First-time fiction authors often write themselves into their novels, following the age-old advice to “write what you know.” Former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) did conjure up a heroic Senator — but he kills the character off in the first few pages.
His new novel, “Keys to the Kingdom,” isn’t about dreaming up a better version of himself. Instead, Graham wrote the book as a way to share censored information. It draws on his knowledge gleaned from 10 years of service on the Intelligence Committee, which he was chairman of through 9/11 and the lead-up to the Iraq War.
Rather than focus on fictional Sen. John Billington, Graham centers the narrative on Tony Ramos, a young State Department intelligence analyst. Armed with instructions left by the late Billington, Ramos, aided by the Senator’s daughter, launches an investigation of the Saudi government and its ties to al-Qaida.
Roll Call caught up with Graham to ask him a few questions about his new thriller and his experiences writing it.
What was the process behind writing this novel? Your inspiration?
I started writing the book in the spring of 2006 while I was a senior fellow at [Harvard’s] Kennedy School. The inspiration for the book was frustration and, really, anger about the fact that the effort to convey the fuller facts — facts that were not national security sensitive — had been frustrated by censorship of both the final report of the joint inquiry committee that Congress established to investigate 9/11 and a book that I wrote in 2004 called “Intelligence Matters.”
My second inspiration was that a faculty member at the Kennedy School by the name of Joseph Nye, who had been in the Pentagon in the Clinton administration, faced the same hurdles in his attempts to write a nonfiction narrative on his experiences, so he ended up writing it as a novel called “The Power Game,” so that was sort of the inspiration for me to tell this story as a work of fiction.
About 40 percent of “Keys to the Kingdom” is fact. I changed the names of most of the living people and occasionally changed the venue of an event to fit the plot, but the facts are verifiable. Another 40 percent is fiction and the final 20 percent is a mixture of fact and fiction, so those were my inspirations.
Did you reread any favorite authors?
When I was in the Senate and before that as governor, you have so much mandatory reading that I didn’t find a lot of time for discretionary reading. When I did, it was mainly historical works, but I have read some [John] Grisham, a lot of Carl Hiaasen and a few other what I would call suspense or thriller novelists. And yes, I did learn some techniques from them.
What sort of techniques?
The technique of dialogue. There’s a tendency, I found when I started writing, to write dialogue more as if it were a briefing session, a long stilted block of conversation. I started through reading how other novelists dealt with dialogue and, frankly, just listening to how people talk to see that they don’t talk in long paragraphs and frequently don’t talk in sentence length and the language which is used tends to be more colloquial than academic.
How has the book been received?
It’s been very strong. I’ve been on a promotional tour since the 6th of June. This period here is the first little downtime, and it’s been very well received commercially and, with some exceptions, critically.
What a lot of people comment on is the fact that this book has given them an insight into important events of recent American history, generally starting with the buildup to 9/11, and some analysis of future events, such as post-U.S. involvement in Iraq and why Pakistan is maybe the most dangerous country in the world.
Has there been any talk of movie rights?
I’ve been approached by one person who has been both a producer and a screenwriter, but I told him I wanted to wait until after Labor Day because I’ve got more promotional activities — I’m going to be … in Washington on Aug. 1 at the National Press Club and then the following day in Baltimore, so I’ve got a lot of things like that that run through Labor Day and right now, it’s the book that’s my focus.
Who would you like to play the Senator in the movie?
Robert Redford. Well, he’s about the right age, a little bit younger. I’ve always liked his style. Unfortunately, he won’t be on the screen very long — the Senator gets run over by a truck fairly early in the novel, and other than his funeral, he disappears.
Did you have yourself in mind when you wrote the Sen. Billington character?
I have to say there are some similarities with Sen. Billington, but there also are differences — most significant is he is dead and I am not.
What’s fictional and what’s not?
It’s not that one part of the book is all fact or another part is all fiction. They are weaved together, but the most significant factual parts involve the degree to which the Saudi government and entities affiliated with the Saudi government assisted two of the 19 hijackers, raising the question of why did they do it, and did they provide similar assistance to the other 17 hijackers and why did the United States government go to such lengths to hide the connection to the Saudi government?
The second half of the novel — as they answer the questions from 9/11 and in the course of that find out about this much more dangerous threat to the U.S. than even 9/11 — I was chair[man] in 2008 and 2009 of the Congressional commission on [weapons of mass destruction], and much of the facts in that second part of the book are a result of the experience of trying to evaluate how well America was protecting itself against the worst weapons falling into the worst hands.
Did you enjoy writing fiction?
There were two inspirations — one was the anger that some important information that was not national security sensitive had been withheld from the American people, and second, the idea of telling a story you can’t tell as nonfiction in the form of a novel. The third was I have given several commencement addresses in which I recommend to the graduates that in order to maintain their intellectual vitality and curiosity, that they should periodically challenge themselves to do something that is different from what they’ve done.
When I retired from the Senate in 2005, I thought I should eat my own cooking, and I decided that the thing that was different from what I had done — I had written three books — and something that was hard would be to write a novel. Five years later, this is the result of that.
Do you miss the Senate? What’s next for you?
I had 18 very gratifying years there and eight years before that as governor of Florida. I’m very pleased to have had those opportunities and proud of some of the things they gave me the opportunity to do. I was ready to retire in 2004.
It was not a quick decision, but one that I’d been thinking of for some time and realizing that there were things I wanted to do, writing a novel was not frankly one of those things, but doing some more nonfiction was, as well as establishing a policy center at the University of Florida and spending more time with my 11 grandchildren.
I’m glad I made the decision that I did when I did and pleased that I’ve been able to use the time since the Senate in a constructive way.