Earlier this month Andrew Shaffer and Joe Biden were in Des Moines at the same time. The former was promoting his second Obama/Biden mystery novel, “Hope Rides Again.” The latter was campaigning for president and making headlines for misspeaking. They both attended the Iowa State Fair.
I spoke with Shaffer, a Cedar Rapids native, by phone the day before his Des Moines reading. This was the day before Biden’s “white kids” gaffe, but the collision of his campaign with the release of Shaffer’s book was already plenty interesting to think about.
“He’s certainly having an adventurous run,” Shaffer said. “It’s actually been kind of strange because I didn’t know if he was going to be the nominee or a candidate or whatever because every time that he’s run or not run it’s been a last minute decision. And then he’s like, ‘Oh, I’m going to announce in January.’ Then it was February. Then it was Easter and I had to look up when Easter was this year. And I’m like are we ever going to make a decision? In the early draft of the book he was sort of waffling on it, and then it wasn’t until he finally announced that I went back and updated some stuff so that he comes down on the side of definitely running.”
The delayed announcement led to a significant change in the novel.
“Originally it was set on St. Patrick’s Day of 2018. I was firmly setting it there because I knew that he was probably going to announce by St. Patrick’s Day 2019, and I didn’t want to have to deal with him with his own Secret Service detail and with people recognizing him and cheering him on everywhere he went. But as soon as 2019’s St. Patrick’s Day came and went without an announcement from him, I went quickly back into it and said, ‘Hey, let’s just change the date.’ And we just changed it to 2019. It was actually pretty easy to do because nothing has really changed in Barack’s or Joe’s life in that preceding year except for the midterms. And so it was just a few notes here and there that changed the whole book to feel more present-day, but really it was originally set last year.”
Shaffer acknowledges that the first printing of “Hope Rides Again” includes some evidence of the hasty changes.
“Well, you can probably tell from all the typos that I was making changes right up until the publication. We have to go right back to press to fix all of the errors. I just cut it really close ... It was all my fault. And Joe’s.”
As those final changes were being hurriedly made, the Biden campaign got off to a bumpy start. First, there were the allegations of unwelcome touching.
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“And then a week before my book comes out he has his first debate performance which was, charitably, not great,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer may be trying to hook readers on a comedic mystery novel and bromance featuring the former vice president in his “Uncle Joe” guise, but he hasn’t been too concerned about the real-life Biden straying from that characterization.
“Nothing that has happened with him has surprised me,” he says. “If you’d seen his campaign performances that last couple of times, he didn’t do so hot. There was a lot of back story, especially the busing [Biden was opposed to court-ordered busing as a means of desegregating schools in the 1970s] and stuff, that people could take advantage of and use as a weapon against him. In the books, I even have him make one of the same jokes that ended up happening in reality, which was he called Strom Thurmond ‘the segregationist’ and in the book Obama say, ‘you mean racist, Joe.’…I thought, maybe if you’d read that book you’d be a little more woke, I don’t know.”
While Biden’s campaign has its ups and downs, Shaffer’s book tour has been going well — especially (and perhaps counterintuitively) in communities located in traditionally “red” states.
“The best crowds, the largest crowds, the most engaged crowds have been in what people would call red states. Wichita, Kansas, and I was in Lawrence, Kansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, and I’m thinking Iowa, here, will be a good turnout — at least my family will be there. And, yeah, that’s where I get the best crowds. In New York, I might have five people and in Wichita, I might have 80 … I do love the red states, going there, the most, just because people are so engaged and I can tell stories about coastal elites and it always gets a rise out of them.”
With the 2020 election cycle in full swing, Shaffer and his publisher, Quirk, have decided to postpone any consideration of a third book in the Obama/Biden series. That book, should it ever come to fruition, may be set at the Iowa State Fair — which was the location Shaffer pitched for the first book, “Hope Never Dies.” That book takes place in Biden’s old stamping grounds in Delaware, but Shaffer hasn’t given up on the Iowa State Fair idea. That said, he’s happy to take a break from Biden.
“I’m kind of burned out on the political stuff myself … Joe Biden is in the news every single day for something. You know, I don’t want to follow the news that closely.”
He does anticipate that Biden will likely still be a viable character after this cycle comes to a close.
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“I think at some point, no matter what happens, people are going to come back around on him to be Uncle Joe. Or at the very least, this is giving us lots of new material, the current run for president.”
Shaffer says he is frequently asked with Biden has read either of the “Hope” books. Turns out, he talked with Biden about it when the former VP came through Kentucky, where Shaffer now resides, last fall on a book tour
“He said that he loved the book and he said, ‘Great job.’ And I said, ‘It means so much that you read it.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I haven’t read it.’”
Perhaps not, but It seems possible that Biden has read “Becoming,” Michelle Obama’s bestselling memoir from last year that sold much better than Biden’s own “Promise Me, Dad.” Shaffer saw an opportunity to include the former first lady in “Hope Rides Again.”
“I did put Michelle in it because I just couldn’t ignore that she had the number one book in the country last year. You just can’t ignore that ... I knew Joe would be thinking about that.”
Meanwhile, Shaffer has given some thought to another political pairing that might make for some funny high jinks.
“I thought about doing a book about Michelle and W., but I just don’t know whether people are ready to laugh at a George W. Bush book. I just don’t know.”