An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines:What was your inspiration for this novel?
Michael Lawson: I can’t recall a specific or particular inspiration for The Inside Ring. My novels usually start with an idea or a what-if question: what if the Secret Service was involved in an assassination attempt on the President? My second novel deals with sexual harassment involving a Presidential contender and in that case I suppose the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings or even Bill Clinton’s problems could have contributed to my thinking. But there was also a what if question for that novel, but telling it sorta reveals the plot.
Did you base the Washington personalities on real people or are they composites?
Both. The Speaker in The Inside Ring is physically very much like Tip O’Neill, a popular Speaker of the House back in the late 80’s – and, and this is a total coincidence, because I wrote the book before Dennis Hastert – the current Speaker of the House became Speaker – but my Mahoney bears an amazing physical resemblance to Mr. Hastert – although I think my guy would be a lot more fun than Mr. Hastert and I doubt Mr. Hastert has my Mahoney’s sinful proclivities. There are other characters in the book that were also inspired somewhat by real people. For example, in the book there’s a retired army colonel, Bryon Moore, who is based very much on a Navy admiral I worked with. In the main, however, the characters are imaginary, or composites, if you will.
I love that DeMarco isn't arrogant and knows his limitations. How did you visualize this character?
I visualize DeMarco as an ordinary guy, not a super hero, not an intellectual, not a super-star. To say it another way, I suppose DeMarco is a lot like me. I’m of Sicilian descent (on my mother’s side), Catholic school reared, and believe it or not, my grandfather had some minor connections with the Mafia. (That’s a story for another day.) DeMarco reacts to things somewhat the way I think I would react if placed in similar situations. He gets scared, he’s not a violent guy, he complains about his boss, he’s sometimes insecure, he’s not an intellectual, likes the mundane (sports, cooking) etc. To a certain extent I “invent” the thoughts and reactions of Emma and Mahoney but with DeMarco it’s pretty much my natural thought process in so far as how he/I would respond to a situation – bearing in mind of course that I’ve never been involved in anything as dramatic as the things that take place in the book. Does that make sense?
The Washington power structure is like a Rubik's Cube. How did you research the various bureaucracies, FBI, Secret Service, etc? Was your background in the Navy helpful?
I’ll answer the second question first. I worked at pretty senior level in the Navy – and the Navy is a large, government, military bureaucracy. And during my career I worked with congressmen, three and four star admirals, I worked in Washington DC, and I worked with other bureaucracies (NCIS, EPA, Army Corp of Engineers, unions, etc.). So I know first hand how government organizations work and tend to react. I did have to do research though – into Homeland Security, the DIA, Secret Service – and I did it the old fashioned way: at the library, leafing through books, on-line. I wrote emails to organizations like the Congressional historian. I didn’t have any inside sources for this book.
Emma has insider resources that Joe needs badly. Why did you decide to use a woman in this role?
Great question. First, I decided DeMarco needed a side-kick/partner. The protagonist in thriller/mysteries usually/often needs a side-kick to bounce ideas off of, to be able to do two things at once, etc. But I also knew the literary/mystery world didn’t need another cop or ex-cop (like Scarpetta’s Marino) or a half-psycho, half-criminal, ex-military guy (like Spenser’s Hawk or Elvis Cole’s Pike). There were already too many side-kicks like these done too well by too many good writers. Second, I very much wanted a strong female character in my book – but I didn’t want the female character to be a love interest for DeMarco – I didn’t want even the possibility of DeMarco, at some point in the future, entering into some sort of long term, domestic relationship with his female partner. And lastly, you hit on it with your question, I wanted the side-kick to have access to resources – information, government files, hackers, etc. – and thus Emma: older than DeMarco, gay, ex-DIA.
Billy Ray Mattis is like a deer caught in the headlights when confronted by DeMarco. Billy is a moral man. Does his dilemma leave Billy without options?
