Fact and fiction become partners in The Devil May Dance, a new novel by Philly’s Jake Tapper that the CNN anchor set in the Rat Pack world of early 1960s Hollywood.
In the sequel to Tapper’s 2018 best seller, The Hellfire Club, the fictional New York congressman Charlie Marder and his zoologist wife, Margaret, find themselves on the West Coast, mixing it up with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and JFK’s brother-in-law Peter Lawford. It’s all at the behest of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who’s acquired leverage over the Republican congressman and is using it to gather information about Sinatra’s ties to mob boss Sam Giancana.
Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Psycho star Janet Leigh, Shirley MacLaine, and John Frankenheimer, director of The Manchurian Candidate, also put in appearances.
We talked with Tapper, whose nonfiction work includes the 2012 best seller The Outpost, about why even made-up stories require research, the scene in Disneyland that absolutely did not happen, and about why you shouldn’t bother Googling the lyrics for the Sinatra song “The Devil May Dance.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
One thing your fiction has in common with your nonfiction is the level of research.
For nonfiction, it’s because I want to get the facts right. For fiction, it’s because I want to make people feel like they’re really there. I wasn’t alive in 1962, and I didn’t hang out with the Rat Pack. I thought that if I knew what I was talking about, it would be more believable than if I went purely by my own imagination.
The bibliography and list of sources for “The Devil May Dance” go on for several pages, which is a lot for a novel. Did you do most of the research before you started writing? Or did you get to points in the story where you needed to know more, and went back down the rabbit hole?
I do a lot of research, and then I make the outline and start writing. But while I’m doing that, I’m also looking [for more details]. For instance, [there is] a scene in the book that takes place in April 1962 in Los Angeles, and, oh, Dodger Stadium opened. And then I’m off and running with a little more research.
And just to be clear, the books in the bibliography, I skimmed them, I read parts of them. I didn’t read every one of them cover to cover. But as a journalist, you want to make sure that you attribute your sources.
Well, research is also a time-honored journalistic technique for avoiding writing, at least until deadline. You have other excuses not to write, including a full-time job at CNN, yet you manage to keep publishing. When do you write?
When I’m writing, I try to have a rule of writing for at least 15 minutes a day. Because everyone can find 15 minutes in their day. Even if you have a busy day, you can find 15 minutes before you go to bed or at lunch. And if that’s what you do, at the end of the week you have an hour, 45 minutes of writing under your belt. That’s three or four pages. That’s something.
More often than not, if you sit down for 15 minutes, you look up and an hour has gone by. So that’s just my rule. It’s like a commitment to anything, you know, whether it’s diet or exercise, or writing, or staying in touch with your relatives, you just have to make the commitment and then do it.
But this was also fun. It’s enjoyable for me, and hopefully for the reader, to dive into this world that I created.
For all the seriousness of some of the issues at the heart of this book, it’s also over-the-top enough to be escapist. Was writing this a good break from the daily news cycle, and the pandemic?
Yes. God, yes. It was a great escape from covering the madness of Washington, D.C., and also the tragedy, the nonstop sadness of the pandemic.
The book is based on a universe of facts, but some wild things happen in it. I tried to stretch it as far as I could go. I set scenes in places that are fun for the reader, hopefully. Like I’m not going to set a scene in a library, I’m going to set a scene at the Academy Awards.
Certainly, it was a welcome break in my day to go hang out with Sinatra for an hour or two, in Rancho Mirage or Las Vegas. As a way of clearing my mind.
Why did you decide to move Charlie and Margaret Marder from the McCarthy-era 1950s to the Kennedy-era ’60s? Did they need a breather between murder mysteries?
It was actually just that after I started promoting The Hellfire Club, I heard this story about Sinatra building up his Rancho Mirage estate for the visit from President Kennedy, and then the controversy about whether or not that visit would happen because of Sinatra’s mob ties. And I thought, Oh, my God, what a great story to have Charlie and Margaret go into next time.
I just thought that would be fun. And then the Kennedys and Sinatra are complicated characters. You have all these things that are going on at the same time, including [the fallout from the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and Robert Kennedy’s crusade against the mob].
And then I dove into the Hollywood part of it and realized how many films that I loved were being made at the time, like The Manchurian Candidate or The Birds. There’s enough pop culture in that period that was so good that people today, 60 years later, know about it.
As much as I’d hoped that this book would be all about Margaret and the wild ponies she’d studied in “The Hellfire Club,” I was happy to see her getting her own Hollywood adventure that’s in some ways separate from Charlie’s. Is it tricky to write a woman-centered plot in a period piece that’s set amid so much testosterone?
I wouldn’t say it’s tricky, but I just have to have confidence in Margaret as a character and make sure that the women in my life, so both my wife and also my editor, find it accurate, and think that it really rings true. Because I’m well aware that I’m not a woman, and there’s probably stuff I do not understand and can never understand.
Something happens in Disneyland in this book that I’m hoping is fictional.
Completely fictional. Let me just make it clear, for the record, so that Disney’s attorneys [don’t call]. That did not happen. I made it up.
Could you have placed that orgy scene there if you were still working for Disney-owned ABC?
I don’t know. I mean, Disneyland existed. I think I would have tried anyway, but I’m sure I would have been reprimanded. To be clear, in the book this is not happening with the blessing of Walt Disney. I was just thinking, what is the wildest place that you could potentially hold a completely debaucherous, potentially illegal party?
There are maps [of Disneyland] from different eras, because obviously the park keeps expanding, and I made sure I was going with what it actually looked like at the time. Because there are real sticklers out there. I think I wanted to set something at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but it didn’t exist yet. And so I just put it at Tom Sawyer’s Island.
At the insistence of your editors, you mention at the end of the book that there’s no point in Googling the Sinatra song “The Devil May Dance” because you made it up, along with a couple of other songs whose lyrics are included.
So I knew from [The Hellfire Club] that you’re only allowed to quote one line of a song, according to the lawyers at Little, Brown. Songwriting lyrics are a valuable commodity. When I handed this in, and it has lyrics for songs, including “The Devil May Dance,” which Sinatra sings at the Academy Awards, the lawyers were so frustrated. They said, “Have you not been listening to anything we’re saying? You can’t quote an entire Frank Sinatra song, you can’t do that.”
And I said, “It’s not a real song. I wrote it, I made it up.” And they were so relieved. That’s the greatest compliment you could give me, that the lawyers were mad.
Did you also have a tune in mind for “The Devil May Dance”?
No, no, no. And even if I did, you couldn’t get me to sing it.
Join us on Tuesday, June 8, at 11 a.m. as CNN anchor and New York Times bestselling author Jake Tapper sits down with features reporter Ellen Gray to talk about his new historical novel, The Devil May Dance. Register here now to join in June 8.