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Interview: January 16, 2004

January 16, 2004

In this interview with's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub, and Wiley Saichek) Joseph Finder talks about writing PARANOIA, including his research and how he developed the book's major plot twist. He also talks about the pre-publication buzz that surrounded the novel and reveals certain details concerning its conclusion --- so be sure to pay attention to our spoiler alert midway through this interview!

BRC: There are interesting similarities in the dynamics within --- and between --- nations and those we see in corporations. Did you find it to be a major jump to write PARANOIA, a novel about corporate espionage, after writing THE MOSCOW CLUB and EXTRAORDINARY POWERS, which were more concerned with international relations?

JF: In some ways, no, it wasn't a major leap. They're all spy novels, in a sense. I mean, even though PARANOIA is much more mainstream fiction (a thriller that happens to be set in a corporation), its suspense underpinnings --- recruiting a "mole," training him and placing him in the target, etc. --- come from classic Cold War suspense fiction a la John le Carre. So there are real similarities. I think of PARANOIA as an updating of the classic spy novel, a freshening up.

BRC: One of the trademarks of your novels is your ability to present complex plots in an understandable manner. There are a lot of twists and turns, but you drop enough literary breadcrumbs to ensure that your reader never gets lost. Do you find, when you're writing a novel, that you have to occasionally rein in the plot, or do you know exactly where you're going at all times?

JF: Most of the time I have the macro-plot figured out in advance --- if I didn't, I'd definitely get lost. But often, as I'm writing, another idea will occur to me. I'll decide a character will in fact do something else, say something else, act differently --- and then I have to sort of rework the rest of that subplot. That said, I will say that by far the biggest plot twist in PARANOIA --- and if you've read the book, you know what I'm talking about --- was not something I came up with until I was almost halfway into the story. Suddenly I knew how the book had to resolve itself. It blew me away. I knew it was the only way to end the story. And I think the reason that virtually no readers I know, not even the most jaded and experienced readers of thrillers, can see the end coming is because I didn't see it coming either until I was quite a ways into the book. Call it serendipity.

BRC: We often joke that one can get "lost" in a meeting with tech people as they speak in their own corporate jargon. It's like a secret handshake or code. Were you ever "lost" when you sat in on meetings during your research? What do you think this kind of language brings to a group?

JF: Are you kidding? The first few days I spent researching PARANOIA, hanging out at Cisco Systems in San Jose, California, I didn't understand half of what people were saying. It was like Urdu, or Serbo-Croatian. People were using words like "pushback" and "escalation" and "bandwidth," and finally I started interrupting them and saying, "OK, can you please speak English here? Can you explain what you're talking about?" The thing is, cops talk in their own code language, and so do doctors and lawyers. All the professions, in fact. I think this "biz-buzz" is useful as shorthand in the corporate world, and in some ways it probably makes businesspeople feel like professionals, but it also (as George Orwell pointed out about political jargon) leads to lazy thinking.

BRC: We know you did a lot of research in the tech world before you wrote PARANOIA. Did your perceptions of this industry change writing this book? Do you consider yourself a tech geek? Do you own the prerequisite tech toys --- Tivo, iPod, Blackberry, Palm? Do you have a favorite gadget?

JF: Oh, I love technology, and doing research into this world made me even worse. I was actually at Apple, doing research for PARANOIA, while they were developing the iPod -- I knew something big was going on. As soon as the iPod came out, I bought one. I love the Apple iTunes store. I've got a Palm, of course, too, and a cell phone. (A friend of mine calls this GAS -- Gear Acquisition Syndrome.) The only reason I don't have a Tivo is that I'm afraid it'll be like cigarettes --- it'll just get me addicted to television, which I can't afford: I've got a book due soon! I guess one of my favorite "gadgets," if you can call it that, is my PowerBook, because I can use it to watch DVDs while I'm traveling, do my e-mail, and write anywhere. My other favorite gadget is my Bose noise-canceling headphones --- expensive, but it turns a coach flight into first-class, so it's worth the investment: a cheap upgrade.

And my perceptions of the industry did change while I was researching the book. I really loved spending time at places like Apple or Cisco --- they're really high-energy, creative, cool companies. When I started doing my research, I expected to find the corporate world a forbidding, paranoia-inducing place. In fact, I found it enormously appealing, and that changed the entire storyline. I realized that Adam, my protagonist, had to fall in love with his new workplace, Trion --- to discover a new home there.

BRC: You typically write alone, but were there any moments during your research where you thought that it might be fun to be part of the corporate world?

JF: Definitely. Writing is lonely, as any writer will tell you. Working in the corporate world struck me as being extremely social and interactive, quite appealing. Thing is, I like being my own boss.

