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. But M. 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.
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. But FBI agent Royce Johnson believes that his brother Alex’s death was no suicide. 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. All seems buttoned up nicely. But, without getting into any spoilers, that’s just where the story takes off. It then twists into a political drama where #MeToo, child sexual abuse, and Supreme Court politics collide.
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. 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. 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. Far from a partisan diatribe, Mental State is a novel about the abuse of power in its many forms. 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.
I recently talked with Henderson about his debut novel at RPM Italian in DC, and via email.
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. What inspired your story?
TODD HENDERSON: Interesting that you mention Dan Markel. He was my friend. When he was murdered in the summer of 2014 after dropping his kids off at daycare, it really rattled me. For weeks, all I could think of is why anyone would kill someone who led such a seemingly uninteresting life. A life just like mine. As I imagined the possibilities, a story formed in my mind. It had nothing to do with Dan; it was something I made up to make sense of his killing. 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. The story was completed that summer, long before the #MeToo movement or the retirement of Justice Kennedy. But the themes of sexual abuse and the corruption of power are always relevant.
It’s funny you describe the book as excising your own demons because the story seemed very personal. 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. How much did you draw from your own life?
Some of the characters started out as seeds based on people I know. Alex, the murdered professor, is very loosely based on me. Royce, the hero, is an FBI agent, like my own brother was. But the similarities end there. All of the characters are completely made up. As each of them grew on the page, they morphed into their own people, bearing little resemblance to their human analogues. As for the plot, it is completely fictional. Certain things that happen to the characters, such as the sexual abuse, are drawn from my own experiences. They’ve been dramatized, of course, but part of the joy of writing this book was to tell some of my stories. 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. Were those scenes difficult to write?
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. The sexual abuse comes from a real place that I’ve buried in my own mind but can’t quite forget about. Writing about it helped me process these complicated feelings, even though the details are more imagination than memory.
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?
Alex is not me. There are things we have in common, but there are bits of me in all the characters, even the bad guys. Writing fiction enables the author to occupy the minds of everyone, and this was revelatory for me. It forced me to step into each character’s shoes, to see the world the best I could from their perspective. How would I think or act if I were the by-the-book FBI agent hunting his brother’s killer? Or the student suspected of murder? Or a government agent working to advance a cause I was sure was going to help millions of people? I put lots of different ideas into the heads of the characters, some of which I think are reasonable and some that aren’t.
And the politics…?
The book has a point of view, but I just want it to be entertaining. 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. 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.
You’ve published a lot of nonfiction, but this is your first novel. What did you find to be the biggest differences between writing fiction and nonfiction?
Footnotes. Thankfully, you’ll find none in Mental State. Actually, and much to my surprise, I found the writing process to be very similar. Both are solitary endeavors. I spend most of my life with my fingers on the home-row keys, my face illuminated in a soft blue glow. Both start with an idea. Then, as I write it out, it changes and grows and shrinks and diverts in unexpected ways. Running with the idea on the page, seeing where the writing takes you, is the fun part. Both involve research, whether it is done on Westlaw or Google or mining my imagination and experience. 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.
Speaking of research, your depiction of the behind-the-scenes machinations of a Supreme Court nomination are spot on — tell us about your research.
I drew from my own experience in the corridors of power. I spent several years working at a big law firm in Washington, DC. 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 marinated in that world. I also had a time on Capitol Hill working on the confirmation of a cabinet member for President George W. Bush. This experience wasn’t exactly a good one — when it ended, my wife and I left Washington for good, vowing never to return. My time up and down Pennsylvania Avenue was challenging, but it gave me a peek behind the curtain.
You mention Judge Kavanaugh, but you obviously wrote the book before the contentious battle over his nomination. 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. Did you use the Nixon debacle as inspiration?
Yes, I did. Nixon is the gift that keeps on giving for political satirists. But he wasn’t alone in this. 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. I was most drawn in by the story of how Justice Kennedy got on the Supreme Court. 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. Ultimately, Reagan settled on Kennedy as a safe bet. What interested me here is that the arc from Bork to Ginsburg to Kennedy was from extreme conservative to mainstream conservative to moderate conservative. 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. And, as the Garland episode and the Kavanaugh nomination show us today, the stakes for control of the Court are enormous. Lives and fortunes hang in the balance. Mental State asks what people might be willing to do as a result.
Last question: What’s one thing you learned about writing, and yourself, when writing Mental State?
When you’ve had professional success, as I’ve had, a certain type of egoism or solipsism can creep in. In writing my first novel, I learned how much more difficult it was than I imagined. It has been humbling. Writing a compelling story is unbelievably hard work. My first draft was longwinded and convoluted. It took readers on diversions into Chinese politics and other assorted nonsense. I had to realize that no one cares about my musings on the divine. My L.A.-based editor, Elaine Ash, taught me how to write a mystery. 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. I’m learning. And that’s the exciting part.
Well, it’s an exciting story, and I’m looking forward to what’s next for Royce.