Fiction | Money Wanders | Jackie Disaster | Shakedown Beach | Turnpike Flameout | Spinning Dixie
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Jackie Disaster

Q. What is the basic plot of Jackie Disaster?

A. Jackie De Sesto is a former champion prizefighter who fought under the name Jackie Disaster. Later he became a spokesman for the Atlantic City Police Department. He now runs a firm called Allegation Sciences, which makes him part spin doctor, part private eye. Heís hired by a famous domestic diva who has been accused in the national media of manufacturing genetically engineered milk that causes miscarriages. After taking the case, assassins from the Pine Barrens try to kill Jackie, which gets him wondering how domesticated his favorite diva really is.

Q. You are the CEO and founding partner of a Washington, D.C.-based crisis management firm, Dezenhall Resources. What does a real life damage control consultant actually do?

A. We are the trauma surgeons of the public relations world. We are hired when a client — say a corporation or public figure — is accused of doing something awful: manufacturing a faulty product, committing a crime, being a U.S. President that has had sex with an intern. Our job is to make the bad news go away so that our client can get back to business-as-usual. If the client is guilty, we attempt to set them on a path of redemption so that the public forgives them and recovers its lost affection. If the client is innocent, we often try to discredit his accuser. After sportscaster Marv Albert pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault charges associated with a sex scandal, he vanished from the news for several years afterward, which was almost certainly a decision he made with the help of some kind of damage control consultant. When Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was accused of sexual molestation by a former altar boy, his defense team was able to prove — and get into the media — the fact that his accuser was lying.

Q. Is Sally Naturale, the embattled domestic diva in Jackie Disaster, based on Martha Stewart?

A. The book was written before Martha Stewart's troubles, but she's one of the figures in American culture that I've been following for a long time. Martha personified corporate malfeasance. People knew that what happened at WorldCom was bad but didnít really understand the mechanics of the bad behavior. Everybody understood charges of insider trading. People like Martha Stewart and Kathie Lee Gifford are fascinating because they beg the questions "What is it about them that makes the public want them to fail? What is it that possesses us to want to see them fail?" I think it comes down to our desire for the lives of outrageously successful people to be the same messes that ours are. We resent the way Martha and Kathie Lee seem to taunt us with their perfection. When they screw up, it restores order to our world because we're given permission to go on with our flawed lives. It goes deeper than resentment of success. After all, Oprah Winfrey is extremely successful, but with her personal life and her weight problems, we like it when she succeeds because it means that we can, too.

Q. What inspired you to write Jackie Disaster?

A. The spin doctor is seen as an American Merlin; heís a pixie with transforming powers. Heís also a figment of our imaginations. As a consultant, Iím constrained by the law, ethics, my clientís wishes, good judgment, and reality. As a writer, I have no such constraints, and can do anything to save anybodyís reputation. In real life, not all my clients get saved, which upsets me. Sometimes, clients are unwilling to take the risks needed to be saved and the news media side with their critics because it makes for a better story. Jackie Disaster is my "id." Heís all of the rotten and fantastic things I think about doing in my job when Iím frustrated but canít because I have to operate in a civilized society where certain realities cannot be changed. Jackie does whatever it takes to get the job done. Heís no angel, but heís effective because he knows what motivates people.

Q. How does the popularity of reality television play in Jackie Disaster?

A. Reality television is now demonstrating what folks in my business have known for years: People will do anything to achieve notoriety, which they usually mistake for fame. In the novel, Jackie engineers an adversaryís downfall by appealing to her desperate need to be noticed on television at any cost. Itís diabolical, but sadly, realistic. The most powerful drive in America is the desire to be recognized for who we are not. Notoriety is like double fudge ice cream — it tastes great but itís bad for you.

Q. Whatís the difference between notoriety and fame?

A. True fame implies some form of achievement. Notoriety is being well-known for reasons other than having made a positive contribution.

Q. In your novel, Jackie takes brutal steps to defend a client accused of wrongdoing. Do guys in your business get this nasty in real life?

A. Things can get ugly, but murder-and-torture confessions arenít part of the service package. When somebodyís getting smeared or sued, working with private investigators and cooperating with law enforcement is commonplace, as is finding creative ways to get your clientís message into the news media. We often find that our clientsí accusers have agendas other than the public welfare.

Q. Have you ever had a guilty client?

A. With most damage control clients there are shades of gray as opposed to absolute guilt or innocence. A drug company may make a product that really has hurt people, but theyíre not guilty in the sense that the injury was intentional. A politician like Gary Condit may be guilty of being involved with something sordid, but heís probably not a killer. Still, lawyers, the media, and the public like to play every disaster as an example of total evil, total guilt. If a client is guilty and willing to take steps to make the situation right, he could be a good client, and I have no ethical problem with work like that.

Q. Have you ever turned away business because you suspected a client was bad news?

A. You bet. Iíve refused plenty of business when my gut told me that the client was bad to the bone. Set morality aside, with a dirty client, thereís nothing in it for me. If you take on a dirty client just for the money, youíll end up paying it back in lost revenue — or legal fees — somewhere else.

Q. Can you identify the worst client that ever approached you?

A. Not by name, but it was a foreign entity that we suspected might be tied to organized crime overseas. We were never sure, but I politely declined. Very politely.

Q. The "client" characters in your books — Sally Naturale in Jackie Disaster, gangster Mario Vanni in Money Wanders — are damaged people. What do they have in common?

A. They're both self-deluded, which is the fuel for success in America. Sally Naturale is a poor, scrawny ethnic girl from New Jersey who wants people to think she's an Auchincloss from Newport, Rhode Island. Mario Vanni is a gangster from Atlantic City who wants to be respected as a pillar of society. They falsely believe that a spin doctor can make them into something that they're not, and have been adept at finding sycophants who'll tell them that it's possible. On one hand, the joke is on them. On the other, their delusions did give them a better lot in life than they had when they started out.

Q. Why are your novels, such as Jackie Disaster, set in Philadelphia, South Jersey, and the Jersey Shore?

A. I grew up in the area, which is a colorful corner of America because it actually has its own personality. One reviewer said that in my books; the region itself is a character. Philly and South Jersey have their own accent, which I call "Phlersey." Water is pronounced "wudder." The region has its own scents, a combination of roasted peanuts, sautťed onions, steam, and sea air. It smells like raw hope. There is a mix of ambition and attitude in South Jersey in particular that makes for volatile plot lines. South Jersey isnít quite Philadelphia and itís definitely not New York, and weíre very touchy about that. That is why my characters sometimes have to drag somebody under the boardwalk or take them to the Pine Barrens to convince them of a thing or two.

Q. The casinos and the Mob play a big role in Jackie Disaster. Why is that?

A. The Mob has long been a spectator sport in Philly and South Jersey. Even though its actual influence on the casinos is negligible, people want desperately to believe the Mob is still running things. I take a hard look at the myths versus realities of the underworld as well as the phenomenon of Mob wannabes, which is comedy at its best. You got a problem with that?