Chris Whipple Discuss “The Gatekeepers”–The President’s Chief of Staff

Chris Whipple has covered the news across most of the world, written for Newsweek, Life, and produced for 60 Minutes.  He’s also a documentary filmmaker, whose work includes “Spymasters: The CIA In the Crosshairs,” in which he interviewed all living CIA Directors.  But his latest project addresses what he calls “the second most important job in government”: the President’s Chief of Staff.  His book, “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency” was released April 4, and he will be in Houston April 19 at Rice University’s Baker Institute.  This interview was published in the Houston Chronicle on April 16.Chris Whipple, The Gatekeeper, Mike Yawn Interview, Houston Chronicle, Books

Mike Yawn: Tell us about your education and your background in the film industry.

Chris Whipple: I was at Yale at the same time as Bill and Hillary Clinton were at Yale Law School.  One of my teaching assistants was their classmate Robert Reich, who was brilliant.  I learned a lot from him then, and 45 years later, he gave me a crash course on Bill Clinton’s Chiefs of Staff.  After college, I worked for Richard Holbrooke, who was the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine; I also worked at Newsweek and Life; and then I was a producer for 60 Minutes and ABC News before going out on my own to make documentaries.  This book grew out of a documentary I did for Discovery with filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet in 2013, in which we interviewed all 20 Chiefs of Staff who were then alive.

Mike Yawn: As you say, you’ve worked as a print journalist and doing documentaries.  What’s the different between cinematic and written narratives?

Chris Whipple: They are different media, but alike in the sense that an interview is an interview.  You have to persuade people to be candid, introspective, and to share information.  You construct documentaries around your subject.  The Gatekeepers book is rich with interviews, and I try to tell the chiefs’ story through the prism of their job.  I hope their voice comes through loud and clear and, if it does, that may be a function of my documentary approach.

Mike Yawn: Am I correct that this book includes interviews with all living presidential Chiefs of Staff?

Chris Whipple: Yes.  Some may argue that Jim Jones and Marvin Watson, both of whom worked for LBJ, should be included, but they didn’t have that title; nor did they have quite the same responsibilities.

Mike Yawn: What is a chief of staff’s role?

Chris Whipple: He is many things. He’s the president’s closest confidante, the one the president relies on to turn his agenda into reality.  He’s a liaison to Congress; the guy who tells the president what he doesn’t want to hear.  He should be the president’s honest broker, the person who ensures that every department are heard fairly, every side of the issue presented.  And as Andrew Card once said, “You make sure the President is never hungry, angry, or lonely.”

Mike Yawn: In the book you identify Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, as the first true modern Chief.

Chris Whipple: That’s correct.  He was empowered to run the White House, controlled the information flow to the president, and was responsible for executing his agenda.  That started with Haldeman.

Mike Yawn: Following Haldeman, Ford and Carter were uneasy about putting that much trust in a Chief of Staff. Carter even attempted to run the presidency without a true Chief of Staff.  Does everyone now accept that position as crucial to presidential success?

Chris Whipple: I think it’s less settled than ever.  Right now, you have Bannon, Priebus, and other senior advisors fighting for the attention of the President, and that can lead to disaster.   We’ve seen it before.

Mike Yawn: I’d like to give you some names and have you tell me a brief sentence about them.

Chris Whipple: Okay.

Mike Yawn: Rahm Emmanuel

Chris Whipple: Force of nature, exactly the guy President Obama needed at the beginning.

Mike Yawn: James BakerChris Whipple, The Gatekeeper, Mike Yawn Interview, Houston Chronicle, Books

Chris Whipple: The gold standard, the guy who knew from day one how to be chief of staff.

Mike Yawn: Dick Cheney

Chris Whipple: As chief of staff, he was the antithesis to the Darth Vader character he became as VP.

Mike Yawn: Andrew Card

Chris Whipple: Maybe the most humble and dedicate White House chief ever, who lacked the authority to run the White House as an honest broker.

Mike Yawn: Leon Panetta

Chris Whipple: Along with James Baker, the quintessential chief of staff.

