You may want to rethink what you do in public—at least if you’re a character in Ryan Quinn’s exciting tech thriller END OF SECRETS, where Hawk, the eye in the sky, might just be watching while you sit on the subway or walk along the street, unaware of the camera aimed right at you.
CIA agent Kera Mersal is recruited to a black-op team code named Hawk. Her first assignment—find out how four people could disappear seemingly into thin air. An ominous message written in graffiti haunts Kera as she comes across it time and time again—Have you figured it out yet? The action draws you in from the first page and doesn’t let up until the last word. The Big Thrill caught up with author Ryan Quinn to ask him a few questions about his latest book.
Tell us something about END OF SECRETS that we won’t find on the back cover.
The stakes in a thriller typically involve very obvious life-and-death scenarios: a psychopath killer, a terrorist, a loose nuclear bomb, that sort of thing. And those sorts of stakes are present in END OF SECRETS as Kera, the main protagonist confronts powerful people who have killed to protect the secrets she’s trying to uncover. But as a writer and, frankly, as a real live human living in our modern world, I’m interested in other stakes as well. Things like privacy and the digital footprints we are all creating every day. Things like the cultural tension between art and entertainment, or between news and entertainment, and how we ought value such things. So the characters in END OF SECRETS face these modern-day conflicts too, just as all of us will have to grapple with them well beyond the foreseeable future. As a reader, you don’t need to scratch your head over all this stuff to enjoy the book. But it’s there, and I hope it thrills a few readers in its own way.
The level of technical expertise in your book is impressive. Tell us about your research.
I’m not a tech-inclined person. But I’ve become so interested in the implications of new technologies—especially ones pertaining to privacy, surveillance, and espionage—that I overcame my indifference to the nitty-gritty details of computing and networks in order to be able to tell this story in a credible way. To do that, I had to lean heavily on research. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It was a pretty intense crash course, but I got to design the curriculum and I got hooked on the thrill of learning about this world, which is both impressive and scary. Most of my new knowledge came from nonfiction books about the CIA and NSA, cyberespionage, hacking, surveillance, and data-mining. I listened to audiobooks of these while out on long runs. That’s how I find the time to do most of my research. To compliment that in-depth research, I never hesitate to use Google and Wikipedia to track down a few specific details to round out a description of something. In the end, I think my layman’s origins helped me express all the technological details in a way that non-techie readers like me still find accessible.
Was there anything that surprised you from your research, and did the direction of the story change based on what you learned?
The biggest surprise in my research was discovering what our intelligence agencies and media corporations are already capable of when it comes to surveillance and data-mining. I went into the research hoping to pick up the proper terminology so that I wouldn’t sound like an idiot when I made up stuff. And I came out not really having to make up anything, technology-wise. It’s all already happening.
I can’t remember anything big that changed because of my research. Little things changed all the time. But mostly the research gave me the confidence to go ahead and use some of the high-tech stuff that sounds almost futuristic.
Your book is very timely, was there something specific that inspired you to write it?
There wasn’t one ah-ha moment. Instead, it was a gradual accumulation of news articles about the intelligence industry’s sudden dependence on private contractors—companies like Blackwater and others who were employing tens of thousands of people and getting them all security clearances. And I just couldn’t shake the idea that there’s a serious conflict there. For-profit companies being handed hundreds of millions of dollars to operate in almost total secrecy. What could go wrong? Well, as a writer, when there’s an idea or a fear or a question like that that I can’t shake, it probably means there’s a book there. I finished the first draft in early 2013. And then a few months later a twenty-nine-year-old intelligence contractor named Edward Snowden released a bunch of classified documents that pretty much confirmed that none of the technology in END OF SECRETS is science fiction. When the Snowden leaks became an instant global story, I knew I’d hit on something significant.
When writing END OF SECRETS did you have a sequel in mind?
