A conversation with 'Hope Rides Again' ('An Obama Biden Mystery') author Andrew Shaf
Just over a year ago, Quirk Books published Hope Never Dies, the first “Obama Biden Mystery” novel from Andrew Shaffer. “Part noir thriller and part bromance”—per the publisher—the book, written in Biden’s voice, presented the pair as a sort of grown-up Hardy Boys, reteaming a few months after leaving office (and to Biden’s annoyance, growing apart) to take on the mysterious death of Biden’s favorite Amtrak conductor.
With Hope Never Dies’ publication, Shaffer immediately set to work on the follow-up, Hope Rides Again, which Quirk put out last week. As the fabulous cover art (again by illustrator Jeremy Enecio) indicates, our heroes this time are in hot pursuit of bad guys in Obama’s hometown Chicago, with Obama at the bottom of a rope ladder dangling from a helicopter hovering over Lake Michigan, arm outstretched, and hand clasping Biden’s arm in a bold rescue, the dark Chicago skyline in the background.
The plot concerns Obama’s missing Blackberry and a gangland shooting—and a vast conspiracy that only the presidential pals can solve. Shaffer, in the middle of another Obama Biden Mystery book tour (tonight he’s at Brooklyn’s Books are Magic), spoke with centerline.news last week about his new book.
What prompted you to write these “Obama Biden Mystery” books?
They're sort of my penance for predicting President Trump in my 2016 book satire, Day of the Donald: Trump Trumps America. I didn't want to write another satire after that, especially one that might come true. When many of my friends and colleagues were mourning Hillary Clinton's loss, I was thinking ahead to what might bring hope back to the country. Hence, Hope Never Dies.
How did Hope Never Dies do?
It did well. I don’t know sales figures, but it hopped up on the indie best-seller list again a couple months ago and continues to sell well after it should have been in the dust bin!
Were you surprised it did well?
I was, because I thought people viewed it as a joke the first time the cover was posted online—because it looked so real. But it originally had Obama driving, with Biden pointing—but Biden looked too much like a bodyguard, or Secret Service. And since the finished one had Biden driving and was therefore a smaller image, we took off his glasses to make him more recognizable.
The artwork for Hope Rides Again is equally stunning.
It’s a bigger image of Biden, and it went through several versions. I actually needed to work backward and rewrite the story a bit to give Obama a tan suit to go with the illustration—and put the helicopter in!
Did either of the two protagonists read the first book?
They were both sent copies, and Joe actually signed a copy for me when I met him in Kentucky last fall, so I know he was well aware of it. In Jill Biden’s memoir she mentioned it and said, “I didn’t read it, either!” People told me it wasn’t the type of book Obama or the Bidens really read. And there’s so much stuff thrown around out there: Obama action figures, et cetera. I never would have expected them to notice it, or my Trump satire.
Speaking of The Day of the Donald: Trump Trumps America….
I heard nothing from the Trump camp on that! It would have been great if they’d sent a “cease and desist,” but he took a hands-off approach to parodies—except for Saturday Night Live mentions—which is unfortunate for me and smart for him: If he mentions something, it gives it power.
And speaking of car scenes, that’s such a great one with Michelle Obama in Hope Rides Again, when she offers Biden a much-needed lift.
There’s the one in the first book where Barack picks up Joe in a similar way, so the second time you think maybe it’s the same thing, but no, it’s Michelle coming to the rescue! I debated how much of her to put in, because she has her own presence and you don’t want her playing second or third fiddle to these guys. So if someone wants to do a ”Michelle Mystery,” please do! But I couldn’t do it in this book, which is about men’s friendships, which you don’t see many books about, because it’s taboo: Men don’t talk about feelings.
It continues to be remarkably uncanny how you seem to have Obama and Biden down to a T.
I listened to their memoirs and audiobooks a couple times, and tried to turn them into characters that weren’t too goofy. It’s not who they are in real life, but as close as I’m going to get in a fanfiction project. I could have put in more real Biden—more potty-mouth, gruff stuff--but I didn’t want to do that. It messes with the fan image. And people say that Obama seems kind of aloof in this book, but people in The White House called him “Spock” because he was so cool, calm, and emotionless. So it’s a caricature of that: I have this impulsive guy—Joe—and have to ramp up Obama and exaggerate stuff. It’s “buddy cop” dynamics, like Lethal Weapon: One’s a risk taker, and one’s conservative—but it’s very calculated. It’s one of the dynamics I really played up, and I have no idea if they’re really like that, but I can imagine it, and that’s all that matters.
