The Big Idea: Alex Shvartsman
When opportunity comes knocking, author Alex Shvartsman is quick to answer the call. Follow along in his Big Idea for the second novel in his Conradverse Chronicles, Kakistocracy, to see just how he started crafting this sequel.
Sometimes you have to work at coming up with the big idea for your next-in-series, and sometimes the idea shows up on your doorstep, inevitable and undeniable, and demands to be written.
When I first began writing humorous urban fantasy stories set in Conrad Brent’s arcane version of New York City, I wanted to populate the setting with some larger-than-life Big Apple personalities. One minor character was Bradley Holcomb, a real estate developer with a reality TV show and a penchant for gaudy gilded environs. This was long before Holcomb’s inspiration ventured into politics, and the character mostly served as local color and comic relief.
Fast forward a decade or so, when I was completing the first Conradverse novel, and suddenly Holcomb’s presence was no longer funny, at least not in the same way. It carried connotations and subtext that hadn’t originally been intended, because when you write a setting that so closely resembles the real world, sometimes the real world has its own ideas. I considered getting rid of this character entirely, but ultimately I chose to keep him, as the concept for the sequel was already taking shape in my mind.
What if a vain, amoral, and incompetent swindler gets elected mayor of New York City?
While I write silly books filled to the brim with pop culture references, I aspire to tackle real-world issues underneath all that pulp. The Middling Affliction had things to say about systemic and long-standing prejudice (and I’ve written about this here on the Big Idea–thanks, John!). In Kakistocracy, I tackle concepts of power structures and how the least capable or suitable individuals so often rise to positions of power (which also happens to literally be the definition of the title.)
But I didn’t want the book to focus on Holcomb directly. What jokes could I write that wouldn’t feel recycled, or which hadn’t already been told better by the writing staffs of John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and the like? So, I made the intentional choice of keeping Holcomb off-screen. The characters are forced to deal with many unfortunate consequences of the policies and decisions his administration sets in place, rather than with the man himself, as is the experience for most of us with leaders and politicians. Of course, this makes handling the plethora of other problems and threats the protagonists face all the more difficult.
And there are plenty of threats, from the vendetta waged by the fae assassins to the representatives of On High and Down Below being terrible at sharing, which could lead to a literal Armageddon, to the nefarious machinations of a villain who’s been playing the long game and manipulating events to achieve goals which Conrad and his friends must decipher in order to thwart. Just because things are rotten in Gracie Mansion, doesn’t place all the other various troubles on hold. Again, just like in real life.
The true challenge of working on this book wasn’t imagining the sort of trouble the Holcomb administration might engender; current events made that part easy. Rather, it was striking a balance between what I hope will be an entertaining and funny read with a dollop of social commentary, and imagining a viable path forward for the protagonists as well as the citizens oppressed by such a regime.