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Jake Tapper Talks Fact, Fiction & Sinatra
The newsman discusses his latest novel

While you may be familiar with Jake Tapper as a broadcast journalist who grew up in Philadelphia, you may be surprised to learn that he’s also an accomplished author. The host of CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” has written 5 books – a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Tapper recently spoke with SJ Mag’s Marianne Aleardi as part of Katz JCC’s Festival of Arts, Books & Culture. The two discussed his most recent novel “The Devil May Dance.”

Here are some excerpts from their talk.

MARIANNE: As I read through the book, I kept thinking, does Jake Tapper have free time?
JAKE: I have a rule. I try to write at least 15 minutes a day, and sometimes that turns into an hour. I was on a train yesterday and I had my laptop with me, so that’s an hour and a half right there. I’ll do that again on my way back to D.C. But as long as I try to get in 15 minutes a day – which you can squeeze in over breakfast, lunch or dinner or after the kids go to bed – at the end of the week you have an hour and 45 minutes done. That’s 2 or 3 pages.

The first thing I do is come up with an outline that has the basic plot: this happens in this chapter, this happens in this chapter. Right now I’m writing my third novel in this series, and it takes place in 1977. I’m writing chapter 4, and I already know what needs to happen in chapter 4. I know where it takes place, I know who the main character is, I know because I’ve already outlined all that. But I like writing. I do these because they’re fun for me.

MARIANNE: Is it difficult to be a journalist who writes fiction?
JAKE: It’s not difficult to write fiction with fictional characters, but I’m writing fiction with non-fictional characters. When I wrote the first novel, which takes place in 1954 and has a bunch of real people in it – President Eisenhower and Senator Joe McCarthy and others – it was difficult to wrap my head around taking real people and writing fiction about them. With this book, “The Devil May Dance,” I felt better about it because you just have to give yourself up to it. But you touch on something. Because journalists are so allegiant to facts and truth and not making anything up, it was a hurdle in my brain to make things up.

I ultimately became comfortable doing the research, trying to figure out how I can portray these people in a way that is true to who they were. So I don’t have Joe McCarthy ripping off his shirt and he’s Superman. In my next book, the main character is a real person who I am turning into a character – Evel Knievel. That has required research, and I’m finding out about this whole Evel Knievel-inspired world. Although I’m finding he’s a horrible person. He was a misogynist, he was an anti-Semite. But he’s great for me because he’s villainous in my book.

MARIANNE: Some of the characters in this book are Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Peter Lawford. How did you pick them?
JAKE: I learned this very true story that I was shocked I had never heard before: In 1960 Sinatra and the Rat Pack were just spectacularly huge, and they campaigned for Senator John F. Kennedy to become president. And he won. After that, Frank Sinatra thought President Kennedy at some point would come to California as president and stay with him. Sinatra had phone lines put in at his estate. He added rooms, he had a helipad installed. Cut to Attorney General Robert Kennedy who wanted to go after organized crime, and somebody pointed out to him, “Hey, you know that organized crime thing you’re doing? Well, your brother’s friend, Frank Sinatra, is buddies with a lot of those guys.” Again, this is all real. I didn’t make this up. President Kennedy goes to California but does not stay with Sinatra. When I heard the story and discovered it was true, I thought, well, that’s got to be in the book.

A lot of times it’s the craziest stuff that is real. In “The Hellfire Club,” there’s a scene where Joe McCarthy is drinking, and eating a stick of butter. He did that. I didn’t make that up. He would eat a stick of butter when he drank. Some of the craziest stuff is what actually happened.

MARIANNE: The book ends with 11 pages of sources. How do you find them?
JAKE: Writing a book like this is so much easier now than it would have been 10 or 20 years ago because of how easy it is to do research online. Newspapers.com is an incredible resource.

MARIANNE: Does doing this research give you an escape from your day job?
JAKE: Yeah, and thank God. Because it is brutal covering the world we’re in, and I didn’t think that when I got into journalism in the late ’90s, or even as recently as 2014. I don’t mind covering tough politics or brutal politics, but the situation we’re in, in terms of people trying to undermine elections and all the rest, it’s difficult. It’s trying. But then I go home and see my 12-year-old and my 14-year-old, who cannot care less about the exhaustion of what I’m recovering from psychologically. Then they go to bed, and I dive into the research.

MARIANNE: And now a really important question. You’re a Philly sports fan. Should Jalen Hurts be the Eagles’ quarterback?
JAKE: Jalen Hurts is the only Philadelphia athlete who has made me smile in the last 6 months, besides Bryce Harper. But I do find it amazing that Jeffrey Lurie and Howie Roseman are under the impression that they are the reasons why the Eagles won the Super Bowl a few years ago and every other player on the field should leave. I find that shocking.

January 2022
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