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Matt Richtel on his new novel, Devil's Plaything, grandparents, tech-thrillers and more

Devil's Plaything is equal parts technological thriller and science fiction, but it's also a very human drama about a man's relationship with his grandmother and her past. Author Matt Richtel will be on hand at the Tattered Cover Colfax Avenue at 7:30 p.m. tonight to read from the book and answer questions. We caught up with him to get a few questions of our own answered, including where the idea for the novel came from, Richtel's own relationship with his grandparents and more.

Westword: Can you start just talking a little about where the idea of the book came from?

Matt Richtel: At the core, this story, like everything I write in fiction, starts with an emotion. In this case it was the protagonist's relationship to his grandmother with whom he's very close and a recognition she's aging rapidly, a struggle with what that says about his own mortality and his relationship with people who are aging around him. The conspiracy has to do with how high technology affects our brains and I sought to intermingle those things.

I'm really close to my grandparents and I'm fascinated by that relationship. I'm fascinated by the idea of dementia and the idea that we're losing our memories and the impact of heavy technology on the behaviors of our brains -- I thought, "Gosh, we're losing our memories at the same time computer memory is exploding -- could there be any connection between these two things?" Asking that question gave me the opportunity to have an emotional core in this story while also allowing me to touch on the high-tech thriller aspect of the book that often excites me as a reader.

WW: So would you call it a thriller, science fiction, a drama?

MR: What I try to create in a book is a combination of the fastest thriller you've ever read and Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safron Foer. It would be emotional at its core and character driven fundamentally, but also be irrepressible in its momentum. I really do try to marry those things, I think a lot of thriller writers try to do that -- but that's the marriage I'm trying to communicate.

WW: Your novel writing seems intertwined with what you cover as a science journalist -- is that just intrinsic to the "write what you know mantra," or is it something else?

MR: Most of us try to write what we know because it lends authenticity. Fortunately, journalism over the two decades has allowed me to know just enough about a lot of subjects to be dangerous. Enough to write about it with a modicum of authority that it sounds authentic. I hope to be able to take these emotional cores that really fascinate me about fiction and marry them to some substance that's out there.

WW: Even after all this time and a huge number of books -- we haven't really had any good tech-thrillers that had a basis in reality.

MR: I couldn't agree more. One adage that I hear from friends in Hollywood that make movies is that there is nothing interesting about a person sitting in front of a computer. We have the same problem with doing newspaper stories about computer topics -- the photo editors always ask me "Please don't make me take more pictures of people sitting in front of a computer."

What I've tried to do is embody what is happening to us behaviorally and neurologically through story and action and through a characters mind. I'm hoping I'm making a dent in that fair point you raised that we're not succeeding with these thrillers. They often seem to be a hacker who we can't connect with getting into the Pentagon, which we can't connect with. These stories -- if I'm succeeding -- are about what our everyday use of this ubiquitous technology might be doing to us.

 

WW : And you're continuing with the same character from your first book, right?

MR: Same character, but not a sequel. It's not necessary to read the first one. I guess part of that is market driven, part of it is that this character feels to me to have a lot of life in him. One of his facets is that he's a former medical student and he knows a lot about science. Going back to what we were talking about earlier -- I think science provides a huge opportunity for substance in literature because there is so much nascent research out there and so if you're looking for a way to write about topics that are compelling but not altogether fantastical it gets you an entry into a lot of fields.

WW: But it does still seem like you're creating a universe -- one that's slightly next to ours.

MR: Yeah -- There is a pretty good fork in the road with fiction. You can go literary, really true to life, subtle story arcs where your main character changes just a bit. Or you can choose to go, as I've chosen to go, toward a slightly more fantastical where invariably you're creating another universe because fires don't just happen and things just don't blow up. As long as I can overlay my universe as much as possible on the actual one then my reader doesn't have to suspend disbelief too much. So I tried to create a universe that feels very much like ours but under fantastic enough pretences that the reader can still have fun.

WW: That makes sense -- even some of the big names in science fiction, William Gibson comes to mind -- have resorted more toward that same idea.

MR: You've nailed it with him -- I think that's true. It's almost like slices of life, 2014, not 2027 when all of our heads are in a jar.

WW: So do you take these ideas to other tech and science stuff to people and get their opinions?

MR: It helps that my wife is a neurologist. But on the technical stuff, I really picked a lot of brains to find out how programs get written and other niceties of technology so I would sound authentic. But I didn't really ask if the conspiracy in this book is plausible because I don't really believe it is. That said, lots of the arteries leading to the heart of this conspiracy are very much in this world. It was nice to hear Publisher Weekly call this "plausible" and a number of the other reviews say the same -- it makes me feel like I've grounded this sufficiently enough that it feels more science than fiction.

WW: Was that a goal from the start?

MR: My goal from the start was to have fun and for the reader to have fun. But if I was going to have fun I was going to have fun in an analytical structure that feels comfortable for me. So I don't blow stuff all that often, there aren't a lot of shootings, nobody in this book can kill someone with their pinky. It's not superheroes who have hearts made of plastic, these are real people with real emotions and real capabilities in extraordinary situations.

 

WW : When did you decide to do a work of fiction?

MR: I actually never wanted to write a book. The newspaper standard of 600 or 1200 words seemed quite long enough for me. One day I sat down and wrote something that interested me on a lark. It raised some questions for me and I wanted to answer them. Five months later I had a book.

I discovered in that process I love the act of writing fiction. I don't just like it -- I don't do it because I ought to -- there is a pure pleasure for me in sitting down and letting forth with words on tablet. I get very wrapped up in the process of creating an intricate story that I want to figure out how to resolve.

WW: Almost like you're researching your own brain.

MR: Your earlier point -- I created a universe with a very complicated maze within it and I'm walking through it and figuring out whether I'm turning left or right and in my experience, reading good fiction, there is an enormous reward from discovering something that feels like a treasure. I liken this to when my son is only tall enough to see what's on the second shelf of the bookcase and becomes really intent on seeing what's on the third shelf. As a reader, there is a moment when it's almost a spiritual quest -- if I can just seen what's up there everything will become whole.

WW: There's an old adage that a good book has layers that everyone can walk away with something from -- so in your case, a conspiracy nut will have something, a drama oriented person has something -- but depending on if you want to, there are always more layers to peel back there, but it's not required.

MR: With this book in particular, there are probably four or five things someone might take away from it. Or four or five things that seem to be at the core. It is about the secrets we carry in our lives, about being at peace with those secrets, being at peace with being uncertain, and also just a wild ride of a thriller with a somewhat plausible high-tech conspiracy beneath it. It's interesting to see some the reviews because they seem to be liking entirely different things about the book.

WW: I think that's just the nature of modern fiction -- everyone walks away with a different experience -- it's not the Elementary School reading of Huck Finn anymore. MR: Maybe that's true and that's how our lives are these days. The way I hear my friends and other people talk about their lives, things are so much less black and white than what we imagined as kids.


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