‘I read Stephen King under the bed with a flashlight’: 21 Questions with Gregg Hurwitz

An interview with the author of the Orphan X book series on the wide-ranging genius of Shakespeare, the books that inspired him, and falling asleep on command.

For most authors of hugely successful book series, inspiration comes from the mind. For Gregg Hurwitz, the novelist, comic writer, and screenwriter behind the bestselling Orphan X series, inspiration tends to come from more visceral experiences: the author has undertaken some of the most extreme and unique field research possible for his novels, from jumping out of planes and sneaking into demolition ranges with Navy SEALS to swimming with sharks in the Galapagos and going undercover into mind-control cults. It's that interest in doing propels the fast-paced action of his writing.

Yet Hurwitz has always a writer, first and foremost. He was reading Stephen King at 10, and Joyce, Dostoyevsky, and Faulkner by his teens; he goes deep on the global appeal of Shakespeare; and he shows a voracious appetite for new books, too.

With his latest series instalment, The Last Orphan, out now, we got in touch with Hurwitz to ask him our 21 Questions about life and literature, where he discusses the above and much more, from his love of pole-vaulting to the indispensable advice James Patterson gave him.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Shakespeare. Without Shakespeare, you don't have psychology; you can't have Freud if you don't have Shakespeare. The Shakespearean canon is inexhaustible in the way that it reaches through philosophy and history, and politics and psychology. It's all-encompassing, it's ever-yielding. And the plays are so spectacular. There's so much depth, you could never get to the bottom of them. He wrote these highly structured, fast-paced narrative tales of lust, intrigue and murder designed to sell out to the widest possible audience. (Cut the Globe Theatre in half, and it's a perfect cross-section Elizabethan society; it's like a dollhouse with royalty up and the groundlings down.) He makes glancing references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the seated audience, and dick jokes for the groundlings, right? He was all-engaging.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

There’s a series in the US called Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. I think it’s a bit like The Famous Five? I think it's a bit like that. They’re like the Hardy Boys, but they were cooler. Alfred Hitchcock appeared as a character in the initial ones, and they were super charming, just these amazing mysteries. And I was obsessed with Hitchcock; I watched all his movies. When I was young. I was not allowed to watch television growing up unless it was an Alfred Hitchcock movie, or the Red Sox were playing (my dad’s from Boston). Then in fifth grade I started reading Stephen King and got obsessed. I read all of his books; I remember reading Salem's Lot under the bed with a flashlight.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

So as a teenager, I read two of what I think are the most perfect books I've ever read. The Great Gatsby, I think, is perfect. And The Sound and the Fury; William Faulkner is just unimproveable. I took a Faulkner seminar and a Joyce seminar in my senior year – I had great teachers at my high school. We read Joyce Faulkner, Dante and Dostoyevsky. The Sound and the Fury, if you have a bit of a guide through it, you can get it. It's just so cool, right? One story from more perspectives than your brain can hold.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

There's a book by Tim O’Brien, called The Things They Carried. It's extraordinary. It's a collection of short stories made about Vietnam. The Things They Carried is so amazing, because he'll tell a story about Vietnam, and then he kind of fucks with the reader; he’s like, “Did that happen? I don't know. Maybe it didn't happen and conveys the truth of Vietnam. Maybe if I told you what really happened, it wouldn't convey what it is that I wish to convey.”

He was really playing with the boundaries of fiction, as it pertains to truth. If something's factual, does that make it more truthful? Is that closer to what the truth is? And he does it so artfully, wrapped in these perfect little gems of either short stories, or non-fiction recollections from his time in Vietnam, and he won't tell you what they are. It changed my notion of what narrative can be and what its role is.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I worked with prison release workers, swinging a sledgehammer to take down fire houses, houses that were burned and needed to be decimated. You had to wear masks, because you're breathing in ash while hammering down these houses so that they could be carted up and the next wave of construction could happen.

