There’s no such thing as a safe path in Steven Wright’s debut novel, 2020’s The Coyotes of Carthage.
The book’s not strictly classifiable as a legal thriller — there is no courtroom drama, no big 11th-hour save. It might better be described as a politically savvy exploration of the current state of electoral shenanigans in the U.S. And as political operators nationwide continue to spread misinformation and exploit loopholes to manipulate elections, it’s only become more timely since its publication.
It’s a subject Wright knows plenty about. The novelist is also a lawyer who worked for the Justice Department from 2008-2012 investigating voting rights cases. Yet the novel never gets stranded in the political-wonk weeds.
One of Wright’s writing mentors, the best-selling author and former UW-Madison professor Lorrie Moore, called his debut “a kind of national tragicomedy of manners,” in a jacket blurb that goes on to call the novel “part news, part satire.” The book reads like a mystery, but the suspense isn’t in the past (whodunnit?); it’s in the future — the linchpin of all the best stories, what’s going to happen?
Andre Ross, the protagonist of the book, is, like Wright, a lawyer. Better known as Dre, he’s a bad boy made good — sort of. Rather, he was a not-all-bad kid who gets trapped in a system rigged against him and makes “good” — leaving juvie to ultimately become a lawyer. In that profession, he goes bad again, this time in a more sophisticated, socially acceptable way, working with a firm to influence elections with dark money.
“His social worker in juvie called his life peripatetic, a word he did not know and assumed was fancy white-people speak for pathetic,” Dre reflects in the book.
Peripatetic, or traveling from place to place, aptly describes Dre’s life, as it does his creator’s. In his zig-zagging career, Wright, now a clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and a former co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, has seldom taken the safe route and has been, literally and metaphorically, all over the map.
And that experience has filtered into his fiction. Coyotes was published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins; got great reviews in the Washington Post and USA Today; and was shortlisted for the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. A blurb from John Grisham (who called Wright “a major new voice in the world of political thrillers”) didn’t hurt, either.
Wright doesn’t seem unimpressed with the success of his first novel — “It changed my life,” he says — but he is modest about it.
“My life has largely been a series of just coincidences and happenstance, to be perfectly honest,” Wright says in a 2020 Wisconsin Law in Action podcast. “I’m a literary equivalent of Forrest Gump, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Steven Wright was on the move early. His father was an Army doctor, and the family, including Wright’s two sisters and his mother, a computer science professor, moved often. Wright was born in Nashville, and subsequently lived in San Francisco, West Germany, Alaska, Washington state and Georgia — moving every three years, Wright, 42, recalls. That transience had a major impact. Living in Germany during the Cold War gave him “a profound sense of patriotism. A sense of ‘This is what makes my country special.’”
Moving also gave him “a unique appreciation of how places differ,” and that’s had an impact on his fiction. “Places, to me, are as important as character and plot,” he says. “How communities sort of ‘do business,’ what they look like and what’s the culture and what’s the politics? All those things, they end up being very important to me.”
Wright recalls “writing several books” as a kid. “It was before the internet, so there was no such thing, really, as fan fiction, but this was more like plagiarism,” Wright says with a laugh. “I always sort of scribbled. But I don’t remember in school ever being asked to write a story or a personal essay.”
An undergrad at Duke, Wright majored in economics and history, and worked on The Chronicle, the daily student paper, eventually becoming the news editor.
His parents, who generally valued challenging authority, wanted him to go into the sciences. As African Americans, they felt science “provided a certain level of security” and insulation from racism. “Two plus two, no matter what your race is, is always going to be four,” Wright says.
He enjoyed studying economics, including “the big ideas, and the way they would play out in individual lives;” issues like minimum wage, rent ceilings and taxes had what he calls “an immediate urgency and excitement.”
After graduating, and not knowing quite what he wanted to do, he stayed at Duke, earning a master’s of environmental management in 2002, focusing on economic environmental justice issues. He also started taking screenwriting courses.
For his master’s thesis, he took data from the census and the Environmental Protection Agency and used a predictive model to look at cancer rates along the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans, one of the poorest parts of the country. The model confirmed a relationship between poverty/race and environmental harm.
“Nothing surprising,” he says of the results. “Sucks to be poor, sucks to be Black.”
But he did not enjoy working largely with data. “I really just hated it,” he says, and turned to law school as a way to put his interest in theory and policy to work.