I really struggled with this question for some reason. But here goes. Billy had lots of options in this book – he just made bad choices. Maxwell Taylor had unusual psychological leverage over Billy and Taylor, Estep and Morgan were sociopaths threatening Billy’s mother. What Billy could have done – and should have done – was go to the authorities as soon as Taylor/Estep asked him to help, either the Secret Service or the FBI – but he didn’t. Billy is a brave and essentially likeable character but also a fairly simple man who was not built to withstand the psychological pressures Taylor placed him under. And when the President is shot, Billy’s consumed by guilt and terrified of being caught for his role in the shooting. As I say in the book, if Billy had been vigorously interrogated by the FBI his facial expressions alone would have been an indicator of his guilt – just as they were when DeMarco questioned him on the National Mall - but bear in mind that Donnelly was protecting Billy from the government’s interrogators throughout the book.
If DeMarco is out of his depth in Washington, what are his chances in Georgia, where he stands out as a Northerner?
I’m not sure DeMarco is out of his depth in Washington. The people he deals with are much more powerful than he is, but he understands the rules and how the game is played in DC. But in Georgia, he is completely out of his depth. I think I made it pretty clear in the book that he knew he was in over his head when he went down there, to an area where he didn’t know anyone, with no official status, and most importantly, surrounded by people who solved problems with guns and fists, not lawsuits. DeMarco didn’t want to go to Georgia at all, but the Speaker, that manipulative devil, made him. And as I say in the book, the Speaker’s departing words to DeMarco were: “You be real careful down there, son.”
How did you research the Southern half of the story?
Let me expound for a bit about the Georgia location. I can’t remember exactly what came first when I was writing the book: the Okefenokee Swamp or Charlton County, GA. What I mean is, Charlton County Georgia was a perfect locale for this book. It’s a real place, a real county with a small, low-income population on the edge of the Okefenokee. I liked the eerie, alligator infested swamp as a setting for Estep’s confrontation with DeMarco but I really liked the county and its demographics, in that it made an ideal place for a despot like Max Taylor to take control of. I’d been to the Trident submarine base at Kings Bay Georgia one time, and drove around the region a bit – but most of my research on Charlton County was done on the internet, by asking their chamber of commerce for brochures, by talking on the phone with rangers and public servants in Folkston and who worked at the Okefenokee swamp, and by reading books and looking at pictures of the swamp, and by touring a similar swamp in Louisiana. Now you need to understand, of course, that the reality is that the people in this region of the country are decent, intelligent, and far too courageous to tolerate a Maxwell Taylor – but hey, it’s fiction.
Given DeMarco's problems in both regions, where are the sharks more dangerous, North or South?
Washington, without a doubt. Just read The Washington Post. Almost every day there are stories that hint at powerful people abusing their power and covering up their abuses – and that’s why the city is such a great venue for novels.
Is Max Taylor's character a common phenomenon in small town USA, a rich man controlling an entire town? What does power mean to him?
In real life, I expect that in many small towns rich men have undue influence – but they wouldn’t be, in most cases, as notorious as the Maxwell Taylor. Regarding what power means to Taylor, it’s as I said in the book. He came from an impoverished background where he was humiliated by the people of the county – and what was important to Max was not wealth as much as the fact that with his wealth he could dominate the people who had once looked down on him. And then there is of course Taylor’s sexual perversity – something that he could only indulge in so openly if he was in control of the local legal system.
Uncle Max proves a point in finding the weakness in anyone who opposes him. But could he be successful if he didn't have so many "soldiers" willing to follow his direction?
Despots always have minions willing to do their bidding. The despot’s underlings not only share in their master’s wealth, but more importantly, they get to enjoy the ego-ride that accompanies power. And like most dictators or crime bosses, Taylor also wanted others do the hands-on dirty work – and people like Estep and Morgan provided the hands and were eager to do the work.
You wrote some bizarre characters, especially Morgan, the Indian, and Dale Estep, the Park Ranger. What does their eager abuse of power say about these men?
I think it says two things. Even sane people enjoy power and the trappings of power – money, sycophants, etc. But both Estep and Morgan were less than sane – so for them it wasn’t simply a matter of money – or in Estep’s case a new bass fishing boat. Their positions with Taylor allowed them free range to be the sadists they were.
I keep thinking about Dale Estep and what a natural villain he is. Would a man like that, with his background and training, be just as successful in the Washington "jungles"?
