Who Created Writers? The Man With One Black Glove

by Matt Richtel
Today Pulitzer prize winning journalist Matt Richtel join us again for a fascinating real life story…read on to find out more…
It was one of those arid summer days where you can see heat rippling from the pavement. Air conditioning in the cranky Chevrolet up full blast. Kermit and the Muppets on the stereo singing about a rainbow.
And then the black car appeared. A Mercedes, tinted windows. One curve ahead of us. My father, driving, spied it first.
“It’s him.”
Strapped into the backseat, a determined 14-year-old, I strained to look over the tall gray back of the front seat.
“It’s him, Matthew. It’s Carlos.”
The Jackal.
“No way.” I paused. “Do you think he’s on to us?”
It was the summer of 1980. We were on a family car trip; me, dad, my younger sister and mom. I tell you the beginning of this all-too-true story to address the question: do thriller writers get born, or made? Do we start seeing conspiracy everywhere, imposing over-active imaginations, like covering the world with a transparency dotted with daggers and police tape?
That summer, I was traveling with Robert Ludlum, or, rather, his book, the Bourne Identity, one of the first hardbacks I mainlined, just after dad finished it. Carlos the Jackal, terrorist and Ludlum antagonist, had crept into our zealous imaginations.
Maybe dad was escaping a little bit too, maybe we all were. Mom and dad hadn’t been getting along so great. Nothing overt. A tear in the fabric.
With the Mercedes just ahead of us, we reached our destination, a local steakhouse at the top of a small hill. Dad and I were still in the thrall of imagination – is it Carlos in the car? Headed to an assassination? One we can prevent? — when out of the black car stepped three men.
Dark jackets, short haircuts. Stern. One wore a single black glove.
“Oh my God, Matthew. It’s really him.”
Unlike some people who write for a living, I never pictured myself becoming a writer. I knew I liked being swept away, teased by the promise of some terrific answer. But even after I became a journalist, I thought the idea of writing books seemed ambitious bordering on obnoxious. Who writes 90,000 words about anything?
Then, in 2002, processing the end of a long relationship with my college girlfriend, I wrote two pages of a story that starts with an explosion at a San Francisco café, in which the protagonist is saved by a beautiful and mysterious woman. Who is this woman, I had to know. Five months, and 90,000 words, later, my first thriller, Hooked.
I couldn’t stop writing. My third thriller, The Cloud, comes out in January. This week marked the release of my first short-story, Floodgate. It’s had me thinking about my chronic case of the muse. I fear my publisher, Harper Collins, will find out: He’ll do it for free!  
Is there a connection between the story of the Man With One Black Glove (stay tuned for the surprise ending) and the muse that haunts me?
Almost certainly. But not for the most obvious reason: that I learned some form of escape. That retreating into a fantasy was easier than, say, thinking about parents not getting along (they eventually, amicably, divorced) or directly processing the end of my relationship with a girlfriend. That may be part of it but not the lion’s share.
The biggie, for me, is that I was given permission. Permission to fantasize, tell stories, let my mind wander. My father facilitated that through his own playfulness, through the spy novels he read, the upholding of men and women of glory. My mother did so through her own love affair with fiction, character-based stories, novels, literary and close to it.
My folks didn’t read the same books but they read and read and put spines on a pedestal.
For many years, I didn’t give myself the permission they’d gifted me. I suspect I went into journalism because it let me write, but not whimsically; I wrote about ideas, “important” things. Then, as I got more comfortable with myself, I started hearing something. A voice. It would say: what if.
What if the café exploded? What if grandma knows a secret? What if they’re watching us?
I started to mix the maturity of a seasoned journalist, someone who had learned to knit a narrative, with the whimsy of a child? I got the hell out of my own way. I am rarely more peaceful than asking:
What if?
What if the clown is packing? What if a note falls from his pocket? What if that man with one black glove is Carlos?
The story did not ending the parking lot.
That balmy night on the car trip, we walked inside the restaurant. The three men were seated at a table in the middle. We got sat two tables away. Dad and I trying not to stare, staring. Overhearing.
“They’re talking in a foreign language,” I gasped and whispered.
My dad: “It’s German.”
I am not kidding you.
Oh, by this point, things go crazy inside our brains, and also get a bit conflated. Carlos the Jackal was, we think, Spanish. But these guys were German, which is, we decided, even crazier. Nazis, on our soil! We had to slightly redo the plot; who cared, it didn’t really matter. Sometimes easy resolutions and explanations fail you. Especially in thrillers. But sometimes, if the setup is great, if you ask the right questions, it doesn’t matter. The payoff is the telling.

