This month we’re privileged to feature an exclusive interview with Jack Dougherty, author of a new comic novel entitled Corporate America.
We recently caught up with Jack here in Washington, at a chic lunch hut in Adams Morgan. As we dined on falafel wraps (served with a lavish spread of fair-trade hummus, Egyptian fava beans, Jerusalem salad, cabbage slaw, and pickled turnips), he told me about his new novel—and why he wisely chose to cast me as a character in it.
Author Jack Dougherty
Mona Sternstein-Fernandez: What’s your novel about?
Jack Dougherty: It’s a wicked little tale about climbing the corporate ladder.
MSF: I don’t like multinational corporations.
JD: I know.
MSF: May I presume the novel is a brooding, postmodern meditation on corporate ennui?
JD: Um … not exactly. It’s a fun, fast read. Sort of a “corporate coming of age” story. The story centers around a young guy in his 20s named Francis Scanlon. After being expelled from a prestigious graduate creative writing program when his novel-in-progress is denounced as hate speech, he’s forced to become a spin doctor at the fictitious Prock Chocolate Corporation while he clears his debt and awaits the publication of his masterpiece.
But Francis’s expectations of easy money and literary glory are thwarted by a paranoid boss, a charlatan writing coach, a snarky reporter, a sanctimonious public health crusader more Goebbels than Gandhi, an oily U.S. Senator with presidential aspirations, and a radical Muslim cleric with absolutely no sense of humor.
As the story unfolds in San Francisco, Washington, New York, Krakow, Mumbai and Jakarta, Francis is swept up by market forces and transformed from pretentious literary cliché to reluctant executive to master practitioner of the black art of corporate power-politics—but not without unleashing a comic catastrophe in the process.
MSF: I don’t approve of market forces.
JD: I know.
MSF: Nor do I approve of the story arc. Comic novels about the modern corporation are supposed to feature dehumanized, sensitive souls who quit working for The Man and reclaim their humanity by becoming poets or painters.
JD: I’ve read a lot of those books and enjoyed them, but thought the idea of a “reverse commute” might be fun to explore.
MSF: I disagree.
JD: I know.
MSF: Why did you choose to set your story in the chocolate industry, at the fictitious Prock Chocolate Corporation? Is it because you share my concern over Big Chocolate’s wily marketing practices and sinister product offerings?
JD: Actually, just the opposite: I think the chocolate industry in America is iconic, a national treasure. I think they’re awesome.
MSF: Then why chocolate? And why did you make your novel a satire? I for one don’t happen to think obesity epidemics and the production and marketing of sugary foods are laughing matters.
JD: For two decades I have gleefully watched a battle unfold and escalate between the fast food slobs and the slow food snobs. With withering eye, I have watched the food fights grow increasingly politicized, polarized, and absurd.
Food is the new battleground on which the culture war in America is being fought. The food industry—with all the fights over ingredients, marketing practices, sourcing practices, obesity, etc.—is a delicious backdrop against which to set this story because it bundles all of America’s class war issues into one glorious, landfill-clogging Styrofoam box:
- It’s the unscrupulous capitalists at the food companies versus the insufferable do-gooders of the public health community, the news media, and Capitol Hill.
- It’s the wealthy, wicked, white guys in the corporations against poor, undereducated, people of color and children.
- It’s the paternalistic Left against the personal responsibility Right.
- The obesity battle, in particular, has my personal favorite ingredient—that uniquely American class war issue that dare not speak its name—the skinny people against the fat people.
How could a satirist possibly resist this topic? And setting the story inside a chocolate company seemed to me the pinnacle of ridiculousness.
MSF: This character of yours that you describe as, ahem, ‘a sanctimonious public health crusader more Goebbels than Gandhi’? Might that be me?
JD: Yes. But you and the other crusaders in the book are sent up lovingly. Honest. I think activists and journalists, despite their occasionally underhanded tactics, play a vital role in a democracy; they keep big institutions on their toes. My goal with the novel was to be an equal opportunity offender—to poke fun at everybody on all sides.
MSF: Do you currently or have you ever worked in the chocolate industry?
JD: No. I’ve never set foot inside a chocolate company. Not even for a tour.
MSF: What’s your background?
JD: I grew up in St. Louis. I began my career in politics, writing speeches for members of the Missouri House of Representatives, then I moved to Washington, DC, and did similar work on Capitol Hill. For a few years I worked as a staff writer for a DC-based NGO, one focused on helping high school dropouts get back on track. After that, I worked for a big PR firm and then went on to work as an executive inside two Fortune 500 corporations.
MSF: You did what?!!
JD: Nothing. Sorry. I misspoke.
MSF: Which corporations?!!
JD: I forget.
MSF: Well, we’ll have our interns looking into that.
JD: I suspect you will.
MSF: And for whom do you work now?
JD: For most of the past decade, I’ve operated my own consulting firm, which provides strategic communications counsel and writing services to corporations, trade associations and politicians. Speeches for CEOs and politicians, op-ed pieces, magazine articles, corporate annual reports—stuff like that. I also lecture on various communications topics at the University of Virginia.
MSF: Is this your first book?
JD: It’s my second, actually. I am coauthor of a business book called Most Likely to Succeed at Work.
MSF: Are there any Big Food & Beverage companies whose products you’re currently boycotting or contemplating suing?
JD: None, I’m happy to report. In fact, I pretty much eat and drink whatever I fancy, unquestioningly.
MSF: So I’ve noticed. Perhaps you’d like to tell me about that liquid you keep pouring from your tin flask into that bottomless glass of lychee juice?
JD: It’s just a digestif.
MSF: I don’t approve.
JD: I know.
MSF: But I do approve of your novel, and encourage all citizens, especially my virtuous colleagues in the public health community, government, the news media, and the plaintiff’s bar—as well as my legion of enemies in Corporate America, its public relations and law firms, and its boosters on Wall Street—to pick up a copy. Thanks for joining us today, Jack. I’m so delighted we could break pita bread together.
JD: Anytime, Mona. See you in my next book.
Click here to purchase Corporate America: http://www.amazon.com/Corporate-America-Novel-Jack-Dougherty/dp/0615836607/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1372964711&sr=1-1&keywords=jack+dougherty+corporate+america