Thriller Masters: A Q&A with Alex Finlay and Gregg Hurwitz

Read on for a Q&A with New York Times bestselling author of the Orphan X series, Gregg Hurwitz, and author of 2021's breakout thriller Every Last Fear, Alex Finlay. Alex's new thriller, The Night Shift, hits shelves on March 1, 2022!

To call Gregg Hurwitz a Renaissance man would be an understatement. He’s a New York Times #1 internationally bestselling author of both thrillers and YA novels, an acclaimed screenwriter and filmmaker, co-president of the International Thriller Writers organization, and has even won advertising awards for his political commercials. He’s also the author of the beloved Orphan X series featuring the iconic hero, Evan Smoak. On February 8, 2022, Hurwitz releases Dark Horse, the seventh in the Orphan X series, a novel readers have been eagerly awaiting, and that critics have declared as Hurwitz’s best yet.

The established writer recently took a break from his busy schedule to talk with a rising star in the thriller world, Alex Finlay, author of last year’s breakout, Every Last Fear. The novel was a LibraryReads pick, an Indie Next selection, an Amazon Editors’ Best Thriller, as well as a CNN, Newsweek, E!, BuzzFeed, Bloomberg, Goodreads, Parade, PopSugar, and Reader’s Digest best or most anticipated thriller of the year. It will be published in more than a dozen languages around the world, and is in development for a series with a hit-making production company. On March 1, 2022, Finlay releases his follow-up, The Night Shift, a book that’s already been crowned one of 2022’s most anticipated novels by Newsweek, PopSugar, and Goodreads, among others, and is once again generating significant buzz.

So what do the authors of two of 2022’s most anticipated novels have to say about their work? Read on to find out.

Gregg Hurwitz: Let’s start on page one: You open The Night Shift with a quote from A Farewell to Arms about the “broken places.” What’s that about for you?

Alex Finlay: The novel originally was titled, The Broken Places, but I thought The Night Shift more clearly signaled that it’s a thriller. At the same time, I kept the Hemingway quote because, at its heart, The Night Shift is a story about the legacy of trauma and broken people finding their way.

It starts on New Year’s Eve 1999, when four teenagers working at a Blockbuster Video in Linden, New Jersey are attacked, and only one inexplicably survives. Fifteen years later, more teenage employees are attacked at an ice cream store in the same town, and again only one makes it out alive. The novel follows the survivor of the Blockbuster attack and the brother of the fugitive accused of the killings. Both have taken jobs that help people. Both are self-destructive, broken. And I hope readers root for them to find their way.

Alex Finlay: Since we’re starting at page one, what does one of the quotes that opens Dark Horse—“When the devil wants to dance with you, you better say never”—mean to the story?

Gregg Hurwitz: Evan Smoak is about to take on a case like no other. A complicated man with a dark past asks for his help—Aragón Urrea, a modern cartel-like leader whose daughter was kidnapped by a savage rival. So the question Evan must ask himself is: “Is a bad man worth saving?” It’s a question he asks himself all the time when the lights are off. So the mission brings up a lot for him. Depending on how you look at it, the devil is Evan, Aragón, or the so-called “Dark Man” who has stolen Aragón’s daughter.

Gregg Hurwitz: I loved the 1990s nostalgia in The Night Shift—I mean what conjures more memories than Blockbuster Video? Where did you get the idea?

Alex Finlay: In 1997, a killer slaughtered the young employees of a coffee shop not far from where I live in Washington, D.C. More than a decade later, two employees working late at a high-end athletic store near my home were attacked by masked intruders—one of the two employees was brutally murdered, the other inexplicably survived. The crime really shook our community, but then there was a twist: police arrested the surviving victim who was later convicted of murdering her co-worker and staging the scene.

I didn’t base The Night Shift on these real crimes, but they got me thinking about the heartbreak and trauma that accompany these peculiarly insidious types of mass murders, something I explore in the novel.

Alex Finlay: Having struggled with the pressure to follow-up Every Last Fear, I’m always amazed at how you keep each book in the Orphan X series—all your work—so fresh and unputdownable. What’s the secret? And what inspired you to pit Evan against such a formidable antagonist in Dark Horse?

Gregg Hurwitz: Thank you, Alex. I always try to choose a story that moves Evan (and me) into a new place to contend with. I have to feel like I will fail in the writing of a book at some point to know that I’m stretching. I have to be scared in the process. Pitting Evan against someone who darkly mirrors himself and is a mix of good and bad meant I had to contend with a new level of complexity.

