Matt Cook, Ph.D. is an economist, bestselling author, and composer based in Los Angeles. He founded Braveship Media, an entertainment consulting group, and US Common Sense, a government transparency organization whose data have been used by almost every major news source. He currently works in private equity and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Stanford University and earned his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania.
MM: Thank you for sharing a bit about your book Sabotage with us, Matt.
MC: My pleasure, Marilyn. I wrote it nearly ten years ago, so it’ll be a fun retrospective.
MM: Are any aspects of the plot based on real events?
MC: At Stanford, there’s a tradition called “The Game.” Teams of students race around the San Francisco Bay Area over twenty-four hours, solving a chain of clues. During my freshman year, we lost terribly and didn’t finish the race. The year after, our team came in first among the undergraduates. That time, our team had drawn from a variety of fields, including chemistry, physics, economics, mechanical engineering, and computer science. The creative synergy was exciting. I wanted to write a story about a team whose different academic backgrounds would enable them to solve a puzzle of international consequence. One of the themes in the story is the idea that outsiders to a field can view problems through a different, creative lens, without the anchor of convention.
MM: How did you channel your research into the story for Sabotage?
MC: During my sophomore year in college, I was interested in reading about the ways our infrastructure and economy are vulnerable to EMP attack. Almost every aspect of our civilization relies upon the use of electricity. I found it interesting to think about how EMP technology could be used in warfare, and what impact EMP weapons could have on politics and the international balance of power. Research on the topic helped me develop a plot for a villain in possession of a stolen EMP weapon. My villain would test the weapon on a cruise ship, holding its passengers hostage while facilitating a bidding war between the United States and terrorist conspirators. Most of the material I was reading was land-centric. I thought it would be interesting to imagine the consequences of an EMP attack at sea, in a contained environment.
MM: The protagonists in Sabotage are recognizably Randian––rational, individualistic, self-interested, and highly accomplished. They inhabit a benevolent universe, and they don’t give up without a fight. Did you set out to write a book that would interest Objectivists?
MC: Truthfully, I didn’t think much about a possible audience for the book when writing it. I took pleasure in crafting the story and spending time with its protagonists, many of whom were infused with characteristics of close friends and people from history whom I admire. Creating their adventures was reward enough for me. It was pure selfish fun. The fact that the book may appeal to an objectivist audience follows from the alignment of our values, but I did not set out to appeal to any particular type of person. That wasn’t my purpose.
MM: Please introduce us to these characters.
MC: There’s Austin Hardy, a Stanford doctoral student of aerospace engineering who spent his teen years building model airplanes and remote-controlled aircraft. Growing up in Malibu, his other hobbies were cryptology and bodysurfing. He loves the sea, and does his best thinking and problem solving out in the waves.
Austin’s professor is Malcolm Clare, an eccentric aerospace engineer of English descent. Dr. Clare founded ClareCraft, a company that designs and builds airplanes, as well as Glitnir Defense, a secret defense corporation.
Malcolm’s daughter is Victoria, a doctoral student of mathematics in her early twenties. She grew up in Mojave watching her father’s aircraft soar into the sky. She’s a private person with few friends, viewed as cold and arrogant by her peers. What they don’t know is that she lives in fear of being targeted by her father’s enemies.
Then there’s Jake Rove, a retired Air Force combat weatherman with a background that includes meteorology and bioacoustics. His skills enable him to fight back against a hostile takeover of a luxury cruise ship.
MM: Tell us something about your book that isn’t mentioned in the publisher synopsis.
MC: One of the characters dabbles as a close-up magician. He uses a key principle in magic in attempt to overcome the villains.
MM: You have a BA in Economics and an MS in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford, as well as a Ph. D. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania. Like many Objectivist novelists, you didn’t follow the typical path of an academic writing program. Did you take any fiction writing courses?
MC: I did not take any fiction writing courses after starting college. I did participate in a brief writing seminar as a teen, but after that, my self-education in writing consisted of three parts: (1) extensive travel, (2) reading Ayn Rand’s books on writing, and (3) general life experience, and spending some time every day thinking about what makes good storytelling. Number three is the most important, and it never stops.
MM: You were fortunate to study with Philosophy Professor John McCaskey while you were in college. How did you meet him, and what advice can you give to college students looking for Objectivist/libertarian professors?
MC: Yes, I was most fortunate to have studied under Professor McCaskey. He was the faculty mentor to an objectivist club of which I was a member, and he taught a course called “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism.” This was the best course I took at Stanford. Professor McCaskey taught us how to condense arguments in a written piece to about 2-3 sentences of essentials. He helped his students develop X-ray vision into the heart of an issue.
Students seeking professors with whom they align philosophically may find it helpful to look for relevant student club or activity associations, and of course students can also read publications by professors in Political Science, Economics, or Philosophy departments.
MM: You wrote Sabotage at 19, presumably while earning your BA. How did you find time for that?
MC: Passion was the key. It never felt like work. I really wanted to tell the story and therefore made time. This was during the summer after my sophomore year, so I wasn’t taking classes simultaneously.
MM: Do you have more projects in the works?
MC: Yes. I recently sold a nonfiction book to MIT Press focusing on paradoxes in mathematics, logic, philosophy, and physics. It’s about a year away from publication. I’ve also completed another novel that takes place shortly after WW2, with a new cast of characters. It’s a bit darker and sexier than Sabotage, with elements of espionage and art.
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