He landed at Washington University in St. Louis expecting he would continue as he had been: “I thought I would go to law classes in the day and in the evening write screenplays,” he says. “Saying it out loud now, it feels like the stupidest thing in the world.”
He found law school rigorous, but fun: “I have nothing but fond memories.” He does remember feeling that his training didn’t actually “teach you how to help people,” something he has concentrated on doing during his time at Wisconsin. (While working on his degree in writing here, he also took court-appointed cases representing the indigent, and while at the Innocence Project, won several exonerations. He also founded the Constitutional Litigation, Appeals, and Sentencing Project at the UW. )
After law school, Wright moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, to clerk for Lavenski Smith, a conservative African American federal judge on the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (now its chief judge) — “considered at that time the most conservative [appeals court] in the country,” says Wright. Wright calls it a great experience and one with a lot of power; behind the scenes he was working on opinions related to abortion and same-sex marriage that would become law. “I was 25,” he remembers. “It was sort of insane.”
“I loved the guy,” Wright says of Smith, noting that the clerkship was an education in “why conservatives think about the court system the way they do.”
After the clerkship, Wright moved to Washington, D.C., to prosecute voting rights cases for the Department of Justice. He still marvels at “the extraordinary amount of power they give young people,” he says. He worked on race-based discrimination claims and the MOVE Act, which protects military and overseas voting. “It can be fun,” says Wright, but it was also exhausting, involving a lot of travel — “You would go into towns and do investigations, talk to attorneys general and solicitors general, you’re meeting candidates, you’re going to the polls.”
“You’re there representing the United States,” he says, and “it was no less exhilarating” than his clerkship.
And yet, his urge to write had not gone away. He was walking by the Johns Hopkins D.C. campus near DuPont Circle one day when he passed an “open house” sign for the school’s creative writing program. He went in.
‘A huge risk’
Wright squeezed in his master’s from the Johns Hopkins writing program at night while still working for the Justice Department, then toyed with the idea of going on to get a master’s degree in fine arts. But he knew that would be a major detour from his legal career and “a huge risk.”
With the 2012 election season approaching, Wright put himself on the spot: “Do I really want to do another election?” he asked himself. He ended up making the “crazy” leap, leaving the Justice Department for UW-Madison’s MFA program.
Madison has one of the top programs in the country, but Wright chose it in part because it’s a two- rather than three-year program, and he did think he would go back to law.
He was writing short fiction, but as he went on, the stories kept getting longer and longer. Encouragement from UW faculty led him to look toward a novel. “Write the novel only you could write,” then-faculty member Lorrie Moore suggested, and he launched into what would become The Coyotes of Carthage. He would come home, walk his dogs, and write for two hours every evening. Much of his DOJ experience turns up in the work, as Dre works to influence an election to benefit a mining company that’s keen to take over public land.
Wright calls himself “a noisy writer,” who has to work alone, with music on, and he tends to listen to the same song on repeat. He also speaks sentences aloud — “I don’t have a natural feel for the line.”
The Coyotes of Carthage would take four years to write. It was once twice as long as it is in published form — Wright calls the cutting process “painful, not just for the ideas, but also emotionally.”
It is a dark and ambivalent book, though not without humor and compassion. Yet there is a sense of the shrugged shoulder about it — this is the way it is; what can be done about it? As Dre thinks of his job, he puts it this way: “He chose neither the audience nor the theater; he merely produced the show.”
“Ultimately the book is cynical,” Wright admits, “but I’m happy I had faith in myself.”
Wright wanted the book to be a good read while still serving a purpose, spreading the word about the effect of dark money on local elections. And in that sense, the book could hardly be more of-the-moment, as often overlooked races for school board and secretary of state, for instance, have had an impact on the teaching of history, transgender policies and election administration. In small races, it’s not hard for a big player to come in with dark money and manipulate the results, as Dre does in Coyotes.
After coming to Madison in 2012 for the MFA program, Wright started picking up a few cases from the public defender’s office. “It was important to me to still practice law and to be as important to the community as possible,” he says.
When he graduated in 2014, he applied for law jobs “all over,” and by chance a job at the University of Wisconsin Law School opened up teaching clinical classes and working as a trial attorney for the Innocence Project; a few years later, he became co-director of that program.