I did, yes. I didn’t have the plot outlined, but I knew that at the end of END OF SECRETS I wanted Kera and some of the other principal characters to end up in a place that would allow them to come back for a second book. I handled that by leaving the end of END OF SECRETS somewhat open-ended. I couldn’t bring myself to wrap it up too nicely anyway. The world just doesn’t work that way. Now I’ve completed a draft of the sequel, which I’m really excited about, and hopefully that will see the light of day later this year.
What was most difficult for you in the writing of this book?
Doing the research and then incorporating all of that new knowledge in a way that was authoritative but not gratuitous. It’s a fine balance.
Before becoming a writer, you were in publishing for five years. Tell us a little about that?
I realized after college that I wanted to work in book publishing. So I moved to Manhattan—without a job or any contacts. I cold e-mailed about thirty assistants who worked at the big houses and asked them how they’d landed their jobs. A few responded and kept my resume handy for openings. The first gig I got was as an intern for a literary agent. And then a few months later I got a full-time editorial assistant position at St. Martin’s Press. I loved it, and fortunately I was too clueless to care that I had one of the lowest paying jobs a college graduate can get in Manhattan. Two years later I was hired as the assistant to the president of Penguin. That position was fascinating—witnessing some of the biggest book auctions, seeing how all the pieces of the publishing machine operate, and launching initiatives to figure out if this new invention called the e-book was really a thing. Eventually, I moved out to Los Angeles and was an editor at a small indie press—until they went out of business. So I feel like I’ve lived through a few publishing life cycles, and I’ve greatly benefited from the various perspectives I gained from each of those opportunities. The most exiting part has been to watch the industry adapt to the digital era—e-books, Kindles, tablets—and to see publishing become less Manhattan-centric and more welcoming and accommodating to more readers and writers than ever. I know it feels to many in the industry that there’s a lot of turmoil and despair about all this disruption, but we’re an industry full of smart people who care deeply about the written word. We’ll all be just fine.
How did your time working in publishing affect how you approach your writing?
Working in publishing helped me to sort of normalize the idea that publishing is a business at least as much as it’s an artistic endeavor. I became familiar with everything that needs to happen after a book gets written—from the submission process to the in-house editorial process to the publicity process, cover design, etc. It’s a long road, and I feel like I’ve developed an eye not just for what a great book looks like, but what a realistic career as an author looks like. But for whatever it’s worth, working in publishing didn’t help me get an agent or a publisher. I’ve received as many rejection letters as the next aspiring novelist. But I also had to write a lot of rejection letters, including many to authors who had written very good books, and that taught me how subjective and arbitrary the process can be. Which is a twisted comfort of sorts.
Tell us about your own road to publication.
When I finished my first novel, THE FALL, which is a college coming-of-age story—totally different from END OF SECRETS!—I spent a lot of time querying agents, sending them copies, and waiting months for a reply. I received dozens of rejection letters. A few were form letters; most were personalized notes that offered sincere compliments about my “voice” followed by a firm notice that the book was not right for his or her list at that time. One agent gave me a very detailed e-mail full of editorial notes, which I was grateful for and took as a promising sign. But after I revised the manuscript, she said it still wasn’t quite right for her. Eventually I decided to self-publish. I felt that with my understanding of publishing (the importance of editing, copyediting, etc.), I could respectably get my book out into the world without the approval of anyone in Manhattan. About six months after I launched the self-published version of THE FALL, I received an e-mail from an editor at what is now Lake Union Publishing, one of the imprints at Amazon. They’d noticed the strong reviews and better-than-average sales and had read the book and liked it. They offered to publish it under their banner after a round of minor editorial notes and a new cover. I found the process at Amazon Publishing to be very author friendly, much more so than any I’d witnessed in my time working for traditional publishers.