I tend to think not. Dale Estep is literally a jungle predator – the type who would survive Armageddon because he would be more naturally savage than those of us reared in a urban, “civilized” setting. Washington has sharks and predators too – in abundance - but they’re of an intellectual rather than physical variety. The sharks in Washington can make millions and hurt thousands if they’re corrupt, but few of them, I think, would be able to survive in Estep’s swamp – and Estep, in turn, would probably not be good at the mind-games of politicians.
The swamp scene was harrowing. Was it written from personal experience?
Not really, though as I stated above I’ve been to swamps so the scene was personal in the sense that I don’t particularly like some aspects of swamps – the humidity, the snakes, the leeches, the alligators that are part of that environment. Taking a tour of a swamp in a boat is fun – I did that just a month ago in a bayou outside New Orleans – and I found it beautiful. But if someone dropped me into the middle of a swamp and said “walk out”, I’m the kind of person who would be constantly spinning my head around looking for snakes, bugs, and alligators – in other words, pretty much the way DeMarco reacted to the swamp setting.
DeMarco is used to cleaning up messy situations for Mahoney, not the kinds of problems he faces in The Inside Ring. Is Emma pivotal to his success, given her contacts and fearlessness?
In all four books in this series that I’ve written or am in the process of writing to date, Emma’s a major player, particularly in the third book. But the impression I’m trying to give is that DeMarco does things for Mahoney mostly on his own if the problem is something involving some wayward politician or a lobbyist. But when he’s dealing with something truly dangerous and needs access to experts, he brings in the big gun - Emma.
Is Mahoney based on a real character, like a certain Kennedy?
See the answer above where I talk about Mahoney, Tip O’Neill, and Dennis Hastert.
Did Mahoney, the Speaker of the House, have anything invested in the outcome of DeMarco's investigation, or was he indulging a whim and a grudge?
Yes, he definitely had a stake in it, and it was more than a whim or grudge. Mahoney for all his faults is no where near as corrupt as Patrick Donnelly, and he sincerely wanted Donnelly removed from office and he also didn’t approve of people taking pot shots at the President. Mahoney, in the book, sounds a little flippant at times about his lack of concern for the President, but the reality is that he doesn’t sanction changing administrations with a bullet.
Andy Banks, the head of Homeland Security, is an interesting character. As a three-star general, does his military background conflict with the Washington agency insiders, like the heads of the FBI and the Secret Service? Why do they treat Banks with such disrespect?
I think you hit on it with your question. Most military officers I’ve known, and I’ve known a lot of them, are fine people. They’re straight forward, deeply committed to serving the country, work tremendously hard for relatively low pay, and almost always put the country’s interests over their own. Presidential appointees on the other hand, can sometimes be people who have been selected more for their loyalty to a particular party than their ability to serve the country. In this book, in particular, and bear in mind that it’s fiction, I’ve written characters like the Attorney General, the Director of the FBI, and in particular, Donnelly, who are self-serving, political animals – and General Banks is not. Consequently, and as you’ve indicated, these unscrupulous career politicians tend to treat Banks, in spite of his military record, as somewhat naďve when it comes to the rough and tumble world of beltway politics.
At the beginning of The Inside Circle, it is easy to make assumptions about the direction of the story. But you keep turning the plot inside-out. Did you ever worry about having too much going on?
Not really. It’s not a big book, and it’s not like the reader has to remember a whole lot – and I think even though there are a number of plot twists, I think they’re pretty easy to keep track of, explain, and connect.
In writing such a twisted plot, was it hard to keep track of all the loose ends?
No, but keep in mind that when you write a novel – or probably any other book – you probably read the book about five hundred times before you’re done with all the re-writes and editing etc. This may sound strange, but by the time I send a book off to a publisher, I’m really sick of reading it because I’ve read it so many times. So in the course of all that reading and reading and reading, you know the plot by heart.
Power and its consequences loom large in the novel. What are you saying about power and the control it affords?
I think history speaks to this more eloquently that I could. There are simply too many examples in history of men – and I think sometimes essentially good men – who once they assumed positions of power became corrupted by their power. Powerful people – whether in business or politics – become too used to having people kowtow to them, too used to getting their own way, too used to having people tell them how brilliant they are. Over time they begin to feel invincible and begin to believe that the rules don’t apply to them. Look at what’s going in the House today with some of the House leaders – people accused of violating the law by taking trips paid for by lobbyists. These guys know the rules but they probably sincerely believe that they can’t be bought - that just because a lobbyist pays for a couple meals they won’t become seduced – but the laws exist because in the past too many have been seduced. Also, don’t get me wrong here – I may be naďve but I really believe that very few politicians are corrupt – I think most are well intentioned and honest – but that wouldn’t make for good fiction.
