Writing the Debut Technothriller Named a Best Book of the Year

Behind the scenes with author David Shafer

I immediately fell in love with David Shafer’s debut novel, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2014). It’s a literary thinker-thriller that riffs on surveillance, hipsterdom, and what’s wrong (and right) with our generation. The three protagonists are absolute gold: a jaded international NGO worker, an alcoholic preschool teacher, and a self-loathing self-help author.

Shafer deftly weaves satire and adventure into a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The result is a surreal blend of Dave Eggers, Cory Doctorow, and Chuck Palahniuk. While the finale left me a little disappointed, the overall novel was a delight. I enjoyed it so much that I reached out to Shafer, and he kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the book.

The New York Times said that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (WTF) “may be the novel of the summer.” It’s certainly my favorite book of the season with its artful mix of sarcasm, paranoia, and playfulness. What inspired the book and the technology/surveillance themes it weaves together?

The surveillance state stuff hardly needed to be inspired; it just had to be noticed, called out. This is the water we’ve been swimming in for almost fifteen years now. Nine-eleven and then all these devices that have sprouted about our pockets and persons. Well, I guess it’s been 20 years since we started carrying our computers around with us. (I had my first cell phone was 1997. It was a grey Nokia; it looked like a dwarf horseshoe crab. It was definitely not “smart” though.) It’s it’s only in the last, what, ten years that the devices became so connected; now sometimes more connected than we realize they are. In writing WTF I would think that I had thought something up, but of course it turns out that what I’d “thought up” had been been in production for years, and would be on the market soon, and we’d be clamoring for it. WTF is not prescient, it was just made by someone writing fiction at approximately the same speed as the security-industrial complex has been building itself.

WTF is a perfect example of one of my favorite genres, the thinker-thriller. Why don’t more thrillers have well-developed characters and sophisticated stories?

Because it’s so hard. Mainly because of pacing, right? Exciting things generally happen quickly, and are rare. Whereas substantive life information delivery mostly happens over longer stretches of time. Books I’ve read that try to straddle the line? I want to run down to my bookshelves now, to see which authors I should credit and call out. (To my embarrassment, most books pass through me; my mind is like the lint screen in a dryer. Hold on a sec.) Okay. From the thriller end of things you can take any of the denser spy writers, like Eric Ambler or Le Carré, or Graham Greene. Or, I submit, Bob Shacochis. Plus, there are other, non-spy-based intrigues, like The Magus, by John Fowles. See, the problem with my trying to remember the books that have influenced me is that I can’t. Because of the lint screen thing.

But then you can come at it from the other direction: Literary novels that turn out to be filled with intrigues and unlikely events and secret forces opposing each other. Wasn’t there some of that in The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan? (Remember: lint screen.) For that matter, there’s an absurd spy thriller packed on one of the top layers of Infinite Jest. Or Peter Matthiessen’s Watson trilogy. I needed to keep track of shifting allegiance for 1,300 pages — and I could, because those books were so good.

The three protagonists make WTF what it is. They’re the best characters I’ve read in a long time and they quickly feel like friends, not fictions. How do you think about character development? Do you have any favorite fictional characters?

EVERY FORMULATION OF THE FOLLOWING LINE IS A CLICHE, but I lived with these three, I inhabited them. When I was a drunk loser aggrieved at the way the world rewards dishonesty, I went home and wrote some Mark. When I was an oversensitive and paranoiacally-inclined depresso looking for meaning everywhere, I went home and wrote some Leo. When I was fired up about Injustice and frustrated about the human vanity and self-centeredness that stand in the way of progress [now imagine I had written that in a way that didn’t sound like a North Korean mural. Because I would also have been aware of my starring role in many societal problems], I went home and wrote some Leila.

I will not tell you who is my favorite fictional character, because that would be like answering “Who is your best friend?” It’s a no-win. I don’t want to hurt the feelings of all my other fictional character friends.

Some of your characters’ observations in WTF remind me of good stand-up comedy: They riff on cutting, ridiculous, all-too-true details that tug at the corners of the world we live in. Do these nuggets pop out at you day to day? How do you keep track of them?

Little tiny notebooks, like Mark uses. (The thought seem richer when they’re still in the notebook; extracted they usually fade in the light of day.) Also some more well-ordered notes. Piles of notes, actually. But I don’t think I’ve ever lost a thought I wanted to keep. (How would I know though, right?) I’ve had to scrounge through many piles to find the thing I thought was good, and often it turned out not to be. Or at any rate it turned out that I it needed a whole helluva lot more work.

But things like possible titles for Mark’s insipid self-help books, or Dear Diary names, or made-up airport franchises, or imaginary pharmaceuticals, those things can come at you anytime. So all you need is a pencil; there’s usually a scrap of paper in your wallet.

Your characters are all searching for something: purpose, authenticity, a second (or third, or fourth) chance. Is there a special modern flavor to the human search for meaning? Is there anything distinctive about the ambitions of 30-somethings you know that gave texture to Leo, Mark, and Leila?

The thing that Leo and Leila and Mark are searching for will, I hope, be entirely recognizable to Past and Future people. It’s all that uncertainty that settles on a person in what I guess we could call early midlife, people who still identify as alone, self-sufficient, people who have not yet really decided that that they’re even going to stick around. For this. For life. And I’m not talking about nihilism and suicide, necessarily. There are less dramatic ways of not showing up.

What’s your creative process? Are you a plotter or a pantser or something else entirely? What does it look like behind the pages of WTF?

Haha. “Pantser” is new to me. I like it. Yes, I’m definitely one of those. Actually, I think I’m something worse, like an “underpantser.” The second half of WTF was a loser for years. Even when I fixed that (thank you, ed.) I went down a dozen blind alleys and labored over scenes for weeks that turned out to have no role in the story, despite the further weeks I spent trying to cram them in. I avoided looming structural problems by working instead on solid, finished scenes. I am trying to shed or outrun these terrible habits, but probably some of that blind-alleyism is just how I do this thing. Behind the pages of WTF can be found another four times that number of pages. If that makes any sense.

What is the most counter-intuitive lesson you learned in the seven years it took to write WTF?

You’ve heard it before: the drown kittens/kill darlings thing. That strange and malicious-seeming piece of advice turns out to be mainly true. Maybe it has to do with the fact that that most of us — this applies to me anyway — write the best prose not when we are flying at the top of our imagination and inspiration, but when when we’re at about 80 percent of full power. Also, I seldom recognize which bits are my kittens until after an early reader or my editor has suggested the drowning option. Once I accept some help or feedback with a character, or a scene (or pacing; pacing is what I seem to need the most help with), that patch is no longer a kitten or a darling. It has become — to stretch the metaphor — a cat, or a, what, friend?

Three young adults grapple with the usual thirty-something problems — boredom, authenticity, an omnipotent online oligarchy — in David Shafer’s darkly comic debut novel.

David Shafer was born and raised in New York City. Before the millennium he self-exiled and moved to the Pacific Northwest. He has traveled widely. Educated at Harvard and Columbia, he has worked a string of odd jobs. He loves his wife and daughter and son and dog, all of whom live with him in Portland Oregon. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is his first novel. But there will be more. Oh there will be more.