Reece Hirsch’s new book, Surveillance, just came out, and he answered a few questions about it, and the Chris Bruen series!
Will you tell us what fans of the Chris Bruen series can expect from Surveillance? What inspired you to write the series?
Readers who have followed the Chris Bruen series know that I write fast-paced thrillers that touch upon scary, cutting-edge privacy and security issues, from cyberwarfare and deadly computer viruses, to state-sponsored hackers to, in “Surveillance,” NSA domestic surveillance.
The Bruen series was inspired by the issues that I deal with in my day job as a privacy and cybersecurity attorney. Much of my work involves helping companies respond to and prevent security breaches committed by hackers and cybercriminals. While my work isn’t nearly as exciting, or as hazardous, as Chris Bruen’s, I do know attorneys who do some of the things that Bruen does. For example, a few years ago I was giving a presentation with a colleague and I asked him where he was headed next. He told me that he was flying to Amsterdam to knock on the door of a hacker, in coordination with a local law firm and law enforcement, to try to recover a client’s stolen intellectual property. That story became Chapter 2 of “The Adversary,” which introduces Bruen as a character. Of course, in my version there’s a body count.
What makes Chris such a compelling character? Will you tell us more about him?
Chris’s background as a teenage hacker and a former Department of Justice cybercrimes prosecutor makes him uniquely qualified to combat cybercriminals. He’s also a cancer survivor with a case of survivor’s guilt because his wife was not so lucky. In the first book in the series, Chris is just coming out of a long period of grieving where he threw himself into his work and isolated himself. Chris’s air of professional competence and sardonic sense of humor present a fairly tough façade to the world. However, I find him compelling because of his weaknesses and the fact that he’s conflicted about so much of what he does.
Chris spent years putting young hackers in jail even though he himself was nearly confined to a juvenile detention facility as a teenager for hacking a Department of Defense database. Chris defends corporations that have had their assets and data stolen, but there are times when he questions whether he’s on the right side of certain privacy issues. That tension causes Chris and his legal practice to change dramatically over the course of the three books.
What kind of research did you do for the book? Was it easier to write a third book in the series since you have the structure pretty well established?
I read a lot about the workings of the NSA and the Snowden affair, particularly James Bamford’s “The Shadow Factory” and Glenn Greenwald’s “No Place to Hide.” The more I learned about the scope of the NSA’s spying and modern surveillance technology, the more paranoid I became. It’s deeply creepy stuff.
“Surveillance” was an easier book to write in some ways because I’m so familiar with the characters of Chris and Zoey Doucet, the head of Chris’s computer forensic lab. However, structurally, this was the most complicated story that I’ve written because it follows three distinct, but closely related, storylines. I wanted to portray modern surveillance from the perspective of someone who’s on the run (Bruen), someone who’s trying to hide off the grid (Zoey), and someone who’s inside the NSA (data analyst Sam Reston). Fortunately, I think “Surveillance” may also be the most action-packed book that I’ve written.
You have a background in law, but have you always wanted to write fiction? Will you tell us more about yourself and that progress?
I’ve wanted to write fiction ever since I was a kid but I didn’t really get serious about completing a manuscript until after I turned 40. It’s so easy to be daunted by the task of writing a novel, and the demands of practicing law made it even easier to procrastinate.
I finally took a U.C. Berkeley Extension novel writing workshop that got my writing kick-started. That was where I wrote the first pages of my first book. I know many writers who put several manuscripts in the drawer before they get published. I probably spent a similar amount of time (or longer) struggling to find an agent and a publisher, but I chose to just keep revising and revising that first manuscript. About six years later, it was finally published as The Insider. I think it probably would have been less agonizing to just move on to a new manuscript but I just couldn’t let it go. There were elements in The Insider dealing with law firm life that I wanted to write about and I knew that even if I tossed out that book I’d still find myself returning to the same material.
Why suspense? What do you enjoy most about reading, and writing, in the genre?
I love reading, and writing, books that have plenty of narrative momentum. As a reader, some of my best, most immersive reading experiences have come from thrillers. I love nothing better than hearing a reader say that they stayed up late to read my book in one or two sittings. Thrillers are the punk rock of literary genres – they’re not always subtle, but at their best they’re fast, exciting and visceral – and they don’t get a lot of respect in some quarters.
What do you like to see in a good story? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?
I like a story that consistently surprises me in some way, whether it’s in the voice, the characters or the plot. And if you have all three going on, then I’m definitely hooked. I will put a book down if I feel that the writer is merely rehashing genre tropes, and isn’t bringing anything new to the table.
Who are a few of your favorite authors?
I love Richard Price, Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, Ken Bruen, Kate Atkinson, Kem Nunn, Don Winslow, Megan Abbott, Daniel Woodrell, Colin Harrison and many more.
What are you currently reading?
“The Whites” by Richard Price. No one writes better cops or better dialogue. We don’t get new books from Price as often as I would like, so I’m trying to read this one slowly and make it last. I also recently read two outstanding thrillers from new (or newish) writers – “The Killing Kind” by Chris Holm and “The Short Drop” by Matthew FitzSimmons.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
My next book once again deals with some very of-the-moment privacy and security issues, but it is not a Chris Bruen book. It’s a bit of a departure for me, but I’m excited to be trying something new. At least on the good days I’m excited. On the bad days, I’m floundering and worried that it will never come together as a book — but I’ve learned to accept that that’s part of my process.
When former computer-crimes prosecutor Chris Bruen and retired hacktivist Zoey Doucet open their San Francisco law firm, it’s the best day of their professional lives. That is, until their first client walks through the door.
Ian Ayres is an “ethical hacker” who was hired by a company to test the security of its online systems. On the job, he uncovered some highly classified information: the existence of a top-secret government surveillance agency and its Skeleton Key, a program that can break any form of encryption. Now Ayres is on the run. And after government agents descend on Chris and Zoey’s office during their potential client’s visit—killing two employees—they, too, are forced to flee for their lives.
From California to Ecuador to Mexico, the trio must try to evade a hired assassin, a bloodthirsty drug cartel, and their own government. But how can they escape an adversary that can access every phone call, every email, every video feed?
Surveillance is critically acclaimed author Reece Hirsch’s third book in the Chris Bruen series.