Thursday, March 17, 2011

Author interview: Mark Russinovich

You may not have heard of him yet, but my guess is you will. Well, clearly you will because I'm talking about him.

You know what I mean.

He's that rare breed of fiction writer, the guy who writes about scary things that might actually happen. His first novel, ZERO DAY is now out, and not only is it getting rave reviews as a work of fiction but I'm also reading comments about how it may be a glimpse into the future.

Check it out.

Oh, while we're at it, meet Mark Russinovich:

Did you always want to be a writer, or did you come to it as an adult?
I was a voracious reader from a very young age. Like many boys, I was fascinated by science fiction, especially hard-core science fiction that’s grounded in science. I probably read most of the collective works of Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Niven and several other author classic sci-fi authors.

I knew that someday I wanted to craft a story anchored in technology, and expected that it would be a sci-fi novel. In seventh grade when a friend got an Apple II and we spent hours writing programs, I knew I wanted a career in computers. I also wanted to share and educate and wrote my first article for the magazine COMPUTE! when I was a senior in high school. I continued my writing as a columnist for Windows NT Magazine (now Windows IT Pro Magazine) and in 2000 coauthored my first non-fiction book, Inside Windows 2000. The book covers the internal operation of Windows and I’ve since coauthored two additional editions of the book, which is now called Windows Internals.

In around 2004, the germ of an idea for a novel emerged and I finally began writing Zero Day in early 2005.

Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

Only a few people knew I was writing a book and they were all very supportive. My wife and close friends read numerous drafts and provided great constructive feedback. It was only a couple of months ago that I announced to the world that the book was coming out.

What is your writing schedule? I'm guessing a full time job interferes with what you'd like it to be...

Yes, it’s hard to find time to write. I generally do it in the mornings before work and in the evenings, but the bulk I get done on weekends. Squeezing it in like that makes it take a long time to write, but that gives me opportunity to think through pretty carefully where the book is and where I’d like it go. I started working on the sequel about a year ago and may have a draft to start sharing with friends in another few months.

Do you work in a study, all alone, or do you prefer a cafe where there are people to watch (and bug you!)?

I definitely prefer to study alone and undisturbed in my home office. I’m easily thrown off by modern distractions like email so have to even shut down by email client so that I can get into the writing zone.

You have a new novel coming out, ZERO DAY, tell us about it.

Zero Day is a book about a scenario that, frankly, I’m surprised hasn’t yet occurred. After the virus waves of 2000-2003, it became obvious to me that a relatively minor effort by a few computer-experts could cause destruction that would easily dwarf that of 9/11. It’s the perfect weapon for terrorist because it has the potential for much wider damage than a physical attack, is virtually anonymous, and is based on technology that’s readily accessible.

I decided in 2005 to raise awareness and thought it writing a thriller would be a fun and effective way of doing that. It shows how such an attack could unfold, with typical thriller misdirection and plot twists.

Was the journey from idea to publication as you'd imagined?

Not at all. I thought with my background as an expert in the field with non-fiction books and an established audience (my blog is read by tens of thousands of people a month) that I’d have no trouble finding an agent and then a publisher. That didn’t seem to have much influence, though, and I received a few dozen agent rejections and a dozen publisher rejections. Many times during the process I seriously considered giving up on mainstream publishing and going the self-publishing route. I even researched self-publishing options. But every time I was on the verge of giving up, something would happen either to keep my hopes alive or to keep the ball moving and here I about six years after I started with a published novel. My agent, Ann Collette, was great support.

Your novel is very reality based, no? Do envisage it making any impact on the way people view technology?

It was one of my intentions to highlight just how dependent we are on technology. Like many things we take for granted, I don’t think people worry about what would happen if their PC died and they lost all the data on it until it happens to them or a friend. And that includes small business owners. Even large corporations get lax about verifying backups or developing contingency plans in the event that their main servers crash and won’t recover.

