Election spurs lawyer to finish political thriller
CHARLESTON, W. Va. -- Timing, like location, is everything, right?
Well, it got Brent Wolfingbarger to finish his book.
For years, the 43-year-old Belle native worked passionately but sporadically on a juicy political novel about backroom shenanigans during a crucial vote recount in West Virginia where the presidency hinges on five Electoral College votes. (Think Bush-Gore in 2000 spiced with sex, sleaze, murder and sundry other crimes.)
The looming presidential election year gave him the push he needed to polish it off.
In October, the Kindle version of "The Dirty Secret" made the top 10 list of Amazon best-sellers. The book has earned a slew of five-star reviews.
Set in West Virginia, the 433-page novel flows with lots of local color, including a mention of the Red Carpet Lounge. Subplots include a state senator battling a lawsuit that could bankrupt his company and a vice presidential candidate facing blackmail over an adulterous affair.
A longtime West Virginia lawyer and a former assistant county prosecutor, the personable fledgling novelist works in Washington as a prosecutor with the Medicaid fraud unit.
Has West Virginia spawned a John Grisham?
"I grew up in Belle, on Witcher Creek. I had probably the closest thing to a perfect childhood that you can have. My parents supported my sister and me in everything we did.
"My dad coached me in Little League baseball and Midget League football and basketball. My dad is my role model. All the days we were on the ball field with him coaching me, I'd be crying in frustration because I couldn't get it. He would explain that you have to be patient, keep trying, push, push, push, and eventually you get that success and you will feel so liberated that you did it. That applies to so much in life.
"My paternal grandparents lived about a mile and a half away. My grandmother watched my sister and I every day. She grew up in Pocahontas County and was the first of her family to graduate from high school. She made most of that and became very well read.
"She instilled in my sister and me a love of learning at a very young age. Because she was so hands-on with us, I was reading the newspaper at age 3. She had flash cards and we'd say the Pledge of Allegiance, and we had World Book Encyclopedias. It gave us a leg up starting school. At Midland Trail Elementary, they double promoted me.
"I wrote short stories when I was in grade school. I would write on lined paper and staple the pages together. One guy in my class was very creative. He would write a short story and that would spark my competitive spirit, and I'd have to come up with another one.
"I wanted to be a pro baseball player or go into politics. I was very interested in American government. That probably comes from my grandparents. They were very patriotic. My grandfather on my dad's side was a Pearl Harbor survivor. They had busts of Jackie Kennedy and JFK in their living room.
"In '76, when the election happened right after Watergate, I was 7, but I was fascinated by politics. My whole family was Democrat and Carter was coming in, and there was this spirit of optimism.
"By 1980, the economy was bad and the hostages were in Iran. At 11, I was very disappointed with President Carter, so I became a Reagan supporter. That changed my whole political direction.
"I didn't have the talent to be a pro baseball player. I remember throwing a baseball at my brick house for hours and hours every day. I would cry when my parents made me do something else. I believed I could play pro ball. I was taught that in America, anything is possible.
"I remember listening to my grandfather tell my mom about how he hoped I would become a doctor. That sparked my thinking. I started at WVU as a chemistry major. I was going to become an oral surgeon and eventually go into politics. But my hands are terrible, so I'm not good with tools, and I'm not good with blood, so oral surgery wasn't the smartest thing I could do.
"Three semesters as a chemistry major at WVU woke me up to reality. I was already taking political science classes, so I just switched over to law. I went to Washington and Lee for law school. I took a job with a firm in Elkins for about four months.
"Then I hung out my shingle in Charleston and had my own firm for 12 years. I had my practice on the West Side. I did the nuts and bolts stuff that a blue collar lawyer would handle for blue collar people -- divorce, criminal defense, employment law, real estate, oil and gas, everything.
"I had a brief period as an assistant prosecutor in Clay County. I enjoyed the feeling that I was doing something positive for society. I had been a criminal defense attorney, and it was intellectually satisfying to analyze the facts and the law and try to find a loophole to get your client through. But it wasn't morally satisfying for me. So I decided to get into prosecution.
"I was sending resumes all over. A guy in the JAG Corps Reserves with my sister had been assistant prosecutor in Pleasants County and asked if I was interested in moving to Pleasants County. It was perfect because it was prosecution along with real estate, the other thing I liked in private practice. I loved doing title searches because the books talked to me. When I do a title search, it's like going back in time.
"I was in Pleasants County from March of 2006 to November of 2011 when I got the job in D.C. I'm deputy director of the Medicaid Fraud Unit. We prosecute health care providers who are committing fraud against the Medicare system.
"There is so much fraud in the system. We have got to crush it. It is bankrupting the system and depriving citizens of the money they need for quality health care.
"The unit I work for focuses on providers, the guys who deliberately defraud the system when they submit bills of millions of dollars. If I nail enough of those guys, other providers who might have been tempted to cheat the system will realize it's not worth it.
"I started mulling over the premise of the Electoral College as a focus for a political thriller as early as '96, but I was getting my practice off the ground and didn't do anything with it.
"Then I represented Jennings Miller in an election law dispute in Boone County where two candidates in the primary for assessor were separated by 18 votes. Every challenged ballot mattered. Every absentee ballot mattered. Jennings won that canvas. The opponent didn't request a recount in time. We ended up in front of the state Supreme Court and won.
"That experience, that counting every ballot, crystallized my thinking. I understood how I could make it tie in with a book. I wanted it to be a West Virginia book.
"In 2007, driving back from D.C., I basically war-gamed the whole plot in my head. I came home and slept for two hours, got up and typed up blurbs of all the major characters and the basic outline. Then I spent an hour or two every night on the book, four to eight hours on weekends.
"It took me about 10 months to get the first cut. It was 176,000 words, way too long to be marketable. I put it away. Marriage came along. I got it back out after my daughter was born.
"The weekend before my 40th birthday, I went to a camp on the Greenbrier River with one of my best friends. I had my laptop. I was sitting there looking at the river, and I started ruthlessly cutting the book.
"I got it to 120,000 words, in striking distance. I put it away for 30 days, then pulled it out and polished it a little. Last January, I was getting needled about the book. I decided a presidential election year would be a good time to do something with it.
"I found a professional editor in California, and he offered good suggestions for tightening it up. You've got to invest in a good editor, a second set of eyes, someone who doesn't have their heart tied to it.
"I went to New York for a literary conference and had seven agents interested in it, but they said it would be 18 months before they could get to market. I didn't want to wait, because it was a presidential election year.
"The keynote speaker was Barry Isler, a published novelist. He talked about the self-publishing industry and how it had revolutionized. That's how I decided to go. I've had 23 reviews on Amazon. It got one two-star rating and two four-stars. The rest were all five stars.
"In October, my Kindle version cracked the top 10 political thrillers list. To see it at No. 9 with all these famous authors was very satisfying. I've already got the core of a sequel in my head. The plan is to get 50,000 words written by the end of November because November is National Novel Writing Month.
"There's one big vacancy in West Virginia election laws that I touched on in my book. There is no provision in the West Virginia Code for a losing presidential candidate to contest results. For every other office, the code explains the process for contesting results, but there is no provision for how Obama or Romney would contest it if they suspected voter fraud. I hope the Legislature will do something about it.
"I hope West Virginians will take a look at the book. I would love nothing more than to be the Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. of the publishing world."
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.