Last week I was delighted to tell ScienceThrillers readers about Matt Richtel’s new, super-smart thriller The Cloud. Matt is a rare, amazing writer who succeeds in both fiction and journalism. Proof? He is a science writer for the New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010.
Richtel’s fiction and journalism both investigate themes of the impact of technology on society. All authors put some of themselves in their characters, but reading The Cloud alongside Matt Richtel’s biography made me wonder if he did it more than most. He kindly accepted my invitation to
bare his soul answer my questions here at ScienceThrillers.com.
ScienceThrillers.com interview of author Matt Richtel
ScienceThrillers: Some say all fiction is autobiographical. Based on simple facts of biography, yours looks more autobiographical than most. Like you, your protagonist, Nat Idle, lives in San Francisco. He is a journalist. His specialty is investigative reporting on technology. How much further do the parallels go? For example, were you once a pre-med student?
Matt Richtel: Do Nat and I share some key defining qualities? Absolutely. Is this autobiographical? Not so much. It’s not autobiographical in the sense that virtually every anecdote about Nat – from his upbringing to his schooling to his living situation – is invented. It’s not that my own life isn’t interesting. All lives are interesting. But part of what I love about fiction is the truly simple freedom involved with invention. I love to let my mind wander within the constraints of the story. I love to let flow Nat’s experiences and emotions, letting the story and his character take over the direction, not my own will or experiences or issues.
That said, I try to never characterize someone, or imbue them with an emotion that I can’t connect to. In some key ways, I connect to Nat; his curiosity; the way he’d prefer to connect with people than best them; his use of humor as a way to establish friendship and elicit information; his athletic bent; his deep need for connection and love. His use of quest, at least sometimes, for escape and salvation.
I notice that many authors describe their characters as “damaged.” I guess I’d say of Nat that he’s sometimes damaged and sometimes not. I think that’s true of all of us, certainly of me. I don’t mean that he’s damaged in a clinical sense but, rather, that he hurts and heals. I think I do that too.
Finally, there is one other key way in which my life has informed Nat’s life. Namely: I keep aging and having new experiences (marriage, family, aging, etc). I’ve tried to keep the stories about Nat fresh by allowing him to experience new stages of life; maybe he doesn’t have the same experiences I’ve had but my experiences inform his stages. In that way, I’ve come to think of Nat’s stories as “stage-of-life thrillers.” He ages, he grows, he regresses, he grows. Same thing for me. And with each stage, another new part of life to examine through the life of Nat Idle.
ScienceThrillers: On the same note, in The Cloud, Nat Idle says, “I have done a good job questioning Silicon Valley’s implicit assumption about the inherent good of all technological progress.” Would you be pleased if the same were said of Matt Richtel, through both his journalism and fiction?
Matt Richtel: Yes. Absolutely. As a journalist, I see one key charge – among many – to ask “smart dumb questions.” Meaning: I want to ask questions about things we take for granted but that, when we look closely at them, discover might merit scrutiny. One of those things in this day and age is the inherent good of technology. That doesn’t mean I think technology is “bad,” by any stretch. In fact, I often punt on the question of whether something is “good” or “bad,” and try to instead try to figure out how and whether things work as advertised. Where is the hypocrisy? Where are the holes in the logic?
ScienceThrillers: Both The Cloud and your previous novel Devil’s Plaything have important themes about the unreliability of memory and the fragility of how we perceive reality. Is this a personal phobia of yours? Are you worried about losing your mind?
