Austin Grossman Interviews Daniel O’Malley

Austin Grossman had three pressing questions for THE ROOK author Daniel O’Malley. Here they are, in no particular order.

a)  What would you say the greatest super-secret organization in SF and F?  What were some models used for THE ROOK?

I don’t know that anything was actually a model.  But some fictional secret security organizations really made an impact with me.

I remember that the White Witch’s secret police in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe made me feel deeply uneasy at the time. “Some of the trees are on her side.” And it’s led by a wolf. So, I’ve always held a soft spot for them. Although, in retrospect, what kind of secret police leave notes signed ‘Captain of the Secret Police’?

And I don’t know if they count as super-secret, since everyone knows they exist, but the Militia in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station really struck me when I read about them. Police that walked around in disguise all the time, only to emerge out of nowhere when there was crime. They pull hidden masks out of their collars, and sometimes they are riding flying jellyfish. They’re scary police, I don’t want them in my town, but they’re pretty damn cool.

 With The Rook I wanted to give the sense of a regular office where bizarre things were happening in the background, or incredible occurrences were being discussed in a perfectly serious and deadpan way. I think the Men in Black movies did a good job with that sort of thing. I also wanted a place where many of the staff, from the elite commandos through to the phone receptionists, might have supernatural powers. Alan Moore, Gene Ha, Zander Cannon and Todd Klein did a terrific comic called Top 10, and it was about the police in a city where everyone had super powers. So, the guy cooking your hotdog might be doing it with heat vision, or the boy band on the radio might all be former sidekicks. My organization is not quite so saturated with powers, but I remembered that, and thought it was fun.

b) If you knew you were going to have total amnesia, what’s the first note you would write to your future self?

It depends, I guess. In The Rook, the amnesiac character has to fake being herself, but I think if I were going to have total amnesia, I’d try to make it as easy on my future self as possible, and concealing that sort of thing can’t be easy. So, I’m going to hedge my bets here.

If I have to conceal my amnesia, and fake being myself, well, it’s really not going to be that difficult for my new self. I’m not terribly complicated, and I don’t have the sort of job like Myfanwy Thomas. So, my first note would be a list of things to keep in mind. It would probably include such hints like:

You will need to master the art of reading while walking.

You will not need to brush your hair.

You have to jiggle the handle of the toilet for it to work.

If I’m free to acknowledge the amnesia, then I like to think it would be a very gentle, reassuring note, letting my new self know that his family will support him through anything, and it will all be all right. And also not to break any of the spines on my/our books.

c) Why do people in secret organizations structure their org chart using chess as a model? Would any other games (Cribbage? Clue? Angry Birds?) work better?

Chess is handy for a number of reasons. It’s so iconic – it’s old-world and intellectual and classy, so people can feel good about themselves. And it’s got that hierarchy thing going on, so the executives can swan about, knowing exactly where they stand. And I expect that it’s much easier to send your flunkies off to dangerous situations when they’re labeled as ‘Pawns.’  Oh, and the pieces make for good icons when you’re working up your stationery and your business cards.

If one absolutely had to go for another game, well, my two favorite games are Carcassonne (which is a tile-laying game where you put down pictures of a miniscule Medieval French landscape) and Liar’s Dice (that game they play in the second Pirate of the Caribbean movie, with the cups, and the dice and everyone looking intent.) I expect neither of those would work well, since no boss wants the title of ‘that tile with a bit of road, and the end of a city’.

Maybe Monopoly? Different people could be different streets, and you’d know who was more valuable. And, in fact, that would work extremely well because there’s all the different versions for the different countries (which I was not aware of when I moved to America. I played Monopoly with some friends, and thought I had lost my mind when Mayfair wasn’t the most valuable property on the board.) So international organizations would have their different streets. And the colour coding could probably come in handy.


Dan O’Malley graduated from Michigan State University and earned a Master’s Degree in medieval history from Ohio State University. He then returned to his childhoom home, Australia. He now works for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, writing press releases for government investigations of plane crashes and runaway boats.

Austin Grossman is a video game design consultant and the author of Soon I Will Be Invincible, which was nominated for the 2007 John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize. His writing has appeared in Granta, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. He lives in Berkeley, California. Mulholland Books will publish Grossman’s second novel YOU, a novel of mystery, videogames, and the people who create them in March 2013.