Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Q&A with Anthony McCarten


Photo by Jack English



Anthony McCarten is the author of the new novel Going Zero. His many other books include The Two Popes. Also a screenwriter, playwright, and journalist, he lives in Los Angeles, London, and Munich.


Q: What inspired you to write Going Zero, and how did you create your character Kaitlyn Day?


A: The first pang of the book came during a dinner party in the summer of 2016 - a bunch of 50-something friends talking over pasta and wine about our tech-dominated lives, so different from those of our childhoods. 


Stories were shared, of weird instances we’d all had, of receiving targeted ads minutes immediately after we’d come into contact with, or merely spoken about, a product or place, as if our devices had been spying on us.


Well, guess what, they had been. Our devices are indeed working against us, our data being sold and our behaviour manipulated, all without our knowledge or consent. This book arose out of that, out of the question of how near impossible it now is to slip off the map, to make yourself undetectable and uninfluenceable.


The book took some time to take shape, involving considerable research into the ways we are now known by people and governments and corporations and institutions whose knowledge of us we have not sought.  


The character of Kaitlyn emerged slowly also. I had been spending time in Boston and I wanted a bookish character who other characters would reflexively underestimate but who would surprise us. Making her a clever Boston-based librarian with secrets fitted the bill. I then gave her an inner emotional life I felt I understood.


I made sure the plot kept challenging her, obliging her to find new resources inside herself. She needed to surprise herself if she was to surprise the reader. 


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “This well-written yarn proves that you don't have to have a blood bath to have an engaging thriller.” What do you think of that description?


A: Not to denounce bloodbaths in any way, they can be very engaging to read about, but they are so commonplace in thriller and detective literature (and also life) that I have never feel compelled to explore them as a device. I’m more interested in exploring less familiar devices to raise the stakes for the reader. 


Q: As a screenwriter, playwright, novelist, and journalist, how do those disciplines coexist for you?


A: At this point in my career they tend to inform each other. Something of a fusion may even be taking place, whereby I am increasingly employing the tools of each discipline in each of the forms. 


Q: The writer Douglas Preston said of the book, “Beyond pure entertainment is the truth this novel speaks about the disturbing times we live in.” How does that assessment strike you?


A: My research certainly threw up a lot of disturbing facts that the book explores, so to that extent I agree with Mr. Preston. 


As new technologies are being released and set to work, too fast to be regulated, with the public too wowed by the miracles tech is delivering to react and limit the downsides, we are unfortunately seeing the widespread and often invisible erosion of our personal freedoms through ubiquitous surveillance, and the replacement of independent thought and judgement with automated systems of control and behaviour manipulation.


And we’re passively letting this happen. It’s quite extraordinary how we simply accept the fact that we are now effectively compliant lab rats in a vast experiment unlike any before in human history. The debate about regulating this technology remains stubbornly in its infancy, and is fast falling behind the new and emerging threats as they appear. And how they are appearing!  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Two films and a musical. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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