What was your inspiration for the Orphan Program?
I have a great Roladex filled with guys who have operated in all sorts of fields under all sorts of cover. I’ve built up enough trust for them to talk to me on and off the record. I never know where the germ of an idea will come from—sometimes while talking to them over a beer, sometimes from an article I might stumble over. A lot of times they’ve discussed different black operations or programs they’ve been involved in. When I struck on the idea of the Orphan Program—a deep-black government program that pulls kids from foster homes and trains them up to be assassins—I used my contacts to make sure that the training, infrastructure and process felt genuine.
“I didn’t want anything to feel like bullshit Hollywood training, where Evan was running around catching flies with chopsticks.”
Smoak has some good reasons to be paranoid. Does researching for a character like this up your own paranoia? (Are you building a panic room?)
Yeah, sometimes you stumble into some creepy stuff on the web that you can’t unsee. I went down a black hole researching ISIS at one point and it got pretty sketchy. But there’s a lot of cool stuff, too. The idea for ingested GPS nanochips in Orphan X came from an article I read about a medical product that doctors use to track insulin levels in diabetic patients. I thought: Wouldn’t that be cool if Evan used it instead as a secret GPS transmitter?
My favorite research though is out in the field. I didn’t want anything to feel like bullshit Hollywood training, where Evan was running around catching flies with chopsticks. So once I had a handle on who he was, I spent months doing research. I went to Vegas to visit one of my consultants, a world-renowed sniper and armorer, who got me onto every gun I write about, from Benelli combat shotguns to custom 1911 pistols. I trained—badly—in mixed martial arts, familiarizing my face with the training mat. I talked to guys who led operations that you’ve seen on CNN, who have gone into hostile territory, under deep cover, or played offense in some of the most dangerous theaters in the world. I’d say that now and then, depending on who I’m talking to and how deep the conversation goes, topics come up that pull back the veil on what we view as ordinary life, and that can have me looking over my shoulder a bit.
Talk of an Orphan X movie began almost immediately, with plans for Bradley Cooper to produce and possibly play the character of Smoak. Does this affect your vision of the character in any way?
It sounds odd to say, but it really doesn’t. I chose to submit the manuscript exclusively to Bradley Cooper because I thought he was the perfect actor to play Evan Smoak. But until the moment I pow-wowed with my film agents about how we were going to approach the film rights, I didn’t put an actor’s face to Evan. I saw him as I do in my head. Even after working on the adaptation, that’s still the only way I see him.
What was most personal about this novel for you? What was the furthest away from yourself?
The key line in the book for me is when Jack (Evan’s handler) tells him, “The hard part isn’t making you a killer. The hard part is keeping you human.” And I think what hits closest to home for me is Evan’s struggle between intimacy and perfection. It’s very difficult to have both. But even in the face of being a perfectionist, Evan strives for human contact. That’s the heart of what I connected with when I found this character—the conflict deep within Evan. Because everybody, no matter how tough, no matter what training they’ve received, has a need for human relationships in the real world. And one thing we never get to see? Is James Bond going home. Or Jason Bourne having an awkward moment with a single mom in the elevator of his condo. What would that really be like? What’s personal about that for me is that I struggle sometimes coming out of my work life and the fictional world that I’m creating (and can control) into the real world with all its messy and wonderful complications.
The furthest away from me is probably 1. That I’m not a top-tier assassin (sad-face emoticon). And 2. That Evan’s drink of drinks is vodka. And for me? Bourbon wins every time.
What mysteries and thrillers do you think everyone must read?
So many. Red Dragon, Mystic River, Motherless Brooklyn, Demolition Angel, Trust Me, The End of Everything, Blood Work, Manhattan Nocturne, Laguna Heat, The Genius, Case Histories. . . . I could keep going forever.
What do you love most about writing thrillers?
I love when I’m all the way inside an exciting sequence and the world and time cease to exist.
The next Evan Smoak book, The Nowhere Man, comes out in January. And The Book of Henry, from an original screenplay I wrote, comes out this year from Focus/Universal.
Author photo credit Nancy Rose.