Buchan’s journalistic, legal experiences ground first novel in reality
Some writers have so exaggerated their treatments of the good-ole-boy political and economic network that a caricature of it has supplanted reality in the public mind.
The same holds for the newsroom.
Jon Buchan, a lawyer and former journalist who has followed these arenas for more than 30 years while also defending the media in court, determined that the characters in his first novel “Code of the Forest” (Joggling Board Press, $24.99) would be grounded in the real world.
Set in 1995 in Georgetown, the novel channels decades of the author’s experiences and observations. Buchan harbored the germ of an idea of a book for some time, but dismissed the notion of a memoir or nonfiction treatment.
Instead, he opted to take a page from what Tom Wolfe once called the New Journalism, albeit it in reverse: using the reporter’s “eye for setting, ear for dialogue and a nose for significant detail” to inform a novel.
“I wanted to capture a world with imagination, showing the kinds of characters that really are out there,” says the Mullins native, long a Charlotte resident. “Fiction enables you to capture the inner thought processes and emotions that reveal who characters really are and chart how they develop.”
Quid pro quo
For years, Buchan watched as those in political power granted or asked for favors.
“It’s everywhere, not just in politics, and most of the time that’s pretty innocent,” he says. “But on another level that back scratching progresses to something less legitimate. Sometimes that culture of favors reaches out too far and becomes cronyism and the feathering of nests.
“The book is about the bad old culture and the bad old South.”
And it has not gone unnoticed by others fighting for the public’s right to know.
“Jon Buchan knows the law. He knows journalism. He knows politics,” says John Drescher, executive editor of the Raleigh News and Observer. “If you want to know how the South works, this novel is a good place to start.”
During summers between coursework at Princeton University, Buchan returned to the Carolinas to intern at The Raleigh Times. The bug bit, hard.
After college, he started his own newspaper in Columbia — an alternative weekly called The Osceola — with a specific intent in mind.
“Its whole reason for being was to cover South Carolina politics, to discover who had power and how it was used,” Buchan recalls. “We started it in the early part of 1973 and I think we were making a difference.
“We would get grudging praise from an editor at The (Columbia) State, who’d congratulate us on a story then say they will follow up on it themselves. They liked the kind of writing I’d been doing, not just straight news but offering an historical perspective and human color.”
His three years in journalism — half at the helm of the Osceola — were “about as much fun as I ever had,” Buchan says. “To be that young and to write about what happens over there in the Legislature was exciting.”
But talking to legislators who suggested he was too green to grasp the details prompted a change of course.
“I had been thinking about law school for some time,” recalls Buchan, who earned an undergraduate degree in American history. “And I was getting a little tired of hearing that because I was not a lawyer, I could not understand this legislation. So I entered Duke University Law School and earned a law degree.”
Buchan assumed he’d return to his first love, journalism, with his new degree another weapon in his arsenal. But serendipity took a hand when he was offered a post with a Charlotte law firm that, among other things, represented The Charlotte Observer. Buchan never looked back.
“I’m a big believer in the critical role of newspapers in a democracy, and at least 50 percent of what I’ve done over the years is represent newspapers in all manner of disputes.
“Not long after The New York Times v. Sullivan case changed libel law and gave papers more First Amendment protection, I got to handle some really interesting defamation cases.”
Between the Supreme Court ruling in 1980 that the public had a First Amendment right of access to courts and 1990, Buchan says good case law was made on the importance of courtrooms being open.
“It was also a great era for reporters who were being subpoenaed. We fought those subpoenas and also made some really good case law in that regard.”
Buchan, who has witnessed many a prickly relationship between journalists and lawyers, was keen to create characters that were believable for “Code of Forest.”
Wade McNabb, publisher of the (fictional) Georgetown Pilot, is bent on exposing high-stakes political corruption. And he finds an ally in Kate Stewart, a young lawyer who wants to champion David after years in corporate law defending Goliath.
Opposed is powerful Sen. Buck Ravenel, to some extent the villain of the piece. But in Buchan’s hands he’s by no means a conventional corrupt politician, but a man of shadings whose motives are varied.
The novel employs broad brushstrokes in depicting the good-ole-boy networks and political shenanigans, but does not preclude humor or more basic interpersonal drama, says Buchan.
“It is also a story of two people who suffered losses early in life and who toughen up as time goes on. It’s a story with layers.”
Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.