Members of Congress spend a good deal of time pecking out messages on their smartphones. Rep. Steve Israel, the Huntington Democrat, went one better. He pecked out an entire novel.
Israel's literary handiwork, "The Global War on Morris" (Simon & Schuster, $26), is a spoof of America's post-9/11 security state, which ensnares a milquetoast Great Neck pharmaceutical salesman named Morris Feldstein. Along the way, the author lampoons everything from former Vice President Dick Cheney to the accents of his own Long Island constituents.
In turning to fiction, Israel follows a path well trod by politicians including Jimmy Carter, Ed Koch, Gary Hart, Newt Gingrich, Barbara Mikulski, William Weld, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Winston Churchill, to say nothing of Benjamin Disraeli.
Fittingly, I asked Israel about his work by email.
Did you really write this book on a smartphone?
Much of the book was written in response to real events: a White House briefing, or breaking news. Since my BlackBerry and iPhone were readily available, I'd just begin pecking. Then I'd spend time rewriting and editing until satisfied.
How do you find the time?
I begin every day at about 6 a.m. writing for an hour. The benefit of writing on an iPhone is that I am able to continue throughout the day -- in cars, planes, and the occasional boring meeting.
To what extent is this book autobiographical?
The love of Mets and old movies, the Jewish and Long Island cultural references, these come from my own experiences. But I think all of us have a little Morris in us. And some Dick Cheney as well.
You aren't shy about poking fun at your constituents, your fellow elected leaders, or the Jews, of whom you observe: "For a people who wandered in the wilderness for forty years, a Range Rover was now essential for a drive of forty yards." Do you worry that folks will get mad at you?
Comedy often magnifies certain traits and perceptions. I tried to do this across the board with all characters in the book, major and minor. Also, good satire should agitate to at least a certain extent. As for worrying that people will get mad at me, remember, I am in Congress. Who isn't mad at us?
Your portrayal of our tangled and paranoid national intelligence bureaucracy is scathing. Is it really this bad?
One serious point I try to make through the satirical tone is the uncontrollable growth and turf battles within our intelligence and homeland security bureaucracy. A problem becomes an acronym, an acronym becomes a bureaucracy, a bureaucracy becomes a system, the system consumes poor Morris Feldstein from Great Neck.
Feldstein discovers that terrorism suspects have no rights. Are you aghast at the state of civil liberties since 9/11?
As a congressman, I wrestled and continue to wrestle with the balance between security and liberty. That struggle has played out over our entire history -- from the Alien and Sedition Acts to the Patriot Act. Still, we lead the world in the values of democracy. What worries me is whether new technologies will make it increasingly harder to maintain that balance. As any government grows more paranoid and its bureaucracies grow larger and technologies grow more intrusive, innocent people will get singled out. The entire novel was sparked during a House Armed Services Committee hearing when the military revealed it had accidentally spied on a group of innocent Quakers. Quakers!
"Fear," you write, "was the ultimate wedge issue." For politicians, does fear really pay?
Fear of the enemy has always been used for political purposes, not just by one administration but by many; not just in the U.S. but around the world; not just now but forever. In some cases it has positively united and galvanized a population -- World War II, for example. In other cases it has been demagogued. When Dick Cheney used an al-Qaida attack as a campaign issue in 2004, it crossed the line. I worked that into the book.
Which books or authors have had the most influence on you as a novelist?
Start with Mark Twain and James Thurber, of course. Include Nelson DeMille (a Long Islander) whose "Gold Coast" is a perfect blend of mystery, thriller and wit. Plus Christopher Buckley, who hilariously captures the insanity of Washington.
Rep. Steve Israel discusses "The Global War on Morris" on Monday, January 5 at 7 p.m. at Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington; 631-271-2442, bookrevue.com.