The origin of The Ringtone Game

In the spring of 2006,  I read the Vanity Fair article on Jack Abramoff and came away thinking “how does this stuff happen?”

I’d already written the non-fiction book America 2076 trying to make sense of American politics, and as part of that writing effort had done quite a bit of research into lobbying and influence.

And I’d lived and worked in the DC area long enough to realize that – while there were a few bad apples – lobbyists like most residents see themselves as honest people trying to pay their mortgages, take care of their families, and provide representatives with sound advice to help them create good legislation.

But Abramoff was taking things to a whole new level. The Vanity Fair article provided compelling evidence that he systematically funneled money from his clients to a lengthy list of both Democrats and Republicans. But in every case the recipients of this largess confidently denied ties to Abramoff. Here is only one of many examples cited in the article:

“The newly elected House majority leader, John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, also doesn’t know Abramoff, but Abramoff’s clients gave him $30,000 over the past few years, and ate many meals at Signatures.”

How was it that these elected representatives could confidently deny any ties or even knowledge of someone who was in effect a significant contributor?

It seemed to me that that some kind of refraction mechanism was at work. A financial intermediary that allowed corporate or special interest groups to basically buy favors, yet maintain complete deniability of the fact. If so, how did this refraction work? And once you figured out how it worked, how could you explain or demonstrate it in an easy to understand way so that most citizens would begin to clearly understand what was going on?

What would be the best way to explain to others how this “stuff happens” in DC?

These were the kinds of questions percolating in my head when I had the thought that perhaps a novel could serve as a sort of “lab” where you’d put a group of people together, insert some environmental factors – like money, technology, competition, secrecy, and then see what happens. In a work of fiction, I could tell a story showing the players in action, rather than trying to describe them in a non-fiction work.

This coincided with a personal itch I’d wanted to indulge for a long time, to write my own version of the ultimate spy novel. I had several unfinished novels – big sprawling epics started years before, languishing on my portable hard drives because I ran out of reasons to finish them. No matter what else I wrote, I kept coming back to this spy novel idea. I envisioned a thriller set in DC, laced with high tech eavesdropping and ruthless well-established power players pitted against a small band of impish hackers. I felt it could be a good first novel – something I’d stay motivated enough to complete.

So I started writing. As I wrote, I started seeing the laboratory aspect come to life as I used the novel to try to model out the interactions and behaviors of groups of people to understand why “stuff happens.” I continued researching, reading books, cold calling firms on K Street, talking with people in a variety of roles. I put together realistic money trails, project structures, budgets and funding mechanisms, and inserted realistic technology and cybersecurity details.

I kept on writing and four years later had a mass of text. It didn’t add up to a story, it was more like several stories. By this time I had moved literally halfway around the world and my entire life had changed. But I kept working on the manuscript, and entered the writing phase where I was doing more subtraction and concentration than adding and elaborating.

In fact to get the Ringtone Game ready for publication I had to whack quite a bit of content. Some of the excised content was the kind of tedium that might have intrigued a few but for most would have just bogged the story down. I excised quite a bit of other stuff because I realized that it belonged in a separate story. What remained told a fast paced tale that sizzled at the convergence of power, money and technology in Washington DC.

I finally got the draft out to my reviewers and waited for their input.

They came back with some of the core things I’d been hoping to achieve. They said things like “we couldn’t put it down, we had to see what would happen next.”. But they had some very good advice – which I gratefully incorporated – about how to make the book even better. This lead to another 6 month rewrite, but the results were worth it.

Wrapping these thorny issues in the flesh and blood of characters not only helps depict pivotal factors at play but also gives the reader a roller coaster ride as the characters angle to evade detection, indictment or other fates.