Author Interview: Matt Richtel

What do you like about the Common Reads structure as a literary event format, and how do you think Deadly Wandering resonates with community members?

What I love about the format is that community reads inspires one of the most powerful influences in our lives: informed conversation and debate. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this sort of group interaction is the essence of community and even democracy. We live in an era where we can become isolated by our own media habits and preferences. Common read is an antidote to that, and, when the book is provocative and entertaining, it can be fun, resonant, an experience to create not just conversation and community but even solutions to tough issues.

In that spirit, I firmly hope that A Deadly Wandering will draw people into a thrilling story and then get them talking and debating about issues that are impacting every one of us every day. On its face, the story is about a deadly, mysterious car crash caused by a texting driver. As a starting point, the book offers a powerful cautionary tale for readers of all ages about the risks of multitasking. But the topics in the book expand well beyond texting and driving to describe the way heavy technology use impacts our brains and behavior, the way we learn and how we relate in our jobs and families. Over and over, I’ve heard from readers that this is a book that touched them deeply, pulled back the curtain on the impact of technology, and that sparked conversations with friends and family about how to find a balance with the electronic gadgets that have become so central to our lives.


Both your fiction and non-fiction books are based on technology and its effects within society. Although technology is constantly evolving, what teachable moments do you emphasize that remain timeless?

One of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned – and that I work hard to impart when I speak – is about the value of focus and attention. There is a solid argument to be made that our capacity to focus and sustain our attention is one of the singularly important human traits. Plainly, it separates us from animals. This incredible capacity to focus is also under constant duress, even unprecedented attack.

 In what I hope is entertaining fashion (with funny and accessible anecdotes) I outline how our attention networks work, how they can be overtaken by technology and how we can take back our focus and attention so that we can become as effective as possible in our work efforts and as connected as possible in our interpersonal ones. I can’t emphasize this latter point enough: little in the world is as enduring and timeless as our human connections with each other. Our electronic gadgets can assist in these connections but also diminish them if we are not judicious with our technology use.


Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at your speaking events?

One great thrill was speaking in a massive ballroom immediately following former President Bill Clinton. Can you imagine? Getting up to talk after one of the great rhetoricians in recent decades? It was a great experience except that I had hoped I’d get to meet the president (and maybe get a few speaking tips) but the closest I got was talking to a secret service agent.

More broadly, the kinds of events that really inspire me are when I’m talking to groups that include teens and students – and their parents. We get into really fun conversations, back-and-forth discussions where we talk about their use of gadgets (phones and computers), the compulsive and even addictive pull. There can be a lot of laughter and, afterwards, some really rewarding experiences where people come up to me and say: “I’m changing how I use my device; I’m going to be more aware, especially behind the wheel.”


What inspired you to write this story?

Two things:

1. As a journalist and writer, you can wait your whole life to find a true-life drama as powerful as the one I discovered in A Deadly Wandering. It is the stuff of blockbuster movies but it is all real, all true, all emotionally resonant. And it involves fascinating science and powerful life lessons. Most of all, at the heart of it is a young man named Reggie Shaw. He is as compelling of a true-life character as I can imagine. A goat turned hero. A cautionary tale turned redeemer. Once I realized what this story was about, I had to write it.

2. I wrote this story because I witnessed my own behavior and my own compulsive use of devices. I had to ask: ‘What is going on here? Why am I always using this thing? What is so addictive about it?’ If I was asking this question, I figured lots of other folks were asking the same question. So I set out to answer it.

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