By Kay Kendall
Debut author Matt Cook combines piracy on the high seas, electromagnetic pulse technology, and terrorist ambitions to form a dazzling thriller. Thrown together in a dramatic stew of a book are one kidnapped Stanford professor, his beautiful and brilliant daughter, a dashing doctoral candidate, a Special Forces veteran, a mysterious mastermind, and two Russians—one good, one bad. Despite his youth, this author really knows how to cook, bringing all these ingredients to a rolling boil.
An assured debut, SABOTAGE is due from Forge Books on September 9. Here is a classic thriller in the fullest sense of the word. The terrorist mastermind will sell the stolen EMP technology to the highest bidder, even if it means placing horrible capability into dangerous hands. Worldwide powers are in contention, knowing their dominance is threatened.
Matt wrote the first draft of his thriller at age nineteen, and the week before its launch, he will turn twenty-five. While an undergraduate at Stanford University, he published two nonfiction books, one of them award-winning, and co-founded California Common Sense—a non-profit dedicated to government transparency and data-drive policy analysis. In addition, as a close-up magician and former member of the Magic Castle Junior Society, Matt has performed in Hollywood and across the globe. He delights in weaving exotic locales into his stories, drawing from more than eighty countries he has visited. For his charitable work supporting the American soldier, he was honored with the President’s Call to Service Award. He is now midway through his doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania as a National Science Foundation Fellow.
Matt graciously agreed to answer a few questions for THE BIG THRILL.
Your debut thriller SABOTAGE launches on September 9. How did you manage to bring it to fruition, maintain your graduate career in economics, write an award-winning non-fiction book, and perform as a close-up magician? In short, how do you juggle and keep so many different balls in the air at once?
Life is a smorgasbord. Some people say, “I’ll just have the shrimp.” Not me. I want to try everything from the fondue to the hams to the cupcakes. One of the challenges of coming back from a smorgasbord is balancing the plate. You have to layer everything so it all fits. Life is the same way. Sometimes it means being stubborn, keeping at a project when there’s something else you’d rather be doing. It also means staying organized—keeping to-do lists, writing down your thoughts before sleep. That helps you avoid those moments of sheer panic when you think you’re going to drop the plate. I’m also fortunate to be working with talented individuals and teams, including my entertainment attorney, literary agent, publicists, and publisher—and for grad school, my professors and research partner.
Your thriller SABOTAGE is quite technically informed. How much research did you have to do on satellite and EMP technology?
During my sophomore year in college, I was interested in reading about the ways our infrastructure and economy are vulnerable to EMP attack. Almost every aspect of our civilization relies upon the use of electricity, the loss of which would be catastrophic. I found it fascinating to think about how EMP technology could be used in warfare, and what impact EMP weapons could have on politics and the international balance of power. Research on the topic helped me develop a plot for a villain in possession of a stolen EMP weapon. My villain would test the weapon on a cruise ship, holding its passengers hostage while facilitating a bidding war between the United States and moneyed terrorist conspirators. Most of the material I was reading was land-centric, giving me the opportunity to channel the research and imagine the consequences of an EMP attack at sea.
When did you crystallize the idea that you wanted to write a thriller? What inspired you?
At Stanford there’s a tradition called “The Game.” Competing teams of students race around the San Francisco Bay Area over twenty-four hours, solving puzzles that lead to the next clue. During my freshman year, we lost abysmally—didn’t even finish the race. But the year after, our team came in first among the undergraduates, helped by the fact that our team had drawn from a variety of fields, including chemistry, physics, economics, mechanical engineering, and computer science. The creative synergy was exciting, and I wanted to write a story about a group of students whose different academic backgrounds would enable them to solve a much bigger puzzle with international consequence.
To honor our brave men and women in uniform, I wanted to include a character, ex-military, trapped aboard the ship. To me the idea of a Special Forces veteran working against a horde of modern pirates, confined to a blacked-out cruise ship, had the makings of an exciting action thriller.