At a larger scale, we also need to be more thoughtful about the design of our infrastructure systems, including power and other utilities. Boundaries need to be erected between them and the Internet and they need to be subdivided such that cyber-attacks are isolated to just part of the system. Today, there’s very little of that formalized thinking.

Who are your favorite authors?

Besides some of the science fiction authors I’ve mentioned, Michael Crichton has a special spot in my list. I remember reading The Andromeda Strain when I was in seventh grade and being fascinated by the science he weaved into the story. He did it in a way that taught you while entertaining and I finished the book feeling smarter than when I had started. The experience I had with Jurassic Park was the same. I knew that if I wrote a novel that I would strive for the same authenticity and try to give even non-technical readers an understanding of the technology on which the story was based.

What was your favorite thriller/mystery novel of 2010?

It’s hard to pick one because I don’t necessarily read books as they are being released. Most of the thrillers I read in 2010 weren’t released in 2010. A couple of exceptions were Daniel Suarez’s Freedom, the sequel to his first novel, Daemon. Daniel’s books are also cyberthillers, though more futuristic in their portrayal of technology. In some cases I don’t think we’ll see what he imagines for several decades, but it was a great read nonetheless.

A 2010 non-fiction book I thought was great was Cyberwarefare by Richard Clarke and Robert Knake. Like my novel Zero Day, it’s a wakeup call that highlights how unprepared we are for a world where wars are fought in cyberspace. Richard and Robert not only describe the current state, but make concrete recommendations for improving our defenses.

If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

First, try to look at your work objectively and get as much feedback from friends as possible. Don’t be afraid to go back and rework parts of the book that slow the plot. And most of all, if you believe that you have a good story, don’t give up trying to get it published. It can be a long process, but like you always hear, there’s a good bit of luck involved to getting a first novel published that you’ll only find with persistence.

Have you, or will you, attend writing conferences? Which one(s)?

Yes, I plan on attending Bouchercon in St Louis in September. My agent recommended it as one of the best writer conferences for meeting readers, reviewers, and other established writers. My agent put me in contact with another writer that’s attended several years and she had nothing but glowing things to say about the great experience and sharing she’d had there.

What's next, another novel in the works?

I actually have three books coming out this year: Zero Day, which is non-fiction, the 6th edition of the Windows Internals book, and The Sysinternals Administrator’s Reference. The Sysinternals Administrator’s Reference is a book I’m coauthoring on how to use the computer administration and troubleshooting tools I’ve created.

I’m also working on the sequel to Zero Day. I don’t have a firm title yet, but the book involves China, oil, and Iran’s nuclear program and is based on the real-world cyber-espionage that we’ve seen China engaged in. All the major powers have cyber operations that spy on, and in some cases interfere, with the activities of other nations. The attacks on Google last year and the Stuxnet virus attack on Iran are just some of the examples we’re aware of.

What do you think of the e-book debate - is the trend away from paper books it good for authors, readers, publishers, anyone, everyone?

I think it’s good for authors and publishers, but it’s going to take the publishers time to adapt. There’s no shortage of demand for quality writing and publishers are generally a good filter for good content. They’ll continue to serve that role, but e-books democratize the publishing business and enable authors that otherwise wouldn’t ever have a voice to get published. We’ve already seen cases of first-time authors create a large following and earn some good income self-publishing on Kindle.

I ultimately think that, while the e-book business might be around ten percent of physical books today, in ten years you’ll see that ratio close to inverted. Publishers will have to take a much more active role in marketing authors to stay relevant.


  1. I just downloaded Zero Day to my nook. Sounds fabulous! Thanks for the tip.

  2. For those who don't know, Mark started a company here in Austin that provided advanced tools and training for programing and using Windows. He's written many books and articles on Windows programming. He was frequently retained by Microsoft to teach Windows programing to their developers.

    A few years ago Bill Gates sent a dump truck full of gold to his house to induce Mark to sell his company and become a full time Microsoft super senior engineer.

    Home town boy does good.


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