Mike Yawn: Mack McLarty

Chris Whipple: He was so popular he was known as ‘Mack the Nice’—but McLarty was a stranger to Capitol Hill and its bare-knuckled wars, and unable to discipline his best friend Bill Clinton.

Mike Yawn: Don Rumsfeld

Chris Whipple: All throttle, no brake. And no nonsense.

Mike Yawn: Don Regan was not known for his success in the position. Did he confuse being chief of staff with being president?

Chris Whipple: Well, as Nancy Reagan said, “his favorite word in the title was ‘chief,’ not ‘staff.’”  People who are principals (as in executives) in previous jobs tend not to succeed as a chief of staff, because they don’t understand the staff part of the job.

Mike Yawn: Describe the importance of a chief knowing the president’s strengths and weaknesses.

Chris Whipple: No president can have all the attributes necessary to succeed.  It’s the chief’s job to complement the president’s attributes with his own attributes and other staff members’ attributes.

Mike Yawn: How many hours should the chief of staff expect to work?

Chris Whipple: 24/7 and then some. You are never off duty. Dick Cheney believed that the stress caused his first heart attack.  Bill Daley came down with shingles.  The job isn’t for the faint of heart.

Mike Yawn is Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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Daniel Cole’s “Ragdoll”–A Macabre and Mirthful Mystery

Daniel Cole’s first book isn’t set for release in the United States until April 4, so it’s understandable that he isn’t a household name—yet.  But with the book slated for translation into more than 30 languages and a narrative ready made for the screen (in fact, it was recently picked up by Sid Gentle Films), don’t be surprised if Cole’s name begins popping up in bookstores and households alike.  Described by fellow author Greg Hurwitz as “a gruesome delight,” the novel features detective “Wolf” Fawkes, who discovers a corpse stitched together from the body parts of six different victims.  Cole manages to inject humor into this macabre premise and the result is, indeed, a delight.  Published in the Houston Chronicle, April 9, 2017.
Mike Yawn: You began “Ragdoll” as a screenplay.  When did you finish it in that form?

Daniel Cole: Five or six years ago.  It was one of many screenplays I submitted, only to have them rejected.  But “Ragdoll” is the one I liked the most, and I spent time developing it into a novel.

Q: How did you persist during those years of writing when nothing was accepted?

A: It was tough.  If “Ragdoll” had also been rejected as a novel, I’m not sure I would have hung in there.  But I loved the characters and premise, and I stuck with it as a novel.

Q: Tell us about the characters and premise.

A: The main character, Detective William “Wolf” Fawkes, gets a call to a crime scene.  When Fawkes arrives, he finds a “body,” but it’s a body composed of different parts of six different victims, stitched together to make a whole, which the press nickname the “Ragdoll.”  The media then receive a list of six more names, along with the dates on which those victims will die.  So the police have two objectives: to solve the murders of the first six victims, and to prevent the targeted victims from being murdered by this twisted but ingenious serial killer.Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle Books, Daniel Cole, Authors, Mysteries, Ragdoll

Q: Why do you think novel was accepted when the screenplay was rejected?

A: I think my writing improved.  In looking at my old screenplays, I can see that they got better as I wrote more.  At the time, you think you’ve written something really good, and then you look back at it later, and think, “Gosh, that’s a bit cringe-worthy.”  But I think I also added some complexity, details, and humor that made the novel better.

Q:  How did you get the news that the book was accepted?

A: I got an excited call from my agent.  To be honest, for me, it was more relief than anything.  After six years of rejection, I started wondering if I was deluding myself.

Q: And I guess the positive reviews have taken you beyond relief into excitement?

A: I’m quite naïve, and I didn’t know how the whole publishing world works.  But I stay clear of reviews, if I can.  The good ones don’t sink in, they just bounce off of me, and I take the bad ones to heart, so it’s not very healthy for me.  But the publishers let me know how it’s going, and it’s been wonderful.  I wrote the book for me, filled with dark humor and weird things.  I wasn’t really aiming for it to be a commercial hit, so I was just happy it was published, and then to get a really positive response has been amazing.

Q: You worked in emergency management while writing.  Did that inform your writing?

