By The Hill Staff - 01/11/07 12:00 AM EST
Eric Dezenhall’s novel Spinning Dixie weaves together three worlds: those of Washington’s inner chambers of power, Atlantic City organized crime and the Southern aristocracy. Part love story, part thriller, the novel spins the tale of fallen former presidential press secretary and mobster’s grandson Jonah Eastman, who embarks on a strange mission to save a former girlfriend’s Tennessee plantation while manipulating the resources of the U.S. intelligence service, the news media and Civil War-era prejudices.
Dezenhall, a former White House staffer who is now a crisis-management consultant, talked to The Hill about his book and other fiction set in the nation’s capital. An edited transcript follows.
Q: Tell me about your professional background.
A: I started out in Washington, very young, in Reagan’s White House, in the communications area. Then I joined Porter-Novelli, doing conventional public affairs. And 20 years ago I co-founded Dezenhall Resources, where we do crisis management.
In my day job, I can’t play God. In crisis management, you don’t get many victories. In fact, you get a lot of defeats, because by the time people get to us, they are pretty deep in the soup. It is a catharsis to play God, which I get to do writing fiction.
The thing that drives me crazy about Washington is that the spin and lobbying community try to convince clients that they can engineer things that are really in God’s hands. A lot of what that world sells is the idea that “I can make a call and make this go away.” That’s hooey. But in a fictional world you really can control events.
Q: So this is a professional fantasy for you?
A: It is a professional fantasy, and fiction allows me to skirt morality and the law. The characters do things that are probably illegal and wrong, but in my real profession you have to stick to codes. There are no such constraints [in fiction].
Q: How is crisis management like fiction writing?
A: When a client is under attack, you have to have an alternative narrative to tell. You have to have the capacity to develop that alternative narrative from the facts as you understand them. And [in both disciplines] you often have to perform without having all the facts. In writing, you’re staring at a blank page and you have to put a story there. In crisis management, you have to work with what you’ve got, and often what you’ve got isn’t good. That’s like writing — you have nothing but a void expecting to be filled.
Q: Describe the plot of Spinning Dixie.
A: It’s a coming-of-middle-age love story where spin is part of the romantic bond. The protagonist is Jonah Eastman, a disgraced presidential press secretary and the grandson of an Atlantic City mobster. As much as he tries, he can never stop being dogged by who his grandfather was. The antagonist, Claudine Polk, is Dixie royalty, and as respectable as her family is, she is drawn to the dark world of Jonah to save her family’s plantation. It deals with Jonah and Claudine at the ages of 18 and 44 and the notion that America’s most successful families got their starts by being very rough customers.
Q: Are the characters based on real people?
A: Loosely. Unlike Jonah, I was not a very important person in the White House — I was a junior aide. But he’s my alter ego.
The president [a Southerner named Truitt, whom Dezenhall describes as quoting Faulkner in a “peach schnapps voice”] was based on my high-school English teacher, who was named Truitt, and a lobbyist I worked with who had a beautiful Mississippi accent.
The character of Mickey Price [Jonah’s grandfather] was loosely based on my grandfather and uncle.
Q: Were they in the mob?
A: They were connected somehow, but you never know in what capacity. These guys didn’t keep records. What you don’t know haunts you and you conjure up all kinds of fantasies.
Q: Where else did you get your inspiration?
A: I drew on where I grew up. And I had a girlfriend who lived near Rattle and Snap plantation [where the novel is set]. She was a descendant of a U.S. president. It opened up my eyes to an America I had no idea existed when I was 18.
Q: There are so many details about Washington, like the scene at the Palm and in the Oval Office. How did you capture those?
A: When I worked at the White House, I made a sketch of the West Wing — not a very good one. I had to go back to 20-year-old drawings to remember how you get into the Oval Office, where the hallways are.
The physical descriptions are based on the awe I felt as a 22-year-old. Little things, like [how] the windows in the Oval Office are thick, so they give a funhouse effect, because they’re bulletproof. And how small the Oval Office is, those details really struck me.
I like the Palm and get a kick out of the daily drama there. I wanted to put Tommy Jacomo [the Palm’s famous host] in the book.