BRC: It seems like you had fun writing Adam's character. Is he more like you or your alter ego?

JF: Maybe alter-ego. He's certainly not me. I'm older, more staid, nowhere near as slick or gifted at winning people over. (But that's the great thing about fiction -- living vicariously through your characters.) We do listen to similar music, though.

BRC: In addition to a great leading character, you did a terrific job of fleshing out your "secondary" characters in PARANOIA. Which of these characters is your favorite? Why? Do you know from the start how large a role a secondary character will play, or do your secondary characters surprise you as you're writing?

JF: Thanks! I loved the characters in this book more than in any other book I've written before. It's hard to choose among them. I love Noah Mordden, the cynical, dark, scary intellectual. I love Judith, the corporate coach, and I love Norah, Adam's killer boss. I really enjoyed writing Wyatt, the loathsome, profane CEO of Wyatt Telecom. But my favorite was Jock Goddard. I guess the secondary characters are the only ones that I allow to violate my I'm-in-control-here policy. That is, if a secondary character really starts to take off, I give him or her more screen time, as it were.

BRC: The ending of PARANOIA was ambiguous enough to keep the reader guessing, and wondering, long after the book is done. We have to ask: What does Adam do? And will we ever see him again?

SPOILER ALERT! Don't read this if you haven't read the book --- and plan to!

JF: The question is, does he get in the car or not? I leave that to the reader. But my feeling is, if at the age of 26 he doesn't have the courage to keep on walking, then he hasn't learned anything --- and I think he has. He doesn't have a family to support --- I say he keeps on walking. Will we see Adam again? I have no plans. He's been through such an arduous time, I think the guy needs a serious break.

BRC: Have any of your contacts who helped with the research for PARANOIA read the book? If so, what were their reactions?

JF: Yes, several, including the CFO of one of America's largest high-tech companies --- and he loved it. They've all liked the book a lot, which is nice to hear.

BRC: What was the most fascinating or surprising fact you learned while researching/writing PARANOIA?

JF: Hmm. Tough one. I'd say it was the degree to which there's no privacy in the corporation --- all your e-mail is archived somewhere, often screened, all of your web browsing is monitored, even your telephone can legally be tapped.

BRC: PARANOIA has gotten some terrific pre-publication buzz from reviewers, booksellers and readers. You have been published 4 times already. What do you think is making PARANOIA so special?

JF: When I sat down to write PARANOIA, I was determined to write a book that was unlike anything I'd ever read before --- a book I wanted to read. I wanted to create something that was both smart and suspenseful, that had real emotional stakes and depth, and that was told in a totally colloquial, accessible way. I wanted to jettison as many clichés as I could, defeat as many expectations as possible. I didn't want to write something that could be marketed as "another Grisham" or "another Clancy" -- I wanted to write something that would be just pure and simple a Joe Finder book -- my own voice, my own thing. I don't know how well I succeeded in that, but that was my intention. And it seems to me that some advance readers are responding to the book's uniqueness, maybe freshness. At least, that's what I hope.

BRC: While we are on the subject of PARANOIA's buzz and publication, please share with us the emotions you go through, as an author, whenever a new book hits the shelves.

JF: It's agony. I hate publication. It's funny --- I love the writing --- it's why I do it. But having the book appear in public --- which is the point, after all, and if it didn't happen I'd be awfully bummed --- is a huge anxiety to me. That said, it's also kind of exciting at the same time. Sort of like a great rollercoaster ride.

BRC: Your novel HIGH CRIMES was adapted into an extremely successful film, which is still frequently televised. How much involvement, if any, did you have with the film adaptation? Were you happy with it? Is there anything that you might have done differently?

JF: I liked it a lot. I'm not one of those writers who complain about the movies that have been made from their books --- my feeling is, no one put a gun to my head and forced me to sell it to Hollywood. I thought the director, Carl Franklin, is immensely talented and did a wonderful job. I loved Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman. I had nothing to do with the adaptation --- they didn't ask me, which was just as well.

BRC: Do you have any thoughts concerning who you would cast for the roles in a film version of PARANOIA?

JF: Now, that's the big parlor game my friends and I enjoy playing --- a game, because I have no power over who they'll cast, assuming the movie gets made. I'd love to see Matt Damon as Adam, but Colin Farrell could do it well too. It'll require an actor who can be charming and personable but also a bit slick. I see Alana being played by Jennifer Connelly. Wyatt could be Alec Baldwin --- man, he'd be a great Wyatt. Goddard is a crucial role; he could be played by Robert Duvall or Anthony Hopkins.

BRC: What are you working on now and when can we expect to see it?

JF: Another novel, also set in the corporate world, and it'll be out next year around the same time --- if I don't do too many more interviews.