Interview by MysteryPeople contributor Scott Butki
Michael Lewis’s novel The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, adapted into the film The Big Short, proved that, whatever the medium, a narrative can be educational and entertaining about economics and economic concepts.
Drew Chapman’s The King of Fear proves you can write a thriller with some of those same concepts; if you think that means the story has to slow to explain the markets and patterns you’re quite wrong.
“The book grew out of my obsession with the idea of fear as a motivating force in everyday life. Everywhere I look these days, it seems like we – and by we I mean the people of the US – have convinced ourselves that our world is about to collapse. We seem to believe that we’re under siege by terrorists, or immigrants, or Muslims, or exotic contagions. I wanted to explore that idea, and create a story where one character – and one nation – takes advantage of our habit of overreacting and panicking.”
– Drew Chapman
Picture this: A thriller featuring highly skilled data hackers. Their leader, Garrett Reilly, is, on the plus side, a genius; he can spot patterns like the main characters in The Big Short. On the negative side, Reilly is wanted by law enforcement for allegedly causing the killing of the head of the New York Federal Reserve.
Hunting Reilly and messing with economic markets for reasons not immediately clear is an equally smart man from Russia who takes on other people’s identities, and gets people to do things they’d be wise not to do, faster than most people change clothes.
Mix, spin and did I mention the author writes for television, so his plot twists are amazing? Drew Chapman is best known for his extensive TV and movie writing career (notably, TNT’s Legends, ABC’s Assets, A House Divided, Standoff); he burst on to the book scene a couple years ago with The Ascendant (20th Century Fox is developing a TV series).
This book is the best thriller I have read in a year and I read at least 25 to 50 mysteries and thrillers a year. Pick up this book and you can thank me later.
Scott Butki: How did you come up with this great thriller of a story?
Drew Chapman: First off, thank you for saying the story was great! The book grew out of my obsession with the idea of fear as a motivating force in everyday life. Everywhere I look these days, it seems like we – and by we I mean the people of the US – have convinced ourselves that our world is about to collapse. We seem to believe that we’re under siege by terrorists, or immigrants, or Muslims, or exotic contagions. I wanted to explore that idea, and create a story where one character – and one nation – takes advantage of our habit of overreacting and panicking.
SB: This is my favorite thriller I’ve read in at least six months. Was it fun to write? Seems like it’d be fun to compose.
DC: Yes, it was great fun to write. I love plotting out mysteries, twisting the narrative rope of suspense, and keeping readers in the dark until the final pages of a book. But even more fun for me is delving deep into character. I always say that my books, and my TV work, are really just character studies dressed up as something else – thrillers or mysteries or spy stories. The best part of writing The King of Fear was following Garrett Reilly on his road to redemption. (Of course, I’m not entirely sure he did redeem himself).
SB: Should readers start with this book as I did or start with the first book, The Ascendant? Can you summarize the plot of the first book?
DC: No, The King of Fear is meant to be a stand-alone book, so readers should be able to pick it up cold and follow along easily. The plot of the first book is really an introduction to Garrett Reilly – a numbers savant working on Wall Street – and his recruitment into a Defense Department team that is meant to protect the country from invisible enemies. He discovers that China is attacking the US through economic/cyber/psychological means, and has to strike back. But Garrett never does as he’s told, nor is he enamored of the US government, so he gets into deeper and deeper trouble as the story progresses.
SB: How in the world did you manage to find a way to make a book about economics and stock markets fun and exciting?
DC: I love economics and stock markets and numbers, so really I just wrote to excite myself, and hoped that my readers would go along for the ride. The US is such a capitalist/business oriented society, and I’ve always posited that you can learn more about the country by watching where the money goes than by almost any other method.
SB: Speaking of which, what did you think of the movie The Big Short, which, like your book, managed to make a story about economics entertaining?
DC: I loved The Big Short, both the book and the movie. It was one of the first movies I’ve seen that realistically captured the characters who inhabit Wall Street. Mostly you get clichés like Wolf of Wall Street or the TV show “Billions,” but Big Short got it right.
SB: How did you go about researching this book?
DC: I love researching my books. It’s probably my favorite part of being a writer. For The King of Fear I sat with economics professors, bankers, Wall Street brokers, FBI agents, CIA analysts, tech security analysts. Mostly, I asked them to put on their evil genius hats and spin out imaginary ways to destroy the American economy. They all loved doing that. Secretly, everyone wants to be an evil genius. Evil Geniuses have the most fun.
“I love economics and stock markets and numbers, so really I just wrote to excite myself, and hoped that my readers would go along for the ride. The US is such a capitalist/business oriented society, and I’ve always posited that you can learn more about the country by watching where the money goes than by almost any other method.”
SB: Do you think there are groups like The Ascendant watching for patterns like this?
DC: Absolutely! There are numerous government groups doing this. In fact, pretty much every federal level law enforcement agency in the US today has a sub-group whose sole job is to watch for patterns of disruption and terror online and off. Pattern recognition is one of the primary tools the government has in its terror-fighting arsenal.
SB: Tell me about how this worked as an ebook? It came out in three separate parts – why?
DC: Because I’m a TV writer, and cliff-hanger endings are my stock in trade, my publisher came up with the idea of writing my next book in sections, and releasing it almost like a TV show. I thought the idea was great, and wrote the book with three distinct sections in mind. The process was a bit strange at first, because one thinks of a novel as a whole entity, but I got used to it – and in the end really loved writing it.
SB: How has your experience as a writer of TV shows and movies helped you as a novelist? Which do you find easier? Which is more fun?
DC: Both are fun, but different from each other. TV writing is collaborative – you spend a lot of time with other writers, hatching stories and talking character, but you also get a lot of notes from network executives. The notes can be good, but they can also be infuriating. Mostly, what TV writing teaches you is discipline. Get the story down, sharpen the characters, and write with brutal efficiency. I try to bring those lessons to novel writing. I like to craft my books carefully, with concise storytelling and solid, relatable characters. In the end, novel writing is more fun because a book is a pure reflection of your character.
SB: What’s it like getting praise from authors C.J. Box, Alafair Burke, Joseph Finder and others?
DC: It’s wonderful getting praise from authors that you admire, and honestly, quite unexpected. But the praise I cherish most is from readers. I just love getting emails from people who’ve read my books, talking about what they liked most – and didn’t like as well. The connection to an audience is electric, and when I’m feeling down or stuck, it keeps me writing.
SB: Lastly, what are you working on next, both in terms of TV and movies as well as in terms of your next novel?
DC: Because I work in two industries – publishing and TV – I’ve always got a bunch of projects going. In TV, I’m writing a pilot for Amazon Studios (they’re in the TV game now), about a working class single mom who becomes a Che Guevara-like revolutionary in the United States. It’s called Viva Leticia, and as you can tell by the description, it’s not entirely serious.
For books, I have another Garrett Reilly novel in my head, but I’ve put him aside for a beat, and am working on a legal thriller about a female defense attorney in Seattle. I live in Seattle, and have long wanted to create a character for the city, someone who could comment on the crazy boom-town that Seattle has become.
You can find copies of Chapman’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.