Well, it’s an exciting story, and I’m looking forward to what’s next for Royce. Yes, I did. Some of the characters started out as seeds based on people I know. Soon, Royce not only uncovers evidence that his brother was murdered, but also hands the Chicago PD a suspect on a silver platter: a former law student who Alex had flunked out of school and who’d sent his professor threatening emails. They’ve been dramatized, of course, but part of the joy of writing this book was to tell some of my stories. ¤
ANTHONY FRANZE: To call your novel timely is an understatement: a Supreme Court nominee navigating the confirmation process, child sex abuse, and shades of the real-life upcoming trial of murdered law professor Dan Markel. Bush. It forced me to step into each character’s shoes, to see the world the best I could from their perspective. I put lots of different ideas into the heads of the characters, some of which I think are reasonable and some that aren’t. It’s funny you describe the book as excising your own demons because the story seemed very personal. What inspired your story? You mention Judge Kavanaugh, but you obviously wrote the book before the contentious battle over his nomination. He was my friend. How much did you draw from your own life? Henderson posits the worst kind of “deep state,” and makes great use of his own experiences as a one-time DC lawyer and current law professor at the University of Chicago. When he was murdered in the summer of 2014 after dropping his kids off at daycare, it really rattled me. In writing my first novel, I learned how much more difficult it was than I imagined. The bad guys tend to fall on one side of the political spectrum — and conservative professor Alex Johnson’s worldview will win him no fans at the DNC — but no one comes off unscathed. For weeks, all I could think of is why anyone would kill someone who led such a seemingly uninteresting life. And the politics…? The sexual abuse comes from a real place that I’ve buried in my own mind but can’t quite forget about. TODD HENDERSON: Interesting that you mention Dan Markel. Actually, and much to my surprise, I found the writing process to be very similar. Speaking of research, your depiction of the behind-the-scenes machinations of a Supreme Court nomination are spot on — tell us about your research. All of the characters are completely made up. As for the plot, it is completely fictional. Thankfully, you’ll find none in Mental State. Both are solitary endeavors. And, as the Garland episode and the Kavanaugh nomination show us today, the stakes for control of the Court are enormous. I marinated in that world. I also had a time on Capitol Hill working on the confirmation of a cabinet member for President George W. The way you described the fictional president’s repeated missteps in picking a nominee reminded me of President Nixon’s comical gaffes in the failed nominees that ultimately led him to choose Chief Justice Rehnquist. Told through chapters written from the perspectives of Alex (in the days leading to his death) and Royce (left to deal with the aftermath), Mental State is filled with enough inside-the-Beltway and academia insights to satisfy political-thriller junkies. Or a government agent working to advance a cause I was sure was going to help millions of people? Or the student suspected of murder? ¤
Anthony Franze is the author, most recently, of The Outsider. Writing fiction enables the author to occupy the minds of everyone, and this was revelatory for me. I’ve never told anyone many of my secrets, and coming out about what happened to me as a child through fictional characters was cathartic. I will say the scenes involving sexual abuse of a teenage boy were harrowing. What did you find to be the biggest differences between writing fiction and nonfiction? You’ve published a lot of nonfiction, but this is your first novel. What interested me here is that the arc from Bork to Ginsburg to Kennedy was from extreme conservative to mainstream conservative to moderate conservative. After President Reagan’s first pick — Robert Bork — got voted down, he went to Douglas Ginsburg, but he dropped out because he’d smoked dope. But the themes of sexual abuse and the corruption of power are always relevant. It had nothing to do with Dan; it was something I made up to make sense of his killing. But FBI agent Royce Johnson believes that his brother Alex’s death was no suicide. Did you use the Nixon debacle as inspiration? When you’ve had professional success, as I’ve had, a certain type of egoism or solipsism can creep in. Do you worry at all that your students (or anyone) will think that Alex’s views — some of which might be considered controversial — reflect your worldview? It took readers on diversions into Chinese politics and other assorted nonsense. But, without getting into any spoilers, that’s just where the story takes off. The story was completed that summer, long before the #MeToo movement or the retirement of Justice Kennedy. There is a great line in Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” that captures the nut of the key question in writing — “What to leave in and what to leave out.” I’m finished with a first draft of the sequel to Mental State, and I think I’m making progress. The book has a point of view, but I just want it to be entertaining. There have been many failed nominations of one kind or another — President Clinton wanted Mario Cuomo on the Court, and President Bush picked Harriet Miers. My L.A.