Thriller author Matt Fulton is helping me wrap up the week, and the month, by talking with me about his new espionage thriller, Active Measures: Part I.
Matt Fulton is an independent writer who has spent half of his life working on the Active Measures trilogy. At twelve, he found inspiration in the stories of John le Carré, Graham Greene and Tom Clancy and began slowly developing the key characters that eventually found their way into his own novel. He later attended college in Washington, DC, studying foreign policy and interning with Congress and the British Parliament. Before what would have been his senior year, he decided to drop everything and realize the story that was brewing in his mind for over a decade. He lives in New Jersey.
Welcome, Matt. Please tell us about your current release.
Active Measures: Part I is a geopolitical thriller and the first volume of a trilogy about the dangers of loose nukes, terrorism and espionage.
The bulk of the action follows three major plotlines: In Iran, the United States’ most valuable agent since the 1960s uncovers a faction within the hardline Revolutionary Guards that has been secretly constructing a crude nuclear weapon designed to fit in the trunk of a car—and all without the knowledge or blessing of the regime’s leadership. As the full might of the American intelligence community is mobilized to sabotage it, the CIA’s new director is forced to navigate a minefield of global power politics from Washington to Tel Aviv.
In Moscow—after an oil trader with ties to the Kremlin is found burned alive in his Geneva home—an aide to Russia’s adored and despotic president is caught between opposing powers. At one side is an eccentric billionaire with lofty dreams of reorienting Russia toward the West, and at the other is the autocratic strongman whose ardent quest for resurgence has brought Russia into an open confrontation with NATO, and threatens a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the hasty climax of the Syrian civil war has brought the Middle East to a dangerous crossroads. Israel is set to begin peace talks with the fragile new government in Damascus, which promises to reshape the balance of power in the region. Hezbollah has been left bloodied, humiliated and exhausted with discontent simmering inside the ranks. Against this backdrop, a brilliant CIA officer in Beirut stumbles upon the trail of a master terrorist and the shadowy menace whispering in his ear conspiring to drag the world into the abyss.
What inspired you to write this book?
There was no single light-bulb moment for this story. The oldest material in the novel dates to August 2009, but it’s been fourteen years from inception to publication. The names of the five core characters in the trilogy—Jack Galloway, Ryan Freeman, Nina Davenport, Robert Harris, and David Kazanoff—were first jotted down in the school cafeteria when I was in the sixth grade. I had just read Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, this was a few months after 9/11, and the environment just threw a switch. That was when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t exactly understand who these characters were or the world they would inhabit, but I think I always knew, ultimately, what I wanted to do, even if twelve-year-old me was completely incapable of doing it at the time. It was there, a glimmer of light on the horizon; I couldn’t describe it, but I refused to lose sight of it. So I kept going. The story matured as I’ve matured, evolved as I’ve evolved. Fourteen years later, here’s what I have to show for it.
An author should write the stories they want to read that haven’t yet been written. That’s my cardinal rule, my guiding philosophy. Certainly it’s wonderful if others want to read my work (and I eagerly invite them along for the ride), but I think every story has to begin with a degree of selfishness. That’s the case with Active Measures. I wanted to tell a story that attempts to tackle the maddeningly complex geopolitical realities of our time on a canvass that is unapologetically vast but yet remains rooted in a character-driven drama about complex, imperfect people who are simply trying to weather forces that are towering apathetically above them. There are no easy solutions offered because they truly do not exist. There is no flag-waving, no black-and-white ideals to cling to. And when it’s all said and done, mere survival will be victory.
I wanted to write this kind of story because I think precious few exist in the genre. Active Measures, I hope, helps to fill in the gap.
Excerpt from Active Measures:
There is great power in letting go.
But no one had taught him that. No one had plunged down their hands to dig up the shards and piece him back together. No one had ever tried.
Jack Galloway weighed his surroundings with a wary intent: a few muted women, their bodies engulfed by the deep, black, obscuring fabric of a chador; the cliques of men, young, old and plenty lost somewhere in the gap between; and their voices—the usual voices, the normative patterns—at times exuberant toward the cricket match on the television suspended from the far wall, at times silenced by an assuaging drag on a water pipe, at times hushed in acquiescence of the CCTV camera suspended to the other; at no time content. Their faces were unfamiliar to him yet their patterns, their movements, their fleeting glances, their questioning eyes were not—all caught by his own, all measured, processed and stored lest his eyes ever fall upon them again. Then he would know. Then he would vanish. Familiar faces in unfamiliar places were deadly in the denied corners of the world.
