Keel Hunt spent two and a half years, during which he conducted over 150 interviews, researching the 1979 takeover which removed corrupt Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton from office, three days early. The result is Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal, an in-depth examination of the days leading up to the event. Hunt, a speechwriter, public affairs consultant and former reporter, spoke with PW about his research methods and the elements he feels are necessary for a great story.
What was your research process for this book?
[It entailed] a lot of digging in libraries, photo files, and newspaper morgues, and of course asking for, and scheduling, the many personal interviews. Most of the interview were face-to-face, and some [were over the phone]. At one point in the writing, the biggest challenge turned out to be how to organize the story. I re-organized the manuscript several times and finally settled on a structure that interlaces chapters about how the day unfolded with profiles of the main characters telling their personal and political histories. I think the book reads like a novel--a nonfiction novel.
Essentially, what occurs in Coup is bucking policy for the protection of the state. As you say in the book, “Nobody wanted to do this.” Do you think in similar circumstances today, the fear would be the same?
The peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next is so central to our constitutional government in this country. Disrupting that tradition was one of the chief worries of the collaborators in the Coup, but how they worked through their long day was fundamentally a great testament to the rule of law. Whether elected officials in the very same offices would do the same today, in our hyper-partisan political environment, is, I think, one of the great questions this story raises.
You chose to publish Coup with Vanderbilt University Press. Why were they were the right publisher for the job?
I had been working on this project for maybe a year when, in April 2012, there was a well-attended retrospective program on the Vanderbilt campus about the Blanton ouster that occurred 33 years earlier. The moderator was my former editor John Seigenthaler, and he mentioned during the program that I was writing a book on the subject. There were maybe 300 people in the room. Literally the next morning, Michael Ames, director of the Vanderbilt University Press, called me asking to see the manuscript. It’s been a pleasure working with Michael and his team at the Press.
One of the political endeavors of Lamar Alexander was to walk across Tennessee, to get to know the people whose vote he asked for. Do you think such a move would be as successful today?
Possibly it could, and I think it would be healthy for the system if more candidates would try it. Otherwise, it’s so easy today for candidates to become overwhelmed by the unending news cycles and the quick-response impulse that social media especially drives. It gets to be such a superficial world they’re working in that the loss of contact with real constituents is the first casualty. Meeting voters face-to-face is the way to stay grounded.
What was the most challenging part of rebuilding the past, and bringing it to life?
I felt it was important to dig deeply enough into the memories of the participants still living, including politicians and journalists, and also of the families and friends of those who have died since 1979. The 163 interviews then created the challenge of organizing all that information so that the story would be understandable. It’s a very layered story, weaving in biographies of the main actors, so I knew it would be easy to wind up with a jumble of timelines and flashbacks. I think the final structure avoids that in a way that’s fun to read.
How important is it to be fearless, when retelling a true story and shaping it into a book?
I certainly felt the burden of needing to get the story right. From my own training as a journalist (in school and also at the Nashville newspaper years ago) I knew the importance of getting the maximum amount of information but then being able to sort and distill and understand all that data. There was definitely a point in the process where I felt I was getting to the center or the truth of the story.
What do you believe is the most important element of story?
I feel any great novel or work of nonfiction will yield lessons or truths about humanity. I have felt the full story of this American coup was a tale worth telling, chiefly because it is a true case study of leadership – of senior elected officials in our country who put principle over partisanship in an extraordinary moment. There could not be a better time than the present for Americans, especially elected officials, to remember that.