TKE Takes 5 with Matt Richtel

by Paula Longhurst

Matt Richtel’s first novel, Hooked was published in 2007, since then he’s been busy authoring a syndicated comic strip (under the pen-name Theron Heir), winning a Putlizer prize for a New York Times series he wrote on distracted driving and working on his second just-published novel Devil’s Plaything which made KUER’s recent summer must-read list.

Matt took time out from his hectic promotional schedule to give The King’s English (TKE) an interview.

TKE: How long have you been working on Devil’s Plaything and did technology have to catch up to make the story work?

Matt Richtel: Three years. I had a sophomore slump in the sense that Hooked, my first book, poured out of me in five months. A very efficient muse, that one. And, to your point, technology absolutely evolved in the course of writing Devil, to my advantage. My conspiracy floats on the edge of reality and the more technology advanced, the more the conspiracy in this book neared reality. I hope that makes it chilling.

TKE: You’ve said in interviews that Nat’s character shares some of your DNA. How about the feisty character of Lane? Did she come from your imagination or is she based on a real person?

MR: My paternal grandmother, Annie, while not feisty, is a zealous liver of life. She’s also a grammar hound, much like my fictional grandmother Lane. And Annie is a great friend of mine. But Grandma Annie, far from suffering dementia, is entirely in her right mind. At 94! She’ll kick your rear at online scrabble, honest.

TKE: When asked to describe the role technology plays in your life you’ve been quoted as saying ‘balanced, with borderline troubling tendencies.’ Have you scaled back on the multi-tasking as a result of writing Devil’s Plaything?

MR: Yes and no. My writing of Devil’s Plaything dovetailed with lots of research I’ve done into the topic of heavy multi-tasking for the New York Times. It also dovetailed with me having two kids (my wife did most of the work). That research for the Times both informed the book and informed how I live my life vis-à-vis technology. I try to be more focused on a given task and, in particular, on my kids. I TRY to keep the device at arm’s length. But I can’t believe how often I sometimes check it, sneaking a peek while my kids are well within eye-shot, mid-playtime with them. Not good, daddy. Not good.

TKE: Researchers are always quoting that we only use one tenth of our brain’s storage capacity.  Do you think it’s possible that in a few generations time the human brain will have evolved to process multiple streams of information without needing any downtime?

MR: I do not. Evolution happens over many, many generations. Our brains, for sure, ADAPT to various circumstances and we’re certainly adapting now, emphasizing some skills over others. But the basic question you ask is a great one because we’re really demanding that our brains do something they’re not built to do: multi-task. The rubber is hitting the road (no distracted driving word play intended).

TKE: With all the convenience our high-tech gadgets bring, are we in danger of becoming reliant on a push-button world? Bearing in mind that the average user has no idea exactly how their mobile devices work or what information they are collecting about us.

MR: I hear parents talk about how their kids can’t do math but can use calculators like nobody’s business. Witness the McDonald’s clerk, pushing buttons of pictures rather than making change in his/her head. Much of this can be fairly justified by convenience. But I think that knowing underlying skills remains essential. This is a slightly different question than the one you ask about whether our data is being collected. That too is a development journalists and public policy folks and everyday citizens are rightly following closely. On the face of it, it’s scary. But it’s also nuanced. People are sharing lots of information about themselves – whether on Facebook or whatever – and they’re doing it willingly and with enthusiasm. Clearly, this is a problem when this info is used in a way that the discloser didn’t intend or was told it would be used. But that line feels murky today.

TKE: Your Pulitzer-winning New York Times series “Driven to Distraction” got the term ‘distracted driving’ into Webster’s. What do you make of Utah’s drivers?

MR:  I can’t comment on that. I don’t have enough data to be journalistically sound.

TKE: After the events of Hooked, do you still write in coffee shops?

MR:  I’m writing in one now. Hey, a woman’s putting a folded note on my table. GOTTA GO!

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