Bill Folman: Making Do When Life Imitates Art Imitating Life

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Every fiction writer dreams about having real-life current events unfold that mirror the themes underlying their just-published novel—but as Bill Folman reminds us in this essay, most dreams are just a few steps away from becoming nightmares. If what he has to say about trying to sell a novel about a presidential candidate whose contrived sex scandal gets out of hand while the media is obsessed with a presidential candidate with an out-of-hand sex scandal, you might want to check out the electronic preview of The Scandal Plan.

I’ve been waiting for a good sex scandal all summer long. No, I’m not a voyeur or a pervert or a committed schadenfreudist—at least not any more than is socially acceptable—but I am a political satirist with a novel to sell, and as such, the financial and humanitarian sectors of my brain are frequently in conflict.

The Scandal Plan, or: How to Win the Presidency by Cheating On Your Wife, is—not surprisingly—about a sex scandal. A fake one. It’s the story of Senator Ben Phillips, a straight-laced, over-qualified, under-exciting Democratic presidential candidate in the tradition of Al Gore and John Kerry. He’s got great ideas, but you wouldn’t want to have a beer with him—and that’s why he’s getting killed in the polls. His campaign’s brilliant solution is to invent a sex scandal. Not a big one. Just a long-ago indiscretion that can be discovered: something the senator will have learned from, something he can bounce back from, something that can humanize him, something that might make him the tiniest bit cooler. Needless to say, nothing goes as planned.

To write a political satire is to be constantly looking over your shoulder. Is my story still relevant? What if Candidate X wins? What about Candidate Y? How does today’s news affect my story? Jon Stewart has it easy. He takes yesterday’s headlines and skewers them on tonight’s show. Guaranteed freshness. With my book, it took four and a half years for the original idea to travel from conception to publication—the satirical equivalent of firing a bullet into a time machine and crossing your fingers. I don’t recommend it.

The slow motion birth of this novel has often filled me with conflicting emotions, most notably in the wake of the 2004 election. I was crushed (crushed!) by John Kerry’s loss. But not completely. While I was convinced that another four years of George W. Bush would be devastating for the country (and the world), while this depressed me like nobody’s business, I couldn’t ignore that tiny guilty voice in my head that whispered: “This is really good for your book! This is confirmation of every argument you make! This means you have a real chance of being published!”

Such is the satirist’s dilemma: what’s good for business is usually bad for humanity.

Throughout this process, I’ve found comfort by telling myself that the underlying themes of my novel (our need to relate to our elected officials, our craving for redemption narratives, our preference for style over substance, the compromises we make in the name of ambition) are all fairly timeless. I also remind myself that this book is a fast-paced comic adventure first, and a satire second. The characters—a pubescent political reporter working for a teenybopper magazine, the campaign manager who has regular conversations with God, the over-sexed middle-aged bombshell who can’t find Mr. Right, the presidential candidate still hung up on high school, and the linguistically challenged Mexican chauffeur who thinks he’s James Bond—their appeal is not affected by the whims of the current news cycle.

Still, my eyes are glued to CNN. And when Hillary’s tears remind voters how important it is for a candidate to be perceived as “human,” or when John McCain is suspiciously linked to a female lobbyist on the front page of the New York Times, I view these events through the lens of my book.

That’s why I’ve been waiting for a sex scandal, and now I’ve finally got one. I was sad that it had to be John Edwards at the center of this particular spectacle because I had always liked him and his wife. But a sex scandal was a sex scandal, and attention had to be paid.

Was the Edwards situation a precise echo of the premise of my book? No. There were eerie parallels, to be sure, but differences as well. Never mind that; sometimes you must go to press with the scandal you have, not the scandal you want. That’s why, as soon as the John Edwards story hit the news, I e-mailed my publicist: “What can we do with this? Can this help us?” I frantically wrote an article for the Huffington Post relating the scandal to my book and offering pointers for future politicians on how to make the most of their own sex scandals.

Do I feel bad about trying to use the Edwards family’s embarrassment to try to shine a light on my book? Yes. Would I have done anything differently? No. Because even with a major publisher and great reviews, a political satire by a first-time novelist like myself does not have the luxury of an advertising budget. Such books are considered—surprise, surprise—too big a risk. That’s why I must take every opportunity I can get.

It remains to be seen whether the escapades of John Edwards will actually influence my book sales or whether any pundits or bloggers will pick up on the parallels and decide to give the subject their attention. Either way, I will remain absorbed by political news for the remainder of the 2008 election and beyond. Because I care passionately about the state of our country and our world. Because, above all else, I want what is best for humanity. And because the paperback version of The Scandal Plan comes out next June, and I want a bigger apartment.

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21 August 2008 | guest authors |