A: Yes, some of my medical knowledge came in handy for the gory parts of “Ragdoll.”  But I also think the attitude of people who work in the midst of tragedy, their world-weary outlook and sarcastic humor is something that I used to set the tone.

Q: I was surprised by the humor in a book with such a macabre storyline.

A: The humor is important to me.  I get bored easily, so I need something every couple of pages that makes me smile.  And I think it helps the readers, too, who may not want a book that is just doom-and-gloom.  The humor lightens it.

Q: You wrote this while working full-time.  When did you write?

A:  I stayed up writing all night when I was in the mood.  I’d turn up to work the next day a bit of a zombie, but able to function.  It’s quite an exhausting way of doing things, and I wouldn’t recommend that other writers emulate my writing schedule, because it’s not healthy or good.

Q: When do you write now that you are a full-time writer?

A: The same.  I’ve tried to write from 8 to 5, but I find that just rubbish comes out if I try to force it.  So I wait until I am in the mood and then I write obsessively for a few weeks. I’ll start growing a beard and looking a bit homeless and keep going at it.

Q: Are you doing a book tour?

A: My publicist has all sorts of strange stuff planned for me.  I’m booked more or less for the next few months with radio shows and public-speaking things that I’m still trying to get my head around.  It’s something I’ve tried to avoid in the past, and I didn’t fully realize it was part of being a writer.

Q: As a person who likes to write obsessively for weeks and look homeless, how do you think you’ll do with the kind of city-a-day schedule?

A:  I wish I knew.  The publisher gave me some media training at last, which was much needed because I tend to just babble when I am nervous (laughs).

Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle Books, Daniel Cole, Authors, Mysteries, Ragdoll

Author Daniel Cole

Q: What do they tell you in media training?

A: It basically came down to telling me to stop babbling, to think about my answers, really obvious stuff.  They filmed me speaking so I would see myself on camera, which is really horrible to start off with (laughs).  But it helps, and I’ll be a pro by next year…or that’s what they keep telling me.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, and Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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“The Brain Defense” by Kevin Davis (Q&A)

Kevin Davis has worked as a journalist for decades, covering crime stories for newspapers and working as a writer for the American Bar Association Journal.  His latest book covers “The Brain Defense”—the idea that a criminal’s wrongful action may be a product of a faulty brain, thus mitigating the criminal’s responsibility.  Such defenses have increased by a factor of three in the past decade, and Davis’s “The Brain Defense” explores the science and the law behind this trend.  The Brain Defense, Mike Yawn, Kevin DavisThis article was published in The Houston Chronicle on March 5, 2017.

MY: As a non-attorney and non-scientist, what did you do to understand this intersection between law and criminal behavior?

KD: That was my greatest challenge, but I’ve been covering crime stories for decades, watching trials, interviewing lawyers, so I have some background in this area.  And like a good journalist, I dive into my topic, do the research, and rely on my natural curiosity to answer questions as I go.

MY: What is the “Brain Defense”?

KD: It’s when defense attorneys bring neural psychology into courtrooms in an attempt to excuse or diminish their client’s responsibility.  It’s different than your basic insanity defense, bringing more neural science into the courtroom.  It’s a way of explaining criminal behavior through a better understanding of the brain.

MY: The poster boy for that is Herbert Weinstein.  Tell us about his case.

KD: Weinstein is mentioned in dozens of medical and law journals on this topic.  Here’s a guy who is 65, a family man, never committed an act of violence in his life.  He was praised for being kind, gentle, and giving.  So when he got into an argument with his wife, killed her, and then threw her from the 12th story of his Manhattan apartment window, it drew attention.   His attorney ordered a brain scan, which showed an orange-sized cyst in the frontal lobe—the area of the brain that affects judgment, decision making, and executive functions.  And in this case—for the first time ever—a brain scan was used in court to help determine guilt or innocence.

MY: Although Weinstein was 65, one of the areas that is being investigated is childhood adverse experiences, whether they be stress, abuse, or brain trauma.

KD: The idea is that the developing brain is susceptible to trauma and that stresses inhibit proper development of neural networks.  Studies show that young people are already prone to impulsive behavior that is heavily influenced by peer presence, so it is an area particularly ripe for additional study.  But researchers have documented the fact that many of the adults they have worked with share a common experience of a trauma, extensive stress, or abuse from childhood.  The child psychologist Bruce Perry describes some of these children as being “incubated in terror,” and I think that’s both chilling and accurate.

