When the Capitol Building is under seize, and all the nation’s leaders are held hostage, one Cabinet member is secure in a distant location. That person is chosen by the president to be the designated survivor. Chantilly author John H. Matthews imagines this scenario in his latest novel, a gripping thriller set in D.C. and Northern Virginia.
Designated Survivor was released in April, 2016, and is John’s third novel. I spoke with him recently about how this lifelong bookworm decided to branch out from his career in web development and photography, and pursue his dream of being a novelist.
As a fellow book lover who has also made a pilgrimage to John Steinbeck’s birthplace, I was fascinated to hear about how John made his dream become a reality. I asked him to tell us about it in his own words. If you ever imagined writing the next great American novel, read on.
The following is a guest post by local author John H. Matthews.
I was sitting at Starbucks, just another guy with a MacBook screen casting an odd glow onto my face, a fleece zipped up to my neck to ward off the Antarctic-like air conditioning that seems to operate no matter the temperature outside the doors. The man a couple seats down was playing a game on his phone. A woman on the other side of the room was alternating between working on a spreadsheet and checking Facebook.
I was on Google looking up different ways to wire a car to blow up when the key turned in the ignition.
A look through my search history makes me wonder what the NSA would think if they hacked in and took a look around, but then they’d also find that I spent a good part of a day researching the NSA compound at Fort Meade. If I disappear midway through this post, then a black SUV has likely swept in and taken me away for questioning. I’ll send a postcard from Guantanamo.
I released my first novel, The South Coast, in 2013. It appeared on Amazon.com with a whimper, no big parties or champagne bottles being popped open. It was actually quite messy since it was the first time I’d gone through the process, as first times usually are. I was lucky enough to see it hit bestseller status at one point. Fast-forward to 2015 and the release of my follow-up novel, Ballyvaughan. I had learned a lot leading up to the first book then so much more before the second. I saw my freelance web design business begin to shift to where I was designing book covers for other authors (nearly 100 so far) then eventually becoming a publisher.
On April 1st I released Designated Survivor, my third novel and the first set in the Washington DC area. After two books based in Austin, Texas, I could finally get in my car and drive through Northern Virginia and DC as I wrote about my characters doing the same thing. Fortunately I wasn’t being chased by terrorists as they were.
I grew up in a house with no pictures or paintings on the walls. Bookshelves lined every spare area, even over the doors. My father had collected books since he was 12 years old and amassed a collection that rivaled that of our small town Arkansas library. I was reading Stephen King when others were reading Judy Blume (okay, I was reading Stephen King AND Judy Blume, but who wasn’t reading Blume?). I think I was the one person who enjoyed Freshman Comp in college (and one of only a few people who elected to take Freshman Comp II). Many years later, after a career in retail management in Dallas, I spent a year living in Northern California working for a start-up. It was just like the movies show it now; the company was in an old house with a dirty swimming pool. All I could afford to do on the weekends was to check a book out of the Cupertino library then park somewhere beautiful and read. I went through most of John Steinbeck’s work during that year, even going to the length to sit on Cannery Row and read Cannery Row. I sat in the shadow of the Gabilan Mountains and read The Red Pony. I was a book nerd.
While Steinbeck remains my favorite author, the inspiration for writing my first book came from Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser mystery novels (and television series). I wrote about my protagonist Eddie Holland, a former FBI agent who returns home to Austin and becomes a private detective, for two books so far (and more to come). I followed those up with the new spy thriller, Designated Survivor. When I had the plot idea for Survivor I knew it couldn’t fit into Eddie Holland’s world, so my new hero was born. Grace is an elite NSA operator who is called in after the Capitol is attacked during the State of the Union, capturing all of the Nation’s leadership inside except for the one man chosen to be outside the beltway in case of such an event… the designated survivor.
My work has seen a lot of change lately. I started as a web designer 20 years ago and in the last few years have seen my business transition to working only with authors. Just in the last few months I have joined forces with two other people to form a new company to help authors get their books designed, marketing and published. Book Connectors was born from everything the three of us have learned in our collective years in writing, publishing, marketing and web development.
Along with my partners at Book Connectors, our clients are all over the country. Thanks to a write up in Northern Virginia Magazine last year for Ballyvaughan, I got a phone call from a woman in Ashburn who tracked me down. She’d written a book about dealing with the loss of a loved one from the perspective of cleaning up all of their business affairs and wanted to get it published. We worked together for nearly two months and released For the Ones Left Behind in early April. It’s a great mix of how-to/checklists/mini-memoir. Working with a client here in Northern Virginia was a great experience. Though we did most of our discussions through email and over the phone, we got to meet in person when I showed her the printed proof copy of her book.
There’s a statistic that’s been thrown around for several years now that 83% of Americans surveyed said they want to write a book, but less than 10% ever do. Are you part of that 83%? We all use the same excuses: I don’t have time, I don’t know how, Who would want to read it?
It begins with a sentence or a line of dialogue or maybe just the smallest part of a plot that enters your mind and spins around a while. It happens when you’re sitting in your car on 66 or giving your toddler a bath one night. It’s the beginning of a story, a book. But so many people mentally tuck that little tidbit away never to return to it.
I spent 18 years as a web designer and developer for associations, start-ups, and big companies. We had our son when I was 42 years old and I started looking back at my work life. Every website I’d built will be gone before my son is older. My books are my legacy for him, the only way I can be immortal. I like to think that when he is 40 or 50 and I’m long dead that he’ll be talking to someone and say “My father? He was a writer.” It doesn’t matter if I ever hit the New York Times bestseller list or get interviewed by Matt Lauer. I was a writer.
Many thanks to John for this inspiring glimpse into his world!
You can find Designated Survivor and the other books by John H. Matthews at Amazon.com. In addition to supporting a local author, orders made through the following affiliate links will offer a small commission to Modern Reston, at no additional cost to you. If you like what we do here at MR, please support us by treating yourself or your favorite mother, father, or graduate with a new book.
The South Coast
Eddie Holland left the FBI after ten years in counter terrorism, exhausted and ready for a change. After returning home to Austin, Texas, he starts taking private detective jobs. He’s hired to find Peter Miller, a network security expert who works for a government contracting company. But Eddie’s search uncovers much more than a missing man, and finds his family in danger.
Ballyvaughan: An Eddie Holland Novel
In the follow up to The South Coast, Eddie Holland is hired to track down the stalker of a young and beautiful musician in Austin. While trying to protect her, a man with ties to his own past is traveling from Ireland to Texas to hunt Eddie down and kill him. With his own life on the line, he tries to find his assassin as the body count keeps going up around him.
The United States Capitol is overtaken by terrorists during the State of the Union speech and the nation’s leaders are held hostage. Precautions are taken for such an extreme event. One cabinet member is chosen by the president to be away from the Capitol and D.C. This is the Designated Survivor. An elite NSA operator and his team are called in to aid in their rescue and track down the people responsible.