In his new thriller 7 Grams Of Lead, writer Keith Thomson follows a journalist who’s had a surveillance device implanted in his brain. But while some might think this technothriller is pure fantasy, Thomson says explains that it was inspired by a real event.
I always like to start at the beginning. So, what is 7 Grams Of Lead about, and where did you get the idea for it?
7 Grams Of Lead is about a reporter who discovers that a subminiature electronic device has been implanted in his head. His investigation propels him into a life-or-death struggle with the spies who’d bugged him.
The book is based on my own real-life experience: In 2008, at CIA headquarters, I interviewed the agency’s director, General Michael Hayden, for the Huffington Post. Hayden told me that, in his experience, journalists too often lacked discretion and were a liability. Of note, in his previous post, director of the NSA, Hayden oversaw the controversial surveillance program that included the wiretapping of US citizens.
A few days later, I was walking out of a movie theater when it felt like lightning struck my left arm. Nearly floored me. The source was a small lump on the outside of my left wrist. A sebaceous cyst, I figured, one of those pea-size accumulations of keratin beneath the skin; I’d had two or three before. They’re harmless. Go away in a couple of months. This one was unusually smooth, though. Oddly symmetrical too, like a Tic Tac. And I wondered: Could the lump be an eavesdropping device?
I went to my doctor. A few months earlier, I’d made the mistake of trying to push a squash court wall out of the way while running full speed after a ball and tore the cartilage in my left wrist. The lump in my left wrist, the doctor said, was an absorbable suture from the operation that hadn’t dissolved properly. Which fit the facts.
Or the CIA had gotten to the doctor.
Cue the ominous music. So why did you decide to make the hero of 7 Grams Of Lead, Russ Thornton, a journalist as opposed to something else?
I liked a journalist better than, say, a spy, because if a journalist finds a bug in his head, it’s more of a mystery. If it’s CIA officer, he has a pretty good idea that it’s the other team, the KGB for instance. A journalist, particularly one with a curiosity problem, is left to wonder which of dozens of wrong places he stuck his nose.
In developing the character, did you consult any real journalists for tips, or did you base his depiction on the way journalists have been portrayed in movies, TV shows, etc?
I leaned on a few national security reporters, principally Jane Mayer, who’s one of my idols. She was born without fear, and she hates bullies.
Was there ever any thought to making Russ a woman instead of a man?
If nothing else, the story dictated the gender choices; the other main character loses a political election because, as the tabloids put it, she “gets around.” Unfortunately, that sort of press mostly targets women.
True. In decided how the surveillance technology would work in the book, did you do research to see what was currently available or in the works, or did you just make stuff up to best suit the story?
I worked with an MIT professor to take existing surveillance technology ten years into the future, to find a realistic way to miniaturize the eavesdropping device. The professor’s idea was a capacitor that’s charged by the movement of your head, the way a watch works. I should note that this tech doesn’t exist already…as far as I know. One of my CIA sources likes to say that any tech that you can imagine we will have twenty years from now, they have already.
In doing this research, did you come across anything that was either ridiculous or outlandish or whatever, so much so that you said to yourself, “Okay, I am not doing that”? Because I just watched that episode of Archer in which the KGB implanted a chip in Sterling Archer’s head, and it made him psychotic every time his cell phone rang. Seems like something you might want to skip in a technothriller.
You’re right; technothrillers need to steer clear of over-the-top tech. And sometimes that includes actual existing stuff. I’ve heard from readers that the e-bomb in 7 Grams Of Lead strains credulity. In the book, it’s an electronic device the size of a golf bag that generates an electromagnetic pulse on the order of terawatts — or about ten thousand times as powerful as a lightning bolt — and fries all semiconductive material within its range. Meaning that all electrical and electronic systems within range cease to function. But, actually, this technology has been around since the 1950s.
By the way, when you tell people that you write technothrillers, how often do they say, “Techno like the music?”
That would be funny. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that I write technothrillers. I’m not the best self-promoter. Usually I just say I’m a writer.
7 Grams Of Lead is, of course, not your first book. In writing it, did you develop any new tricks, or learn anything that would’ve made your earlier novels better, or made writing them a lot easier?
Yes: It’s good to have a coffee machine in your office.
Ha! Your other books have been compared to John Le Carré and Carl Hiassen. Do you think these are fair comparisons, do you see their influence in your writing?
Probably not fair to Le Carré or Hiaasen, but I’ll take it.
Are there any authors that you see as a big influence on your style but, for whatever reason, no one ever picks up on them?
I like Robert Ludlum a lot, and I’ve seen comparisons of my work to his — The Daily Record actually wrote, about my novel, Twice A Spy, “It really, really is like Ludlum.” — which is flattering. My favorite writer is Lee Child. I’ve read everything of his, and aspire to write half as well as he does. Haven’t seen any comparisons to Child, but that’s not surprising.
It seems to me that 7 Grams Of Lead could be a good movie. Has there been any interest in it from Hollywood?
Once A Spy is in development at Sony Pictures and 7 Grams Of Lead has a fish on the line. Or, at least, we saw a bubble. And I’ll defer to the studio regarding the choice of cast and director. Though I would like to participate in the selection process for craft services.
Finally, along with 7 Grams Of Lead, you’ve also written a couple other books, including Once A Spy and Twice A Spy. First, are there any plans to do Three Times A Lady Spy?
Only just now, upon reading your title suggestion.
Cool. Second, if someone enjoyed 7 Grams Of Lead, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why?
And then they can read Three Times A Lady Spy.