Q&A: Mike Leppert talks about his debut political thriller

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Former Statehouse lobbyist and IBJ columnist Mike Leppert’s new political novel “Flipping the Circle” hit shelves this month, pulling back the curtain on how legislative process really works.

It tells the story of Will O’Courtney, a lobbyist at the Indiana Statehouse, who finds himself amid a political scheme involving potential legislation to create a monopoly for e-liquid vaping products in the state.

The plot is a fictionalized account of real events that took place in the Indiana Legislature in 2015 and 2016. At that time, lawmakers passed a law that put rules in place to essentially give one security company sole authority to decide who could manufacture vaping liquids for sale in Indiana. As a result, several producers were shut out of the market.

Those rules have since been overhauled, following much controversy and an FBI inquiry.

Leppert told IBJ the purpose of telling this story was not to recount the actual events but to shed light on how influencers work in the political world, not only in Indiana but in states across the country.

Here’s what else he had to say about the book.

How did you come up with this idea for a political thriller novel? Why this particular story?

The decision-making process really was how to do it. Not whether or not to do it, but how to do it.

I decided very early … it would be wasted energy to write it just for people who already have opinions or watched it in real-time. My purpose for writing this was to have broad distribution and have people understand how these kinds of things work generally, in their state and their town, with their government. It’s not really an expert say about what happens here in Indiana, as much as it is an example for people to understand and be able to apply to their own lives wherever they are.

How much of your own experience did you draw on for the book?

Well, you know, I write a lot. So, my personal experience drives what I write.

I tried to keep the legislative flow of what happened as close as I could to what actually happened. … That was what became a real burden, because I didn’t want to freelance on that. I didn’t want to part from that or fictionalize that part of it very much.

But one of the main goals of the book is to weave the human experience into that, and how the human input into our legislative processes really dictates outcomes more than people realize. It’s not as simple as people think it is. They see the headlines, but they don’t see the 15 meetings that led to that one headline. And so, there’s a lot of that element communicated in the book, so people understand it.

How did you work in elements of fact and fiction? How much of the story is based on actual events and real people?

Sometimes storytelling needs to be made efficient for it to be entertaining enough for people to consume it. And so … many of the characters that are in the book are combinations of people. Some of them are just plain made up, just like any other fiction writer would do. But with that goal in mind, these are the broad points of what actually happened in trying to find a way for the six legislators who were involved to be rolled up into one. And this one lobbyist to represent a group of lobbyists. Those kinds of things were actually the fun part of writing it. Because that was creating people that didn’t really exist.

But the main goal is to show … how people decide to interact with government, how people decide to live their daily lives, has to do with how their daily lives are going. But whether or not they’re happy in those daily lives, what sorts of decisions are they making in their personal life, that bleed into their professional life, and that human part of governing, legislating is often lost on people. The people who are in charge of government aren’t robots. They have their own lives that impact how they behave, and how they think and how they feel. And all those things rolled up in the process, or how we get what we get here in the American process.

What was your research process like? Did you go back and interview anyone involved in this particular legislation? Former colleagues?

Not a single one. The research that I did was mainly on setting. I didn’t do research on the process. I was very much in the middle of it. So, my perspective, and the perspective of the team, the loosely organized team that I was on, is the perspective that the story is told from. … I know a lot about the people who were harmed. And that’s discussed a lot in the book. And that’s one of those things that I think gets lost in legislative battles is the harm that sometimes is caused. That never gets spent, never gets healed and never gets fixed. And that’s what happened here. A lot of people got hurt and there was no recourse for them. There was no recovery or any really any sympathy for them. They were just victims.

What would you say is one thing about state politics that would surprise everyday people?

I think that most people would be surprised about how much investment is made to influence it by people who have an interest in outcomes. I think that when you when you tell people about lobbying and lobbyists, they think about D.C. and they think about the swamp. … There isn’t [one] swamp. There’s 1000 swamps. There’s 10,000 swamps. It’s a lot broader and a lot more active market. … So when you ask that question about what do people not know, I think that people think that there’s a distinct area where influence matters and influence doesn’t. And influence is actually pretty active from top to bottom in government, from the township level, all the way up to the White House. That’s the thing. For someone who worked in government for 13 years, and then consulted for another 20, there’s an element of influence in most functions of government, and I think people underestimate its presence.

What do you hope people will walk away with after reading your book?

I hope they’ll walk away with a higher sense of duty to be engaged in it. I think that, you know, our processes are more delicate. Obviously, we’re talking a lot about that with election integrity, and all the things with Jan. 6 right now, but I obviously wrote the book before that.

Our process is delicate, and there are a lot of things that that would be stronger in our processes, if people were more engaged. You know, voting is a minimum. But I think that what happened in the real-life version of this story, resulted in no consequences for anyone. And to me, that’s just, that’s just not good enough. That’s nobody’s fault. But the citizenry, that’s on us, we have to be less tolerant of this kind of stuff.

And what happened in this situation is that the dust settled, and everyone forgot that it happened. That was the other reason why I wanted to make sure I wrote the book, [it] shouldn’t really be forgotten. It’s a great example of how things run afoul, run and get off the rails. And the public should be prepared to respond to it.

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