In Jonathan Dee’s sixth novel, A Thousand Pardons, a stay-at-home mother goes back to work after her husband’s dramatic breakdown. In her new role, she cultivates her gift for convincing powerful men to apologize on a grand scale. Dee likens this act to an ancient religious ritual.
Helen is forced to return to the workforce after her husband’s breakdown, and discovers an aptitude for PR—specifically crisis management. What would you do if you weren’t a novelist? Do you think you have an untapped talent for another line of work?
I’m always jealous of fiction writers who have a second marketable skill, who chose writing over some other career at which they might have been, or were, equally proficient. Sometime in my late 20s it became frighteningly clear to me that all my eggs were in one basket, career-wise, and that I had no talent whatsoever for anything but writing. So I am relieved not to have failed at it. If I had, I doubt I ever would have strayed too far from the world of books: a teacher, maybe, or an editor, or an eccentric small-town librarian . . .
One of Helen’s specialties is the art of the apology. Why do her tactics work so well? Do people fundamentally want to forgive public figures who have made mistakes?
Yes, we do. But we demand something in return, which is that the transgressor must (as Helen says) make an offering of him—or herself, must confess sin without condition, must give up anything and everything that is private or hidden. It’s a ritual that’s religious in nature, but that’s now been transferred to the secular, public sphere—like a kind of ghostly outline of what “public” life in America used to be. That notion of the old, religious vessel filled with modern, secular content is what got me interested in writing this novel in the first place. Helen, in part because of her own upbringing, understands that religious connection instinctively—so instinctively that she doesn’t even know she knows it.
Scandals related to high-powered American men are a dime a dozen, from Tiger Woods to General Petraeus. Was there any particular news story that led to your interest in the repercussions of public scandals?
They happen regularly—so regularly that you have to assume they’re satisfying some sort of cultural hunger. Just in the last few weeks we’ve had Lance Armstrong (a textbook example of how not to do it, by the way), Manti Te’o (whose phenomenal lack of guile might just redeem him in the end) . . . I remember I was particularly interested in the Tiger Woods scandal, because at one point early on he made a sort of plea for privacy—this is about my marriage, I have two small children, please let us resolve this out of the spotlight—which was perfectly reasonable but had absolutely no chance of being granted. The world essentially replied, “We will let you know when we are done extracting what we need from you.”
What sort of research did you do into the world of corporate law and high-stakes public relations?
People who work in crisis management love to write about what they do; the fact that they usually can’t give up the names of their clients just helps keep the focus on themselves. I read a stack of memoirs, insider accounts, autobiographies, etc., written by various legends of the industry. Most of my research, for any book, consists of reading. It has to be first-person material, because what I’m after, when a novel is in its R&D phase, is not so much facts (though those too) but a subculture’s particular tone of voice.
One of your secondary characters, Hamilton Barth, is a moody movie star in need of Helen’s PR magic. Where do you fall on the spectrum of the Hollywood obsessed? (From TMZ devotee to “never heard of Bradley Cooper.”) In real life, are you curious about the inner feelings and desires of celebrities?
I’m interested in the commodification of their “inner” feelings and desires, which of course are not inner at all if millions of people like me know about them. As for where I fall on the obsession spectrum, would it be useful to say that I know there are multiple Kardashians but I couldn’t tell you which was which?
Another main character is Sara, Helen’s angsty 12-year-old daughter with a penchant for torturing her mother. Is it challenging to inhabit a character who is in such a different life stage from yourself? Or, did Sara’s voice come as easily to you—or with as much difficulty, as the case may be—as any other character?
I am a stay-at-home father, a part-time teacher, a youth soccer coach, and I have the naturally nosy observational powers of any fiction writer; so let’s just say that the voice of today’s young person is not all that exotic to me. I had a blast writing Sara. Some readers find her a little unforgiving, but I will defend her to the death.
Like many Americans, are you fascinated—even secretly delighted—when our movie stars suffer a fall from grace? Why or why not?
I wouldn’t say “delighted”—I don’t get any particular kick out of seeing the high brought low. But the cultural mechanics of the fall from grace do fascinate me, largely because they are so ritualized. You might even say that the reason the culture manufactures celebrities in the first place is in order to feed the ritual.
Read our review of A Thousand Pardons.