“To set the stage, it’s 1992. South Carolina is about to elect its first black congressman since the Civil War. And the leading contender is secretly tied to the most unlikely person you could ever imagine — this U.S. senator who has a racist past. There’s this young reporter hot on the story, and the news about this tie is going to break just before Election Day.”
That’s the synopsis given by former journalist and Washington, D.C., correspondent and author Steve Piacente of his latest book “Bootlicker,” which stirs up prying questions about Southern politics and personal ethics.
“To me, it’s a story about guilt, hope and redemption,” said Piacente. “Once the news breaks, the voters will have to decide whether this guy Ike is worthy of holding this historic seat. The real question — and the one I hope readers will grapple with — is: Is Ike worthy of it? And even if the voters do forgive him for what he’s done or his path to power, because he does feel guilty about it, will Ike be able to forgive himself?”
On Monday, Aug. 27, beginning at 7 p.m., Piacente will be visiting Bethany Beach Books to sign copies of his most recent book, as well as its prequel, “Bella.”
“We have been to Bethany and Rehoboth before. We’ve been to the shore and to the bookstore. I’m just really looking forward to it. I’m excited,” he said this week.
Piacente, who graduated from American University, was inspired to write “Bootlicker” following his long career as a journalist covering Southern politics.
“I started covering some civil rights cases that were very interesting to me,” he said, of his time at the Lakeland Ledger. “Florida is one of those states where the farther north you move the more Southern it becomes.
“In central Florida at that time, it was like the land that the civil rights movement just flew by. There were lawyers’ groups around that were suing these small Southern municipalities who were rigidly holding onto the ways of the past. So, I started writing about these lawsuits, and that caught the attention of the Tampa Tribune.”
Piacente was offered a job at the Tribune, where he eventually worked his way up to being the paper’s Washington, D.C., correspondent. He then moved on to a paper in Charleston, S.C.
“I grew up in New York and came up through Southern journalism, so it was all very eye-opening for me because I had Northern sensibilities and I was covering very Deep Southern politicians,” he said. “Moving farther north, I found myself in much deeper Southern territory, covering politicians like Strom Thurmond.”
It was Piacente’s career covering Southern politics and Thurmond that helped inspire him to write a short story, which then turned into “Bootlicker.”
“It occurred to me — I had to cover him for 10 years. I could understand how that type of attitude played during those times, but as time moved on and blacks became powerful political after the civil rights movement, I just couldn’t understand how guys like that could keep getting reelected.
“During my 10 years as correspondent for the Charleston paper, I would ask political scientists, political analysts, poli-sci professors, campaign strategists, plain old citizens, ‘How does a guy like that keep getting reelected?’ And, frankly, nobody had a good answer. So I made one up and wrote a novel.”
Piacente said his interest in fiction-writing was fueled by his frustration in journalism.
“The joke is, the politicians that I ended up covering would say I started writing fiction when I was still working for the newspaper, but that’s not the real truth,” he said with a laugh.
“When I was a reporter, I stopped being a reporter just as online reporting was starting to become more important. I was always restricted by column inches and time, and that began to be frustrating. I was always interested in the ‘whys’ of stories. There was never time for that. There was never really room to delve into why things were happening. It was really more, ‘who, what, when and where.’ I wanted to expand things. I wanted to tell more.”
In 2000, Piacente enrolled at Johns Hopkins University’s master’s program and earned a master’s degree in fiction.
“It started off with short stories and once I got in there, that unleashed the floodgates. All of these stories started pouring out of me and that led to a short story that turned into the novel “Bootlicker”. That’s the genesis of it. It was borne out of that frustration of not being able to really write and explore characters and create situations and ratchet up the anticipation. It was all the style of newspaper, which is of course the opposite—’give me the news and let me get out of here.’”
“Bootlicker” will take readers outside of the campaign rallies and into the backrooms of political hopefuls.
“I like to say that this is a story that will take readers where the cameras aren’t invited. That’s to backrooms where decisions are made and futures are decided, and the line between right and wrong is not so easily defined. It’s for everyone who thought they understood politics. There are surprises here, and it’s not always what you think,” he said.
Piacente said he hopes readers will ask themselves, “What would you have done if you were in this guy’s position? What would you do if you were Ike?’ That’s something I hope will at least stir up a conversation.”
Piacente said that, through his writing, he is able to explore people’s motives and look at the relationships between men and women.
“I like to get into peoples motivations, why they do things,” he said. “One of the things that has always fascinated me is what people do when they come up against a tricky situation and nobody is watching — everything from, if you’re in a parking lot underground and you nick somebody’s car and nobody sees, do you leave a note, all the way up to the action that takes place in my story, which is much more compelling and dramatic. But, what do we do as human beings when nobody is watching and we come up against these tough ethical situations? I like to explore those things.”
Piacente said that his years in journalism were invaluable when it came to writing his novel, as “Bootlicker” is loosely based on political issues he had covered for more than a decade.
“One of the things that I do — and I think my background as a reporter helped me with this — when I’m writing I will sometimes interrupt myself and come up with five or six questions for the main characters. I’ll write the questions down, and then I’ll try to answer them in the character’s voice, without putting myself as the author in between,” he said.
“It gives some imagination and it takes some willingness to let go,” Piacente added, “but I find that if you’re willing to do that, the characters can come to life and they surprise you and take the story in interesting and different directions that you might not have imagined.”
When he’s not writing, Piacente teaches journalism at his alma mater, American University.
“I teach now in classrooms where I once took classes… which in the beginning it was a little surreal,” he noted.
He said that, although he currently doesn’t have any books in the works, he has no intention of stopping his new career as a novelist.
Bethany Beach Books is located at 99 Garfield Parkway in downtown Bethany Beach. For more information, call (302) 539-2522, or visit www.bethanybeachbooks.com. For more information on Steve Piacente and “Bootlicker,” visit www.stevepiacente.com.