Tuesday, December 1, 2009
The following is an interview with John Wareham, author of The Urban Politico's Book of the Month, The President's Therapist.
UP: John, many people know you as a non-fiction writer, from your first book, Secrets of a Corporate Headhunter, which was a NY Times best seller. Can you explain for our readers a bit about the creative process and how the process may have been different for a novel like PT?
JW: Non-fiction is like creating a list, fiction is a journey to the unknown, driving a car through a midnight forest with only headlights to guide you. In fiction you’re creating an alternate world, one sentence at a time. It can feel like stealing from the gods. In both my novels, Chancey on Top and The President’s Therapist, the fictional aspects seem utterly real to me, more real than anything that ever happened in so-called reality. I had consciously intended both books to end in a certain way, but in both cases something else took over and the endings wound up in places I’d never envisioned. Both endings were shocking to me, actually, yet each was perfect, too.
UP:How does this book reflect your own particular political views?
JW:As a fiscal conservative and social liberal I was appalled on both counts. It was difficult to believe, given the miniscule margins that brought them to power, that they so blatantly bullied through such extreme right wing agendas. Then, of course, they either lied to take us to war in Iraq, or they were just plain delusional.
UP:Many of our readers were not big fans of the Bush regime; however can you explain for anyone who may view this as a Bush bashing piece, your motivation for taking on such a provocative topic.
JW: It was Abu Ghraib and the torture issue that inspired me. As a mere citizen I felt helpless. Based on my life-time career as counselor to chief executives, however, I believed that I had the skills to help George W. Bush see the error of his ways, and go on to effect dramatic reversals. He wasn’t going to enlist me, so I decided to make it happen, if only in fiction. Politically, my alter-ego, psychoanalyst Dr. Mark Alter, views W apolitically, as a patient in need of serious help. With the reader on his shoulder, he analyses W’s bio-history objectively, then enters the White House and shows W precisely how his leadership conundrum sprang from his untreated inner issues. If to understand is to forgive, then by the end of the novel, readers of all political persuasions probably wind up more forgiving of W.
UP: Have you ever met or had a conversation with President Bush?
JW: I’ve several friends who were at school or college with him, read pretty well all of the books about him, and did a mountain of other research, but, no, I’ve never met him personally.
UP: Talk a little bit about the psychology behind the kind of personality it takes to be a leader, more specifically an American President, who essentially is the leader of the free world?
JW: Three qualities make a leader: what he is, what he knows and what he does. It comes down to character and authentic confidence; know is the level of knowledge and realism he brings to the job; does is the level of skill he demonstrates in actually addressing the challenge at hand. In these terms, George W. Bush is the classic star salesman over-promoted to chief executive, a job he was simply unsuited to handle. He had the gift of making an emotional connection with rednecks at every level of society, but his disinterest in learning rendered him ignorant and unrealistic. So, of course, tragedy resulted from just about every action he ever authorized.
UP: How much of PT is based on fact?
JW: Dr. Alter might be fictional, but all the bio-history and intelligence supplied to him, which forms the basis of his treatment and analysis, is all deadly accurate. Readers say they felt like flies on the wall watching and listening to the incredibly realistic psych sessions that play out between Dr. Alter and W. The sense of authenticity springs from my having conducted, over the years, countless similar sessions just like that, both with both corporate clients and prison inmates.
UP: When reading PT, I was immediately drawn in by Dr. Alter and his wittiness as well as his strong intellectual capacity. Explain how a character like this is created and where the different personality elements are derived.
JW: I worried that some readers might not pick up on the dark underlying humor in Dr. Alter’s ironic perceptions, so I’m relieved you thought he was witty. What makes that so, I think is that the reader sits inside Dr. Alter’s head, sees and hears what he sees and hears, then gets to know Alter’s candid—sometimes even ribald—thoughts. The reader then smiles at the disparity—some might say hypocrisy—as Dr. Alter self-censors his saltier insights, before delivering them in a way that he imagines will be acceptable to W.
How much of PT is based on aspects of your own reality?
JW: Like Dr. Alter, I’ve been a lifetime counselor to leaders, working with both CEO’s and the socially disadvantaged. Unlike Dr. Alter, I’ve been married for nearly fifty years, and my kids are all well and alive, too.
UP: How happy are you with the current administration as opposed to the last 8 years?
JW: Politics is the art of the possible, and, given all the entrenched interests, achieving “real change” is always a tall order. Obama is also a pragmatic centrist, so people at either extreme end of the political spectrum are destined to be unhappy. Fortunately, in addition to being a pragmatic centrist, Obama is also highly knowledgeable and creative. All in all, I get the impression that he’s assembled a fine team and that they’re all determined to do a good job for America, and not just push a narrow agenda. I’d like to have seen those responsible for our torture policies—starting with Cheney—hauled into court, of course, and that does not seem about to happen. Overall, though, I think this administration is doing as fine a job as is possible.
UP: Along with being a successful writer, and public speaker, you also have been a very strong mentor for ex-offenders throughout your career. How did you become involved in that kind of work?
JW:I had a son who got himself addicted to heroin, and his unhappy history inspired me to try to help others with similar issues. He’s doing okay, these days.
UP: What advice would you give to aspiring writers, leaders and public servants who want to make a difference?
JW: For writers. (1) Write about what you know. (2) Sit down at a desk and starting writing. (3) Don’t get it right, get it written. (3) Don’t quit before you get to the end. (4) Now, rewrite, polish, and tweak until you have something pretty well perfect.
For leaders: (1) Learn how to write. (2) Join a public speaking club. (3) Do something you love. (4) Nurture the individuals in your team. (5) Build team spirit. (6) Dream big and stay focused on the goal. (7) Address the challenge at hand.
For Public Servants: (1) Get known as someone who makes his boss look great. (2) Be a leader not a bureaucrat.