But it’s all done with such affection.
Even when you’re doing satire, you have to have some affection, whatever the genre. I did the satire Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, when I thought the original Fifty Shades of Grey was terrible—but I had a lot of respect for the romance genre and didn’t think it was up to par with what was out there, and when something gets that big you can take a few potshots and hopefully not hurt anyone’s feelings.
You much have started writing Hope Rides Again immediately.
I need a break! I pace myself at one book a year.
When did you start writing?
When I was a kid. You start with short stories, and a few terrible novels--and maybe a good one that doesn’t get published--and get to non-fiction. But I’m able to transition back to novels, and verified my chops as a novelist by writing a couple books that passed the sniff test!
You must have always considered the possibility of Biden running for president when conceiving Hope Rides Again.
Th advance copy had a bit more waffling between ‘Will he run or not?’—and the finished one is much clearer. I wrote it with him going back-and-forth and changed it at the end of the day, because he kept delaying his decision. So I finished the book at the very last minute and rewrote a couple things. For the next one—if we do it—it will be a little more problematic, because he’ll either be at the top of his game or have been drummed out! I don’t know what will happen, but I’ve got some ideas.
Was time any constraint, then?
This is solidly set in Spring, 2019—a definite time. It could have conceivably been happening, but you don’t know what to do or say that might recast the book. A case in point: There are some parts that read now like jokes when they weren't intended to be. The biggest instance of which is Joe Biden using his high school nickname “Hands”--he was the best wide receiver on the football team, hence the nickname. But now that reads like I was making a joke about the “touching” allegations. I can’t complain, though, because Joe will be Joe.
Indeed. The book is full of lovably bumbling, “classic Biden-isms”--as the book’s Biden himself refers to them.
They called them ‘Biden Bombs’ in The White House, because you never knew when one would go off. Like when he came out for gay marriage ahead of Obama. But at the end of the day they were good friends—though their staffs probably were at each other’s throats at times.
There’s the great line about Obama and Biden being “brothers again—once and for always.“ Do you think that’s the foundation for their relationship in reality, as well as, obviously, the foundation for the books?
I think they’re very close in real life. Do they act like junior high kids when they’re together, like in the memes and--at times--in the Obama Biden Mysteries? I doubt it, but it’s fun to imagine!
And both books are full of fun details, like when Obama visits a favorite old record store and Biden observes that he had not one favorite Marvin Gaye song, but a list of 50.
I talked to someone who worked in a record store he used to frequent and got details about what he liked in record stores. People want to see a full album of Obama singing Marvin Gaye, but that’s probably not going to happen—though he did speak on a recent Hamilton mixtape.
Also the bit where he says he’s tired of being “the Cool President”: “It means I know what 420 is and can name every member of both The Beatles and One Direction.”
That’s based on Gone Girl’s “Cool Girl” speech by Gillian Flynn--an inside joke about Chicago mystery writers.
Did you ever feel that you had to restrain yourself in writing the books, or take into consideration your own political leanings?
I don’t think anyone will confuse the books with the work of a conservative mind--yet at the same time, I wasn’t trying to be overtly partisan. I didn’t have to restrain myself from taking potshots at the Trump administration, though, because there are plenty of books like that out there, including my own Day of the Donald.
Why the Chicago setting?
Chicago is Obama’s adopted "home town," so it felt natural to go from Wilmington in Book One to Chicago in Hope Rides Again. Also, I grew up a few hours outside of Chicago in Iowa, and have always wanted to set a book there--sort of like a Blues Brothers or Ferris Bueller for a new generation.
And it’s only fitting, especially in light of current headlines, that while you acknowle America’s shortcomings—particularly its “blood on the soil” largely due to its history of racism, for which we are “still paying the price”—it ends on a high note of hope.
Endings are difficult, especially when it comes to a series. You want to wrap everything up, but also make it clear that the ride isn’t over--that there’s still work to do. America is an ongoing experiment.