In his first novel, Hooked, Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for The New York Times, has written a book that truly tripped me out. I kidded him about it in the interview that follows. I told him, ”I think your novel should come with a warning label: ‘Do not read if a hypochondriac who uses the Internet. I was starting to feel clammy halfway through the book. Do you agree such a warning is needed?’”
His reply showed he is also modest and witty: “Seems reasonable. Everything else has a warning label these days. How about: 'Do not read Hooked if you are prone to bouts of paranoia, love sickness, or Fear Of Staying Up Past Your Bedtime To Read One More Chapter. If you start to experience any of these symptoms, promptly put down Hooked and pick up one of my newspaper articles about Silicon Valley.' You'll be asleep before you know it.”
But I read some of his articles on technology and they are far from sleep-inducing. The same can’t be said for some of the columnists of The New York Times (I’m looking at you, George Will and David Broder). In fact, Richtel also wrote one of my favorite stories ever to appear in The New York Times, partially just because I was shocked that a newspaper still hesitant to print the exact cuss words uttered by President Bush and Vice President Cheney would have a story on the adult porn awards. More on that later.
Hooked is a thriller in every sense of the word – it was hard to put down. The book keeps the reader, well, hooked from the moment it begins at a café where the protagonist, a medical journalist in the Bay Area, is handed a note and told to leave the place immediately. He does so and narrowly misses being hurt as the café explodes. The note is written in the handwriting of his true love, which would be more romantic if she wasn’t dead. Confused? Think how confused the character is and things get more surreal from there on in.
Matt was kind enough to do an interview with me via e-mail.
Scott: How did the story for Hooked develop?
Matt: I didn't start out intending to write a book. I wrote the first few pages of Hooked in the summer of 2004 after being viciously attacked by a muse. That's the only way I can explain the book's origin. Then, once those first pages were written, I got caught up in the story: what was happening to the main character, his lost love, his sanity and health?
That emotional core started to dovetail with some observations I've made as a journalist about the pace and nature of life in the digital age. I wrote at a frenzied pace, awakened by the muse many mornings at 6 a.m. and wrote for a couple of hours before I had to clock into the day job. The story unfolded organically.
Scott: How did your background as a tech writer help?
Matt: Spending time as a journalist is something I'd wish on any aspiring fiction writer. The job entails, among other things: observation, expansion of perspective, and daily writing (if you don't write, you don't eat). Along with empathy, these skills seem like pillars of fiction writing. I was able to incorporate into the book many of the observations I've made over the years about Silicon Valley, the computer business, and the technology culture.
Scott: What did you hope to accomplish with this story?
Matt: Foremost, I wanted to express and feel emotion, passion, joy, sorrow and exhilaration. I wanted to love writing the book, and I did. And now I hope that readers can experience some of the passion and emotion that I felt while writing. Finally, I wanted an excuse to drink hot chocolates – and sitting at a café writing gave me the cover I was looking for.
Scott: You also write a daily comic strip. What is it about? I don't think I know of any other novelists who also write a daily comic strip. Is it a coincidence the comic strip is, if your bio is correct, set in a café, which is also the setting for the novel's start?
The comic strip is called Rudy Park. It's set at a café and follows the lives of the regulars who congregate there. It often comments on modern trends and politics. The fact that it's set a café and that Hooked begins with a café explosion is mostly coincidental. I guess cafes are near and dear to me in that I spend a lot of time writing in them (drinking the aforementioned hot chocolates). But I also think they're interesting places to hang out in modern times – a mix of relaxation, conversation and productivity; they're kind of like what campfires were for cavemen, but with a lot more steamed milk and scones.
Scott: I think your novel should come with a warning label. Do not read if a hypochondriac who uses the Internet. I was starting to feel clammy halfway through the book. Do you agree such a warning is needed?
Matt: Seems reasonable. Everything else has a warning label these days. How about: 'Do not read Hooked if you are prone to bouts of paranoia, love sickness,' or Fear Of Staying Up Past Your Bedtime To Read One More Chapter.' 'If you start to experience any of these symptoms, promptly put down Hooked and pick up one of my newspaper articles about Silicon Valley.' You'll be asleep before you know it.
Scott: Are you writing a sequel? What is it going to be about?
Matt: I am writing a book that, while not a sequel, does use the same main character. It's called Idle's Mind. It's about memory.
Scott: How far fetched is this book from reality and existing technology?
Matt: Without giving too much away about Hooked's plot, some is far-fetched but some is less far-fetched than you might believe. Collectively, we are compulsive, sometimes obsessive, technology users. Are we physically addicted? A handful of psychiatrists think so. They think we're addicted to the onslought of digital stimulation in our lives, and bored in its absence. They call the condition: acquired attention deficit disorder. Certainly, there is enormous market pressure for us to stay connected to technology 'round the clock. Cell phone carriers want us to use minutes; broadband companies want us to stay connected, and so do ecommerce sites and online advertisers. That's a lot of marketing power directed at keeping us hooked. But is there a conspiracy to do so? I don't think so.
Scott: I just realized you wrote this piece on the adult awards? That was one of my favorite stories last year and that was partly because I was shocked the Times covered it and let you write what you did. What was that like?
Matt: Lots of interesting characters, entrepreneurs, and hangars-on, and not very much clothing. The Times let me cover it, I think, because the industry is taking on some mainstream attributes.
And because they figured I would try to find a tongue-in-cheek way to write about it. (Insert tongue-in-cheek joke here). As journalist and human being it was both fun, and, periodically, gross. But most trade events are.
Here is part of that story:
The actress known as Tyla Wynn took to the stage late Saturday night to accept an X-rated-film award, the pornography version of an Oscar. The category was Excellence in a Multiperson Sex Scene.
Although thousands of people have watched Ms. Wynn perform intimate acts, she admitted to extreme nervousness when accepting her trophy, an opaque rectangle with the image of a man and woman intertwined.
'Speaking in front of people is hard,' Ms. Wynn said, cradling her award, called the AVN.
The 23rd AVN awards presentation here was a campy mix of Hollywood cliché and X-rated clips watched with 3,000 of your closest friends and industry insiders. The acceptance speeches tended to be brief, befitting a film industry with little emphasis on dialogue.
Thanks to Matt for the interview.