Have you always wanted to write?
Always is a long time - but about fifteen years ago the idea of becoming a writer began to appeal to me, but what really got me started writing was computers – or to be more specific – word processing programs. I’ve always been a big reader – and in my job for the Navy, I did a lot of writing, but technical writing, and was told I was pretty good at it. Well at some point as I read novels, I started to think: I can do this too – but the act of writing – long hand on a piece of paper and having it typed, etc – was just too painful and time consuming. But when I discovered Word Perfect or Word, writing became really easy – from a mechanical standpoint – and that’s when I really began to pursue writing.
What has your writing journey been like? How difficult or easy was it to get published?
Wow! That’s a question that I could go on forever about. It was really difficult to get published. I was writing for twelve or thirteen years before I found my current agent – who in case you didn’t know, also represents John Grisham, James Huston, Peter Straub, among others. During this period I wrote two DeMarco books, one non-DeMarco book, a couple other novels that one day with lots of work I may be able to publish – and two screenplays that should probably go straight to video and then be burned before anybody sees them. During this time – these twelve years - I was trying to get an agent – and in fact actually had a couple of agents, but none of them was able to sell my work – or my work at that point wasn’t good enough to sell. During those twelve years of writing and not publishing, I acquired enough reject letters to wall paper a library. On the other hand I enjoy writing, I enjoy it tremendously, so even though I wasn’t getting published, I kept writing and kept trying to sell a book. So my story is probably typical - a lot of rejection, a lot of persistence, and a lot of luck.
You have to be working on your next DeMarco novel. Yes? Can you tell us something about it?
The second DeMarco novel is already written and sold. It’s going to the publisher next week and will probably be published about this time next year. The second book begins with what appears to be a case of sexual harassment involving a charismatic Senator who’s a Presidential contender. DeMarco is loaned to the Senator by Mahoney to get the Senator off the hook – which he does – then discovers there is something much darker and deadly than sexual harassment going on. The third book which is almost done – it’s in the third or fourth draft stage – starts out with DeMarco investigating what appears to be a case of contractor fraud at a military installation, then mutates in what appears to be espionage or terrorism, but ultimately is about an incident from Emma’s past. The fourth book which I’m struggling with, involves one of Mahoney’s three daughters. His middle daughter has been accused of insider trading by the SEC and DeMarco is assigned to clear her name for a crime she may or may not have committed – and a crime that goes far beyond stock manipulation.
Will Emma be in the next book?
Yes. I have to tell you a little story here. My wife and I don’t have similar tastes in reading – her taste is more sophisticated than mine, she actually reads literary novels and non-fiction that makes you think. So I was kinda leery about letting her read The Inside Ring – I didn’t need any more rejection. She told me afterward that she liked it – but she’s my wife so I wasn’t sure her comment was just to keep peace in the family or sincere – but then she said something I knew came from the heart. She said: I hope you’re not going to kill Emma off in the next book. I’ve really gotten a lot of positive feedback regarding Emma, and based on my wife’s comment and comments from other readers, I expanded Emma's role in the second book and she plays a really predominant part in the third book.
Do you have any words of wisdom for would-be writers?
On how to write, I have no words of wisdom. I’m a beginner myself – and not qualified to teach or pontificate on the subject. On getting published, all I can say is: stick with it and try not to get discouraged. Books are like ice cream. Some agents/editors won’t like your book not because it’s a bad book or because you’re a bad writer – they won’t like it because they like vanilla and not chocolate. One of these days a guy who likes chocolate will read your book. So stick with it, don’t let the rejects get you down – and just keep on writing.
MICHAEL LAWSON served for years as a senior civilian executive for the United States Navy. He lives in the Pacific Northwest and is currently working on his next Joe DeMarco novel, which will be published by Doubleday in 2006.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Michael Lawson, author of The Inside Ring, about
his book via email for curledup.com. No part
of this interview may be reproduced without permission. Luan Gaines/2005.