By Steph Cha
Matthew Quirk is kind of a big deal. He went to Harvard, where he studied history and literature, and straight after graduation, he went and worked for this magazine of import, name is on the tip of my tongue…ah yes, The Atlantic. As if that weren’t enough to make your mom ask if he’s single, he then went on to write two acclaimed thriller novels, THE 500(his 2012 debut) and the brand new sequel, THE DIRECTIVE, both published by Little Brown.
THE 500 introduced his protagonist Mike Ford, a Harvard Law graduate tangling with the insidious Washington, D.C. elite. That novel won the Black Ribbon Award and the Thriller Award for best debut, and was nominated more or less everywhere else nominations were available. It’s been translated into twenty languages, and is currently in development as a major motion picture with Twentieth Century Fox.
His new novel, THE DIRECTIVE, follows Mike Ford as he plans an audacious heist on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It’s shaping up to be another great hit that should establish Quirk as a monster in the thriller world.
Mr. Quirk was nice enough to answer a few questions:
You spent five years at The Atlantic, reporting on matters of great intrigue. How did you make the transition to fiction? Was there a particular story or moment that made you think, “This would make a great novel”?
There were countless great stories and moments like that, so many that I almost couldn’t help but start writing fiction.
I went to The Atlantic straight out of college and quickly discovered I was in over my head. The magazine’s owner was nice enough to invite me and some other young hires to a dinner at his house—he lives in the former Cuban Embassy, if I remember correctly. And I found myself in a Georgetown mansion with a former CIA director and a bunch of national correspondents who were discussing plans for the upcoming war with Iraq. It was unreal. My whole experience coming to DC and getting thrown into politics was like that, a baptism by fire.
The magazine offered a chance to look behind the scenes of official Washington, to see how power really works. And I was immersed in the most intriguing material as I reported: private military contractors, opium smugglers, and international gangs. At the same time, I watched as friends went to work in the Green Zone, at the CIA, and on the E-Ring at the Pentagon. There was so much great material all around me, firing my imagination, that it overflowed the articles, so I put it into a novel.
Your books hit a lot of paranoid American pressure points. Are you interested in conspiracy theories, either in themselves or as a phenomenon? To your knowledge, have your novels inspired any political chain letters?
There are no chain letters that I know of, though I’m often surprised when people think that the real stuff in the books is made up and vice versa. I do love a good conspiracy theory, but most of them are too out there for me.
I really enjoy coming from journalism to thriller-writing because you have a chance to ground our collective fascination with conspiracies in real-life reporting. For THE 500, I already had a good background knowledge on how influence worked in Washington. For THE DIRECTIVE, I did a lot of research on how the government, through the Federal Reserve, can speed up or slow down the economy, and what a real twenty-first–century heist would look like at the Fed. When I explain how the Fed works—that there is a little-known trading desk in New York with a four-trillion-dollar balance sheet that controls the value of every dollar in your pocket—people say, “Good conspiracy plot.” And I say, “No, that part is true; here’s the conspiracy plot.” There are plenty of truths out there that are stranger than fiction, and I love being able to blend them into the novels. It definitely adds to the realism, and I think people enjoy coming away from a book having learned something about the world.
How much research do you do for your books, and how much of that research comes into play when you write them? What are you willing to make up, and what do you worry about getting wrong?
I do a ton of research. That’s the best part of getting published: after you’re known as a thriller author, if you call someone and ask them to help you to break into the Fed, they don’t turn you into the police! THE DIRECTIVE research was a blast: I learned to pick locks, which has come in handy a few times. I also worked with Fed insiders, hackers, and “red team” security experts—people who are hired by the government to break into secure facilities in order to measure how well-protected they are. There are so many heist clichés and it’s tempting to recycle the old Hollywood tropes. It was incredible to find out how these guys would actually execute in real life the job that Mike Ford is forced to pull in the book. I even “cased” the Fed myself, and was able to use some of the techniques I learned to access a secure floor without being challenged.
Too much research can get in the way of a good story. There were details about Fed security that I changed to make for a more dramatic climax. If you are going to deviate from reality, it’s still good to do the homework and talk to the people on the ground so that even your fictions are rooted in the facts. It makes for a better read, and lets you get away with the made-up bits.
In THE DIRECTIVE, your character Michael Ford makes some bold moves to help out his only brother. Do you think most people would sidestep the law if given the right reason? How about you?
That’s one of the themes that fascinated and drew me into THE DIRECTIVE plot. I know very well-mannered mothers who would kill anyone who tried to hurt their children, no question. Love and family bring with them instincts strong enough to pull you across the line between right and wrong. I like to set those instincts against the structures that normally govern our lives and see what my characters do. I had a great class in college on the philosophy of law, and there’s a long tradition, from Socrates to Martin Luther King, where you can step outside the law as long as you are willing to pay the consequences. That’s Mike Ford’s take. I hope that I, and most people, would break the law to do what’s right.
You have some pretty high-impact book trailers. How did those come about, and do you have any general thoughts about the intersection of video and the written word?
Those are thanks to my publisher, Little, Brown, and their top-notch PR team. I don’t have much to do with the production, though I love seeing them when they come out and it’s a great way to let people know about the book. We received an excellent piece of advice from Joe Finder in one of the ITW Debut Author Mentor Forums: sometimes it’s helpful to think of “the trailer moments” for your book, the big bold climactic scenes that force you to focus on the central drama of your plot.
Do you draw inspiration from movies and TV? Who are your greatest influences in fiction, either direct or hidden?
Absolutely. It’s dangerous to take inspiration from TV, because the arc of a show is very different from the arc of a novel, although that has been changing with some of the terrific, novelistic TV series like The Wire or True Detective. I find screenwriters’ advice on scene and plot structure to be very helpful. Quite a few people thought that THE 500 recalled THE FIRM, but actually Wall Street by Oliver Stone was more of an inspiration (and OLD GORIOT by Balzac, oddly enough; you never know when those college classes will come in handy). In fiction, I’m constantly learning from the masters of the genre: Harlan Coben, Joe Finder, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Martin Cruz Smith, John le Carré. There are so many great writers at work that it’s hard to keep up.
What kind of books do you typically read? What are you reading right now?
Besides thrillers, I read a lot of nonfiction. Magazine features in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and elsewhere are constantly informing and inspiring books and scenes. And I’m always reading a half-dozen different books for research for whatever novel I’m working on at the moment. I love having an excuse to do a deep dive on a topic for a thriller; the research is always fascinating. Right now I’m surrounded by books about special operations and urban escape and evasion tactics, and thanks to the Mike Ford books I have a pretty good library on covert entry. I’m currently reading Michael Koryta’s THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD and it’s absolutely terrific. And I love Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse, Pynchon, and Nabokov.
What’s next for you?
I knew a few war correspondents in DC, and have some friends who have worked in special operations, which inspired me to bring in military elements for the next book. I started with the idea of a rogue unit from Joint Special Operations Command that is pulling a series of heists against different facilities in the U.S. No one knows their ultimate goal. I’ve spent a lot of time on boats and in the ocean, and the next book will feature a fair bit of action on and in the water. I’m really excited about how it’s coming together and can’t wait to get it out to readers.
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.