Politics & Prose: Laurence Leamer on ‘The President’s Butler’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m honored to be joined by author and journalist extraordinaire Laurence Leamer.

Laurence is the author, most recently, of The President’s Butler (Foggy Bottom Books)—a satirical novel about the improbable rise of a New York businessman to the White House told through the eyes of his butler. He has previously written fifteen books, five of which were New York Times bestsellers; these include The Kennedy Women and The Lynching: The Epic Courtroom Battle That Brought Down the Klan. His play, Rose, was recently produced off Broadway and in Chicago. A veteran of the magazine industry, Laurence lives in Palm Beach, Florida, and Washington, D.C.

laurence-leamer
Laurence Leamer.

Praise for The President’s Butler:

“A kind of master tutorial in the nuances of American class…this work is an impressively inventive tale, with considerable wisdom to boot. A fictional dramatization of America’s current presidential race, skillfully rendered.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Reads as if Mark Twain  had written a class-conscious parody of Jay Gatsby, if Gatsby lacked self-knowledge and lived to refute any sense of being ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ Like a shark, Victor moves restlessly forward.”—The Palm Beach Post

From the publisher:

Just in time for the election, The President’s Butler will make you laugh out loud about politics. You’ll join Vincent V. Victor on the most wildly improbable journey of our time. The flamboyant New Yorker evolves from the most hated businessman in America to a populist hero. When Victor falls on financial hard times, he decides to run for president and sets off on a campaign that changes America forever.

And who’s there to tell the story but the man who knows Victor best, his butler Billy Baxter. The butler sees it all, forgets nothing, and tells everything.

Laurence Leamer has written fifteen books, five of them New York Times best sellers. He has spent forty years observing American politics in preparation for this portrait of a Manhattan hillbilly reaching the White House. And it isn’t only politicians who are savagely skewered in this searing fictional portrait of American politics and culture gone wrong. American journalists are portrayed as every bit as self-serving as the politicians they report upon.

The President’s Butler is one of the funniest novels in years, but it is also drop dead serious. It is a book that no one who reads it will ever forget.

the-preseidents-butler

Now, Laurence Leamer speaks of politics and prose …

John Valeri: What first inspired you to write The President’s Butler – and how do you find the process of crafting a novel to compare to that of biography/non-fiction?

Laurence Leamer: I was invented to the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach last winter for their Sunday buffet.  I walked outside to have a steak grilled when who should come up and stand next to me but Donald Trump.  He ordered a hamburger, had it cooked to a charred black and then meticulously spread half an inch of ketchup on it.  That’s when I decided there was a satirical novel here, and I started writing the next morning.

JV: Tell us: what, in your opinion, is the purpose of satire – and how can humor be used as a tool to engage people in thinking seriously about divisive topics?

LM: I guess you would call The President’s Butler satire, but I think of it as a realistic about an unrealistic character.  The greatest satirists like Swift have through their brilliant exaggerations shown us truth.  We see ourselves.

JV: Vincent V. Victor is a thinly veiled version of Donald Trump. What are the unique joys and challenges of satirizing a real-life person – and how do you hope that reading your book might change the lens through which people view Trump?

LL: The problem with writing about Trump is that he is a caricature.  He is a satire.  Most attempts to satirize him have failed because they had exaggerated what is already an exaggeration.   I pulled back a little and made Vincent Victor somewhat more realistic and I put him in more realistic situations.  If Trump acted the way my character does, he’d probably be elected.

JV: In addition to politics, you offer commentary on culture and journalism (and the intermingling of the three). How have your own experiences influenced these views – and to what do you credit your ability to maintain perspective despite your profession?

LL: I guess I’m what I never wanted to be: a grumpy old guy.  I think journalism has deteriorated to the point that it often isn’t what I would call journalism at all.  That’s in part what the novel is about. I’ve always been somebody who stood on the edge watching.  I think that’s probably why I became a writer.

JV: You have managed to make a career of writing, which is no small accomplishment. What advice would you share with aspiring writers – and how might you encourage them to seek balance in disciplines, should they not have the same fortune?

LL: I was very lucky.  I got into this at the right time when a person who persevered could make a living.  I had many lean years, but I kept on.  It’s much more difficult now, but I’m astounded at how many wonderful books are being written these days—despite the terrible odds.  The only advice I would have is don’t give up.  Write and rewrite.

JV: What, ultimately, is the power of the written word – and how can we best promote the cause in this age of digital distraction?

LL: There’s no getting away from the power of the written word.  For a while people thought the digital world would overwhelm everything.  It hasn’t happened and won’t happen.  A book is still a unique and splendid thing, and I admire the author of even the worst of books for all the effort it takes

***

With thanks to Laurence Leamer for his generosity of time and thought and to Emi Battaglia, President at Emi Battaglia Public Relations, for arranging this interview.

 

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