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

Categories: Books, Q&A

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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.


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