Interview With an Author: Anthony McCarten

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Anthony McCarten and his latest novel, Going Zero
Author Anthony McCarten and his latest novel, Going Zero. Photo of author: Jack English

Anthony McCarten is a New Zealand-born screenwriter, playwright, novelist, and journalist. His screen credits include The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, The Two Popes, Bohemian Rhapsody, and the Whitney Houston biopic, I Wanna Dance with Somebody. He has been nominated for four Academy Awards and splits his time between Los Angeles, London, and Munich. His latest novel is Going Zero, which he will adapt for the screen, and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Going Zero?

The first pang of the book came during dinner party in the summer of 2016—a bunch of 50-something friends talking over pasta and wine about our tech-dominated lives, so different from those of our childhoods. Stories were shared of weird instances we’d all had, of receiving targeted ads minutes immediately after we’d come into contact with, or merely spoken about, a product or place, as if our devices had been spying on us. Well guess what, they had been. Our devices are indeed working against us, our data being sold and our behavior manipulated, all without our knowledge or consent. This book arose out of that, out of the question of how near impossible it now is to slip off the map, to make yourself undetectable and uninfluencable. The book took some time to take shape, involving considerable research into the ways we are now known by people and governments and corporations, and institutions whose knowledge of us we have not sanctioned.

Are Cy, Kaitlyn, Erica, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

All are fictional. There are of course real-world inspirations for them. The central character of Kaitlyn emerged slowly also. I had been spending time in Boston, and I wanted a bookish character who other characters would reflexively underestimate but who would surprise us. Making her a clever Boston-based librarian with secrets fitted the bill. I then gave her an inner emotional life I felt I understood. I made sure the plot kept challenging her, obliging her to find new resources inside herself. She needed to surprise herself if she was to surprise the reader.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Cy Baxter was probably the most difficult character to make three-dimensional. I needed to make his arguments—in favor of surrendering more privacy in the cause of public safety—make sense to me, and even persuade me. As there is something of a debate going on, at the center of this book, it is incumbent on the writer to empower equally both sides of the argument. No scenes were lost, because I had planned the book’s plot in detail.

How familiar were you with surveillance technologies and the altering/abuse of other technologies for surveillance prior to writing Going Zero? Did you have to do a bit of research? If so, how long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write the novel?

A great deal of research was necessary for the book, as I wanted it to give a realistic picture of the world we are sleepwalking into. Surveillance capitalism is a major theme, and there are many excellent commentators on the threats now and in the future. The world depicted here is happening already, perhaps not in such a centralized integrated way, but it is happening.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

I originally wanted the book to predict a world roughly five years in the future, but, as I wrote, the rapid speed of development in the field of surveillance was reducing this to three years, then one year. The book is probably set only about five minutes in the future now.

If the Going Zero contest were real, knowing what you know to write the novel, would you apply to participate? How long do you think it would take for the recovery teams to find you?

All my ideas of what I would personally do to go off the radar are in the novel. If I had other ideas, they would be in there too. I think I would last 48 hours and then slip up. I’m far less savvy in the tech realm than Kaitlyn Day.

In addition to writing novels, you are also an accomplished screenwriter. If you could cast the film or series version of Going Zero, who would your dream cast include?

In a perfect world, I would have Anya Taylor Joy in the title role, and Ryan Gosling as Cy Baxter. Fat chance, I know, but as you asked.

One of the running discussions in the novel is how, for the most part, people are willingly surrendering their privacy online (and in many ways, in the "real" world). Do you have an idea or theory regarding why people are so willing to do this? Do you think this is a recent phenomenon (a result of the internet), or have people always been this way?

I think that we are much more willing to surrender privacy now because we are more isolated than ever before—the number of close friendships we have is shrinking (in America, in the last 15 years, it has fallen from 3 to 1.5 on average) and so we are lonelier as a species. In this context, people are almost flattered that someone wants and values their data. It’s viewed by many as validation that they matter. Secondarily, media has made people more afraid, and so they are more willing to trade privacy for security. In any event, privacy has already been lost. Privacy is dead. It was a 20th Century and earlier thing.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

A book about the early days of oil exploration in Texas. It reads like a Western.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Saul Bellow
John Updike
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
F.Scott Fitzgerald
Evelyn Waugh

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

The adventure books of Willard Price.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Everything and anything by Shakespeare. He was impenetrable when I was a teen. I believe they invented Spark Notes initially just to help lit. students survive him. Now? I believe him the greatest writer the world will ever have.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?


Is there a book that changed your life?

All loved books are life-altering, in that they are empathy generating machines.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?


Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Love In The Time Of Cholera. A pure reading delight.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The Jean Michel Basquiat retrospective produced by his family, seen in New York.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Rise late, work well, dine with friends.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

I’ve never had such a hope, but all questions are opportunities for new thought, so I guess I’d hope the question would be one I’d never anticipated ever getting.

What are you working on now?

A movie about the love story of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Book cover for Going Zero
Going Zero
McCarten, Anthony

In Going Zero, Anthony McCarten illustrates just how little of our lives, personal, professional, online or off, are actually in any way private in today’s world. The novel is centered around the test of a new surveillance software called Fusion. Fusion is supposed to be able to find anyone, anywhere, whether they want to be found or not, and the CIA is very interested in this claim. The test is simple: select ten individuals, give them a two-hour "head start," and then locate them within a 30-day window. If anyone is able to elude Fusion for 30 days, they will be given $3 million dollars. If Fusion is able to track down all of the participants in 30 days or less, Baxter will receive a $90 million contract with the Federal Government.

As the test progresses, one participant becomes a standout: Kaitlyn Day, a middle-aged librarian from Boston. When the test begins, Day is thought to be one of the first to fail the test. However, no one knows Day’s reasons for joining the test and how they are the driving force behind every action she takes. Her motivations are just as strong, if not stronger than Fusion’s incentive to find her and win the defense contract.

Going Zero is a thrilling and terrifying look at a world frighteningly like, and only a step or two away, from our own.