1. Mr. Cook, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. SABOTAGE, your debut thriller, comes out today. Tell us a bit more about this book.
Thank you for having me, Mr. Jones. It’s a delight to be here.
Sabotage is a story of espionage on the high seas, arriving September 9, 2014 from Forge Books. In the story, an extortionist commandeers a weapons technology that could alter the international balance of power. Nothing is known about him, other than his alias: “Viking.” Trapped in a bidding war for the technology with terrorist conspirators, the responsible defense corporation can’t touch him as long as he controls a hijacked cruise ship in the North Atlantic. The key to bringing him down may lie in the disappearance of Stanford professor Malcolm Clare, a celebrated aviator, entrepreneur, and aerospace engineer.
Searching for Clare is a team of doctoral students, who must devise Trojan horses and outfox an assassin to unravel the extortionist’s scheme. Failure would ensure economic disaster for the United States.
2. Who is Austin Hardy and how did you come up with his character?
Austin Hardy is one of the main protagonists, a Stanford doctoral student of aerospace engineering. He grew up building model airplanes and RC aircraft as a teenager, after surviving an emergency landing aboard a plane to visit his father, a U.S. Ambassador. Growing up in Malibu, his other hobbies were cryptology and bodysurfing. Austin does his best thinking and problem-solving riding the waves in without a board. He’s witty, loves to tease and kid, but also approaches his objectives with laser focus. It can be hard to get his attention when he’s deeply mentally engaged. Inspiration for his character came largely from my closest undergraduate buddies. As for protagonists in general, I like to write about people whose values and virtues I admire—larger-than-life individuals with whom I would enjoy spending time in the real world.
3. Why did you decide to write this book? Why a thriller?
At Stanford, there’s an old tradition called “The Game,” wherein 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.
Around that time, I had become interested in reading about the ways our infrastructure and economy are vulnerable to EMP attack. Since almost every aspect of our civilization relies upon the use of electricity, the loss of which would be catastrophic, I had 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 yielded the perfect plot for a villain in possession of a stolen EMP weapon. My villain would test the weapon at sea, on a cruise ship, holding its passengers hostage while facilitating a bidding war between the United States and moneyed terrorist conspirators.
To honor our brave men and women in uniform, I wanted to include a character, ex-military, trapped aboard the ship and using his skills to undermine the hijackers. 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.
So I got to work, drawing from these elements and choosing settings from a recent family trip through the Baltic. The first draft was complete during the summer after my sophomore year in college.
4. What separates SABOTAGE from the avalanche of thriller in your genre?
First, the book is filled with university lore, and follows a team of graduate students whose investigative ability is enhanced by the fact that they all view puzzles through a different lens. Second, the story raises philosophical questions about the development of warfare technology. If a device is not used the way the inventor(s) intended, how does one draw the line between causal and moral responsibility? And third, one of the main characters has an unusual background in Special Forces as a former Air Force combat weatherman. Readers will likely enjoy learning about combat weathermen and what these heroes do.
5. What are your favorite pastimes?
Writing is an intensely 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 certainly 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.
6. How did you get started in being a magician? What attracted you to it?
My grandfather was always pulling coins out of my ear when I was little. My dad, too, often showed me tricks involving science. And 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 professionally 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.
7. You cofounded California Common Sense. What is the organization about, and what are some of its accomplishments so far?
California Common Sense is a non-profit dedicated to government financial transparency and data-driven policy analysis. The organization educates citizens on how the state government works. We were the first group to create a hierarchical map of the several thousand state entities; since then, the organization has helped open the state’s finances to the public with its transparency portal and data visualization tools. Now writing and pursuing a doctorate in Economics on the other coast, I’m no longer actively involved, but I’m very proud of the organization’s accomplishments. CACS research and data have appeared in Bloomberg, Reuters, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, ABC, Fox, NBC, CBS, Fox Business Network, The Huffington Post, The LA Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Jose Mercury News, The Sacramento Bee, The San Diego Union Tribune, and NPR.
8. What are your thoughts on the rise of self-publishing?
It’s terrific. Today, writers today can harness technology like never before. With tools like digital publishing and print-on-demand, the barriers to creating a marketable book are more easily overcome. That means more authors have a voice, and readers have more choices.
9. What is your next book going to be about?
For now, just a tease: The next book is not a sequel. It’s darker, set in a different time, and the research has been fascinating.
10. Any advice for new writers?
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 the manuscript. Consider giving each major character a two-to-four page biography. The content may or may not appear in the final product, but structuring your thoughts will help you achieve consistency and dimensionality of character.