“Virtual Coffee With” is a new column on BookTrib where we chat via email or social media with some of today’s most prolific writers. For our inaugural interview we connected with award-winning investigative reporter, magazine editor and author Rick Pullen.
Pullen, who is best known for his 2016 thriller, Naked Ambition, is also a BookTrib contributor. Here is our virtual chat with Pullen about his latest release, The Apprentice, what inspires him and how he made the successful transition from award-winning journalist to bestselling novelist.
BT: How did the transition come about, from a career in investigative journalism to publishing your first fiction book? How did it change your process of writing?
RP: I went from reporter to editor, so I’ve been a magazine editor full-time for nearly 20 years. During that period I was correcting flaws in others’ writing. That helped me to become a better writer. Ask my old newspaper editor what she thought of my writing. If she were kind, she’d say, “not much.” Now my agent says my novels have a great voice, so I guess I’m teachable.
I had a scene in my head that intrigued me and I couldn’t put it down. It became the seed for my first novel, Naked Ambition: A federal prosecutor leaks a story to a newspaper reporter, who then publishes it. The prosecutor’s boss is furious and decides to force the reporter to reveal his source. Just as the court proceeding is set to begin, something happens and the leaker is assigned to prosecute his own leak. How do you resolve that?
It took me 10 years. None of my friends had an answer. Then back in 2011 over a beer at lunch with my friend Coletta Kemper, I figured it out. I went home and started writing that night. Five months later, my first draft was done. It was shit. It took me three years of absorbing somewhere around 40 books on fiction writing, along with a great editor named Lorin Oberweger, to figure out how to put it all into words. I can’t say enough about finding the right editor. Lorin’s edits of my first manuscript really taught me how to write fiction.
Investigative reporting is about reporting and research, so it practically writes itself. That’s why I was so good at it. I couldn’t write worth an expletive back then, but I sure could put all of the pieces together to solve the puzzle. Journalism uses the inverted pyramid style. Fiction is more complicated. It’s about fashioning the words into a powerful narrative with a perfect timeline and compelling voice.
Today, instead of spending my days pounding the pavement, hunting down people and interviewing them for clues to make sure I get my facts straight, I pad down to my office on the first floor at five in the morning and make up stuff.
BT: What made you want to tell this extremely culturally relevant story through Tish, a rookie journalist, rather than someone more experienced?
RP: I was in the middle of writing a whole different series about a more experienced reporter when Donald Trump happened. I work in Washington, so I see and hear a lot. Everyone talks about how there’s no way fiction could possibly be any more bizarre than Washington today. I thought, what if I could mirror that and maybe even predict what I think the future will bring. And then I thought about Trump’s television show and the analogy was perfect. He’s an apprentice in the job of the presidency. He may totally reform the position or be eaten alive by it. I don’t know which. But no matter how you look at it, when it comes to politics, he’s a rookie.
Naked Truth, the sequel to my first novel, Naked Ambition, comes out this spring, but was written before The Apprentice. If I was going to call my novel The Apprentice, I realized I couldn’t use the protagonist from my original series. He had too much experience as an investigative reporter at the top of his game. I needed a young reporter—but an apprentice type—as my new protagonist.
One of the first things I try to do when developing a character is find an appropriate name. There is a young woman in my office whose name is Tish, a perfect name for my new protagonist. So that’s how I came up with a young female reporter, not long out of college, who is thrust into the limelight covering a rookie president.
BT: As a male writer, what is it like to write in a female voice? Was it challenging?
RP: I’ve always been fairly good at dialogue. One thing my editor told me early in my print journalism career was that I write like I speak. Perhaps that’s because I got my degree in broadcasting.
I took my friend Tish out to lunch and interviewed her. I needed to understand what a 20-something thinks. My magazine has also written a lot about the millennial generation and its impact on culture and business. So I have some knowledge about the younger generation’s mindset.
Tish is biracial, so she also has a different perspective that fits the millennial mold, while giving my protagonist a unique quality. I decided to make my protagonist a little nerdy and serious so I wouldn’t have to deal with a lot of age-appropriate trendy millennial stuff. Part of being a male writer creating a female lead is trying to understand where you should and shouldn’t go.
Also, my daughter, Jill, and wife, Cherie, are my beta readers. They are constantly telling me: “Women don’t say that, women don’t think that, or women don’t do that.” They’ve done this for all of my novels. So I have a lot of help with my female characters. I have very strong women in my life and my novels.
BT: Tell me how you juggled writing The Apprentice as well as multiple other books at once, all while being the editor of Leader’s Edge magazine?
