How David Pepper came to write a book that predicted the 2016 election
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper has worked in Ohio politics for 15 years. He’s run for office statewide in Ohio and served in city and county offices in Cincinnati. And if he isn’t busy enough, David Pepper also authored the fictional book The People’s House, which is the story of an Ohio political reporter who undercovers Russian election meddling in a Congressional district. Remarkably, his book was written before the events of the 2016 election. David is due out with a new book soon. We talked with David Pepper about how he went about writing this book and how some of its themes impact real-world events.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
Two things got me started.
First, I have long perceived a void in the political thriller niche, whether in print or on the screen. Lots of content, but not a lot of realism about the ground-floor, gritty reality of politics. Having run and served in office, and in my current role as a state party chair, I aimed to fill that void with an insider’s view.
Second, we’ve reached the point where it is nearly impossible to discuss the deeper dysfunction in our political system without retreating to our partisan corners and throwing mud. I hoped fiction might provide a more neutral space to explore some of the deepest problems in politics, with readers approaching that conversation with a more open mind. And I’m pleased to say that’s been my experience thus far.
2. You wrote this book before the events of 2016, did you have any inclination that something like this could happen in real life? Where did the idea of Russian election meddling come from?
Ironically, I did not write the book as an exercise in prediction, but was simply trying to capture as best I could some of the major weaknesses in our current political infrastructure, and draw out the potential consequences of those weaknesses. In a sense, I put myself in the mind of a character trying to take advantage of those real-world weaknesses. And I chose a foreign character for that role because that outsider view might spot those weaknesses with more clarity than most Americans would. (I spent considerable time in Russia in my 20s, so I chose the Russian vantage point largely because of my experience and knowledge from those days.)
So while my goal was not to predict, it’s not altogether surprising that I chose a course similar to what might happen in real life. Still, it’s been a surreal experience, for both myself and my early readers, that many elements of the plot ultimately have paralleled real-world events.
3. How do you think authors use fiction as a way to get people to care about real world issues?
It’s a delicate task. If a book comes across as too preachy, you’ll lose readers who simply want to enjoy a good story. So telling a good story always comes first. But I think if done right—through characters, and careful plot and scene development—an author can challenge readers to grapple with real world issues and challenges in a way that they may otherwise overlook in their daily life.
4. You lived in Russia earlier in your career, what about your experience living in Russia helped inform this book?
My time in Russia gave me a more nuanced view of the country and its people than we often see in the media today. And it also helped me see our own country—our strengths and weaknesses—through the eyes of other countries, a useful perspective the book also presents. But I also witnessed the early post-Cold War period in Russia, where oligarchs began to emerge amid the messy “privatization” of previous state assets. As readers will see, having seeing that helped me develop one of my book’s central characters, and capture the approach to business that emerged amid the chaos of a changing country.
5. In addition to being about Russian meddling in a U.S. election, this book is really the story of how journalist Jack Sharpe uncovered this elaborate plot. How have the recent attacks on journalism and allegations of “fake news” made it harder for journalists to engage in this type of investigative journalism?
Despite the unfortunate “fake news” moniker of recent years, the economics of modern day journalism poses the biggest obstacle to the type of robust, dogged investigative journalism that drives the plot of my books, and which is so critical to ensuring transparency and accountability to our democracy. With only a few exceptions, newsrooms across the country have been slashed for years due to declining revenue, and the more seasoned (and higher salaried) reporters who can undertake deep-dive investigations are too often the first to go. Through Jack Sharpe and his struggling hometown newspaper, the book tries to capture that dilemma.
Combine that with now daily frontal attacks on the media, and a critical element of our democratic system is in jeopardy. Short-staffed newsrooms, struggling to keep up with every more complicated stories—and even when they get to the bottom of those stories, they are attacked as fake news.
I do hope this chaotic moment in our country’s history will remind us of the critical role the media plays in our democracy, and stir us to protect the independent role of the media as best we can.
6. Ohio is a critically important swing state. In your experience working in Ohio politics, are we doing enough to prevent election meddling in 2018? In your view, what could be done that isn’t currently being done?
States across the country have not done enough to heed the warnings of experts who, for years, have warned about the risk to our election systems from rapidly evolving technology combined with a world of ever more sophisticated hacking capabilities. As the book points out, election systems are generally run at the local level, and with many of those counties cash strapped, the cost of upgrades are often prohibitive without outside help.
I think state and national leaders have to generously support the upgrading of machines across the country, and do so with certain standards that must be met, such as requiring voter-marked paper ballots, robust auditing, and other best practices.
7. What advice do you have for someone that’s thinking about writing a fictional book?
Start writing, and keep writing.
Revise, revise, revise.
Embrace criticism—if more than one reader provides the same criticism, they’re right.
8. Bonus: Have you read anything interesting lately that you think sheds light on the American electorate?
Dreamland, by Sam Quinones, and Glass House, by Brian Alexander, are eye-opening and sobering descriptions of the plight of mid-sized towns struggling to compete in today’s economy. That struggle is driving a lot of the politics in states like Ohio.
A big thanks to David Pepper for answering our 7 questions this week! Check out our inteview with him on his book The Voter File