Matthew Quirk (www.matthewquirk.com) has seen incredible success for a first-time thriller author. For this interview, Quirk described how he parlayed his five years as a reporter at The Atlantic in Washington, D.C. into a bestseller that was nominated for the Best First Novel Edgar, and won the Strand Critics and ITW Thriller Awards for best first novel. “It’s the basics of my background going to work in Washington, dialed up to an extreme for the thriller. When I was finishing up college, I was a twenty-one-year-old history major with no obvious job prospects. I was working at The Crimson, the school newspaper. And like Mike Ford in The 500, I found myself in front of a powerful man from DC who had come to Harvard to recruit some young people. I guess I said the right thing, because he gave me a job as a reporter for The Atlantic.”
The job resulted in an invitation that changed Quirk’s life. “The owner was nice enough to invite me and some other young hires to a dinner at his house—he lives in the former Cuban Embassy, if I remember correctly. And I found myself in a Georgetown mansion with a former CIA director and a bunch of national correspondents who were discussing plans for the upcoming war with Iraq. It was unreal, way over my head. My whole experience coming to DC and getting thrown into politics was like that, a baptism by fire.”
After that dinner Quirk spent five years reporting on crimes, private military contractors, the opium trade, terrorism prosecutions, and international gangs. He said, “The cocktail parties, the intense dynamics of protégés and mentors, the elaborate games spies play to turn human assets: it’s all material I just stumbled across. That’s why I started writing novels.”
Quirk was laid off after five years as a reporter. At that time, he decided to take his recent experiences and turn them into a thriller. “There is an obvious corruption angle, and I was glad to be able to include a look at real-world day-to-day graft in DC (a lot of it perfectly legal). There’s another element, too. I came to Washington right out of college, and I was fascinated as I watched how sometimes young people are taken in by powerful mentors and lose their ethics in their ambitions.”
The result of his first fiction-writing foray was “The 500,” the story of a young man who goes to DC and finds himself in the middle of Washington politics. In describing the book, Quirk said, “Mike Ford wanted to learn the Washington game. He didn’t know he’d be playing for his life.” He also said, “The story of growing up in a regular New Jersey suburb and ending up in Washington isn’t really all that thrilling, though, so I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could take that out-of-place feeling and steep learning curve, make it much more dramatic, and craft an interesting story out of it.”
Quirk’s efforts to create that interesting story resulted in one of the biggest surprises of his career, being one of six 2013 Edgar Finalists for the Best First Novel. “The Edgar nomination was a great surprise and a real honor. I don’t know that it has changed how I look at my writing. There was pressure for the first book, just trying to land an agent and an editor, and there are different pressures once you’re published. Fortunately, once I sit down to write, all the other stuff recedes into the background and there isn’t a lot of room to think about anything but the story.”
“The 500” was a national bestseller and has been translated into 20 languages. Quirk’s next book, “The Directive,” will be published in May 2014. Learn more about Matthew Quirk on his website at www.matthewquirk.com.
In addition to his columns on ventwing.com, Terry Ambrose (themysterywriter.com) also writes mysteries and suspense. The San Francisco Book Review said of his latest novel, “On all levels License to Lie justifiably earned this five-star rating!”