MY: One group potentially affected by early brain trauma is child athletes.  We hear a lot about athletes committing crimes.  Is that a media thing, or is there some science to it?

KD: This is difficult to sort through.  It’s documented that many football players have suffered concussive brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  The difficulty is proving cause and effect.  Athletes, by nature, are probably more aggressive than the average person.  They are also more likely to have head trauma.  At this point, I don’t think we can definitively point to the head trauma as the causal link.  It’s a gray area, but as we see, many lawyers are picking up this idea and bringing it to the courtroom.

MY: In the book, you explore the philosophical aspects of this defense.  Are people whose brains are impaired responsible?

KD: I am not opposed to using the idea of a brain defense as a mitigating factor in the sentencing stage. The most important things to me in sentencing decisions are looking at the entirety of a person’s life and determining whether there are mitigating or aggravating circumstances.  We have two obligations.  The first is to protect society from violent people.  We also have an obligation to offer understanding and compassion to people in the criminal justice system.  I don’t think those ideas are mutually exclusive, and I think that’s where neuroscience may prove really helpful.

MY: You live in Chicago, which had almost 800 murders this past year.  Is there anything that can be done about that?

KD: I try not to be cynical; it breaks my heart.  I live here.  A couple of years ago, when my son was in kindergarten, he was walking home with his mother.  Right in front of school, he found a loaded revolver.  He said, “Mom, look, a gun!”  And that just crystallized for me how endemic the culture of violence is in this city.  There are some wonderful people here trying hard to make things happen, but it’s going to require more than a law-enforcement response.  When children are raised in this environment, it’s adding to their stress levels and, if it’s severe enough, it’s truly like being “incubated in terror.”

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

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‘High Noon” and Hollywood’s Red Scare

Glenn FrankelGlenn Frankel worked for the “Washington Post” for three decades, winning a Pulitzer Prize in the process.  Since retiring from the day-to-day news business, he’s kept an eye on social and political issues, but he’s explored them in the context of Hollywood.  His last book, “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend,” was a best-seller and received strong critical reviews.  His latest book, “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic,” explores Hollywood and the United States in the middle of the 20th century.  Published in the Houston Chronicle on February 26, 2017.

 

Mike Yawn: Putting aside social and cultural and political history for the moment, where does “High Noon” stand in terms of cinematic history?Gary Cooper, High Noon, Mike Yawn, Glenn Frankel, Red Scare

Glenn Frankel: “High Noon” marks the moment when Westerns grow up. It eschews the genre’s familiar trappings—beautiful scenery, exuberant cattle drives, set-piece battles between cowboys and Indians—for social drama. Although its protagonist is the iconic Gary Cooper, it portrays him as aging, vulnerable and frightened, forced to confront not only four murderous thugs but also the moral cowardice of his own community.

Mike Yawn: Describe the impact of the Red Scare on Hollywood in general and “High Noon” (released in 1952) in particular?

Glenn Frankel: Originally, Hollywood resisted the Red Scare, but by 1952—with the Korean War going on and Russia’s development of the A bomb—that changed.  The studios were fearful that groups would boycott their films, and they began requiring employee “clearances” and loyalty oaths.  Hundreds of performers, writers, and crew members were denied employment without any kind of legal proceeding. Carl Foreman, the scriptwriter for “High Noon” was one of these.

Mike Yawn: Tell us about Foreman.

Glenn Frankel: Carl came to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a great writer.  He was a progressive [he was a member of the Communist Party in the 1940s], so he had a political point of view, and he was ambitious.  He partnered with the talented Stanley Kramer and they formed their own independent company.  They were able to make high-quality films with good actors and social meaning, and Carl’s career took off.  By 1951, he was sufficiently prominent that his name came up when the House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) began their second round of hearings on “Communist infiltration in Hollywood.”  He was working on “High Noon” when he received his subpoena.  He believed his friends were avoiding him.  He felt isolated.  The people he worked with were beginning to pressure him, concerned that his testimony might taint the company and the films on which they work.  The film “High Noon” reflects some of these themes, and on a personal level, Carl had a decision to make.  The Committee didn’t just want him to “confess” to being a Communist at one time, but also to “name names.”  Refusing to do so meant the end of his career and his goals, but if he cooperated, he would violate a fundamental principle for himself.  That’s the crisis he faced, and it’s the dilemma I build the book around.