He speaks passionately of the case of Sam Hadaway, a man with some developmental disabilities who served time for a crime that a serial killer committed; Wright and the Innocence Project ultimately won cases overturning his conviction, his release from prison and a new trial, which the state declined to prosecute. Despite ample evidence that Hadaway was not the criminal, the state refused to let Hadaway out until it was forced to do so. “We had to fight, and they fought [back] hard,” says Wright. “That’s always shocking to me.”
In addition to teaching law, Wright also teaches creative writing at the UW. In those classrooms, he wants to create a “community where people feel comfortable. A workshop relies on people being able to make themselves vulnerable by sharing.” While MFA candidates need stronger critiques, he thinks undergraduates and students in private workshops might need encouragement more. “People write for all sorts of reasons. From therapy to deal with very serious stuff, to escape — but not always to publish a book.”
This summer Wright is teaching federal appellate litigation and practice. If that sounds dry to you, as the bumper sticker says, you’re not paying attention.
Wright wants the class to be fun, and opts for “juicy” cases that illustrate core principles.
On a hot July afternoon, about a dozen students seat themselves in a supercooled room in the UW Law School on Bascom Hill before Wright strides in and spends a few minutes synching his laptop to the projection equipment. “We have three cases to get to today,” he says without preamble, and launches into the first, United States v. DiFrancesco.
Wright cuts to the heart of the narrative.
“It’s New York in the 1970s and Eugene DiFrancesco, he’s a mobster. In the ’70s the DOJ is on the mobsters’ cases. They need a distraction. So they start bombing buildings and blaming it on hippies and Black people! Did it work? Yes! So they do it again! And it takes two or three years for the FBI to catch on.” Now there’s a plot for a novel.
In the classroom Wright is low-key, guiding students with prompts like “What does that mean?” or “What is the actual issue here?” and leading them to the key next step: “But do you think that’s consistent with justice?”
The connection to our current moment in legal circles is quick and seamless. The decision in United States v. DiFrancesco, in favor of the defendant, was written by Justice Harry Blackmun; one of the students questions the reasoning behind it.
“Are you disagreeing with Justice Blackmun?” Wright says, with obvious amusement. “Which is very in vogue, by the way.”
There’s a snort from a single student and Wright has to explain that Blackmun wrote the decision in the recently overturned Roe v. Wade, which produces some bitter groans.
Roe v. Wade.
Wright teaches these double jeopardy appeals the way he’d earlier explained to me the connection between the law and creative writing.
A brief is a perfect story form, he tells me. “You tell a really good and interesting short story, and then you talk about why that story is messed up. It’s a story followed by an essay that says: ‘Let’s reflect on this story that I just told.’”
The second novel
For the time being, at least, Wright has settled down. He has lived in the Madison area for a decade, the longest he’s lived anywhere.
During the pandemic shutdown, both of Wright’s two dogs passed away; one had been with him since law school. “I kept telling people, I don’t want another dog,” he says. He lasted three weeks without one. His affection for his pets is clear; he even felt the need for a change of scene after his dogs died and he moved, buying a house in Verona. His new pal is a black lab rescue.
“I had originally planned to leave Madison after getting the MFA, then after the book was published.” But when the time came, he decided to stay — he’s not sure where else he would want to go. This new geographic stability doesn’t necessarily make him feel rooted.“From 2014-2019, my life was the novel. I never invested a lot of time in getting to know Madison as a place.”
Wright is currently working on a new novel, more of a courtroom thriller, that includes Thurgood Marshall as a character. In addition to writing his usual two hours a day, he’s been doing a lot of research.
“It’s a civil-rights-era novel set in 1944 during World War II, in Marshall’s early days when he founded the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund,” says Wright.
He wants the book to feel authentic, so in addition to reading biographies of Marshall, he’s delved into topics as disparate as wartime ration portions and how women, in addition to leaving the home to work in factories, were also largely running the criminal justice system. It was also a time when many of the rights we now take for granted did not exist.
Those protections would not come for another decade or so. “There was an era especially during the Warren Court, where the Court said we will protect individuals,” Wright notes. “The Warren Court established a lot of the procedures we know now. Prior to that, there were not a lot of rules.” He pauses.
“One is mindful that there might not be a lot of rules, again.”
This story was published in the Aug. 4, 2022 print edition of Isthmus under the title “The plot thickens.”