RP: I remember my old newspaper once publishing a story about Jack Bales, the local research librarian at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. This is 30 years ago. He’d written something like six books by that time while working his full-time job. I knew Jack and was impressed. He explained he got up at four o’clock in the morning to write and research his books. So, I had an understanding early on about what it took.
I get up at five o’clock every morning and write for two hours. I write on the train to work. I write and read on the train going home (usually more reading after a long day at the office). If I’m not working through my lunch hour on the magazine, then I write. Leader’s Edge magazine, which is still my first priority, takes up most of my day.
Also, if you’ve ever attended ThrillerFest, the annual New York thriller writers’ conference, you will hear 100 times during the event the phrase “butts in the chair.” Too many people find excuses NOT to write. The only ones who succeed are those who find a way to write. Becoming a writer is all about discipline. It’s not rocket science.
Right now I’ve got the naked series going. I’m starting The Apprentice serial and another publisher has asked me to pitch a third series. In addition, I’m working on an anthology on how famous thriller writers first got published, and a rock ‘n’ roll photography book with my pal, photographer Tom O’Neal. More details are available on my webpage, rickpullen.com. One thing you learn from investigative reporting is a work ethic.
BT: Towards the end of the book, there is a line that really struck me: “Washington mirrors Hollywood in its lust for celebrity.” Can you comment on what you mean by this?
RP: OMG! The joke in Washington is if you don’t want to get trampled to death, never get between a camera and New York Senator Chuck Schumer. That’s not quite fair because it applies to a lot of members of Congress. Just look at the Sunday morning talk shows. The same faces almost every week.
Washington isn’t called “Hollywood for Ugly People” for nothing. Like Hollywood, it is all about power, money, fame and greed. The players fill different roles, but the egomania in both places is pervasive. Big egos painted with big ideals come to both towns and they are eventually crushed by the reality of the place and it’s history. You either “go along to get along,” as they say in Congress, or you go home. That’s why both towns are so corrupt.
The biggest difference I’ve found between them is I feel much safer as a pedestrian in L.A. than in D.C. Drivers in Los Angeles share the road. Drivers in Washington think they own it.
Donald Trump, like many who have come before him, thinks he can change Washington. He just might. So far he has struggled mightily. Change in Washington, as in Hollywood, comes slowly. In my lifetime I’ve seen only one exception to that rule and that is going on right now with the spate of sexual harassment charges. The media are expecting dozens of Congressmen to go down in the coming months.
BT: What role does trust play in this book, as well as in our world today?
RP: When people read my books, they may think I’m a cynic because I peel back so much dirty linen. I’m just the opposite. As an investigative reporter, I was in awe of the people who came forward, risking their careers to expose official corruption. I learned early on about trust and the decency of people who still want to do the right thing.
Donald Trump demands loyalty, and as we watch the Russia investigation unfold, that only goes so far. The term “strange bedfellows” has always applied to Washington because you might be on my side today and by tomorrow you’re my enemy. So I use trust—and the lack thereof—in all of my books. Who can you really trust in Washington? Just when you think you have a friend, they turn on you. What did Harry Truman say? “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
In my novels, you often find you can’t trust the character you thought you could. It makes a great dynamic for tension and plot.
BT: What is the next book in THE APPRENTICE series about? Can we expect a similar type of storyline?
RP: My original goal with The Apprentice was to create an old-fashioned serial. I wanted to have a new book out every three to four months that mirrored, but not really followed, current events in Washington. Obviously, I can’t predict what will happen, but of course that never stopped me from creating a parallel universe. (My first novel, Naked Ambition, is a thriller about a Republican running for President who is opposed by his own party. It was published during the 2016 Presidential primaries.)
There is only one publisher who could possibly create a book as quickly as I wanted, so I approached Kindle Press about the idea. They can literally turn around a manuscript in a little more than a month. They liked my idea, but they wanted it longer than the 20,000 words I proposed. They wanted 40,000 words. I ended up with 52,000. Writing short fiction was tougher than I had imagined because I tend to include a lot of twists and turns.
Part One is from the outside looking in. The second in the series will have more from the inside, something like House of Cards, but not. And the two perspectives will eventually converge.
We’re looking at a Washington thriller, but I don’t want to get caught up in the machinations of special prosecutors and Congressional politics. The protagonist must still be front and center and tell a great narrative or I’ll lose my audience. One of my biggest fears is that people are so turned off by Washington these days that they won’t want to read a political thriller. So I have to still make it a great yarn with lots of surprises. Face it, most people hate politics, but they enjoy reading thrillers about corruption and powerful people. My editor Lorin Oberweger told me long ago that a thriller must be big and no one in the world is bigger than the President of the United States. The only thing larger than that plot line would be a threat to destroy the world. I haven’t considered that yet, but maybe I should.
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