-based editor, Elaine Ash, taught me how to write a mystery. Ultimately, Reagan settled on Kennedy as a safe bet. But mostly it’s a story about two men of a certain age, brothers, who are grappling with things they didn’t know about each other — and about themselves. All seems buttoned up nicely. In Mental State, a prominent conservative law professor — who’s a longtime family friend of the very liberal nominee to the US Supreme Court — is found dead in his Chicago home of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot to the head. And that’s the exciting part. I recently talked with Henderson about his debut novel at RPM Italian in DC, and via email. But M. Lives and fortunes hang in the balance. If you think you’ll find me in one of these characters or learn what I think about this or that, you’ve come to the wrong place. Then, as I write it out, it changes and grows and shrinks and diverts in unexpected ways. I spent several years working at a big law firm in Washington, DC. OCTOBER 23, 2018
IN TODAY’S CHAOTIC political climate, it’s hard to write a compelling Washington, DC, thriller that isn’t outdone by the morning’s headlines. I was most drawn in by the story of how Justice Kennedy got on the Supreme Court. Alex is not me. Alex, the murdered professor, is very loosely based on me. Many of my colleagues — including Judge Brett Kavanaugh — were clerks on the Supreme Court and my practice involved representing clients in huge cases before the Court. I drew from my own experience in the corridors of power. Were those scenes difficult to write? It then twists into a political drama where #MeToo, child sexual abuse, and Supreme Court politics collide. How would I think or act if I were the by-the-book FBI agent hunting his brother’s killer? Far from a partisan diatribe, Mental State is a novel about the abuse of power in its many forms. Last question: What’s one thing you learned about writing, and yourself, when writing Mental State? Writing a compelling story is unbelievably hard work. My first draft was longwinded and convoluted. Writing about it started out as a way to deal with Dan’s murder, but it ended up being a way for me to excise my own demons. As I imagined the possibilities, a story formed in my mind. Both involve research, whether it is done on Westlaw or Google or mining my imagination and experience. Both start with an idea. I’m learning. It has been humbling. I spend most of my life with my fingers on the home-row keys, my face illuminated in a soft blue glow. After all, you’re a conservative professor at a prestigious law school, and the book centers around the murder of a conservative professor at a prestigious law school. A life just like mine. My time up and down Pennsylvania Avenue was challenging, but it gave me a peek behind the curtain. Todd Henderson has managed to do just that, and penned a timely — and provocative — novel set against the backdrop of a contentious Supreme Court nomination. Writing about it helped me process these complicated feelings, even though the details are more imagination than memory. Royce, the hero, is an FBI agent, like my own brother was. Certain things that happen to the characters, such as the sexual abuse, are drawn from my own experiences. But he wasn’t alone in this. Nixon is the gift that keeps on giving for political satirists. Running with the idea on the page, seeing where the writing takes you, is the fun part. Mental State asks what people might be willing to do as a result. And, for what it is worth, that point of view isn’t partisan — you could change the politics of everyone in this, and the story would be the same. As each of them grew on the page, they morphed into their own people, bearing little resemblance to their human analogues. And, at the end of the day, while both have a point of view, the goal is to ask questions and get the reader to think, more than convince them of anything. The lesson I took was that a failed nomination means not just that you don’t get your guy, but that the guy you get may be very different in terms of ideology. There are things we have in common, but there are bits of me in all the characters, even the bad guys. But the similarities end there. I’ve never spoken about what happened to me and I don’t want to make this book a memoir — it is fiction through and through. Footnotes. I had to realize that no one cares about my musings on the divine. This experience wasn’t exactly a good one — when it ended, my wife and I left Washington for good, vowing never to return.