Mike Yawn: “High Noon” is a famous film, but most people think of it simply in terms of being a Western.  Can you elaborate on its metaphorical qualities?

Glenn Frankel:Well “High Noon” is about a community at risk, and it’s a metaphor for Hollywood and the United States.  Carl saw liberals shriveling in the face of a kind of anti-Communist hysteria, refusing to stand up to the HUAC.  Similarly, in “High Noon,” when the bad guys are returning to Hadleyville, Marshall Will Kane hopes he can count on the towns’ citizens and its institutions to support him, but they back away.  He’s left alone to fight these dark forces.  And, in real life, Foreman was left to face HUAC without much support.  He refused to back down, but he had to leave the United States and find work in England as a result.

Mike Yawn: How did writers cope after being blacklisted?

Glenn Frankel: Carl left the US and went to London and worked under pseudonyms. Others took similar actions.  Writers might also use a “front,” that is a person who would claim to have written the film.  The real writer and the front would then divide the money.  The advantage of using the front is that there was a real person on the script.  In the case of “The Brave One,” that film was credited to a Robert Rich, but it was actually written by Dalton Trumbo.  When “Robert Rich” won an Oscar, everyone said, “Who is this guy?”  He didn’t exist.  The writers had to make all kinds of compromises to keep working.

Mike Yawn: “High Noon” is a favorite film of US Presidents.  Why do you think this is?

Glenn Frankel: Eisenhower showed it in the White House, and according to presidential records, it’s the film most often seen in the White House.  Bill Clinton was the ultimate “High Noon” watcher—he’s seen it 20 times!  I think presidents identify with Marshall Kane, who is left alone to face the community’s problems.

Mike Yawn: In “High Noon,” the Gary Cooper character was clearly the hero.  Who are the heroes in this book about “High Noon” and the Hollywood Red Scare?Carl Foreman, Red Scare, Mike Yawn, Glenn Frankel

Glenn Frankel: My idea of a hero is an ordinary person who, when faced with a terrible dilemma, rises to the occasion.  I believe Carl Foreman did that when he refused to cooperate with HUAC, despite a large personal cost.  It was a decision similar to that of his fictional creation, Will Kane, who chooses to confront four gunmen, not because he wants to be a hero, but because he feels he has to.  There were a lot of bombastic phony heroes who appeared during the Red Scare, but real heroes are quieter, more reluctant, and more vulnerable.  The question that history asks is: if we were confronted by similar circumstances, how would we behave?

 

 

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More than Inkblots: Damion Searls’ “Inkblots” tells story of Hermann Rorschach

Article published in Houston Chronicle on February 19, 2017.

Almost 100 years after its creation, the Rorschach test remains a widely-used scientific tool in psychology and serves as a cultural catchall in the popular imagination.  Author and translator Damion Searls explores this legacy—and the life of its creator—in his latest book: “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing,” which goes on sale February 21, 2017.

Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP CenterMY: Could you describe the role that art played in Rorschach developing the test for which he is famous?

DS: Rorschach’s father was a drawing teacher, and he himself was an amateur artist, making drawings in his diaries, building and painting toys for his children, and an avid photographer. He was a visual person.  Freud was a word person: the talking cure, “Freudian slips” of the tongue, and so on.  But we’re not all word people.  Freud thought the most revealing thing was what we say or don’t say; Rorschach thought that seeing goes deeper than talking.

MY: Rorschach began his career at about the same time abstract art emerged.  Was there a connection between abstract art and Rorschach and his inkblots?

DS: Rorschach wasn’t an artist in that sense, but he was aware of modern trends and mentioned them in his work.  The main link is the new idea that art expresses something inside the artist (this is why Jackson Pollock, for example, is called an “Abstract Expressionist”).  Modern abstract art tried to give visual form to something ineffable inside, and the Rorschach test used visual images to gain access to that ineffable inner self.