Jack took his cuff and wiped down a ceramic cup. He hadn’t seen his potential minder since he ducked into the café, although that was likely by design. In Moscow, it was called “dolphin surveillance”—now you see me, now you don’t. The KGB would tail the subject with a sloppy team, making the surveillance obvious and then promptly pull the team off, replacing them with a much more skilled unit, of which the subject wouldn’t be granted the slightest hint. It was meant to deceive the subject into a false sense of security—the illusion of reality: an unreality—like the shadows dancing over the cave wall before the captivated prisoners, chained and ignorant of the raging fire at their backs. All mere projections; charades; lies in the dark.
Jack left the café, averting his face from the CCTV camera—the security services had unfettered access to the hard drives—and returned to the street under a gentle fall of rain.
It was just as his father had shown him in the front room of their embassy housing in Hampstead. His father would extend his arm and on cue, four coins would drop from his sleeve onto the table. He would count them and smile, “Are you with me?”
Jack continued down the street toward Tajrish Square, the hub of the affluent neighborhoods of northern Tehran. The streetlamps lit the way before him, and behind him. His minders hadn’t made themselves known, if they were even there. He hailed a passing cab. It pulled to the curb, splashing through the runoff that had gathered into shallow lakes of light. He directed the cab three blocks south, then promptly ordered it to stop, hopped out and doubled back five blocks north, where he arrived at Ammar Street, a quiet, leafy residential lane flanked by distinguished walled homes. Here, even the most capable surveillance unit would be pressed to find cover. Jack wasn’t keen to make it easy for his shadows. He kept on down the street.
His father would place the coins in a line on his right palm and count out each one, again, deliberately. Then, he folded his fingers on both hands, the right one touching the edge of the coins. He smiled again. “Are you with me?” Jack would nod. His father sharply flipped his hands, the backs turned to the ceiling. He smiled, turned over his right hand and opened it. Three coins. He turned over his left hand. One coin. “Did you see it jump?”
On the opposite side of the street, Jack saw a white, stone villa surrounded by a high wall and a manicured garden. The lights inside were doused and the curtains drawn—save for one. Suspended in a window on the upper floor was the soft orange flicker of a candle. Jack took note and walked on. He would wait for contact. That candle in the window was all he could concretely know, the only static light in a field of shifting shadows, flickers, projections and charades—lies in the dark; a solemn sign his father had shown him twenty-five years before.
That candle had been snuffed out. But no one had ever taught Jack why.
What exciting story are you working on next?
Active Measures: Part II, the epic continuation of the trilogy. If Part I is a six-hundred-page doorstopper, Part II will be a door-breaker! There are moments coming up in this story that I’ve anticipated for over a decade. If I’m lucky enough to write them well, I can die a happy man.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
That’s a difficult question to answer. There’s no triumphal arch to pass under, no embryotic cocoon to shed. If you’re fortunate someone might throw you a party? For me, I guess I just looked up from my laptop one day, frowned at the empty coffee cup, saw all the research and notebooks and crumpled manuscript pages and figured, “Well…this is happening.”
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
Sadly, I don’t. Getting to the point where I can write full-time is probably my greatest struggle right now. I once read somewhere that you have to be fanatical about claiming your writing time and defending it at all costs. It’s true! I’ve spent more gorgeous weekends locked inside my office and gone into my day job on only a couple hours of sleep much more than I care to admit. Hopefully that’ll change soon. I’m trying.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I don’t really do much outlining, which admittedly for a novel of this size and detail—with a few hundred named characters and multiple plotlines wrapped around the globe—can be pretty dangerous. It’s just never worked for me. I haven’t found a way to structure my thoughts in bullet points or flowcharts that accurately reflects the story on a sort of macro scale, I guess. It all stays in my head until I’ve gotten to that particular chapter or scene and then I’ll sketch it out on paper until I feel I’m ready to write. If you looked in my notebooks, the bottom half of the pages are all blank.
Also… Gym shorts. Gotta stay comfy. And it helps if my cat is snoozing nearby.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An actor about as early as I can remember. I was perpetually in costume (went as George Washington for Halloween when I was seven… I was a weird kid, I know), always telling a story, annoying my older cousins at Thanksgiving. After that phase wore off, I probably first toyed with the idea of being a writer of some kind at around ten and was fixated on that for a while. When I was fourteen my guidance counselors convinced me to look at something a bit more practical, so I decided on intelligence analyst. In college I strayed perilously close to becoming a born-again political hack—then I had a quarter-life crisis and saw the light.
Thanks for being here today, Matt! All the best with your writing!