Passionista Book Club | Adam Penenberg Pens Thriller! ‘Virtually True’: An Interview
Adam Penenberg gets the Abiola Abrams interview… Artwork from Penenberg.com.
I am pleased to present an interview with Adam Penenberg about his debut novel, “Virtually True,” a futuristic thriller.
For those not in the know, here’s just the first paragraph from his bio:
Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor and assistant director of the Business and Economic Program at New York University. A contributing writer to Fast Company, he has also written for Inc., Forbes, The New York Times, Slate, Wired, Economist, Playboy and Mother Jones. A former senior editor at Forbes and reporter for Forbes.com, Penenberg garnered national attention in 1998 for unmasking serial fabricator Stephen Glass of The New Republic. Penenberg’s story was a watershed for online investigative journalism and is portrayed in the film “Shattered Glass.” (Steve Zahn plays Penenberg).
- Abiola: Adam, congrats on the new project and thank you for stopping by the Passionista Playbook blog! We’re all about Passionate Living, people stepping out of the confines of what’s comfortable to dream bigger. You have been very successful in your space. What made you decide to publish a novel after three non-fiction titles?
Adam Penenberg: I’ve always been attracted to narrative in my work. But the truth is that I started out as a novelist before pursuing journalism; in a sense, journalism was a fall back career. And before that I was a jazz trumpet player and composer, but that’s a whole other story.
In the mid-1990s I started writing fiction in the hopes of becoming a novelist. Meanwhile I also started freelancing to The New York Times, Mother Jones, Wired, and any other publication that would pay me.
For the next six years I wrote fiction half the day and fact the other half. In that time period I wrote three novels. It became clear, though, that I could earn a good living as a journalist where I was practically starving as a novelist, so I took a staff job at forbes.com in 1997, after working at Wired.com for a four months before that.
Now I’m back writing fiction. The skill sets are somewhat different but there is a lot of overlap. Good writing is, after all, good writing. I love the freedom that fiction gives you, the opportunity to create a world of your own imagination. You don’t need to adhere to pesky facts. It’s liberating, a joy.
Abiola: Well, that’s what we’re all about here: joy! What’s the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction, besides the obvious?
Adam: When I write non-fiction, every word has to be true or clearly identified as opinion, although these are based on facts, too. With fiction, I am only limited by my imagination. Both are creative endeavors, but if I had my druthers, I would write fiction full time. I think I’m better at it, although I would probably really miss journalism.
I particularly enjoy crafting dialogue and creating a whole world peopled with interesting characters living interesting stories. I’m definitely a pre-planner. I believe in structure, and I try to visualize the entire story before I sit down to sketch out the structure. That goes for both fiction and non-fiction.
Then, as I write, the story and characters take off in other directions, but because I have a plot in mind it’s possible to bring them back just in time.
Abiola: Let’s jump into the book. What’s the story about?
Adam: Investigative journalist True Ailey, the hero of my novel, “Virtually True,” plies his craft several decades in the future, wearing a bombproof self-cleaning suit in place of a grubby trench coat and carrying a wrist top computer equipped with holographic “screen” in lieu of a steno pad. To live and work in the futuristic Republic of Luzonia, a clammy Southeast Asian republic chockfull of eco-refugees where True has been exiled by his news network, is to navigate a world of corporate-owned clone armies raised in vats, death by genetic-coded missile, portable DNA scanners, 3D video games, raw data run amok, and orgasmic chewing gum. If you’re a journalist in that world, one who’s battling fabulism in search of truth, you’re dodging a lot more than electric rain, corrupt local police officials and death by data overload; you’re investigating the very essence of free will.
When a friend of his is murdered by a DNA-seeking missile, True sets out to find the killers, and in the process uncovers a global conspiracy that threatens the very fabric of society.
Abiola: Okay, Adam, as you know, everyone assumes that the protagonist is the author. ‘Fess up. Is True really you?
Adam: Oh, God, I hope not. Seriously, though, my character is probably smarter than I am, but he’s more fragile. As a journalist I know that predicting the future is a fool’s errand. As a novelist, however, it affords me the opportunity to explore a host of contemporary issues: How do we maintain essential human relationships in an age of hyper-connectivity? How do we separate the truth from the chaff when media, and those expert at manipulating it, can so easily skew it to their advantage? How can we cling to genuine but intangible lifelines to our humanity—emotion, intimacy, community—when so many of us interact over digital networks? And having evolved this far, what is the inevitable, perhaps ineffable next-step in this ubiquitous connectivity?
Over time the tools of the trade may change but the essence of our work doesn’t. True doesn’t do what he does for a paycheck. He’s driven by intrinsic rewards—the need to right wrongs and punish those who killed his friend. So am I, because every story I undertake isn’t just a job, it’s an adventure.
Abiola: Fantastic. So, have you always been a sci-fi buff?
Adam: I do like good sci-fi, although I prefer to think of “Virtually True” as a literary thriller set in the near future. Honestly, though. Some reviewers have referred to it as cyberpunk; others think it’s science fiction. Others think it’s simply a detective novel with a journalist as the protagonist.
Abiola: Well, I’m sure that you’re aware that your fans on Amazon are talking about a future film version. Is that something you can see — especially because of your “Shattered Glass” experience?
Adam: Well, “Shattered Glass” was definitely a fun experience. Not many journalists can say they were played in a movie. And my second book, “Tragic Indifference” (now titled “Blood Highways”) was optioned for the movies by Michael Douglas and is in what they call “deep development.” I’d love for “Virtually True” to be made into a movie, but it would be an expensive proposition and take a director with a strong vision. I am involved in a couple of film projects and they take forever with no assurance they’ll ever get made.
How’s this for a numbing stat. There are perhaps 200 – 300 films made every year but more than 20,000 scripts registered with the writers guild. It’s easier getting your novel published–and believe me, that ain’t easy easy.
Adam: eStorystudio.com is a multimedia book platform. We make it a breeze to upload your ebook and add photos, video, cartoons, illustrations, whatever you want, and we’ll also help you market your work. It’s free, too, and your work can be read on iPads, iPhones, Android tablets–anything with a Web browser.
Abiola: Thank you for inviting me to be a part of eStorystudio.com. Where on social media can people find you and your new book.
Adam: I’m on Twitter: @penenberg, and my book is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. I’d love for your fans to read it and tell me what they think. “Virtually True“ was a labor of love. I care deeply about it, worked very hard on it, and believe it is the best thing I’ve ever written–and I say this after three non-fiction books that received very good reviews. The first, “Spooked,” which was on corporate espionage, was excerpted in The New York Times magazine. The second, was optioned for the movies, and the third, Viral Loop, was excerpted in Fast Company, Wired UK, the Financial Times and TechCrunch, and has been published in China, Japan, Korea, Brazil, India and the United Kingdom.
Abiola: Anything else we should know?
Adam: Well, my website is Penenberg.com. I’m a journalism professor at NYU and the editor of PandoDaily, a well-respected tech-business site. And, of course, a big Abiola Abrams fan, like all discerning gentlemen.