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San Diego Author Matthew Quirk Discusses New Political Thriller

February 4, 2019 12:15 p.m.

GUEST: Matthew Quirk, author, "The Night Agent"

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

There is a Russian mole in the highest levels of the White House an FBI agent tries to uncover who among his superiors is compromised up to and including the occupant of the Oval Office. It's not the latest plot twist of the Mueller investigation. It is the plot of San Diego author Matthew quirks new novel The Night agent Matthew quirk spoke recently to K PBS roundtable hosts marks hour here's that interview where the plot of your novel sounds like it could've been ripped from the headlines today.

You've imagined what might play out if the Russians compromise the most powerful American official. But the night Agent was inspired by a 2015 discovery of a Russian millionaire dead in a Washington hotel what caught your eye about that story.

What was so wild because I read the thrillers and often you think those plots are a little bit over the top when compared to reality. But in my old neighborhood in D.C. there was this murder in a hotel that I was always going by and it was something straight out of fiction where a guy supposedly Russian media czar got so drunk that he fell down and again and again and that just started firing my imagination and I started spinning a plot forward with some of these themes that are now in the headlines. So it was a fun game of cat and mouse keeping up with the news.

Yeah it really was. So the Russian hack of the 2016 election the ascendancy of Donald Trump. Mueller investigation that you just took your idea and ran with that as the story started playing out in the news.

Well I had the idea. I was happily writing and it went from being you know mid 2016 a relatively under the radar story not the main event the way it is today to being the main event. And I had to find ways to get ahead of it because first you say Oh great. This is so timely. And then you say oh now I actually need to put in some zigs and zags in the book to get ahead of the news. So it was a bit of a white knuckle riding experience but it all worked out and I was very happy that there be surprises in there for people who have obsessed with this or for people who are tired of hearing about it just a race with the headline.

Yeah. A lot of it. So your main character is a FBI agent Peter Sutherland and he was inspired by somebody you know. Tell us about that and tell us about he worked in the SITUATION ROOM of the White House which we all hear about but the novel you really lay out exactly what it's like.

Yeah well a friend of mine worked for the FBI. We were all very young. I was a reporter in D.C. for the Atlantic. And this friend would disappear every night like clockwork and you start playing that D.C. parlor game of Who is he. What's the mystery job. And as best I could gather his job was to work a sort of Nightwatch. And as I dug in you find out that these relatively junior young people who work in the national security bureaucracy are responsible for staying up all night every night tracking crises being ready to brief the president or the FBI director.

And there can be this fateful moment where a relatively junior officer finds a crisis and decides to make the call to wake up the FBI director or even the president and finds himself as the point man on some breaking global development. So that was the initial hook for the book. And I just ran with that.

So you got that catalyst. So you you mentioned you worked at The Atlantic five years as a journalist and gave that up for fiction writing. How helpful was your experience in journalism in not writing novels.

It was super helpful. And then once you cover. I was the young guy in D.C. So I would cover anything you know the short stuff for the front of the magazine so I got to write about international gangs. I got to talk to people who were dealing with opium smuggling out of Afghanistan. And it was great because I covered all sorts of different topics. And I was also writing really short stuff and at the same time I suddenly was dropped into D.C. I was 21 or 22 was the run up to the Iraq war and there was all this amazing intrigue going on and that fired my imagination and it sort of overflowed the short stuff I was writing for the magazine and I started putting it into fiction.

And so it really helped the yeah the craft and holding your craft and learning and the journalists they the editors beat you up a little bit so you learn to not be too precious with your own writing and I found that to be a super valuable lesson become your own best editor.

So in your research you went through an urban escape and evasion course and folks who read the book we'll see how that came in very handy.

How did that help in writing the night Agent you get a lot of cool technical details and I put those in the book because the main character used to be a G which is a nickname for people who are in the special surveillance groups at the FBI and so there's a lot of cool particulars on how you do foot surveillance and there's just something really valuable to putting yourself in a situation where you're kind of terrified and on edge for a while because that's what happens to the characters in your thrillers. So that was a thing where some people I talk to you for research suggested I do this kind of military type training up in L.A. and they mock kidnap you and teach you how to break out of handcuffs and then how to get across L.A. while people are are tracking you without using your wallet or phone.

So it was a it was a little terrifying. It was a little fun and I find it really helps the books.

Yeah. So it's one thing for a source to tell you all that but when you're when you're living it and actually frightened yourself right.

Different and just the desperation you feel when you're trying to get across out of Los Angeles by your wits really puts you in the head of the main character.

So you've played both sides of the story we talked about journalism and of course now you're writing fiction and in a novelist here. How are some of the ways in fiction are you able to convey certain ideas and things that are going on in the news and in other ways that you really can't when you're doing a straightforward news story.

You can't really cover as broad a spectrum as you could in a an article about Afghanistan or something. I find you need to sort of narrow it down and you can really live with a few characters and get across the fine feelings of you know being that close to power or in the case of my main character what happens to a family with an espionage case like this because the main character his whole life is built around the fact that his father was suspected but never proven of being a spy. So I find that you can really convey the reality of it to people you know.

So when you have a lot more room obviously to get into all sorts of themes and plots and subplots and everything else that goes with it. A lot going on in American politics today to inspire fiction. Are you finding that hopeful.

I do. It's wild to have things that would once have been over the top thriller tropes happening in the news all the time. The new cycle has become so crazy and the tempo is so fast that you'll have a story that would have taken a whole year and just filled the headlines for a year is now pushed off the front page by three other crazy you know 48 hours a two hour. So it's it's really been great for thrillers because sometimes when politics is relatively smooth sailing they can feel a little over the top.

But now these thrillers being so close to what's really happening you you feel like they're more grounded and have more to say. All right.

Well plenty of grist for your mill going forward. Well I've been speaking with San Diego author Matthew quirk as novel as the night Agent thanks Matthew.

Thank you. And that was Kay PBS roundtable host Mark Sauer.