What do you enjoy reading aside from thrillers?
I enjoy a story from any genre, as long as it is consistent with the view that happiness is achievable to those who live a good life. Nonfiction of all kinds—lately, astronomy, history of science, and military history—also fascinates me.
Which thriller writers are your favorites and why?
Ken Follett, Clive Cussler, and Robert Ludlum are my favorites. Follett’s thrillers are more than thrillers; they are dramas. The most exciting moments in his novels are found in the explosive interactions between his characters as they discover how their motives clash. Cussler’s larger-than-life heroes are people of integrity, living lives I’d like to lead. With his tales of international machination, Ludlum creates an uncomfortable, vicarious paranoia experienced through his characters.
What do you enjoy outside of writing?
Writing is a cerebral activity, and a lot of planning goes into it before my fingers hit the keyboard. Sitting down at the piano and seeing where my fingers take me is, if you’ll forgive the pun, the perfect counterpoint. I love to improvise and tinker with chords. The two are connected, because music can stir the same emotions that a story can. Music can even inspire a good tale. I also enjoy scuba diving, dancing, and travel. In my opinion, travel is the best education a person can get.
How did you get started as a magician?
My grandfather was always pulling coins out of my ear when I was little. My dad, too, often showed me tricks involving science. As a child, I was enchanted with wizards, in the midst of creating a fantasy story. So an interest in magic came naturally. As a teenager, I became a member of the Magic Castle Junior Society and began performing at private parties for Hollywood celebrities. The wonderful thing about magic is that it helps overcome the language barrier. In travel, magic has helped me communicate with people when we don’t use the same words. Mystery is universal. A deck of cards is the best universal translator you can find.
What is your best advice for writers who are not yet published?
Writing a novel seems like it should mean putting words on a page, but the critical part comes before you write the first word. Give yourself plenty of time to think through your theme, plot, and characters. Know your characters from the inside out before you start writing the manuscript. Consider giving each major character a two-to-four page biography and/or interview. The content may or may not appear in the final product, but structuring your thoughts will help you achieve consistency and dimensionality of character.
How did you find an agent and publisher? Was it long and arduous?
Long, but worth it. I first shared the concept of the completed story with Howard Wolf, president of the Stanford Alumni Association. He recommended I submit the manuscript to entertainment attorney Scott Schwimer. While deciding to represent the work, Scott also offered a thorough critique. So did the stellar agent he brought aboard, Victoria Skurnick, who sold the book to Macmillan. Sounds quick, but more than five years passed between original completion and eventual publication. Long waits heightened the disappointment after a rejection—and we certainly had those—but so did they heighten the excitement after each milestone. I’m lucky to have made many dear friends along the way, from whose wisdom I have benefited enormously.
Will there be a sequel to SABOTAGE?
Maybe. SABOTAGE was written with a series in mind, and the end of the book sets up the potential. But the next book is not a sequel. At this stage, I felt the best way I could grow as a writer was to develop an independent premise for the next book. Now I’m starting to get addicted to starting from scratch. Brainstorming, I’ll often get excited about some idea that would have its own stand-alone novel. For an author, doing this may mean—at least temporarily—setting aside characters you love and premises you think work well. But you get to build from the ground up again, free of the context of any past creation, and possibly explore a wider range of themes.
SABOTAGE seems meant for the big screen. Are there any prospects of that?
The manuscript is currently being pitched to studios. Being a big movie buff with a desire to learn how films are made, and having viewed many scenes through a cinematic lens while writing, I’m excited by the prospect. It’s tough to break into Hollywood, so I don’t have any expectations, just crossed fingers.
Matt Cook wrote Sabotage at nineteen while a student at Stanford University, where he also cofounded California Common Sense, a nonprofit dedicated to policy research and government transparency. A close-up magician, Matt has performed in Hollywood and across the globe. For his support of the military, he was honored with the President’s Call to Service Award. Matt is currently pursuing a doctorate in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania while working on his next novel.
To learn more about Matt, please visit his website.