Book Talk: Conspiracy in the Capital

by Erica Moody

Author Aaron Cooley imagines the unimaginable in his new page-turner.  

By Diba Mohtasham

Aaron Cooley (Courtesy Photo)

Aaron Cooley (Courtesy Photo)

What would happen if the Supreme Court was bombed and four of its seats were left vacant? Those are the exact hypotheticals that Aaron Cooley explores in his latest political thriller, “Four Seats.” The riveting six-part serial takes the reader on a ride filled with twists and turns, leaving you hungry for more. Aside from being an accomplished author, Cooley is also a Hollywood producer and development executive for director Joel Schumacher. Washington Life caught up with Cooley to discuss his writing career, his inspiration, and the creation of novel itself.

Washington Life: It’s come to my attention that you had dinner with some very important people in Washington’s political landscape.

AC: I know—it feels like a dream. I don’t know how we did that. When you work in the movie business, everyone is always asking you questions about the movie business and famous people you’ve met or worked with. But for most people in Hollywood, we get starstruck around political people because we’re all watching political shows at night and it seems like this whole other world to us. So I was at a party with Tom Cruise and didn’t get starstruck. But I was lucky enough to do a tour of the Capitol yesterday and just seeing senators, you know, gives me the chills.

WL: How was it like interacting with some of your novel’s supporting characters? You had dinner with the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, recently?

AC: That was really, really bizarre because Homeland Security features prominently in my book. He came in and basically said, “Pitch me your book”—that was the first thing he said to me. So I had to start a sentence to the Secretary of Homeland Security with the words, “Well the Supreme Court is bombed”. I just started breaking out into cold sweat and I could see just down the hall his security detail staring into me. But he took it very well. He took a hard cover of the book and said he has been looking for a good novel. So hopefully he’ll read it. I’m a little nervous because in the book, there’s at least one Homeland Security character that has kind of gone bad, but it’s an undersecretary. And one of the good guys is a Homeland Security agent who I think makes up for him. So I think overall Homeland Security comes out ahead in my book.

WL: What started your writing career?

AC: My writing career—you know, I’ve always been interested in writing growing up. I think for most writers it’s something we’ve been interested in since we’ve been really, really young. But it was a screenwriting class in college that turned me on to maybe trying to write for silver television. And I moved to LA right after college and I not only work in a production company, but I have developed a lot of screenplays with big companies and had multiple script options that sold. But what’s so frustrating about the business is that nothing ever gets made.

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Literally even the most successful writers—the most famous writers in Hollywood are having, like, one out every seven of their scripts made. I haven’t been that lucky. It just started to get frustrating that my grandmother couldn’t watch anything I wrote. About four years ago or five years ago, I decided to try writing novels as well. So this is my second novel. It’s really exciting because once every couple years I at least get to share something that I show my family on Facebook.

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I at least get to get that satisfaction of knowing that more than ten producers have read something I’ve written. Have you seen the trailer?

WL: I did watch the trailer. It was so exciting.

AC: Thank you. And that I really love—I made a trailer for my first book as well. I just love making those because it’s my one chance in every couple years to do a minute of filmmaking and use all my resources and everything I’ve learned from my boss Joel to make my own little film. I really get into that. The trailers might actually be better than the books, but don’t tell anyone.

WL: So you get a lot of influence from the work you’ve done in the film industry, correct?

AC: Yes. In fact, some of the early reviewers have said that Four Seats is like a script—or reads like a television show. Depending on the reviewer, they’re either using that to slam me or tell me how great it is and how exciting. But every time I read that, I take it as a compliment because I love reading exciting beach books. I love plowing through things. I love reading books in a week. And I had to read a lot of very scholarly works to research this book. I read the Bob Woodward Scott Armstrong book. John Paul Stevens has written a book. Sandra Day O’Connor has written a book—all the justices have written their own books. Jeffrey Toobin’s written two books—which are fantastic. But those are very dense, really smart books and I’m just really proud that I’m able to take that research and turn it into something that reads like an action movie.

WL: Absolutely. There is a lot of research that’s gone into the book. How long did it take you to write it?

AC: There was probably just six months of just research. I probably started researching it in the summer of 2013. I actually came to DC in September of 2013 and went on a tour of the Court, met with some friends who work in Washington, asking their advice and questions. And then I wrote it—it took probably the whole calendar year of 2014 to write it. I don’t know if you’ve noticed its split into six books. I basically wrote one book every two months and if I finished one before the two months were up, I would take a little time off and catch up with the rest of end of reading scripts I have to do for my job. So my goal was just to finish book six by the end of December. I think I finished it before Thanksgiving, so that was great.

WL: It’s really like a television series almost.