MY: Even people familiar with Rorschach’s test may not know that the same ten blots that Rorschach developed 100 years ago are still being used.Hermann Rorschach, Inkblots, Damion Searls, Mike Yawn, Houston Chronicle, LEAP Center

DS: Most people think that each psychologist uses their own blots.  In fact, Hermann made ten unique images, and he put them in a specific order to choreograph the test-taking experience.  Those ten are still used today.  The blots are visually interesting, and that’s a big part of what inspired me.  Most smears look like nothing, but Rorschach’s blots really could be two waiters holding pots and bowing to each other or what have you.  They can be perceived differently, but there is a structure to them.  I could go on for hours about what makes them so rich.  Psychology aside, they’re probably the ten most analyzed paintings of the 20th century.

 

MY: In terms of usage, the high point of the tests was in the 1940s and 1950s.  What factors prompted this degree of ubiquity?

DS: The test became popular in the U.S., starting in the late 30s—after Rorschach died—when American culture was very interested in personality.  How could personality be measured in an objective way?  Here was a test that claimed to give access to that.  When WWII erupted, the field of clinical psychology took off and the Rorschach test was the center of the field.  It remained central through the 1960s, when reactions against expertise authority of all kinds brought down both Freud and the Rorschach test… but the test was reinvented in the 1970s as a numerical, objective test, and survives to this day.

MY: Professionals disagree over the validity of the test, and some researchers suggest that the Rorschach test has become a Rorschach test of its own.

DS: Professionals disagree, but much of the criticisms are out of date.  There has been a lot of research on it, and science has validated the current Rorschach test.  What people are rightly skeptical about is the pop-culture version, where the test is a magic mind reader.  The real Rorschach test doesn’t do that.  The Rorschach test is not a Rorschach test.  The cliché is that there are no wrong answers, anything means what you want it to mean.  But the real Rorschach test isn’t like that.  The blots have objective visual qualities; the test has a specific history and use. The facts matter, not just our opinions about them.

MY: Rorschach died at an early age, and not much is known about him.  For people who haven’t read the book, what would you like them to know?

DS: The people who have read the book so far are struck by the same thing I am: that Hermann Rorschach was a really solid, good person. You like spending time reading about him. He was modest, kind, hard-working (and incredibly handsome); a responsible scientist, truly anti-sexist and supportive of women; and a good and sympathetic doctor, loved by his patients and colleagues. He overcame a humble background and the early death of both his parents to create a lasting psychological test, cultural touchstone, and visionary synthesis of art and science. It’s a good story.

 

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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Jane Harper’s New Work, “The Dry,” Makes Waves

The Dry, by Jane Harper

Jane Harper’s first novel, “The Dry,” involves death and drought in rural Australia.  Although not yet released in the United States (it will released be this Tuesday, January 10), it has enjoyed brisk sales in the land down under and earned a flood of advance praise worldwide.  The film rights have been purchased by Pacific Standard, Reese Witherspoon’s film company; the book is set for publication in at least 20 languages; and it’s the first work in a three-book deal that Harper has signed with her US publisher, Flatiron Books. It’s an impressive string of successes, especially for a book that originated in an online writing classes less than three years ago.

Mike Yawn: Describe “The Dry.”

Jane Harper: It’s a thriller set in a rural community in Australia. The main character, Aaron Faulk, returns to his home town which he left—under a cloud of suspicion—some 20 years before.  He returns for the funeral of his childhood best friend, and he’s drawn into the circumstances of that death.  His investigation results in a confrontation not only of his friend’s death, but also the community that turned its back on him many years before.

MY: That community—the entire setting of rural Australia—becomes a leading character in your novel.

JH: The nature of the plot shaped the setting. I envisioned a community under pressure and how such a setting would impact the characters and their relationship.  The drought in this novel is the catalyst for the small community’s problems, but the problems in a small community often involve the same stresses: the overreliance on neighbors; the attachments to a place you cannot leave; people knowing too much of your business.  I think that’s a universal feeling for tight communities, and I think a lot of people can relate to the claustrophobia that can result.

