Wednesday, June 3, 2020

David Pepper

David Pepper is the author of The People’s House, The Wingman, and the newly released The Voter File, all which feature Jack Sharpe. Pepper earned his B.A. from Yale University and his J.D. from Yale Law School. He has clerked for a judge on the United States Court of Appeals, served in local elected office in Ohio, worked for major law firms, and taught election and voting rights law. Prior to law school, he worked in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Pepper serves as Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, after being elected in December 2014 and reelected to a second term in 2018.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

My hope is that the title The Voter File walks the reader right into the story. To political watchers or insiders who understand what “the voter file” is, they’ll instantly surmise that something is happening at the very heart of a political campaign, or campaigns. And that the stakes are high. And their assumption will quickly be proven right.

To those who haven’t heard of the term, my hope is that in this age of technology, where data is king—so valuable, and so in need of security—the notion of a large “file" or database of voters instantly strikes the reader as both intriguing and unsettling. Enough to get them started. And by the time the prologue is over, they’re in.

What's in a name?

Lots and lots of brainstorming. I generally seek short, punchy names—ones you’ll remember after hearing them once. And in a story of multiple characters, ones you’ll keep straight in your head.

If they can carry additional meaning, without overdoing it, even better: Jack Sharpe. Tori Justice. Amity Jones. Kasabian (“the butcher,” in Armenian).

Some names derive directly from the necessities of plot. As readers of The Voter File will see, only a few first names would’ve worked for one of my central characters, Katrina Rivers.

I now find myself to be a “collector” of names. If I spot a good one as I go about my daily life, I’ll jot it down to use in a future story.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

By the underlying subject matter and themes of the book? (Politics, journalism, with some foreign intrigue thrown in). Not at all.

By the fact that it’s fiction? Stunned.

I was a student journalist in high school and college, writing hundreds of articles and opinion pieces. In my academic courses, and as a history and international studies major, I wrote long, serious papers. Well-researched. Sober. Policy oriented. On the Vietnam war and war crimes. On Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. On Russian-American diplomatic history, and modern-day imperatives as the Cold War ended. In law school, I went on to publish articles on campaign finance reform and various elements of legal history.

But none of that writing involved fiction. Nor could I have taken that on.

Unlike my writing back then, where interviews or hours in the library provided the background material for my writing, the essential research for my fiction writing is a lifetime of observation and experience. I draw from travels I’ve been fortunate enough to make, unique positions I’ve held, ups and downs I’ve lived and learned from, and countless lives and developments I’ve watched up close. From all those lived experiences come the nuggets of detail and emotion and intuition that comprise the heart of The Voter File and my other novels. The teenage me would wonder where all that came from.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Neither is harder or easier. But they are entirely different. As a process, the inverse of one another.

The beginning? You've stewed with a plot or characters for a short time, or maybe just a concept—so at first, getting that opening chapter on paper is your way of getting going. Not just the book’s beginning, but your own beginning—of the work, of getting the creative juices flowing. You want to make it strong from the outset, because it anchors everything that follows. And as you labor through the first draft, the opening needs to be bold enough that it motivates you every time you see it—"yes, this story is going to work!” But you’re writing freely that first time, just getting it down so you’ve got your start. No need to be a perfectionist about it. Just complete it so you’ve taken the first step of a long journey.

And then you revise it hundreds of times. As you add each chapter—more characters, more character nuance, more twists in the plot—paragraphs and individual words in the opening chapter come and go. Slight hints at things to come, slices of character you hadn’t thought of when you started, details that now matter when they didn’t at first. As a practical matter, you also end up re-reading that opening chapter almost every time you re-open your book file, nit-picking every word or phrase before delving to the latest chapter you’re working on. Then when you finish the entire book, you go back to the beginning once more—sweating over every word because you want it to be the perfect opening for everything that follows, especially now that you know where it all leads.

The ending? If the book is coming together the way it should, the ending spills out more seamlessly, needing far less pruning. But it is also more constrained. Think of flying a plane—you’ve spent 300 pages taking off, flying at cruising altitude, navigating clouds and bumps, then you descend. With a few pages to go, you should be at 500 feet, the runway right in front of you. Just stick the landing. (And if you find yourself still at 20,000 feet or stuck in the clouds, you’ve got some work to do before even trying).

To describe it differently, I am well into writing my books before I know exactly how they will end. But I stew about that ending and how to get there all the way through: all the directions the plot might lead. Which make sense, logically. What the cast of characters I’ve created would naturally do. How to satisfy myself and the reader with a conclusion that draws things to a worthwhile close, but also not one so perfect that it feels too tidy. I always want a twist—some unanticipated imperfection that jolts the reader into rethinking all that they’ve read, along with wanting more (perhaps in the next book).

So I work on the ending for months (in my mind, at least) and build every chapter towards it. If I’ve done it right, when I ultimately get to writing it, I know almost exactly what it will say.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Naturally, many of my characters reflect observations and insights from my own lived experience. And some of the drama my characters endure reflect my own unique experiences.

The most compelling writing is not simply having readers see and hear an experience; but feeling the deeper emotion of that experience. That’s where drawing from your own life and personality can create the most powerful writing.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

People. In politics, you get to meet and get to know legions of interesting, authentic people. And if you listen closely, they all have stories, and histories, as riveting as any novel. Listening to and understanding those stories leads to so much material for my writing.

Places. In my day job, I drive hundreds of miles a week. Big cities, small towns…highways and backroads. Past lakes and rivers and fields. Taking extra time to explore the nooks and crannies of place that people too often drive right by opens up so many ideas as I write.
Visit David Pepper's website.

--Marshal Zeringue