Please welcome Christian Cantrell to The Qwillery. Scorpion, his most recent novel, was published on May 25, 2021 by Random House.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Christian: Thank you! I'd probably give you different answers depending on the day. If I'm rewriting the same exchange for the seventh time in order to refine the rhythm and cadence, I'd say getting dialog exactly right. If I'm trying to find the perfect way to describe a novel, technologically exotic device, I might complain that the English language has too few adjectives.
But overall, I'd say one of the biggest things I struggle with is doing something completely new without taking it too far. I want every book and story I write to be unique — plots, characters, and settings the world has never seen — but the format also has to meet certain expectations of a near-future thriller. Part of the challenge (and the fun) is striking a balance between the two.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Christian: I'm a pantser who wishes he was a plotter which I suppose makes me a hybrid. I'll usually do quite a bit of outlining and write several pages of treatments only to abandon most of it. For me, writing is a process of discovery. Sometimes I think I know exactly where a chapter is going only to see a much more interesting opportunity mid-flight. Sometimes I think I know who a character is only to watch her do something entirely unexpected. There are downstream repercussions when characters go off script and plots go awry, but I'd much rather watch them develop organically than be overly prescriptive. For me, a lot of the fun of writing is the ride it takes me on, and I believe the delight of discovery conveys to the reader.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing? How does being a software engineer influence (or not) your writing?
Christian: My two lifelong passions have always been storytelling and technology. While it may not seem like they have much in common, in my mind, they complement one another perfectly.
A good (high-tech) product should always be part of a larger narrative. You don't just buy a new phone; you incorporate a device into your life that helps you stay more tightly connected to the people and issues you care most about. You don't just download a piece of software to edit a video; you invest in learning a new workflow so that your voice can reach more people and you can amplify your impact on the world. You don't buy an EV to save money on gas; you do it as an investment in a better future.
Just as stories unlock the potential of products, for me, technology unlocks the types of stories I like to tell. I don't write near-future thrillers and science fiction simply to indulge in futurism. I create science and technology that don't exist in order to put characters in situations in which they can be challenged in new ways and consequently learn things about themselves that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.
TQ: Describe Scorpion using only 5 words.
Christian: Destiny, transformation, and reluctant heroism.
TQ: Tell us something about Scorpion that is not found in the book description.
Christian: Scorpion is an expansion of a short story I wrote called The Epoch Index. It bounced around Hollywood for a few years before really resonating in 2018. The story was optioned by FOX (now Disney) which is what led to the expansion into a full-length novel.
The Epoch Index ended with the biggest cliffhanger I've ever written. I can't count how many times I was asked by readers "what happens next?" I was so attached to the characters in The Epoch Index that I occasionally reread it and contemplated that exact question myself. Having the opportunity to expand it into a full-length novel was like scratching an itch I'd had for years.
TQ: What inspired you to write Scorpion?
Christian: I live in the suburbs of Washington D.C. which I've always thought of as a fascinating area. Early in my software career, Northern Virginia was on track to become the Silicon Valley of the east coast until the terrorist attacks in 2001. After one of the biggest intelligence failures in U.S. history, the area ended up being transformed not by venture capital investment, but by massive defense spending. One day we were the headquarters for AOL; the next, Blackwater.
Meanwhile, I was working (remotely) for a company in Silicon Valley, constantly flying out to San Francisco and even relocating for a few years before family brought me back. I feel like these two competing dynamics played a more significant role in Scorpion than anything else I've ever written.
Scorpion is the product of the imagination of a writer and technologist living among spooks.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Scorpion?
Christian: Research is one of the things I love most about writing an ambitious novel. I spent a lot of time reading about the Large Hadron Collider (and watching documentaries) and learning about gravitational-wave telescopes. And I spent quite a lot of time imagining new types of weapons which will likely be possible in the near future as well as gaming out very clever assassination plots. (Incognito Mode FTW.)
In addition to writing, I also lead a team of prototypers who explore the future of creativity at Adobe which means I regularly work with technologies like AR and VR, machine learning, and even blockchain. All three are well represented in Scorpion.
But I don't want to overstate the role of technology in the novel. It's kind of astounding how little of my research actually made it directly into the book. Scorpion is not, by any means, "hard science fiction." It is a fast-paced, near-future, character-driven thriller that is powered by science and technology as opposed to getting bogged down by it.
TQ: In Scorpion who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Christian: I'm going to say that all of the characters in Scorpion were hard to write.
For me, writing a good character is a process of finding something inside me to use as a seed, but then letting that seed grow into a completely unique individual. There are no characters in Scorpion that are in any way autobiographical, but there is something of me inside of each one.
Fortunately, I've led the type of life that I think germinates a wide variety of seeds. In addition to having studied literature and creative writing in college, I'm also a software engineer, manager of a large international team, husband, and a father of two amazing daughters. I studied theater in Ireland and taught English to engineers in Japan. My father was a builder, so I started earning money in elementary school as a laborer on construction sites, then worked as a carpenter throughout college and for a while after graduating. I supported myself working in bookstores, teaching, and counseling kids removed from their homes by Child Protective Services in a shelter outside of Baltimore. The list goes on. And throughout it all, I've had all kinds of struggles and made all kinds of mistakes — all of which has gone into cultivating a diverse, flawed, lovable, and unpredictable cast.