MY: Tell us how “The Dry” came about.

JH: I always thought I’d like to write a novel, but I never took it seriously.  In 2014, however, I decided that if I were ever Jane Harper, author of The Drygoing to write a novel, I needed to find time to do it.  I took an online course in novel writing, and much of the writing was completed for that 12-week course.

MY: Where did you go from there?

JH: Well, during the course, I saw that the deadline for Victorian Premier’s literary award for an unpublished manuscript was about six months away.  So I wanted to use that as another deadline for myself, and I entered that competition, and I ended up winning! From there, it just snowballed.

MY: If I recall, you entered it in the competition in April 2014 and you found out you won in May 2014?

JH: Yes!

MY: And it was published in 2016?

JH: Yes!

MY: That’s unusual.  Was there someone who said, “Wow, this is good!”?

JH: I was the only one who had read the whole thing when I entered it.  My online classmates read parts of it, and that feedback wasn’t all positive. But it was key, and I think it’s important when writing a novel to listen to feedback and, if it’s valid, to accept it and use it to improve the work.

MY: Did you use a daily quota system to meet your writing deadlines?

JH: I don’t have that rigid of a system.  I work in scenes more than words. I try to move the story forward each day, and I don’t spend much time on rewrites until I finish with the main story.

MY: Did you have a full plot outline before writing?

JH: I had the main plot—the start, the end, and a few key points between.  I then think about what the characters would naturally do and what’s plausible, and that might take me from A to B.  I usually know where I’m headed, and then it’s a question of the best way to get there.

MY: How did your 13 years in journalism help you create this book?

JH: It helped in so many ways. Journalism gets you accustomed to deadlines.  It also helps you concentrate on the reader; it trains you to create something that people will be drawn into. And it helps you sit down, and not let a blank page become too daunting.  I’m not sure I could have written this novel without my years in journalism.

MY: David Baldacci offered a nice cover blurb.

JH: I have to give credit to the publishers.  I didn’t know it was happening, but I got an email from them saying, “great news, David Baldacci gave you a fantastic quote after reading the book!”  I’ve been a big fan of his for years, and to have someone like that endorse your book is a great feeling.

MY: What are other authors or books you enjoy?

JH: I like the books of Lee Child, Val McDermid, and some of the recent big bestsellers such as “Girl on a Train” and “Gone Girl.”

MY: “The Dry” was picked up by Pacific Standard, the same production company that picked up “Gone Girl,” is that right?

JH: Yes.  Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea are partners in the company.  Papandrea is from Australia, and I think that may have helped get it in front of them.

MY: It will be released next week in the US, but it has done well overseas.  When did you say, “Hey, this might become a hit?”

JH: When I got a three-book deal in Australia, the US, and the U.K.  I thought, “this might be the start of something rather than just a one-off.”

MY: How do you follow up this novel?

JH: By starting it right away.  I wanted to have it largely completed by the time “The Dry” was released in Australia (June 2016), because I knew the release would increase the pressure on me.  I wanted to do the best I could, and write it much the way I wrote the first one.

Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author Discusses Going “All-In” on Life’s Choices

In her new book, “The Art of Risk,” Sukel explores why some people are more comfortable with risk than others, how risk shapes our lives, and attempts to explore how we can manage risk more successfully.

Kayt Sukel, The Art of Risk

                  Kayt Sukel, Author of “The Art of Risk”

Mike Yawn: Risk means different things to different people, but you came up with a working definition of risk in your book.

Kayt Sukel: Simply put, risk is a decision that involves uncertainty with a potentially negative outcome.  It could be going “all in” in a poker game or wearing a white blouse on a rainy day. It could be all manner of things.

MY: Speaking of going “all in,” you mention in the book that your boyfriend proposed to you and you went “all in” and said, “Yes.”  Is that still accurate?

KS: Yes, I am married!  Otherwise, I would have had to make the acknowledgement section a bit different.

MY: In your book and in other studies, it’s made pretty clear that people aren’t good at predicting outcomes.

