Q&A: Matthew Quirk’s ‘The 500,’ a D.C. Thriller

BY Mike Melia  August 23, 2012 at 10:58 AM EDT

the500_quirk2.jpgMike Ford is broke, facing a mountain of debt from hospitals bills after his mother’s death, has a father in jail and is unable to pay his tuition to Harvard Law School when he’s offered what seems like a dream job in Washington, D.C. That’s how the new thriller, “The 500,” a debut novel from Matthew Quirk begins. The book follows Ford’s journey as he tries to shed his small-time crook past and discovers that seemingly respectable people in power can be violently deceitful.

“It is sort of my own background in D.C. taken to an extreme,” Quirk said in a recent phone interview. He was a reporter at the Atlantic, covering a range of issues from crime to military contracting, before the economic downturn left him without a job and focusing on writing full time.

“When you start out writing novels, you realize pretty quickly it’s not about having a big explosion at the end, but taking a character and almost studying them as you raise the stakes on their choices to see what they do,” Quirk said. “It was nice to have a basic moral dilemma: How much will you give up to get what you want?”

The book moves at a blistering pace as Ford confronts the limits of his own morality and is asked to test the bounds of others. The title of the book refers to the 500 most influential people in Washington and the consulting firm where Ford works, which is filled with ex-CIA and former government officials operating on the assumption that everyone has a price and working to be the place that knows everyone’s secrets.

MIKE MELIA: Let’s start with Mike Ford, not to give away too much, he comes from unlikely background to find himself both at Harvard Law School and then at a powerful lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. What was the genesis? How did come into being for you?

MATTHEW QUIRK: It is sort of my own background in D.C. taken to an extreme. I had a pretty good plot, and I wanted to mine a lot of the experiences I had coming to D.C. after college, getting thrown into politics and not having much of a background in that. I just knew a lot of people that didn’t grow up around Washington, all these strange fish-out-of-water experiences when I first came there. For instance, when I was an intern at the Atlantic, the owner very nicely invited us to a dinner at his house, and his house is sort of — it might be the former Cuban Embassy. I went there for this dinner party, and there was a former CIA director and some correspondents and the whole thing was way different than I expected. A lot of Washington was like that for me. It was a baptism by fire. I had that sense of being a little out of place, and I had to learn very quickly.

When I turned to write the book, I wanted to mine from some of those experiences for the main character. But the story of coming from regular suburban New Jersey to Washington isn’t all that thrilling, so I dialed it up and took some of those sentiments and said, How could I really take this to a higher level and make some interesting drama out of it? I came up with the idea that he was a fish out of water because he grew up in much less genteel circumstances than he finds himself in Washington. He comes from a bunch of small-time criminals in Virginia. It was fun because I got to juxtapose some scenes from his small-town crooks, who in their own way are honest or at least they have an ethical code, and the morals of Washington politics, which at first seems to be the complete opposite of the world Mike Ford grew up in. But then he finds maybe honest men are not so, maybe the people who seem respectable aren’t so honest and maybe the people he grew up with who never seemed quite respectable are more honest in their own way.

MIKE MELIA: The book begins with Mike Ford’s father in jail. Mike himself has a small-time crook past of his own before trying to stay straight. As you said, the juxtaposition between that type of honor among thieves as opposed to the veneer of the moral elite as they see themselves in D.C. What type of research did you do on that front, both from the tricks of the small-time crook trade to the more devious exploits of the Washington intelligence community?

MATTHEW QUIRK: The Washington stuff, unfortunately, you can learn all the skulduggery in Washington you need for a book like this from reading a couple of newspapers every day, as I did as a reporter for the Atlantic. The book really came from reading a ton of news and my own reporting. I got to report on some cool stuff for the Atlantic and also just from being in the mix of young reporters in D.C., where you’d have a friend who was to Guantanamo or you’d have friends from school who are working all kinds of interesting cases or they end up at the CIA or the Pentagon. All that stuff was fascinating to me because they’re regular jobs in a certain way, they have all the boredom of regular jobs and then at the same time they’re at these mythic institutions and there is all this exciting stuff.

