A conversation with Gregg Hurwitz on writing ~ and his quirky hero, the ‘Nowhere Man’

Best-selling thriller novelist Gregg Hurwitz knew since childhood he wanted to be a writer.
Best-selling thriller novelist Gregg Hurwitz knew since childhood he wanted to be a writer. Kaye Publicity

Best-selling thriller novelist Gregg Hurwitz knew since childhood he wanted to be a writer. To the point that he specifically targeted the two specialties he believes are essential for a career in fiction - English and psychology – and earned degrees from Harvard and Oxford to master them.

His plan worked. Hurwitz, 46, has written 20 thrillers published in 30 languages, two of which were shortlisted by the International Thriller Writers for best novel of the year (“The Crime Writer,” 2007, and “The Survivor,” 2011).

“I write the kinds of stories I love to read,” he said. “I’m really fortunate never to have had a real job.”

Hurwitz is also a screenwriter for movies (“The Book of Henry,” from his novel, and “Careful What You Wish For”) and TV (the ABC sci-fi series “V” and the upcoming Bradley Cooper project “Black Flags” for HBO). He’s also written the text for graphic novels published by DC Comics and Marvel Comics, including “Batman,” “Foolkiller,” “X- Men” and “Wolverine.”

His biggest splash – a breaching whale, really – is the critically acclaimed four-title “Orphan X” series. The latest is “Out of the Dark” (Minotaur, $28, 400 pages).

“‘Orphan X’ represents the culmination of my writing career,” Hurwitz said. The concept is unique in the overpopulated thriller genre, Jack Reacher and Jason Bourne notwithstanding.

Tech-savvy Evan Smoak was taken from a foster home at age 12 and trained all his life as an elite assassin in the black-ops Orphan Program, deeply buried in the Department of Defense. Its agents are sent to international locations to eliminate targets, never knowing why and always under the DOJ’s policy of plausible deniability.

As an adult who has grown weary of the life – mostly because his moral compass has not been destroyed - he left the program and vanished. He took with him a lethal skill set and a fortune in hidden bank accounts, ending up in a luxury penthouse apartment in L.A.

To find some redemption, he assumed the identity of the mysterious vigilante known on the streets as the Nowhere Man, whose self-imposed mission is to help the truly desperate and deserving who have nowhere else to turn. Problem is, the former head of the Orphan Program – who has since risen in national politics – is intent on erasing any evidence the organization ever existed. Meaning all the agents must vanish.

In a recent bidding war, the “Orphan X” series was acquired by a production company for a TV series, for which Hurwitz is adapting his books. Hurwitz grew up in Saratoga, near San Jose, and now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters.

“My favorite activity, beyond drinking bourbon, is eating,” he said. “We have so many ethnicities thrown together here, which means countless amazing places to eat.”

Visit the author at

Q: Is writing graphic novels like writing screenplays, given both depend so much on their visual elements?

A: Yes, except you have much less room in a comic. With film and TV, you can only show visuals, you can’t go inside a character’s head unless you rely on the crutch of voiceover. But with a comic, you’re holding the camera and you can only take four to five snapshots per page. You have to decide which frozen images best chart the course of the scene you’re trying to convey.

Q: Your work for Marvel and DC can be perceived as counterintuitive, given your formal education, including a master’s degree in Shakespearean tragedy from Oxford.

A: People forget that Shakespeare’s desire wasn’t to create enduring literary value, but to sell out the Globe Theatre. His jokes vacillated between glancing references to the classics for royalty sitting up in the boxes, to (coarse) jokes to amuse the groundlings. He was trying to speak to every cross-section of Elizabethan society at once in the most commercially viable way. We attempt to do that today in comics and thrillers and films.

Q: What mindset is required to move from working on a novel - alone in your office - to the collaborations that movie and TV projects require?

A: There’s a certain letting go. In one regard, a screenplay is an invitation to collaborate. It’s a roadmap to an aesthetic destination, and you have to choose your partners wisely for the trip or you’ll wind up in a ditch. You want to give the director, producers and actors room to bring their own energy and creativity to bear, and trust they will elevate the project.

Q: For research, you consult with a range of experts. Who are they?

A: Professors and porn stars, Army Rangers and CIA operatives, emergency room docs and Silicon Valley chief technology officers. I have to be willing to go anywhere and speak to anyone in order to give the reader a front-row seat to the action. The subject-matter experts I want to talk to are the ones who don’t want to talk. The public information officer of an agency is never gonna give me the uncensored details I need to make a book ring with verisimilitude. I have to get to the men and women who actually are undertaking the operations and build trust so I can hear how they talk and think and see the world.

Q: Also for research, you’ve said you’ve flown in stunt planes, swum with sharks, sneaked onto demolition ranges with Navy SEALs and blown up cars. To get into an Evan Smoak frame of mind, do you go to the gun range and the dojo?

A: I do indeed. I’ve shot every gun that Orphan X shoots and I trained for months in mixed martial arts fighting, mostly introducing my face to the training mat. All this serves the fiction, but it’s also a good way for me not to lose sight of the fact that life should be an adventure, and adventures require risk and danger at times.

Q: You’re adapting the four “Orphan X” thrillers into a TV series. What are the challenges?

A: There’s a lot of adjusting to move from one form to another. A TV pilot presents some unique challenges in that you’re setting out to write a story that can stand on its own, but also set the template for a season and for future seasons. It’s tricky business and lots of fun.

Q: There are similarities between Evan Smoak and archetypal thriller characters, yet he departs from that mold. For one thing, you show readers his “real world” – one that includes his neighbor Mia, a single mom with whom he has a relationship.

A: The one thing we never get to see is James Bond go home. Or Jason Bourne have to make awkward small talk with the pushy, elderly lady who lives upstairs from him. I wanted to take an archetypal character and seat him inside the same world where you and I live.

Q: Beyond the action, readers really enjoy Evan’s quirks, such as his appreciation of artisanal vodka, his herb wall and the “pet” plant he talks to.

A: Stories live and breathe by the particulars. As much as thrillers lay down on an archetypal structure, the specifics are what we always attach to. How many people remember the specifics of a James Bond action scene versus remembering how he takes his martini?

Q: You said in an interview, “Evan’s struggle is between intimacy and perfection. Even in the face of being a perfectionist, he strives for human contact.”

A: I’m a perfectionist, and I’ve clung to certain ideals with a compulsiveness that hasn’t always served me. But it’s been very effective in helping me reach my goals. But some of the higher goals don’t exist along that same trajectory. Like having someone in your life - a spouse, a child - with all the vulnerability and fear and love that go with it. So there’s a tension between the two ideals, and it’s a tension Evan is trapped between. Does he stay the rigid assassin who lives his life by the 10 Operational Commandments? Or does he learn to break up his constructed worldview and enter the scarier fray of human interaction?

Q: Evan Smoak is quite definite about his personal preferences. What about yours?

A: Chandler over Hammett. Bourbon over scotch. Beatles over Stones. Ridgebacks over Labradors. Giants over Dodgers. Red Sox over Yankees. And always, always use the Oxford comma.

Book signing

Who: New York Times best-selling author Gregg Hurwitz will give a reading, answer audience questions and autograph books.

Where: Barnes & Noble, 1725 Arden Way, Sacramento

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8

Cost: Free. Note: Barnes & Noble will give a 20 percent discount on “Out of the Dark” at this event. Information: (916) 565-0644