KS: Our brain tries to predict what is coming next, but given the amount of information we face, it would be overwhelmed unless we use shortcuts. Our past experiences, our learning, they help our brain hone in on the things on which we need to focus.  But sometimes those shortcuts aren’t applicable, and that’s why the book is called “The Art of Risk.”  It’s more of an art than a science.

MY: People’s acceptance of risk, as you point out in the book, is a function of both biology and environment.

KS: Two parts of the brain are very important for influencing how comfortable a person is seeking risk: the basal ganglia, which is sometimes referred to as the reptilian part of the brain; and the frontal cortex, which is the seat of executive control. The basal ganglia shouts, “Yes, I want rewards!  I want excitement—food, sex, money, prestige!”  And the frontal lobe says, “That stuff is great, but maybe this isn’t the best time” or “If you do that you’ll probably end up in jail!”  These two parts of the brain are tangling all the time and biology helps shape which of these brain regions may be more influential.  But our family environment, our peers, and the life cycle have considerable sway.

MY: You’ve previously researched stress and early childhood.  How does that connect to “The Art of Risk”?

KS: Risk is often seen negatively, but without some kind of risk, we wouldn’t be able to learn and grow.  Some freedom to take risks is important for healthy brain development in children.  Similarly, stress can motivate people.  We don’t want chaos, but a certain amount of stress helps us learn and grow.  Risk and stress in your children can be managed to an extent, but there is a big difference between a parent who permits a ten-year old to walk to school after discussing safety with them, and a parent who sends their five-year old to the store alone to fetch cigarettes for them.   It’s important for parents to know the difference so that children take part in healthy learning, growth, brain development and, ultimately, decision making.

MY: How old are your two children and, as you were writing this book, did you at times think of risk through a parental lens?

KS: I have a son who is 10 as well as a nine-year old daughter. And, yes, I thought of them extensively as I was writing. It’s funny, from the time my son was a baby, I strapped him on my back, and we travelled all over the world.  He’s been to more than 40 countries, snorkeled with sharks, and has ziplined through jungles.  But last winter he busted his ankle sledding!  Of all the activities on which to get hurt, it seemed like the most mundane activity ever.  But, you know, we live in Texas where there isn’t much snow, so he doesn’t sled often.  It makes sense that this would be an activity where he hasn’t had enough experience to fully assess the risks. I can either say, “Everything is terribly dangerous, and I have to wrap my child in bubble wrap to keep him safe,” or I can say, “Let’s learn from this, take corrective action, and do our best to avoid this kind of accident on the next sledding attempt.” I want him to learn how to do cool things; sliding down a hill wicked fast is one of them.

MY: You discuss training as a way to manage risk and decision making.  You use the term “deliberate practice,” which is different than just “practice.”

KS: I think of “practice” as what my kids do at the piano each afternoon.  They plunk away without much thought, and it’s not getting them very far.  Deliberate practice is practicing at the edge of your performance ability.  Athletes, classical musicians, and artists do this all the time.  They choose a project that exceeds their abilities and they fail over and over again until they get a step ahead.  It sounds like torture, but it’s how people learn the difficult piano piece, or shave seconds off their run time, or learn a complicated play in sports.  It helps your mind assess what risks are involved and the parameters within which success can be achieved.

MY: If you were a bookseller, which shelf would you put your book on?

KS: Perhaps science or business or self-help, but whatever shelf it falls on, I hope that people see it as interesting non-fiction.  I think this book is really for anybody who wants to understand more about the way we make decisions or how to make better decisions.

MY: It has elements of a memoir.

KS: Yes.

MY: Tell us why you thought it important to include your experiences.

KS: The questions I was asking were personal questions, but I don’t think they are limited to just me.  They affect everyone, and I wanted to put context of what I have faced, and why I went on the quest to find some answers.

MY: You participated in many activities in different fields to research your book.  Was witnessing brain surgery the most interesting?

KS: Yes.  It was fascinating.  I was able to observe the surgery from a close distance.  It’s amazing to see the skull opened on a live human while doctors are cutting into really delicate tissue.  The doctor was using his brain—specifically the frontal lobe—to control his actions and mitigate the risk to the patient to successfully repair the brain of the patient.

Mike Yawn directs the Center for Law, Engagement and Politics at Sam Houston State University.

 

 

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