The Echoes of That Era: An Interview with Jake Tapper




IN THE NOVEL The Hellfire Club, journalist and CNN host Jake Tapper explores an imagined, secret world of Cold War Washington. It is 1954, and Columbia history professor and best-selling author Charlie Marder is appointed to fill the term of a New York congressman who has died of an apparent suicide. A decorated war veteran, Marder soon finds his idealism tested by the pressures, compromises, and back-room dealing of the city, particularly set against the growing fear of the war on communism.

Tapper intriguingly weaves figures from history with his fictional characters. Joe McCarthy is at the height of his power, aided by Roy Cohn and a young Bobby Kennedy. John Kennedy is a rising star, and Lyndon Johnson a congressional power. Into this world wanders Marder expecting more from the capitol than perhaps it can give.

I made the same journey from journalist to novelist with the political thriller Shining City in 2017, which involves political fixers as the moral heroes of a dark story. I asked Tapper about his own move from fact to fiction, the differences between them, and his plans for what’s next. 

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TOM ROSENSTIEL: Jake, you did a lot of research for The Hellfire Club. First, a few questions about process: How long did you work on the book? When did you find the time, and what was your research and writing process?

JAKE TAPPER: I’ve been thinking about the book for the better part of a decade, and actually working on it for the last three to four years. I love reading history, so the research was fun and came pretty easy. As for writing, I subscribed to the rule of making time every day to write. Even if it’s just 15 minutes a day, those minutes add up.

What are your goals for those short writing periods? Do you have a word goal? And how much of the plot did you have planned out in advance?

I had most of the plot planned out ahead of time; George R. R. Martin says there are two types of writers, gardeners and architects. I’m definitely an architect. I knew one doesn’t just hop from nonfiction, a world I know fairly well, to fiction; I needed to learn a lot. So I worked with a freelance editor named Judy Sternlight to work on character development and plotting before approaching publishers with the proposal. As for goals in the writing sessions, it was basically to write until something else more important necessitated that I stop, whether sleep, work, or family.

What hidden gems did you find in that research that completely surprised you? What were your favorite discoveries?

I stumbled upon so many odd and swampy details that were stranger than fiction. Joe McCarthy would eat a stick of butter when he boozed. Columnist Joe Alsop did secret work for the CIA. The Kennedys were very close with McCarthy, and Ambassador Kennedy prevailed upon him to not campaign against his son Jack in the 1952 Senate race. The book is packed with them!

Did your view of any of these real-life characters change as a result of your research?

My admiration grew exponentially for Senator Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, who is now a hero of mine. She took a stand against McCarthyism long before it was safe to do so, in 1950. My disappointment in many others who were either complicit or insufficiently critical of Senator Joe McCarthy, R-Wisconsin, grew considerably — for GOP leaders at the time, especially Senator Robert Taft, R-Ohio, and also the Kennedys. 

What did you find to be the biggest differences between writing fiction and nonfiction?

The ability to make it up is the obvious difference. In fiction, you can take a historical tidbit and twist it to make the story better. (Though since I’m a journalist at my core I did feel obligated to explain those liberties in an extensive endnote section.) It’s more nerve-wracking to report on real people, such as the men and women who served at Combat Outpost Keating, whose stories I told in The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor. I felt such an obligation to get everything right and to honor their service and sacrifices. But I felt more vulnerable writing fiction because it’s entirely your own work.

What do you mean more vulnerable? What were you vulnerable about?

The criticism is more personally about you, your work, your brain, your writing, than when you work on nonfiction, which is ultimately almost always also about someone else’s story.

You do an interview program on CNN. To prepare for live interviews, journalists generally have to have some sense of the psychology of their interview guests. In fiction, you have to imagine and, for some characters, even portray their inner life. Can you compare imagining the psychology of an interviewee to a character you are writing, real or imagined? How are those two processes similar and how are they different?

Astute question. In both, I try to play out a conversation by anticipating reactions based on personalities and points of view. This helped me writing scenes of dialogue between, say, the protagonist of The Hellfire Club, Congressman Charlie Marder, and one of his nemeses in the book, the infamous McCarthy protégé Roy Cohn.

Who from today’s Washington reminds you most of a real-life character from the period you wrote about?

President Trump is not Senator McCarthy, but they are both big fans of lying and smearing. The echoes of that era are rather deafening for anyone who knows its history. They also share charisma and an underappreciated charm, as well as the strong love of their respective bases.

You mix real-life characters with those of your own invention. This is a question I’ve also asked Thomas Mallon, who writes literary historical novels about Washington. When writing about people who really existed, what do you think you can invent and what has to be real? Where is the line? What will the reader accept? What are you willing to do? 

It’s so subjective, and I admit it’s something with which I had to get comfortable. I conducted a great deal of research and tried to stay true to the character of these individuals, sometimes using their actual past quotes in dialogue. I don’t want to spoil the book for readers, but I will say I tried to remain sensitive to how much I thought the reader would accept, even in a work of fiction, while also having fun with it.

Your story pivots on two elements. One is the naïveté of new members of Congress and the other is the deep cynicism of old Washington hands. How real is that? How naïve do you find new members of Congress? How cynical do you find the old hands?

I don’t think new members of Congress are necessarily naïve, but I do think many come here with the best of intentions only to have their principles worn away by a nonstop barrage of demands for compromise. The Hellfire Club in many ways is about that machine and questions about how far one is willing to go in violating one’s principles to achieve a desired end — whether to do good, or to become successful, or to protect the people of the United States.

Another element in your story is the secret clubs or societies in Washington where lobbyists and lawmakers play together. To what degree are there such clubs in real life, and did there used to be more of them in the mid-1950s, when your story is set?

The Hellfire Club was a real secret society in England in the 1700s, where royalty and captains of industry and politicians would mingle and indulge in debauchery. The club created alliances and was truly scandalous. The conceit of the book is that there is a version in the United States in the 1950s. I don’t know for a fact of any clubs like that today. But ask yourself — knowing what you do of the nature of men, and wealthy men in particular, do you think they might exist?

There is the potential at the end of the story for some characters to return. What are your plans for more fiction?

It really depends on the reception to this book. I have an idea for a sequel that takes place in Los Angeles in 1962 when Frank Sinatra is desperately trying to get President Kennedy to stay at his compound, which would also be fun to write since I could have my characters Charlie and Margaret and Isaiah interacting with the Rat Pack!

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Tom Rosenstiel is the executive director of the American Press Institute and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He’s the author, most recently, of Shining City.


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