By George Ebey
Fresh out of Harvard Law School, Mike Ford landed his dream job at the Davies Group, Washington’s most powerful consulting firm. Now, he’s staring down the barrel of a gun, pursued by two of the world’s most dangerous men. To get out, he’ll have to do all the things he thought he’d never do again: lie, cheat, steal-and this time, maybe even kill. Mike grew up in a world of small-stakes con men, learning lessons at his father’s knee. His hard-won success in college and law school was his ticket out. As the Davies Group’s rising star, he rubs shoulders with “The 500,” the elite men and women who really run Washington — and the world. But peddling influence, he soon learns, is familiar work: even with a pedigree, a con is still a con, and the higher the climb, the harder – and deadlier – the fall.
I recently caught up with Matthew who graciously agreed to explain how THE 500 came to be.
THE 500 is your debut thriller. What inspired you to write it?
I was a twenty-one-year-old History major at Harvard with no obvious job prospects, when, like the lead character in THE 500, I found myself in front of a powerful man from Washington.
I guess I said the right thing, because he gave me a job as a reporter for THE ATLANTIC in DC. That offered me a chance to look behind the scenes of official Washington, to see how power really works.
I watched as friends went to work for Dick Cheney, in the Green Zone, at the CIA, and on the E-Ring at the Pentagon. Reporting gave me a chance to research the worlds of private military contractors, opium smugglers, and international gangs. There was so much great material, it overflowed the articles, so I started writing novels.
The plot drew on a long fascination I had with the hidden players in Washington, men and women who control the action, though their names rarely, if ever, make the papers. That’s Henry Davies, a veteran political operative and power broker who has spent decades collecting the secrets of the most powerful men and women in the country: THE 500.The story came together very quickly, and it was great because it gave me a narrative that let me draw on all my reporting and everything I had learned coming of age professionally in DC.
How did your time reporting at THE ATLANTIC help prepare you to write this story?
Being a magazine reporter was great training for being a novelist. You’re mostly left on your own to dig up fascinating characters and stories, then tie them into compelling narratives. I had to learn what makes a good read, how to be disciplined about writing and research, and how to write lean prose. Ninety-five percent of my ideas were shot down by editors (maybe more), so I really absorbed that it pays to be picky when you’re thinking of concepts for your next piece of writing.
Almost all of the material in the book comes from being a reporter, either actual stories I researched or the experience of living and working among journalists in DC. It’s a very cool job for a young man because you’re given access it would take decades to earn as a political player. The whole whiplash experience of being plucked up from Harvard and initiated into DC politics I took from my early days at THE ATLANTIC. The “underbelly of DC” material comes, unfortunately enough, from paying attention to the papers and staying on top of political scandals and dirty tricks (there are plenty of real-life stories from Washington that are just as outrageous as what happens in the book, sometimes more so!). The cocktail parties, the intense dynamics of protégés and mentors, the elaborate game spies play to turn human assets, the politician who used vetting dossiers to blackmail his peers: it’s all material I came across as a reporter.
You’ve already received several highly-favorable reviews. Which one was your favorite?
I don’t know if I have a favorite. I’m so grateful to all the early readers and reviewers for taking the time with a debut author’s book. Jeff Abbott sent a note along which I really valued. He said he admired how I had structured the book so that the stakes kept rising, chapter after chapter, for the choices the protagonist was forced to make. I spend a lot of time thinking about craft and technical stuff, so it felt great to hear from a pro that the work I had done in ratcheting up the tension was paying off.
THE 500 is currently under development as a major motion picture. Can you tell us your thoughts on what it’s like to anticipate having your work translated to the big screen?
It’s really exciting. A movie would be a chance to share the story with a larger audience and bring more people back to the book. I think about stories in a very visual, dramatic way, picturing them in my head and then writing them out, so it would be a lot of fun to actually see it filmed.It blows me away to think that someone might actually take the time to build and act out everything I dreamed up at my keyboard.
I don’t worry much about the translation to film. You have an amazing amount of freedom as an author, and the book will always be there as I imagined it. After that, it’s out of my hands. This past year has been an unbelievable experience for me. Getting to work with and meet everyone at Reagan Arthur Books and Little, Brown has been a dream come true. And on top of that I get to talk with the film people and get a window into that world, which is totally fascinating.
Matthew Quirk studied history and literature at Harvard College. After graduation, he spent five years at The Atlantic reporting on crimes, private military contractors, the opium trade, terrorism prosecutions, and international gangs. He lives outside Washington, D.C.
To learn more about Matthew, please visit his website.