By Reece Hirsch
At the 2011 ThrillerFest, I participated in the panel “Political Thrillers: In a Red and Blue Country, How Do You Stay Purple?” That title seems to assume that there is an advantage for an author to remain politically neutral in order to avoid alienating a large bloc of readers in a country that, as we're being constantly reminded lately by pollsters, is divided more or less 50-50 down party lines. I am of two minds on the subject of being politically agnostic as a writer.
In my first book THE INSIDER, I never mention my protagonist Will Connelly’s politics. It just never seemed to be something that the reader needed to know in the context of that story. However, Will is an affluent, thirty-something resident of San Francisco, so that alone gives you a pretty good indicator of his likely political affiliation.
Nevertheless, THE INSIDER did have a political theme to it, which was what landed me on that ThrillerFest panel. My book touches upon issues of excessive domestic surveillance in the wake of 9-11, and was based upon some real events.
THE INSIDER posits that the Clipper Chip program was never really abandoned, but went forward through an undisclosed deal between the NSA and a private software company, and that the NSA continued to secretly monitor the communications of private citizens during the ensuing years. My book also considers what might happen if the encryption keys that permitted government access to that vast volume of personal communications fell into the wrong hands.
As a result, THE INSIDER contained a few hopefully not overbroad swipes at the Patriot Act and the Bush administration’s handling of domestic surveillance after 9-11. In hindsight, the opinions expressed in my book are taking on a more purplish hue now that the Obama administration has largely carried forward the policies of W in this area. So now we come to the first of my two minds on this subject: if your story arises out of an inherently political point of view, then don’t be wishy-washy about it. Readers can tell when you’re pulling your punches, and they can also usually read between the lines and discern where your true sympathies lie.
Now to the second of my two minds: I generally don’t like political fiction. There are people who do it brilliantly (David Simon and George Pelecanos come to mind), but in most cases if your focus as a writer is making a didactic point, then that probably comes at the expense of crafting an engaging story. THE INSIDER wasn’t “about” post-9-11 domestic surveillance. I used the Clipper Chip storyline in my book solely because I thought it would make for an entertaining thriller. But once I’d picked up that plot device, I didn’t see any point in shying away from the political implications of that choice. Does that make me as a writer Red, Blue, Purple or some shade in-between? If a reader is asking that question, then I probably didn’t do my job as a writer.