By Ryan Steck
January 13, 2019
If I’m being honest, I’m not always a big fan of standalone thrillers. Personally, I like series books, which allow you to get to know the characters and enjoy spending time with them. That said, every once in a while, a book will come out that makes me reconsider, and Matthew Quirk’s The Night Agent is one of them.
I’ve read everything Matthew Quirk has ever published and always enjoy his work . . . but never more so than his latest offering, which scores extra points for its relentless pacing and timely plot. Another thing that makes this book so special is that while it is a standalone story, Quirk manages to develop his cast of characters in a way that makes following and rooting for them easy and enjoyable. His protagonist, Peter Sutherland, is a relatable guy, which has been Quirk’s calling card–taking average people and dropping them into high-stakes, complex situations.
Just before taking off on his book tour, Quirk went on the record for our Five Questions segment, and I asked him about everything from how he came up with the plot details for The Night Agent to how hard it is to beat headlines. Read the full Q&A below, then make sure to run out and get Quirk’s new novel the second it hits bookstore shelves on January 15th. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
TRBS: I’ve read all your books and, I have to say, I think The Night Agent is your best yet. How did you come up with the plot details for this one, and what kind of research did you have to do before actually sitting down to write?
Quirk: “Thanks! The plot was inspired by a friend of mine in DC who worked an overnight shift at the FBI. He didn’t talk much about his job back then, but from what I was able to pick up he was part of a night watch, charged with staying on top of any breaking crises and if need be waking up the director. That idea really stuck with me: a young guy sitting by a phone all night every night, waiting for his moment. What happens when the phone rings and he’s suddenly dropped into the middle of an emergency, face-to-face with the most powerful people in Washington? For research, I talked to my friend and his job actually turned out to be quite a bit more interesting and hush-hush than I had suspected, one of several factors which led me to place the novel’s action in the White House Situation Room. I also talked to FBI and CIA people about what happens on these night watches and in the Situation Room during a crisis, and how a counterintelligence scenario like the one in the book would play out. I had a chance to talk to someone who was personally involved in one of the most notorious real-life mole hunts, the Robert Hanssen case. Fascinating stuff. The hardest part was choosing what research to leave out.”
TRBS: Brad Meltzer has a great quote about how a thriller writer’s job is to beat the headlines. Certainly, considering recent news stories, you’ve hit on a timely topic with this book. Was that planned, and how hard is it to write a thriller that you hope will be relevant, knowing that it won’t be coming out for at least a year after your start it?
Quirk: “It’s always a gamble because it’s basically two years from when you first come up with the idea for a book until it hits the shelves—about a year to write and revise and then a year from when I hand it in until publication. In this case the early plans for The Night Agent ended up being too timely! I started with some news stories that were then relatively under the radar, and spun out a grand fictional conspiracy plot, but some of it ended up being a little too close to the truth. That forced me to revisit the plot and think of ways to stay ahead of the headlines and keep readers guessing. It ultimately made for a much stronger, twistier book. Writing close to the news certainly makes for some white-knuckle moments, but it worked out!”
TRBS: What is your writing process like? Are you an outliner? Do you have a target word count that you try to hit each day?
Quirk: “I do outline using Scrivener, an incredible program for writing long projects. I take about a month at the start of a novel to figure out the beginning, the major turns, and a sense of the ending. Thrillers are very tricky, and I like to know roughly where I’m headed so I can lay the groundwork for big twists without writing myself into an impossible corner. Often the characters take over and some surprises sneak up on me while drafting, so I stay open to that. I shoot for 1000 words a day, and usually hit about 2000 once I get going. I am a huge advocate of the super-rough first draft. Just get the whole story down and then make it sing in revisions.”
TRBS: Who are some of your favorite authors, and what was the last great book that you read?
Quirk: It’s so hard to choose, but here are some of the names that come to mind: John le Carré, Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Don Winslow, Richard Price, Joe Finder, Lou Berney, Gregg Hurwitz, Megan Abbott, Daniel Silva, Gillian Flynn, Steven Pressfield, Tobias Wolff, Evelyn Waugh, Vladimir Nabokov, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, William Goldman, Shirley Jackson, and PG Wodehouse. For nonfiction, Jill Lepore, Louis Menand, Ben Macintyre (incredible spy histories), and Sean Naylor (the best spec ops reporting).
“The last great novel I read—I just finished it—is A Perfect Spy by John le Carré. I picked it up right after finishing his memoir, which made for a fascinating side-by-side. His whole life is in that novel. I’ve been reading a bunch of great nonfiction doorstoppers recently, too: Daniel Dennett’s books on consciousness, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch, and Why the West Rules—For Now by Ian Morris.”
TRBS: Lastly, now that The Night Agent is set to come out, what’s next for you?
Quirk: “I just handed in a draft of the next one. It’s about these fascinating Red Team people I met while doing research. The government hires them to test the security around federal facilities and VIPs by actually breaking in and posing as threats. I have a few books in mind in a similar vein, inspired by real-life characters I got to know in DC who have these remarkable jobs like The Night Agent that let them go behind the scenes. I’ve been surfing a bunch here in San Diego while waiting for notes, and I’m getting ready to go on tour for The Night Agent. It’s always fun to get out from behind the desk and hang out with booksellers and readers.”