As a longtime political advisor, Roy Neel has had an excellent vantage point for observing the personalties, fallacies and weak spots in our election process. Neel grew up near Nashville, and after a stint as a sportswriter, joined the congressional staff of then-U.S. Rep Al Gore. He served as Gore’s vice presidential chief of staff and later as deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Neel also directed Gore’s presidential transition team in 2000 and managed Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004.
Though he contemplated turning his observations into a nonfiction account of the political process, Neel instead turned to fiction to craft a gripping look at what might happen if nefarious forces tried to subvert a presidential election. In his political thriller, The Electors, the weak spot in the system is the electoral college, a little understood body that wields decisive power in a close election.
Neel’s novel is packed with realistic (and sometimes hilarious) characters, from a profane, Spanx-wearing president to harried political staffers, pushy reporters and clueless congressmen. His timely and frightening portrayal of the “ticking time bomb” in our democracy will be an absorbing read for political watchers, news junkies—and readers of all stripes who appreciate fast-paced suspense.
We contacted Neel to ask him about The Electors, his favorite political novels and his views on the current campaign season.
You’ve had a long and eventful career in politics. Why did you decide to try your hand at fiction? Was writing a suspense novel a longtime dream for you?
This book was a long time coming. I grew up around writers and educators and book people and journalists and thought about writing fiction for many years. But you've got to have a compelling story to tell. The 2000 presidential election triggered that story for me.
Your novel offers a chilling look at a presidential election process gone horribly wrong. How realistic is the scenario in the book? Could it really happen?
The Electors began as a nonfiction book about presidential transitions, but it became clear to me that the real fun would be in telling a story that was sensationally possible, in fact could happen, under the right circumstances. This election season has brought that possibility much closer to reality.
The growing threat of domestic terrorism, the grotesque amount of undocumented money flowing into elections, combined with extreme partisanship and a willingness to break the rules—all lead me to believe that the time is right for a massive electoral scandal.
The book’s description of a nuclear blast in Washington, D.C., and its radioactive aftermath seem frighteningly real. How did you research the details?
I came across a disturbing New Yorker article from 2007 by Steve Coll, who wrote of the alarming amount of unguarded, highly radioactive material floating around the world, and the ease with which it could be made into a dirty bomb. That lead me toward a lot of equally frightening information that suggests it's only a matter of when, not if, we experience a deadly radioactive explosion. There are certainly a lot of dangerous people willing to make it happen.
Which character was the most fun to write?
I love all these characters. They jumped onto the page for me and grew into real people with motives good and bad. I'm especially drawn to Virginia Sullivan, an aging, unwell elector who has given much of her life to getting people elected, with little gratitude and respect in return. Politics is full of these decent, unappreciated folks.
We have to ask: Have you known any real-life male politicians who wear Spanx?
Maybe not Spanx, but girdles to hide those middle-age rolls? Yes, definitely.
Are the electors the villains of this story? Or the pawns?
They each have different motives for their actions. But it's the bizarre way our Constitution dictates how our presidents are elected that creates the possibility for electoral scandal. You create an opening for cataclysmic political mischief and someone is going to drive through it. In The Electors, a brutally effective White House Chief of Staff seizes that opportunity.
What’s the most valuable advice you’ve gotten about writing fiction?
Keep the story moving. Avoid indulgent side stories. Write characters and dialogue that is authentic. Don't try to be funny when you're not. Avoid writing about sex—it almost never works. I hope I've succeeded on three of the five tips.
What are your favorite political novels?
All the Kings Men, of course. Catch-22, Advice and Consent, Animal House. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And, by the way, the BBC trilogy of "House of Cards.” Ian Richardson's portrayal of a ruthless, ambitious MP clawing his way up to Prime Minister is priceless.
You’ve been described by the New York Times as “the ultimate Washington insider.” What’s the biggest misconception that outsiders (members of the general public) have about the political process?
I think that characterization is badly dated. I now consider myself an "informed" outsider.
One voter's political misconceptions become a candidate's opportunity. And voters have a right to be disappointed in their elected leaders—just look at this Congress and its refusal to deal with any important issue. There is so little statesmanship, so much cowardice.
We want to believe that a president can fix our problems. But even a president elected with a mandate has very limited tools to deal with big national challenges. Especially when, as we've seen with Obama, the opposition is hell bent to destroy you no matter how reasonable your efforts.
What has surprised and/or scared you the most about this year’s raucous presidential race?
The idea held by millions of primary voters that a stupendously unqualified demagogue, the leading Republican presidential candidate, can "make America great again." The fact is, the country is pretty great as it is.
Do you personally favor abolishing the electoral college?
Absolutely. The result of the 2000 election is evidence enough that the Electoral College can produce disastrous outcomes. The Electoral College is fundamentally anti-democratic and represents a ticking time bomb that may in fact be detonated this November.