“We’ve been on a nice roll,” offers Douglas Brunt, author of the New York Times bestseller, “Ghosts of Manhattan." His second novel, “The Means,” is getting equally good reviews (“Makes Heilemann and Halperin’s nonfiction “Game Change” look sedate by comparison.”—Kirkus). His wife, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly is killing it in her new prime time show, and was recently spoofed for the first time on “Saturday Night Live.” The couple welcomed their third child a little over a year ago.
“The Means” is a political drama that unfolds over the course of a fraught presidential campaign in which an ambitious cable news reporter hones in on a long-buried scandal that could sink one of the candidates while the other candidate wrestles with the compromises and corruption that mark the road to the White House.
Brunt spoke by phone with Millionaire Corner about the ways to “The Means.” Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: First, did you know the “Saturday Night Live” sketch was coming?
Douglas Brunt: (Megyn) had gotten wind of it. Someone who does hair and makeup at Fox has a friend who does hair and makeup at NBC, and they said, ‘We saw some rehearsals for this thing.’”
Q: Back to “The Means.” After using Wall Street as the backdrop for your first book, what inspired you to write a story in which the industries of politics and journalism play key roles?
DB: Politics and journalism are such fascinating subject areas and as I did in the first book, I wanted to give an inside-baseball look at what it’s really like behind the scenes. I think anyone who turns on the news at all is sort of an armchair quarterback on politics. Particularly with the Obama campaign tapping social media to get out the younger vote, there is a wider demographic that’s interested in politics,
Q: As a now full-time writer, how was the experience of writing this book different?
DB: I did more formal research for this one. With "Ghosts of Manhattan,” I lived in New York and knew people on Wall Street and used the crazy stories they told me as the backdrop for a story about a marriage. For “The Means,” I interviewed a number of congressmen and people who have worked on Capital Hill and who have run national campaigns. There were big group dinners where I could ask them questions, but more important, where I could listen and hear how they talked.
Q: Who were particularly helpful to you?
DB: Dana Pirino (former press secretary under George W. Bush) was very generous with her time. Chris Stirewalt, who runs Fox Digital, is a real politics junkie and incredibly knowledgeable. They both made a number of introductions to people when I was trying to figure out a piece of the story or get a physical description down, such as what does a certain room in the White House looks like.
Q: The book’s opening scene set in a newsroom in which a news story is breaking suggests first-hand experience.
DB: I’m friendly with all the folks on Meg’s team. There are roughly a dozen people performing various functions as the show is running. They prep through the day and have their conference calls. I know what all the different roles are and how that contributes to how a show gets on. I have been in the control room for some really crazy stuff. That scene in the book is drawn exactly from my own observations.
Q: From before you met Megyn to after, how have your perceptions of journalism changed?
DB: When I was a little kid, I always thought the news was the news, this factual cut-and-dried thing. I was never really that political growing up. But now I have the understanding that you do have to consider the source; that people have a stated or an unstated bias to different degrees. So it’s nice to be able to pull your news from a variety of sources.
Q: That same question about politics. In your research, what did you learn about the process that surprised you the most?
DB: There are exceptions to this, but senior staff members in campaigns across party lines are friendlier (with each other) than I would have thought. As a general rule, these are people in the business who know each other and have a healthy respect for each other. One of the main questions of the book is whether the office draws good people who are corrupted by the very rigorous and pretty crazy process and what kind of people it attracts in the first place.
(Democratic campaign worker and consultant) Joe Trippi has this story: Imagine there is this box with a button on it and if anyone presses that button the whole world blows up, and your job is to hold this box for four years. Who would want that? And yet every four years there are dozens of people who raise their hands.
Q: I have to ask: You start the book with a quote from Dr. Egon Spengler. How does a “Ghostbusters” quote (“Print is dead”) make it into the book? As “Ghostbusters” quotes go, that’s not one you hear often.
DB: You’re the first person to ask about that (laughs). That quote was used to introduce the news as an entity. I must have been channel surfing one night and heard that and thought it would be good to use. “Ghostbusters” came out in 1984. It was prophetic.
Q: What are your favorite political books or movies?
DB: I especially enjoyed season one of “House of Cards.” I felt like I was learning something. It had that behind-the-scenes feel. “Atlas Shrugged” is a great book and counts as a political book in some respects. “All the King’s Men” is a classic. Non-fiction, Richard Ben Creamer’s “What it Takes” is a lengthy trove.
Q: What’s next for you?
DB: The next book is about a writer living in the suburbs. It will get more into the business of literature and book publishing.
Q: You were a CEO who left to become a writer. That is an inspiration for budding authors. What is your advice to them?
DB: I was at a dinner before the first book was written. I was sitting next to someone who was primarily a songwriter. I said something along the lines of, ‘I wish I could do it’ (write a book), ad he said, ‘Just start writing.’ It sounded like a joke, but it was the best advice.
Q: But more, your story is about doing the thing you are passionate about, which was the subtext of your first book. Many people are afraid to get out of their comfort zone.
DB: I did it, and Meg (a former lawyer) did it as well. She took a similar leap. My sister is into this. She read a book; I can’t recall the title or I would attribute it. But it said that people get stuck in their zone of excellence, meaning doing something they are good at, but don’t necessarily love. That can be a trap.
Q: Speaking of which, the reporter in the book, Samantha Davis, is described as “the smartest, prettiest, badass lawyer on TV. You make her a brunette, but come on….
A: (Laughs) Yes, Megyn currently holds that title.
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.