About a year and a half later, I finished my draft of END OF SECRETS, and I sent it to Thomas & Mercer, which is Amazon Publishing’s mystery and thriller imprint. They liked it, so we signed the contract. The experience at T&M has been fantastic. I’m still a relatively unknown author, and they are real pros at getting books in front of new readers, which is what new authors need most.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I treat writing the same way I treat training for a marathon. Which means I write nearly every day. On a perfect day, I get up, I run, then I head to the coffee shop and put in a few hours there, where there are no household distractions. This routine is so ingrained in my day-to-day schedule that it makes me uncomfortable when I have to break it. But life interferes regularly, so I’ve become just as determined to write in airports and on planes and occasionally at home. The important thing is to move the book forward every day.
Are you a panster or a plotter?
I think my natural inclination favors a balance of both, but I’ve become more of a plotter with each book I write. Generally, I use some plotting early on to sharpen my vague idea into a story arc. Then, after I’ve written a hundred pages or so, I pause and create a detailed outline of where the thing is actually going and, inevitably, all the things I need to go back and revise in the early chapters.
What is your favorite part about the writing process?
The absolute best part are those days when you write for four hours and never get stuck and come out of it mentally exhausted but euphoric about how far you’ve advanced the story. That’s a great feeling. But, more generally, I love the revision process. The really hard work of turning a blank page into a narrative is over and it’s fun not only to see it all come together, but to really focus on making it the best it can be.
Tell us about someone who has inspired you.
I treat inspiration as a key tool in my writer’s toolbox. It’s indispensible. But I actually can’t pick one person about whom I think, “Yeah, they did everything right. I want their career.” Instead, I constantly pick and chose whatever traits I see in others that can challenge me to be a better writer and human. There are far too many to list them all, but off the top of my head: Ian McEwan inspires me to not be lazy or boring in sentence-to-sentence writing; Stephen King inspires me to emphasize story and to find the underlying fears that people are captivated by; and writers like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Dan Savage inspire me to push boundaries and not be afraid to describe things that are difficult or unpopular to say. And I’m even inspired by writers who are wildly successful but whom I will not name because I think their books were not very good. They inspire me to keep writing because if they can make it, well…
If you could co-author a book with any writer, dead or alive, with whom would it be?
Co-authoring sounds like a nightmare, so I’ll pick a dead one: E. M. Forster.
What keeps you up at night?
Anxiety over what I’m going to write the next day. Whether I’m looking ahead toward future projects or evaluating the current book I’m working on, there are creative decisions that need to be made every day. And by the end of the day, I’m sometimes left wondering (wandering?), “Should this character be doing something totally different?” or, “Are the stakes high enough?” or, “Is anyone even going to read this?” These questions are on my mind. And I can live with that. If this is my biggest source of anxiety in life, I’m a lucky guy.
What books would we be surprised to find on your nightstand?
I’ve recently read a few books on parenting. I’m not sure it’s for me, but I’m keeping an open mind.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
To not listen too much to other people’s advice. Anne Rice told that to an audience during a Q&A I attended a few years ago. And I think it’s great advice for writers. Writing requires a certain level of self-reliance. If you’re the kind of person who needs advice to figure out how to write a book, you’re way behind. Is that harsh? I don’t think Anne Rice meant it that way, but that’s where I took it.
Where can readers connect with you?
I post all the latest book updates to Facebook and Goodreads, and I welcome questions from readers there. I post pics to Instagram (@nvrstpthnkng) that strangers should approach at their own risk. And I’m never really sure what to post on Twitter (@nvrstpthnkng), which seems to be the equivalent of a stadium full of people all muttering abbreviated half-ideas at the same time. I can also be reached through my website, which has book trailers and pics.
A native of Alaska, Ryan Quinn was an NCAA champion and an all-American skier while at the University of Utah. He worked for five years in New York’s book-publishing industry before moving to Los Angeles, where he writes and trains for marathons. Quinn’s first novel, The Fall, was a finalist in the 2013 International Book Awards.
To learn more about Ryan, please visit his website.