Back in 2014, Matt Richtel wrote a mesmerizing, compulsive, and very well-researched nonfiction book about a young man who drifted out of his lane on a Utah highway while texting and killed two rocket scientists coming the opposite way. The book was called A Deadly Wandering, and Amazon Senior Editor Jon Foro described the book this way: "Richtel has combined his savvy as a New York Times science reporter with his skill as a writer of technology-infused thrillers to weave two separate, if related, stories together: the tragedy—and ultimate redemption—of Reggie Shaw, and the deleterious effects of technology on our brains, bodies, and culture. A Deadly Wandering is a riveting blend of humanity and science, and a masterful work of narrative nonfiction."
Lee Child: I’m impressed by the early buzz on this book. Multiple comparisons to Michael Crichton, and classics like The Stand? Big shoes, and you seem to fill them. Are these your influences?
Matt Richtel: Candidly, Lee, you're among the influences, and so is Crichton. This reflects my two cents about central pillars of successful thrillers: they don't make it hard for the reader to suspend disbelief. In your case, what works so well for me (as a reader) is that your hero is so believable, even while playing the superhuman. Crichton derives premises that are one click beyond reality, but close enough. Andromeda Strain took my breath away. One final attribute I cherish is the seamless quality of great writing. Here I speak of folks like Don Winslow, T. Jefferson Parker and Dennis Lehane (along with dialogue masters Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard). At my own long-toothed age, I really don’t try to emulate but appreciate, and hope these greats have mingled with my bloodstream. Together, they capture the ethos of great mystery: the more real, the more thrilling and terrifying.
Lee Child: Speaking of terrifying, some people fear flying. With your book’s opening, now you’re going to make them scared of landing. Where did these extraordinarily creepy early chapters come from?
Matt Richtel: I’ll rankle some feathers here: I love flying (well, not that part where the airline drags you off the plane). At 30,000 feet you're disconnected from the world. One time, a few years ago, I landed and the airport looked desolate. For an eye blink, I wondered: did something happen while I was in the air? Those hours spent in suspended animation are time enough for the world below to go wrong. In the case of Dead on Arrival, very, very wrong.
Lee Child: Exactly. Being in the air is a kind of disconnected limbo. You expect the world to be there, waiting for you, when you disembark. In this case it isn’t. But a great start doesn’t make a great book. I think what makes Dead on Arrival so compelling is that it reeks of the real. It could happen … does that come from your work for the New York Times?
Matt Richtel: Guilty as charged. Years talking to scientists and Big Thinkers has filled my notebooks with all kinds of theories and ideas not yet fit to print. People speculate, or identify trends. The science and medicine in this book, the infectious principles and political and social impacts come from real ideas turned up to 11 on the volume. This is the front-page story that hasn’t happened, not yet. Insert creepy music.
Lee Child: Speaking of politics, the backdrop here is a world coming undone with hostility and tribalism. Some people say mysteries and thrillers are now where we find social realism and commentary. Were you aiming for that?
Matt Richtel: Storytelling is such great medium for tackling questions that have left even talking heads speechless. I’ve wrestled in particular to understand how so many good people can be so ticked off at each other – and be calling late-night radio to tell the rest of us. This book unfolds one explanation. By the final pages, I hope the reader will include in his/her thinking another perspective; we’re being overtaken by infectious forces of our own making. We’re infecting ourselves. We can undo it.
Lee Child: Your protagonist is terrific - a wildly talented infectious disease specialist with a misanthropic streak. Where did he come from?
Matt Richtel: First, that’s high praise from the inventor of Jack Reacher. The brainiac at the center of this story, Dr. Lyle Martin, borrows ideas and sense of conflict come from a handful of docs I’ve spoken to over the years. These docs mourn how human beings treat each other. One surgeon really underscored the point, noting he was sick and tired of stitching people up who cause drunk driving wrecks, shoot each other, take drugs, knife fight. Humanity rides a line, and the protagonist in this book wrestles with which side to ride himself.
Lee Child: Wait, isn’t your wife a doctor?
Matt Richtel: I promise I'm not talking about her, Lee. You think I’m suicidal?
Lee Child: Point to Richtel. Last question: by the end of this book, it’s clear you’re suggesting that technology, and how we use it, has a profound impact not just on how we live, but our brains themselves. Is that part fiction?
Matt Richtel: That part is all meat, no fat. All real. I’d put this shift up there with the industrialization of food, that significant. We. Are. Always. On. It is changing us, and how we relate, vote, how physically active we are, friendly and hostile. One of the most chilling stories I did for the Times last year recounted the latest thinking about the subject by the head of the National Institutes for Drug Abuse. She’s investing in research to try to show that the significant drop in teen drug use is happening because teens are, rather than experimenting with drugs, getting stimulated and distracted by their devices. Whether you think this is good or bad, it’s a sign of the extraordinary social and neurological potency of our gadgets.
Lee Child: Which is why I love to fly - I get a few hours of peace. But now you’ve got me worried about landing.
Shop this article on Amazon.com
You might also like:
- Michael Connelly Talks about his New Series (and his Brand New Character)
- The Best Mysteries & Thrillers of 2017 So Far
Sign up for the Amazon Book Review: Best books of the month * author interviews * the reading life * and more