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FairfaxNovelist zeroes in on wild ride that was 1924 convention

Novelist zeroes in on wild ride that was 1924 convention

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McLean author Bill Lewers long has been fascinated by the political process and his latest novel, “Eighteen Days in New York,” examines one of the wildest examples in U.S. history: the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City.

The book was the author’s first try at historical fiction and he faced a central challenge: how to pare down, streamline and sometimes fictionalize mountains of facts so readers did not become mired in minutiae.

“Writing fiction exposes you in a way that non-fiction does not,” Lewers said. “Facts protect you with non-fiction, but with fiction, you’re baring your literary soul to your readers.”

The novel revolves around the 103 ballots it took for Democrats to choose their presidential nominee. The front-runners, former U.S. Treasury Secretary William McAdoo and New York Gov. Al Smith, could not obtain needed majorities and several states’ favorite-son candidates refused to drop out of the race.

Party members also agonized over whether to support having the United States join the League of Nations and put in a platform plank denouncing the Ku Klux Klan, which held a huge rally in New Jersey during the convention.

Lewers brings back two characters, election officers Carl and Cindy, from his first novel, “The Gatekeepers of Democracy,” and its sequels, “November Third” and “Primary Peril.” But “Eighteen Days in New York” should be considered a stand-alone book, as most of its action occurs nearly a century ago, Lewers said.

“All my books are different,” he said. “I don’t have a formula.”

The author drew upon a personal experience when concocting the plot. While perusing a secondhand bookstore in Florida in 1988, his wife had handed him a copy of Robert Murray’s “The 103rd Ballot,” which recounted how Democratic delegates in 1924 nominated for president John Davis, a former congressman and U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. (He lost in a landslide that November to incumbent Calvin Coolidge.)

Lewers kicks off the novel by having Carl go back in time while thumbing through the diary of U.S. Sen. Oscar Underwood (D-Ala.), who took part in the famed convention.

The author acknowledged that time travel sometimes is an intrusive plot device, so he minimized it by having Carl return with basic necessities (housing, employment, etc.) already squared away for him.

Carl encounters one of Cindy’s long-lost relatives, her spunky look-alike Claudia, who is reporting on the convention. The pair gradually get to know each other well and begin collaborating on news stories, with Carl doing his best not to spill the beans about how everything turns out.

While many of the book’s characters are fictional, some were real and larger-than-life, such as William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Bryan at the time represented the Democratic Party’s past, Roosevelt its future and the late Woodrow Wilson its present, Lewers said. Democrats venerated Wilson at the convention, but his reputation has suffered since because of racist views, he said.

Lewers’ voluminous research relied heavily on New York Times and Washington Post accounts of the convention’s action, as well as Murray’s definitive book on the subject, official reports of the proceedings, the convention’s souvenir program and other sources.

Modern political conventions are much more scripted than ones decades ago, with winners now determined in earlier primaries, he said.

“In terms of drama, there’s nothing there,” Lewers said.

Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Lewers earned bachelor’s degrees in mathematics from Rutgers University and in history from the University of Maryland, plus a math-education degree from Harvard. He taught high-school math for a few years, then did computer work for IBM.

A keen Boston Red Sox fan, Lewers also has published “Six Decades of Baseball: A Personal Narrative” and “A Voter’s Journey,” which revolves around politics.

The author for 27 years has served as a Fairfax County election officer and most recently has been working as a “rover” who assists at 13 precincts.

Great Falls Writers Group founder Kristin Clark Taylor said she enjoyed the book because it felt as though Lewers had been “taking me by the hand and leading me right into yesteryear, into the days of the 1924 Democratic Convention and all of the issues of racism, classism, sexism, and political corruption that, in many ways, still exist today.”

Lewers writes crisply and clearly and his female protagonist is believable, she said.

Lewers is a Great Falls Writers Group charter member and from the beginning has contributed inspiration, creative energy, guidance and quick-witted humor, Taylor said.

“Our group wouldn’t be what it is without Bill,” she said. “He’s part of our collective fingerprint.”

Catherine Mathews, who has served as a “beta reader” (i.e., one who gives feedback before publication) for all of Lewers’ books, said he is a “tenacious” writer who continues to expand the range of his work.

“I have especially enjoyed reading ‘Eighteen Days in New York’ because it is historically significant [and] because the idea of time travel has always fascinated me,” Mathews said. “I thought he did a great job of combining all these aspects and tying up all the plot twists it led to.”

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