What Killed the Thriller Writer: Your Attention Span

by Matt Richtel

Today TKZ is delighted to host Pulitzer Prize winning NY Times reporter and thriller author Matt Richtel. His post today ties in nicely with a discussion Clare began on Monday: read her post here if you missed it, and let’s continue the debate…

Body counts are rising, blood spilling in buckets. It’s a conspiracy pandemic. Thriller writers entering an epic age of mayhem.

Credit the muse? Maybe.

For sure blame the Internet.

It is responsible for a fascinating new trend among, in particular, mystery and thriller writers. We are writing more than ever. No longer just a book ever year. In the last year, it has become au courant for us to also publish short stories at least once a year, between book releases.

Lee Child, Lisa Gardner, Steve Berry, go down the list of the heavyweights. They’ve all getting into the short-story game, creating a thriller wellspring, or, if you prefer, a bloodbath. I enter the fray myself this month with “Floodgate,” a political thriller, my first short story.

But as with any good plot twist, there is well more here than meets the eye, a backstory, and some troubling questions, including, chiefly: is this a good idea? Or are we at risk of murdering something truly dear: our craft?

First, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the facts:

It’s long been tradition for thriller writers to put out a book once a year to keep audiences attached to characters and authors and, bluntly, to their brands. This was not necessarily an easy schedule for writers, especially those who really invested in depth, but it was doable and simply understood as necessary.

I’ve had some big-name thriller-writer friends tell me that when they didn’t write a book one year – say, because of a divorce or contractual dispute – they’d see a material decline in their sales.

Then along came the Internet, with all its mixed blessings (see, duh: Amazon). More competition, less shelf space, less control for publishers on distribution (see: almost none). How did short stories become a response?

The publishers (and we writers, by extension), began to fear that we’d get lost in the white noise of competition. Make a reader wait a year for a new book? Heck, by then even loyal readers might’ve made for the nearest cat video. So part of this is an effort to keep our names in the LED lights.
There’s also a more direct marketing reason. The short stories are “e-pub,” electronic only. They are relatively cheap, 99 cents or so, so there’s little incentive for a reader not to at least give it a shot, particularly if written by a favorite author. At the back of the short story, there often is the first few chapters of the author’s next book, and a “click-to-buy” button.

If readers like the story, they pre-order the next book. Pre-orders are great because they build the so-called “first-week sales,” which, if those mount, can get the writer on the bestseller list. In short: the short story as loss leader.

Writers privately grumble: you mean I gotta write something else, for free, while I’m already on a breakneck cycle of write, edit, publicize, repeat? Oh, and did I mention blog, Facebook update, tweet, repeat?

How good can these stories be if we’re writing on a treadmill?

So it all sounds like marketing, and nothing more, right? Like: gag me with a spoon (and put police tape around my utensil-strangled body). Not so fast. There’s, potentially, a lot to like here.

First of all, short stories, when done well, can blow the mind. Swift movement, concision, detailed and fast character development, a flurry of clues. A short story can make every word count, the language itself pregnant with clues.

(One great short story making a lot of rounds is “Wool,” if you haven’t read it; I’m told it has been optioned by Ridley Scott).

The medium also is a chance to introduce or try on a new character, not your usual protagonist. In the case of Floodgate, my latest, I’d long been aching to write about Zach Coles, a bitter, hostile out-of-work journalist who once punched an editor for misplacing an adjective; he’s tall and awkward, moving like a drunken Ostrich but fighting like a Ninja.

One friend with a string of bestsellers urged me to weave into Floodgate my regular protagonist, create a bridge, if you will, between short story and my other books. And creating, in turn, for my regular readers, a bit of an Easter Egg.

In the end, it was extra work I hadn’t contracted for. More bodies piling up. Another conspiracy I hadn’t expected to execute this year. An experience driven in the first instance by marketing, not the muse.

But she did take over, the muse, wrestling away what might’ve been a very cynical process.  I gave a damn (unlike Zach Coles, whose venom makes it very hard to save the world). No wonder. We, thriller writers, don’t kill because we have to. It’s because we need to.

Meantime, Harper Collins is doing its part, meeting me more than halfway, putting out some swanky videos, radio spots (Don Imus!) and banner ads they hope will make it viral (fat chance but not less-than-zero). So blame the Internet for mass murder. But hopefully we can rely on the muse to spare us and make the killings artful.

Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter and bestselling thriller writer. His latest, Floodgate, a political conspiracy that puts Watergate to shame, comes out this month. He can be reached at mattrichtel at gmail dot com.