I worked with prison release workers, swinging a sledgehammer to take down houses that were burned

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

I was at a conference when I was young and James Patterson was there, who I've long admired. He'd flown out from the East Coast, and I said, “Oh, did you work on the plane?” And he looked at me and he said, “Always – you don't you write when you travel?” And I said, “No, I need my office and my desk. I need this whole setup!” And he looked at me, and he just said, “Learn to.” I realised I was being a bit too precious about the space I needed around me to function. It was a really clear thing that was like: get more flexible. Now I write everywhere.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

The Great Gatsby. I just reread it. I used to read it every year, every couple of years when I was a young man. I so admired Jay Gatsby, reading it as a young man; to me, he was the ultimate romantic. He was like a role model. What's funny is I went back and read it as an adult, like three years ago, and I took away from it 180 degrees opposite everything that I thought. I was a seminal book for me, an amazing, eye-opening experience; but every time we arrive at a great book, we're different. And they interact with us differently. So it was amazing how different that experience was for me, to read The Great Gatsby as an adult and realise that so much of what I based my youthful strivings on were, like, completely out of whack.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

It used to be Moby-Dick. And I finally just read it and I loved it. It was a page-turner! So I knocked that one off, but I haven't read War and Peace. It’s sort of embarrassing, so don't tell anyone.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

Second baseman for the Boston Red Sox. Undeniably.

What makes you happiest?

Being home, with my Rhodesian Ridgebacks curled around me, the fireplace on and a glass of whiskey with a spherical ice cube.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

I was a pole-vaulter in high school in college. That was wild.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

I’m in my office, and my dogs are in the office, but they’re sleeping – when Rhodesian Ridgebacks play-fight, people think they're trying to kill each other. I have a desk that has wheels, and there have been times when I've been on a Zoom called where they’re wrestling and move my chair as I grab the desk, and the whole desk and everything slides across the office and crashes into a wall. So they have to be sleeping. I have white noise on that goes through speakers in the ceiling, and the door is shut. And I'm just focused. It's just me and the words. And my phones are out of my office; no notifications or anything happening with email. And the only way that I'm online is to just search for things that I need for the research for the manuscript that I'm in. Perfect.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

I did a signing once at a Borders, an American chain of bookstores. I drove two and a half hours to a Borders in the middle of nowhere, and nobody came to it. Not even a tumbleweed blowing through; not a single person.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Faulkner, bourbon.

What’s your biggest fear?

Being bored.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

My biggest fear? Being bored

To be able to sleep whenever and wherever I wanted, for however long I wanted. I have friends who were former Navy SEALs, and one of my buddies can close his eyes and he counts down from ten, and he's asleep before it gets to one every time, no matter what. It's amazing.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Damascus Station, by David McCloskey. He reminds me of a young le Carré or Daniel Silva. He was in the CIA for 20 years, and he writes about Syria, and the conflict – especially as, you know, a white American, with unbelievable nuance and subtlety. The characters are incredible. And I loved My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite. It’s this charming, deliciously wicked little book. It's almost reminds me of James M. Cain, of early noir. It's super dry. There's great humour in it. It's just compulsively readable.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?


Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Probably espresso? But I like both.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

I probably have to go with Crime and Punishment. It's not my favourite, but it's probably the best. It's just it's such a staggering reflection of human psychology, and it argues the case for morality that's derived beyond our own impressions of the world, in a way that feels airtight. That said, it's not, like, what I want to grab to go sit on the beach.

What inspired you to write your book?

For a long time, Evan’s past – Orphan X’s past – has been nipping at his heels, right? It's caught up to him a few times. I wanted to write a book where it overtakes him, and brings him down to the ground, where he is gagged and bound and imprisoned and under the control of forces way greater than him. In that process, it shatters him into a kind of trauma that he hasn't felt or experienced. He sort of comes apart, and has to put himself back together to execute this nearly impossible mission. That was sort of the starting point: What happens if Orphan X is retaken by the government that created him as a disposable weapon, and he has to choose between his code and his life? Unless he can figure out a third way – the way of the orphan – which is what the book’s about.

The Last Orphan is out now.
Image at top: Tanita Montgomery / Penguin

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