Matt Richtel: I’m not worried about losing my mind. I am fascinated by an idea that you, Amy, in your review of The Cloud brought up, that being the idea of the “unreliable narrator.” I think many of us, if not all of us, are unreliable narrators – at least at times in our lives. It’s simply stuff sometimes, such as: one day a work situation/romantic relationship/conflict or whatever seems to look one way to us. The next day, it looks very different. Has reality changed? Have the circumstances? That’s one idea that fascinates me. More fundamentally, I just love as a reader (or movie goer) when a story teller gives me a major surprise. Think: Fight Club or Sixth Sense. Those movies were good simply in their primary mission. And then, at the end, twisted the reality such that everything that came before in the story was that much more satisfying. By contrast, I sometimes get bored by stories in which there is a problem to be solved – i.e. good guy must get bad guy – and the story revolves largely around the chase. By using an “unreliable narrator,” I have the opportunity to do the traditional chase thing, hopefully satisfying in its own right, and then layer on top of it something that makes it not clear in the end if the chase was the plot or the subplot. Yeah, I know: Hard to pull off; I should stick to my day job.
ScienceThrillers: In The Cloud, your narrator Nat Idle says the following about the use of language in an ad for a TV show:
“It’s like the reality-TV producers have done for words what McDonald’s did for burgers and fries—made them irresistible at the expense of substance. Made them appealing and provocative on the most primitive level. And the competition for attention on the Internet has sharpened further the skills of these 21st century chefs of pre-packaged sound bites. It’s fast-food for language.”
What does Matt Richtel say?
Matt Richtel: I say: twitter’s gonna create one hell of a 21st century Shakespeare. Someone who can do amazing things with language, concision, poetry as prose, emotion in 140 characters. But, in the meantime, it’s also going to dumb down language, meaning, oversimplify. I believe that audiences and readers (myself included) are drawn on a basic primal level to two things: quick, exciting, new bursts of activity (tweet/sound bite) but also deep emotional experiences that let us pause, feel, cleanse. Maybe somebody will be able to master language such that those two needs can be fulfilled simultaneously. It hasn’t happened yet.
ScienceThrillers: In The Cloud, you choose to write in the first-person voice of a narrator who is suffering from a concussion and some kind of relationship trauma. Did you sit down and try to think of an extremely challenging POV to write, or did this just seem like a good idea at the time?
Matt Richtel: In some ways, it just seemed like a good idea at the time. But as I think about why it seemed like a good idea, I’m struck that it’s a provocative question. I guess that, in general, I like first-person for a handful of reasons: it makes me feel very present but, I think more to the point, it lets me get deep into one character’s thinking while depriving the reader of the omniscience of everything else in the world. In that way, it feels to me like the way we actually live our lives. We know what we’re thinking but not everyone else. Plus, it lets me pull narrative twists, and surprises, because we don’t know what the “bad guy,” or the “femme fatale,” or whoever is thinking. That is a real challenge for a reason that might not seem obvious: you can’t switch away from your main character to another character’s perspective, give the reader a break, change the rhythm.
But I still haven’t answered your more specific question about the first-person perspective on this particularly emotional journey. On that count, I’d say, perhaps counter-intuitively, that the emotional nature of Nat’s journey was a big help to me, not a challenge. To the extent that I can infuse my story with emotion, I create a ton of momentum for myself when I write. I know he’s searching, hurting, joyful, whatever. But whatever the emotion, it is a well spring for my muse. To that end, I start my stories with an emotional core/journey, and the rest follows.
ScienceThrillers: Tell us about how you choose character names. Some seem intentionally evocative: Idle, Leviathan, Faith.
Matt Richtel: I hope they’re evocative. And your question is, again, provocative, in the sense I’ve not really thought about what seems dead on. I guess the names I pick, now thinking about it, are a bit like how companies try to choose brand names that sound like something, memorable in some way, without being that thing. That’s not all that deliberate. Meaning: I play around with names, not giving it THAT much thought, and then something sticks. And, now, thinking more about it, that something that sticks seems to sometimes be a name pregnant with some other connotation. In some cases, the connotation has more relevance than I initially expect/intend. Like “Faith,” whose name wound up having a bigger role and relevance than I initially intended. In the case of Nat “Idle,” I feel just plain lucky that I stumbled onto that name. It gives me a lot of options and, I suppose (again through dumb luck) allows the reader a little Rorschach test.