All of those things filtered into the Washington background of the book and was very natural. The key was finding a plot where I could hang all that real life experience I had. And then the small time crook stuff — I didn’t really get into trouble all that much when I was young, but just classic youthful indiscretion. My cross-country team and I would always go on these adventures and break into industrial sites in north Jersey, exploring. Most of it really comes from research on lock picking, burglary. It’s an outgrowth of reporting. Knowing where to find and look that stuff up came from all that time researching and reporting at the Atlantic. I learned to pick locks for this, very easy locks. It is remarkable how easy it is. I got a lock pick set and tried a rake pick on the lock at the place I was staying. It opened on my first try and it terrified me.

MIKE MELIA: “The 500″ stands for the 500 most powerful people in Washington, and one of the premises for the book is that everyone has a price. The firm where Ford works tries to find the levers to bribe, and cajole and control those that are at the seats of power. Can you explain how that was fascinating to you? That type of moral dilemma, the idea everyone can be bought and everyone has something in their past they don’t want exposed?

MATTHEW QUIRK: It was really fun. When you start out writing novels, you realize pretty quickly it’s not about having a big explosion at the end, but taking a character and almost studying them as you raise the stakes on their choices to see what they do. It was nice to have a basic moral dilemma: How much will you give up to get what you want? I started it with very basic, very relatable things, and Mike is sympathetic because all he wants is a decent life. He has wanted that his whole life. They are things I want. They are things I think most people want, and you sort of raise the stakes step by step. You have him waiver. There were times I wasn’t sure what he is going to do.

At the same time, I was reading some books on intelligence because one the people he works for is a former CIA guy who basically goes into private sector intelligence. I was reading these great CIA manuals, old books on intelligence and there is the human intelligence aspect. There is all this literature about turning people and bringing them around to your side. It was fascinating because I had been doing all this character work as a novelist and I found out there was very analogous stuff in intelligence work, where you understand the human source you want to turn, their motivation and then you figure out how to raise the stakes on them. There is this great stuff in the book about intelligence manuals and how they have it down to a science, where there are four levers that will work on anyone and I get into that in the book. It was really fun to dovetail those two things and discover that the character work you can do as a novelist is pretty similar to some of the human psychology that comes from intelligence and putting leverage on people.

MIKE MELIA: On the personal side of all this — full disclosure, you and I have known each other for a number of years and we would get together as young reporters in D.C. — I remember when you were getting ready to leave your job to write a book full time and seeing you during that process. Can you explain that leap and what it was like to throw yourself all-in to something you dreamed about but had a number of personal risks for you, the suspense just in the trying?

MATTHEW QUIRK: It’s easier to jump when you get a little nudge. In 2008, there was the global economic collapse and it hurt journalism pretty badly — on top of regular stuff in journalism that was hard to begin with — and the Atlantic downsized and I was let go. It turns out one of the best things that ever happened to me was getting hired at the Atlantic, and one of the second best things that ever happened to me was getting let go, because I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do this strictly on my own. I was soon to get married and things worked out well. It was all very sort of suspenseful. I had sent out an earlier manuscript for a different book a few months before I was let go. About three days after I learned that I lost my job I got a call from an agent who said the beginning of this manuscript you sent me is pretty good. I sent it to a friend of a friend to get professional feedback, to see if it was worth my time. He said, ‘I read it and my boss, David Gernert, read it.’ David Gernert is John Grisham’s literary agent. I said, ‘Oh my god, if I had known I would have done a better job and polished it more.” But it was great because I got the encouragement I needed to try this full time for a couple years.

I finished that book up in about six months and no one published it. I got like nine rejections. One agent said he would work with me on a second book, and that became, “The 500.” Most agents would say, Take two years, write another book and I’ll let you know if that’s a good idea for another book. I was used to journalism where you would just pitch things. My agent Shawn Coyne is terrific. He said, “Send me some ideas and we can work from there.”

I had a manuscript then and I was hoping we could sell it. It was near the end of the amount of time I had for this writing experiment, because I was getting married in a few months. I was running out of time. I kept my overhead very low during this period. It all worked out about a month or two before the wedding. My father-in-law had been really nice, but he was always hinting, “Ok, what is plan A?” I’d say, “The book.” He’d say, “What is plan B?” And I’d say, “A creative writing degree.” He’d ask, “Is there a plan C?” And I’d say, “No, Rick. There is no plan C.” The story of the book to me was as exciting as the story in the book.