Author Talk: January 2004
In this interview Joseph Finder, author of PARANOIA, shares with readers background on the research that he did in the world of corporate espionage, what he wants readers to experience from their reading and how he wanted this novel "to move like a hot knife through butter."
Q: PARANOIA is about corporate espionage, a subject that not many people know about. Why did you decide to write about it and how much of what readers read in your book is true?
JF: PARANOIA is at the heart of it a spy story, updated and transferred to a different location. In other words, I took the old idea of the Cold War spy novel and transferred that to an arena where it hadn't been done before --- that is, the corporation. Corporate espionage is something you hear about more and more and it's actually very frequent. It seemed to me a really intriguing way of updating the classic old story of the spy novel.
Corporate espionage is far more prevalent than most people suspect. Some of the nation's biggest corporations --- from Procter & Gamble to Microsoft --- employ corporate intelligence agents to spy on their competitors.
Q: PARANOIA delves deep into the world of corporate espionage, specifically the world of computer chips and wireless technology. What motivates the corporate world to spy on itself?
JF: Fear. Fear that a competitor's going to gain an advantage, steal a secret. Corporate espionage is amazingly widespread, but you rarely hear much about it. That's because most corporations would rather keep it a secret, preferring to do damage control on the sly and not let the public know ---which might shake investor confidence. Even more alarming, though, is the degree to which many corporations spy on their own employees. People who work for big companies often aren't aware of this. All of their e-mail can be read, and often it is filtered or screened for key words. Internet use is almost always monitored. There are records of all telephone calls you make. I'm not saying that every corporation is Big Brother --- far from it --- but believe me, when you go to work for a corporation, you basically sign away a lot of your privacy. You're using their computers, their servers, their telephones . . .
Q: How did you decide on making the change from writing international thrillers to this?
JF: I wanted to tell a story that was about real people, not superheroes or spies or serial murderers or professional terrorists but real human beings. Something like eighty percent of Americans work in corporations or have real jobs in the sort of company I was talking about in PARANOIA. A lot of thrillers take you to a place you've never gone before but I wanted to take you to a place you have been but show it to you differently.
Q: Do you see the corporate environment as something positive or something negative?
JF: I think I started out writing the book with the idea of showing a really ominous corporate setting but the more I traveled around and went to these places the more appealing I found the companies to be, and I began to understand really why they are second-homes for a lot of the people who work there. They're very family-like, very fraternal and they provide for a lot of social needs.
I wanted to show the dark side as well as the brighter side of corporate life but because this is a thriller and because this is my kind of thriller, nothing is as it seems and everything has to turn on its head through the course of the story. I didn't want anyone to be able to see this one through, to be able to see how it was going to progress or end.
Q: How much time did you spend researching the book? Did you talk to people at these companies? Did you let them know who you were or did you pretend to be one of them?
JF: I spent months going through various different companies. Everyone knew what I was doing but a lot of people couldn't figure out why I was there. They would ask me 'why do you want to write a novel about this place? This can't be interesting.'
It required going to places I had never been before like Apple Computer, Cisco and Hewlett Packard and seeing how people live their lives, what their daily work life is like so I could make it feel as real as possible in the novel.
Q: What did you learn from talking to people at these corporations?
JF: What I found is the more you talk to people the more you realize how much their lives are invested in the place they work. It really is very central to their lives and it is very interesting to them --- the colleagues, the politics, and the gossip is really central and in a lot of ways it's sort of like high school except that you get a paycheck.
Q: What will readers experience in this book?
JF: There's an element of satire in what I'm doing but there's also an element of fantasy. 'What if you could start a job and were so well prepped that you avoid all the obstacles and rocket to the top? What if then you were so successful you become rich and gain success in the eyes of all of your colleagues? What would that feel like if you knew that you were secretly prepped for this and haven't really achieved all of this on your own? Am I a fraud, did I accomplish this on my own or was I sort of placed on third base?'
Q: Is the keyghost used in the book real?
JF: The spy technology in this book is all real. The keyghost does exist, it's illegal but you can go on the Internet and find it for quite cheap.
Q: In general, do you find people at corporations are happy with their lives or unhappy with them?
