Behind the Book
I actually started this book years ago. When I moved from HarperCollins to Putnam, though, my editor was dead set on a book starring my character Mark Beamon. Try as I might, I just couldn’t shoehorn him into the plot, so I shoved Smoke Screen in a drawer and set out on what was to become Sphere of Influence.
When I finally opened that drawer again, I found myself quickly bogged down. My original idea was for a pretty straightforward ‘smoking gun document’ thriller. But I just couldn’t find the story. So I sat down with a small mountain of research material and eventually did find that elusive plot line, but in a surprising place.
The tobacco industry is, in and of itself, fascinating. Having said that, trying to cut through the propaganda on both sides and find the facts is quite a chore. As I read literally thousands of pages of documents and talked with people in the business, the idea of a much more loosely structured book began to form. I spent some time working with a tobacco attorney and devised a plausible legal scenario that could destroy the industry and then set to thinking about how the companies would react.
In the end, I decided to write this book entirely from one person’s point of view—something I’d never done before. I think it gives the novel a very human and grounded quality that would have been unachievable in the third person. It also let me explore America’s completely dysfunctional relationship with tobacco and offer some very unorthodox views on the industry while keeping the plot clipping along.
While undoubtedly an exciting project, this was probably the most difficult book I’ve written since Storming Heaven. It was different enough from my prior novels that I wasn’t completely sure I could pull it off. Was I being overconfident and trying to write above my abilities?
When the dust settled, though, I was really happy with the final. In fact, of all my books, this is probably my favorite.
“Are you ready, Trev?”
“Ready for what?”
Paul Trainer thumbed toward the tent, a mischievous smile spreading across his face. “For them.”
A funny thing about mischievous smiles. While they’re cute on children and cool on college students, they tend to be a little sinister when worn by old men.
“You’re not a spectator today, Trevor. This is your show.”
Strangely, his statement didn’t surprise me. Maybe I was starting to get a little jaded. The thought actually improved my mood slightly. I’d always aspired to be jaded.
“You’re the one who made those statements to the committee, Paul. Don’t you think you should be the one who does the Q&A?”
“This isn’t a Q&A, son, it’s a press release. And CEOs don’t do press releases.”
“Yes they do.”
“Well, this one doesn’t.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea, Paul? Remember what happened last time I got on TV?”
“Oh, that was just a case of jitters. This is going to be easy.” He handed me a stack of three by five cards. ” Just read ’em like they’re written. And remember eye contact—with the cameras, too. It’ll make you seem more honest. And if you feel yourself getting nervous, just picture the audience—”
“In their underwear,” I said, dejectedly. “I know.”
“I was going to say dead. Who would want to see these people in their underwear? That’s just sick.” He pulled the flap still wider. “I’ll watch from here.”
It was hot inside and I started to sweat as I walked up an aisle lined with hostiles for the second time that day. The sun was beaming directly through the tent’s plastic windows and I had to squint as I climbed onto the stage and looked down at the twenty or so pairs of sunglasses watching me. There was no microphone or lectern to hide behind, so I was forced to just stand there completely exposed. I cleared my throat.
“Thank you all for coming,” I said, reading directly from the top card in my hand. “I’m Trevor Barnett, the Executive Vice President of Strategic Planning for Terra.”
On the bright side, my title kept getting weightier.
“Following an extensive review of the Surgeon General’s report on smoking, the major tobacco companies have determined that the report is overwhelmingly sound and that its conclusions are authoritative. In English—it means that, for the most part, we agree with it.”
As it had at the hearing, the volume in the room shot up, this time accompanied by almost everyone’s hands. Trainer’s performance earlier that day hadn’t been televised yet, and it seemed likely that these reporters were hearing the industry’s flip-flop for the first time.
“Based on this report and the other statements made by the government,” I continued, “we can only conclude that the Executive and Legislative branches are as strongly opposed to smoking as the Judicial branch.”
Curious as to where this was going, I peeled off the humidity dampened top card and exposed the next one. “There is little question now that cigarette smoking can be associated with a number of illnesses. It is the position of the tobacco industry that many things are bad for you—drinking, owning a gun, eating poorly, not getting enough exercise, driving a car—but that as Americans, we should have the right to choose to do these things and suffer the consequences.”
“Based on the current environment, though, it seems that this is an unpopular view and that the American people want the government and the courts to tell them what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own homes. We believe that this is a very dangerous road to go down and signals the beginning of the end for our great country—which was founded on the concepts of self-determination, personal responsibility, and freedom.”
The next card was the last and I stared silently at it for what must have seemed like a long time to everyone else in the tent. There was a drop of sweat dangling from my nose and I wiped it away with a shaking hand.
“In response to the obvious wishes of America’s government and citizens, the tobacco companies have…” I lost my voice for a moment and had to clear my throat again. “Have closed their manufacturing facilities and recalled their products from wholesalers and retailers.”
There were a few seconds of silence and then everyone started shouting. I yelled over them, still reading. “We feel it’s important at this point to work with Congress and the other representatives of the people to create a strategy for how—and if—this product will be sold going forward. In the interest of public safety, though, we will no longer sell tobacco products until a decision has been made on how to proceed.”
When I looked up, I was surprised to see much of my audience out of their chairs and fighting their way to the tent’s exit. No doubt to clean out the nearest 7/11 of their favorite brand.
As it turned out there was one last card. I read directly from it, though I seriously doubted anyone heard.
“I’ll be answering no questions at this time.”