AC: Yeah, I mean that’s how I think because I work in the business. I bounced the idea off a couple people at the TV show and at the time, the initial feedback I got was, “That’s fantastic”. But everyone’s doing a political show now because House of Cards and Scandal have been so successful. There’s Madam Secretary coming out. There’s Hostages. And there’s ten other shows about to make air. So knowing there’s a lot of competition, I just decided to write a book first and since my first trailer aired—or first went live on YouTube—I’ve already been contacted by three producers asking me to read the book early. But what’s funny is all three have asked me about movie rights, including a producer who produced one of the best picture nominees from last year. So that was exciting—to get that email. That was exciting. I think it’s too dense for a movie but hey, if someone wants to auction it all, I’ll take their money.

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WL: How did the idea for the book emerge?

AC: Well I have always kind of been fascinated with the law. All my best friends from college have now been to law school and are working in these professions. And so when we are together, I have to listen to their legalese as they kind of talk shop. So that’s what we’ve kind of been—something that I’ve been kind of been indoctrinated into. And then my wife actually gave me Sandra Day O’Connor’s book— which the title is escaping me. It’s kind of the Supreme Court for beginners. But reading it—it’s just the rules of the courts, how they nominate and confirm new justices. It’s just so fascinating. And so the screenwriter in me started to think of all the hypotheticals. Have there ever been multiple vacancies at once? What would they do if there’s multiple vacancies? What do they do if there’s a vacancy and the President is currently in reelection? So the senators are on the other side of the aisle or even more incentivized to make him look bad. So all those hypotheticals started on my journey. But then I thought, wait a second. The Supreme Court—most people unfortunately don’t find the Supreme Court that exciting so I had to think of a way to make this something that I think a wide audience would want to read. So that’s when it kind of became a Jason Bourne or a 24 season, and that’s when the Supreme Court policeman character of Jason Lancaster was created and I knew I wanted to tell it as a thriller through his eyes.

WL: With so much recent media attention on terrorist attacks, have you been influenced by anything that’s happened in the news?

AC: Well of course the whole beginning is a way I did the book trailer. It’s all influenced by how I remember 9/11. My brother was actually in the Second Tower, but he escaped. He got out. And we’re all thankful and blessed for that. But that was even a more visceral day for me and seared into my memory than maybe the average person. Short of knowing the victim, that was a powerful day for me and I think influenced me. Beyond that what I really try to examine is that in modern day terrorism, it just seems like our law enforcement is so on top of it and also the culprit usually wants to claim responsibility. We usually know the perpetrators within twenty-four hours and we’ve got the Boston bombers in custody in three or four days, or whatever it was. They turned it into a thriller novel and I know my novel needs to be over five or six months because it’s about Supreme Court confirmations. Then we need to not know who the bombers were for six months. And I really wanted to explore what would our country do if there was a terrorist attack and we had no idea who did it for six months. So there is subplot in the book about the country really pushing the president to find a Middle East answer, an Islamic answer for who did this. And I won’t tell you whether or not they had anything to do with it. But this pressure that I think we all live with of, “Is it ever even going to happen with Iran?”—it really amps up further in the book.

WL: Were there any alternate endings you considered?

AC: All I’m saying is in terms of alternate endings, I always knew who did it and how it would be revealed. I’ve really wrestled with—the book right now has a very kind of morally ambiguous ending. It has the kind of ending that film noir movies had in the 40s, where we’re not maybe entirely satisfied with the justice. I have changed several times how exactly I wrote that. Should this culprit go to jail? Should the culprit pay for this crime? But I’ve left it morally ambiguous. And I think maybe that’s all I should say without giving away. Except that the reason I did that is that I wanted one of the scenes of the book, when you finish the book—and I don’t know if this in there. I hope some people get this—but I feel like a lot of people feel like the Supreme Court makes them feel very powerless. Like it’s this great body that is intellectually above all of us and these nine people are decreed what the President did wrong and what Congress can and can’t do. And I think in this era where we feel like the other two branches are so ineffectual, the Supreme Court feels more powerful than it ever has before. And I think for some people out there, that’s very scary and frustrating. And I wanted the end of the book to kind of feel that way. Like we’re ultimately powerless that we couldn’t even put this culprit away.

WL: Are you working on anything right now? What’s next for you?

AC: Two big things. One is that I’ve been developing a television show about a cult deprogrammer from the 80s who has as to come back out of retirement and try to deprogram a bunch of millennials from a new cult. And the reason I think that’s really topical is because I feel like the way they’re using social media is kind of the modern cult. And then the screenplay I’m working on right now is I’m actually writing a movie with Patrick Wilson, the actor in the trailer. So that’s how I got him to work on the trailer. We worked on a movie together a decade ago and we’ve been working on this script together for months and I basically said, “Hey, do you mind being in my trailer?” and he said, “Of course”. It was his original movie idea so I’ve been kind of doing this all for free for him because I love the idea and I love working for him.

View the book trailer here: 

“Four Seats” is available on Amazon and Kindle. Look out for the paperback version later this year.

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