A Conversation with Douglas Brunt
Q. The Means is your second novel and the first set in Washington, D.C. What was the difference between writing the first book and this new novel? Do you think the two speak to one another in terms of theme? Did Ghosts of Manhattan inform The Means, either in terms of content or craft choices?
A. The first difference is that when I wrote Ghosts of Manhattan, I was still running a software company and writing only in spare moments. When I wrote The Means, I was a full-time writer. Writing full time is a luxury, though the risk is complacency.
The second significant difference is that I did much more primary research for The Means. I interviewed a number of people who have worked in the Oval Office, on national campaigns, on Capitol Hill, for super PACs. This helped to inform the story. I did some research for Ghosts of Manhattan as well, but much more was a result of my knowledge of Wall Street, having lived in New York so long and with so many friends working in that industry.
Both books speak to the essential nature of mankind. Both observe complex characters inside a framework, in these cases the professional environments of finance and politics, and explore how characters respond when faced with competition, temptation, consequences of their actions. Both books are cynical but not without hope.
The first book didn’t inform the second in any conscious way. The books are different ways to observe human traits play out in a story.
Q. Describe the research that went into the making of this novel.
A. I did a lot of interviews for the book, both one-on-one interviews and group interviews, usually over dinner and drinks. For the one-on-one interviews, I would begin with a lot of prepared questions, then the interview would evolve into a casual conversation. For the group interviews, I asked very few questions. I tried to become invisible after a time so people would relax and forget I was there. I wanted to listen to how they talked as much as what they talked about.
Q. Were there any particular challenges writing as a man from a woman’s point of view? How did you put yourself in Samantha’s shoes, so to speak?
A. Moving from voice to voice is challenging, especially when changing gender. Before I write in a person’s voice, I spend time trying to get the voice right in my head. This process is similar to what I imagine a method actor would do when getting into character. I try to picture the character in my head, what she feels, what she says. I need to be able to see the face and physical form of the person. Once I have that, I can start writing, and getting the dialogue down feels more like eavesdropping on a conversation happening in my imagination.
Q. Like Samantha, you made a career change from former CEO to author. How did you come to be a writer? Do your two careers share any similarities?
A. I came to be a writer because I was not satisfied with my career as a CEO and I love writing and literature. I started to write my first book as a way to relax while running the company, especially during the frequent travel I had to do. The career change was a risk.
Samantha took a similar risk by leaving a career in which she was thriving by every measure except happiness. Being excellent at something can sometimes be a trap.
Q. Do you think that The Means exposes a reality of American politics and mainstream media or exaggerates a minor aspect of it? Do you hope to break any stereotypes with this story?
A. The Means drops an interesting story into a credible backdrop. My aim is to give an inside look at politics that is informative to a reader. The core story line of the deception involving Monica Morris is not impossible but is not meant to expose anything.
A stereotype of politics that I found to be inaccurate while doing research is that the people who work in the business of politics (staffers, reporters, consultants) are not at each other’s throats along partisan lines. The rest of the world is more partisan than the people in the business. These are people doing a job who have kids, need to pay tuition and a mortgage. They get to see each other up close and recognize in each other a regular man or woman making a life.
Q. As an alumnus of Duke University, do you feel any rivalry with Tar Heels alum Tom Pauley? Is there any one character to whom you relate most? Least?
A. I don’t feel any rivalry with Tom Pauley, though I love the Duke and UNC rivalry. I chose Chapel Hill because I know and like the area and could use that for the story. I also think North Carolina has an interesting political history.
I didn’t consciously write myself into any of the characters, though I guess some measure of that happens as a matter of course. It’s difficult to rank the characters as I relate to them. I’d enjoy having a drink with any of them.
Q. What would you name as the major theme(s) of this story? What do you hope readers will remember about The Means? Do you agree that all of the characters have ambition as their Achilles’ heel?
A. The major theme of the novel is the tension between human nature and the systems that manage human nature. In Ghosts of Manhattan, the framework is a large investment bank and associated federal oversight and regulation. In The Means, the framework is our political system. We want a political system to bring out the best in human nature and curb the worst. As Churchill suggests, our system is badly flawed but is the best we’ve ever designed.
An extension of this is to explore what happens to a system as it evolves over time, with the times. Our framework gets pushed and pulled over the years. Politicians view a policy objective to be right, then are willing to commit a number of wrongs to see the objective met. In their minds, they act as a force for good, but lose sight of the collateral damage that may be on a greater scale than the good they pursue. Over centuries of bending and breaking procedures and cutting corners, we’re left with an aging democracy that may no longer be able to bring out the best and curb the worst of human nature.
Q. Share with us the meaning behind the title The Means. Is it reductive to say that it is Tom Pauley’s actions that are featured as the means for success? Where do you stand on the issue of the ends justifying the means?
A. The core fraud of the novel is the Monica Morris scandal perpetrated on Mitchell Mason, but every large and small event in the novel has an end and a means to it. For example, Tom Pauley showed he was willing to break the rules to win the Darby case early in the novel. Every reader of this novel in each day will face a decision about something they want and what they’re willing to do for it. In most cases, these decisions don’t involve felonies, but it’s the same principle.
Through the novel, I’ve said as much as I’ll say about where I stand on it. Reese Kinard states her view that human nature is essentially bad and needs to be held in check by political systems, but even the best political systems corrode and over time human nature always wins out.
Q. You quote a number of famous men in The Means, notably Winston Churchill and Niccolò Machiavelli. Describe how these two men, very different in their political ideologies, speak to or for the characters in The Means.
A. I expect that Churchill and Machiavelli would have a great mutual respect. Even with different views, they would have a kind of friendship similar to that of the people in the business of politics whom I’ve met and who are in this novel.
I reference different types of people because this is not a partisan book. It’s just about politics.
Q. Can you share with us any news of upcoming writing projects? Will we get to meet any of these characters again in future stories?
A. I’m working on a new novel that is not related to either of the first two.
1. The Means explores a current cultural moment—the exposure of the underbelly of American politics. Have a movie/TV night with your book club and watch the films Primary Colors (1998), All the King’s Men (2006), and the Netflix original series House of Cards (2013). Who are the villains in each of these stories? Is there overlap between any characters in The Means and the characters in Primary Colors, All the King’s Men, and House of Cards? What conclusions can your book club draw about the current state of politics? Are these stories farfetched or do they hit close to home?
2. Read author Douglas Brunt’s first novel, Ghosts of Manhattan, with your book club. How do the two stories relate to one another? Is there a common theme that links the two? What argument do you think Brunt is making in these novels about contemporary American culture? Do you agree with his point of view? Why or why not?