coming to pass. For example, in Western Massachusetts where I live, peace and social justice activists are organizing a grassroots movement to prevent war with Iran. This is really important work. It is also vital that we defend immigrant rights – increasingly, law enforcement agencies are using police state tactics in rounding up and detaining undocumented workers.
As a writer, I of course hope that many people will read the book and I’ll be disappointed if they don’t. Given the corporate structure of the media and publishing industry, it is really hard to get critical books noticed. Novels are even harder to market than non-fiction. Thank goodness for alternative media like Znet! If you like Deadly Election, please spread the word.