JF: What I found out is that a lot of people who start out at corporations tend to be a little wary or alienated and as time goes on they become more acclimated and more used to things. Their lives become more centered on the company and as they get older they have a family and they become more and more dependent on the company. People tend not to make waves but I also found that people that have been there a long time tend to become very cynical. Overall, I found the environment to be appealing because I liked the camaraderie and the fraternal aspect of it. For the most part I don't have a negative view of corporations, I just think that I have a cynical view of them based on my knowledge of what is possible, what can happen if you're not careful.
Q: Do companies have skunkworks and is the technology at Trion based on a real skunkworks?
JF: Many companies have skunkworks, which are sort of secret projects that are sealed off, compartmented off from the rest of the company. Often it's a new product. I was at Apple Computer while they were developing the iPod. I would walk down a corridor and see the glass windows of each office papered over and no one I asked knew what was going on inside. The secret skunkworks in Trion is based on a real technology that's in the works that if the technological problems were solved, would transform technology as we know it immensely.
Q: Do you belong to any spy organizations?
JF: I do belong to the Association of Former Intelligence Officers which I guess makes a lot of people think that I am a former intelligence officer. But no, I am not a former intelligence officer. They let a lot of ringers in and some people like me who write a lot about the business.
Q: You never make clear in the book where we are. Why is that?
JF: I wanted the story to feel like it could take place anywhere. I didn't want it to feel like it could only happen in the Silicon Valley. This is a story I visualize in a lot of ways as taking place in Massachusetts; it could take place in Connecticut, New York, Seattle. I wanted readers to be able to plug into it and identify with it geographically no matter where they were around the country and not feel that this is one particular locale. For the purpose of the story that's not necessary. The only locale that really counts is the corporation and that I describe in great detail.
Q: How did you develop Adam's voice? Where did he come from?
JF: When stories are told in the first person, the voice is often too smart, too knowledgeable or too thoughtful because the author wants to get in all kinds of reflections that the first person narrator might not believably have. I wanted Adam's voice to be the key character in the book and as part of the characterization, I wanted us to sort of just get who he was, this twenty-six year old slacker with an arrogant attitude who's sort of cool but gets slapped around by life, and we see his voice transform as he does. Having a real voice doesn't detract from the suspense; if anything I think it makes it feel more real. I wanted to make the book feel more grounded in the real world, with real references to real life, real names of bands, real names of clothes, rap artists, food, whatever it is. I wanted to make sure that even though we were sort of in a generic location everything also felt really specific.
I was aware that I wanted the reader to see this company from fresh eyes, from the eyes of someone who is on his first day of school, so everything seems fresh and weird. So it was important in a sense that Adam be a fish out of water thrown into this setting he's not accustomed to partly because it's more suspenseful that way and partly because it's a more interesting way of experiencing things.
Q: You captured exactly the way people talk at many corporations. How did you do that?
JF: Well, I went to a lot of companies and listened with the ear of an outsider. I sort of felt like an anthropologist going to Fiji or going to Africa, it was completely an alien situation. I remember the first time I visited Cisco, someone talked about "escalating" and I thought 'Hey, I've never heard that word before'. I learned that it means going above someone's head or your immediate boss' head to get something done. Likewise, they use the term "pushback" to describe resistance to something. So I realized that there is a whole vocabulary, a whole way that people talk and I started taking notes and would constantly ask people what things meant.
Q: PARANOIA is so fast paced and yet there is so much information. How do you pack in so much research and keep it so fast paced?
JF: I wanted to make this novel move like a hot knife through butter, so what I did was distill and distill and distill as much as possible. A lot of that comes from the writing and the re-writing, so there is a lot of information in the background that we don't need to be told. It's not like a Tom Clancy novel where all of the information is given to you. Instead, I wanted information or technology to be explained only to the degree that we need to know it.
Q: Will there be a movie based on the novel?
JF: The rights were sold to a producer named Lorenzo di Bonaventura who has a deal at Paramount. He is the guy who produced The Matrix, Harry Potter, and several of the Grisham movies, and he is known in Hollywood for getting things done in a quality way. I think a lot of people in Hollywood, which in a lot of ways is a viper's nest, really connected to that vicious corporate politicking that is so central in PARANOIA.