Gregg Hurwitz: In Every Last Fear, you delved into the world of true-crime documentaries, and now in The Night Shift you incorporate the growing popularity of YouTube travel vlogs—how did that come about?

Alex Finlay: During the pandemic I was longing for travel and started watching clips from popular travel vloggers who visit unusual places around the world and have adventures. The thriller writer in me thought, What if one of them was a killer? It took off from there.

Alex Finlay: You obviously immerse yourself in research. In Prodigal Son you did a deep dive into off-the-books military technology, including drones using AI, and you’re always two or three years ahead of the public on tech. What was the biggest challenge for researching Dark Horse? And do you love or loath research?

Gregg Hurwitz: I wanted to make sure I had a fresh spin on the cartel and cartel leaders. They’ve been written about extensively and I didn’t want to create a stereotype cobbled together from news pieces and existing books. It was important that Aragón’s operation in particular feel contemporary and that the business operations were smart and transcended our usual understanding of how cartels function. Lots of research from different arenas pulled into place and then stitched together with elements straight from my imagination.

Gregg Hurwitz: Same question to you, Alex: love or hate relationship with research?

Alex Finlay: Both. One thing I don’t like about research is that you can get lost in the sauce and delay getting words on the page. At the same time, it’s one of the fun things about writing—you never know where research will take you. For Every Last Fear, I learned about a course at NYU on “happiness” and studies on the secret to being happy. For The Night Shift, I learned about studies on a darker subject: how people who “virtue signal” on social media are more likely to be psychopaths.

Alex Finlay: A thread through the Orphan X books is Evan straddling two lives: his perilous missions on the one hand, his struggles with being around regular people in his day-to-day life on the other. In Dark Horse, you explore the complexities of the man Evan is helping: a person who does very bad things, but often for good reasons. What draws you to such complex characters?

Gregg Hurwitz: A long time ago I stopped writing heroes and villains and started writing protagonists and antagonists. I found that I’m much more engaged writing flawed people with complex interiors. And when I’m more engaged writing, readers tend to be more engaged reading.

Alex Finlay: You’re a successful screenwriter so I’ll ask the question readers are dying to know: Any chance we’ll see Orphan X on the screen? And what other film projects are you working on?

Gregg Hurwitz: I hope so! Right now I’m waiting for the right team to bring Evan to life. I’m working on an original screenplay I wrote with Philip Eisner for Screengems at the moment called Sabine. He and I collaborated on Sweet Girl (released last year).

Gregg Hurwitz: Speaking of characters and film, readers have been excited by the return of FBI Agent Sarah Keller from Every Last Fear in The Night Shift. Why do you think she’s resonated, and any chance we’ll see her on screen?

Alex Finlay: I love writing Keller and her husband Bob. In The Night Shift we meet her years before the events in Every Last Fear, and before she’s a mother. She’s eight months pregnant, still finding her way as an agent, but still a badass. I think readers connect with her because Keller is no-nonsense, exceptional at her job, and most of all, kind and empathetic—something refreshing in these divisive times. As for whether we’ll see her on-screen, the adaptation of Every Last Fear is in development as a series. One never knows what will happen in Hollywood, but I’m hopeful the series airs, particularly since it will be the only time that my children will be impressed with me . . .

Alex Finlay: I know you have so many irons in the fire, Gregg: what’s next for Orphan X and your other projects?

Gregg Hurwitz: Evan will continue to forge into new territory. His next mission will turn his world upside down. It certainly turned mine upside down figuring out how to capture it on the page! I’m waiting on Sabine to move into pre-production on the film front, and I just launched a new creator-owned comic book series called Knighted.

Gregg Hurwitz: I have a similar question for you, Alex: Every Last Fear was arguably one of the most talked about books of 2021. What’s been the most exciting thing about your journey, and what’s next after The Night Shift?

Alex Finlay: I think the most exciting thing has been reaching so many readers in the United States and abroad. Also, I had the opportunity to participate in a small in-person tour outside the U.S. (during that brief period when COVID seemed to have been defeated), which was something I only dreamed about before I was published and writing stories on the subway to and from work or late into the night. As for what’s next, I’m busy working on my next novel, tentatively titled Reunion, in a frantic race against my deadline. Thank you for talking, Gregg. I’m a longtime fan, and it’s been an honor.

 

*Alex Finlay author photo credit: Kristina Sherk

*Gregg Hurwitz author photo credit: Gary Fleder


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