In other words, I feel like I've spent a lifetime writing these characters.
TQ: Does Scorpion touch on any social issues?
Christian: Yes and no.
We are an extremely socially conscious household, and I spend a lot of my reading time and mental energy on social issues, but I seldom address those issues head-on in my fiction. (Honestly, I often question whether or not that's the right philosophy, and I reserve the right to change course at any moment.) That said, creating a believable future and relatable characters means you don't get to entirely opt out of cultural realities. I'm very careful not to overstep my bounds when writing about characters whose struggles I don't have personal experience with, but I'm also not content with pretending like my characters and stories are somehow miraculously immune to issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity. In other words, I don't know how to write characters who feel as real to me as anyone I've ever met without at least doing everything in my power to understand some of their struggles.
TQ: Which question about Scorpion do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Q: What was the first sentence you wrote the first day you sat down to write Scorpion, and is it still in the book?
A: I'm glad you asked! When I first started writing The Epoch Index (the short-form predecessor to Scorpion) I knew I wanted to write about two things:
A suburban "nine-to-five spy" who thinks she's signing up for an office job, but who ends up way outside of her comfort zone.
A man so rich that he can somehow afford to be homeless — that instead of having mansions all over the world, the world itself is somehow his home.
So I sat down and wrote the following sentence:
Ranveer is the richest homeless man in the world.
From there, the framework for the story emerged over the course of many months (and drafts), and finally, the full novel expansion emerged over the course of years. But it all started with that one sentence. And yes, it's still in the book. It's no longer the first sentence, but it's somewhere in chapter 5 which is called, appropriately enough, "Homelessness."
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Scorpion.
From Chapter 5: Homelessness
Ranveer is the richest homeless man in the world. He is homeless because the tools of his trade are nicely portable, and his work encourages him to be mobile. He is rich because he gets paid enormous sums to solve the kinds of problems that manifest themselves as people.
From Chapter 7: Tools of the Trade
How does that saying go? If your only tool is a .50 caliber, Israeli-made Desert Eagle, suddenly everything looks like it needs a very big hole?
From Chapter 12: Legwork
Quinn knows that there isn’t nearly as much randomness in the universe as most of us perceive. Randomness is usually more the result of our inability to see patterns than the actual absence of them. And finding patterns is what Quinn does.
From Chapter 13: Night Shift
At the end of the day, when you think about it, the safety of each and every one of us really comes down to nothing more than the simple goodwill of others. The truth is that most of us survive day-to-day not because of any real ability to keep ourselves and our families safe, but simply because there is nobody in the immediate vicinity who wishes otherwise.
TQ: What's next?
Christian: I have three projects (including Scorpion) in development based on short stories — one television and two feature films — that may require varying degrees of involvement. I have another story (the name of which occasionally changes) that, similar to The Epoch Index, I'm expanding and will be submitted for publishing as soon as it's ready. The rights to my first three novels (Containment, Equinox, and Kingmaker) have recently been reverted back to me, so I'm working with my agent on new releases. And if there's demand, I'd love to write a sequel to Scorpion. Without giving anything away, although the story is neatly wrapped up, the ending also suggests a possible new beginning.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Christian: Thanks for giving me both the time and the space.
Random House, May 25, 2021
Hardcover and eBook, 336 pages
“An exceptional, fast-paced thriller featuring a tech-empowered assassin whose pattern and objective you’ve never seen before, chased by a heroine with tenacious grit.”—David Brin, author of The Postman and Existence
Quinn Mitchell is a nine-to-five spy—an intelligence analyst for the CIA during the day, and a suburban wife and mother on evenings and weekends. After her young daughter is killed in a tragic accident, sending her life into a tailspin, Quinn hopes to find a new start in her latest assignment: investigating a series of bizarre international assassinations whose victims have been found with numeric codes tattooed, burned, or carved into their flesh. As Quinn follows the killer’s trail across the globe, always one body behind, she begins uncovering disturbing connections between the murders—and herself.
Every lead she tracks down in pursuit of the assassin brings Quinn one step closer to the Epoch Index, a mysterious encrypted message discovered in the archives of the Large Hadron Collider. Its origins are unknown and decrypting it is beyond even the CIA. Yet nothing else can possibly link together a slew of unsolvable murders, an enigmatic and sophisticated serial killer who always seems to be three steps ahead, a quirky young physics prodigy whose knowledge extends well beyond her years, and, underlying everything, the inescapable tragedy of Quinn’s own past. Discovering the meaning of the Epoch Index leads Quinn to a shocking twist that shatters everything she thought she knew about the past, the future, and the delicate balance of right and wrong that she must now fight to preserve.
Christian Cantrell is a software engineer living outside of Washington, D.C. He is the author of the novels Containment, Kingmaker, and Equinox, as well as several short works of speculative fiction, three of which have been optioned for film or TV.