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Arrow co-creator Marc Guggenheim’s first novel, Overwatch, is out April 15. It’s the story of a young CIA attorney named Alex Garnett, the son of a former chief of staff to the president, who gets sucked into a conspiracy at the spy agency.
THR: What’s the elevator pitch for Overwatch?
Guggenheim: Basically, it’s “Lincoln Lawyer” meets “Jack Ryan.” The slightly more evolved elevator pitch is basically the CIA has a legal department, so imagine a story kind of like The Firm set in the corridors of the CIA. I have a great love of John Grisham and Scott Turow for legal thrillers as well as a great love of Jack Ryan’s stories written by Tom Clancy. This idea, this milieu, sort of struck me as the opportunity to mix the two things and come up with a chocolate peanut butter cup of a novel where I could take two great tastes and hopefully make them taste great together.
How did you come up with the premise?
I remember very vividly actually. My sister-in-law was reading a book on the CIA, which I think was like The Idiot’s Guide to the CIA or something like that, and she called me up very excited one day and she said, “Do you know that the CIA had a legal department?” And I did actually but I was fascinated and I went on the Internet and started researching and found out about the CIA’s office of general counsel. The more I researched, the more I became convinced that this was a really interesting arena to set a story in. As I thought about it some more, I guess I’ve always been fascinated by the story behind the story or the world that hides out in plain sight that no one knows about. That got me thinking about what if there was a shadow agency? I don’t want to spoil too much of the novel but I was sort of fascinated by what makes an agency legitimate. We’ve ceded a lot of power and authority to the CIA, the NSA, the FBI all of those three-letter agencies, and I thought it would be incredibly easy for one such agency to basically go off the reservation and start doing whatever they wanted to do and not taking orders from anyone and if this agency was in the world of covert operations, then there would be no means of oversight. I found that very interesting and it struck me as a good engine for this milieu of the CIA’s legal department. Mainly because as a former lawyer, I’m very interested in the discrepancies sometimes between what’s legal and what’s right. I think when you’re dealing with covert affairs and the potential lack of oversight, that line between what’s legal and what’s right can become very blurred and that’s sort of one of the themes of the novel. I wanted to examine and challenge assumptions about who the good guys are and who the bad guys are in a world where there really are no black hats or white hats. Everybody’s just wearing great.
It has a classic Arrow dynamic of a son struggling to come out of the shadow of his father. What about that appeals to you?
I started the novel actually a couple years before Arrow. I think the issue of strong parents and parents casting a long shadow is something that I return to a lot throughout a variety of different projects I’ve worked on. It’s funny, I don’t spend a lot of time sort of looking under the hood. But I guess I’m very interested in the concept of parentage and I think by writing a long time, it manifests itself as fathers and sons but I’m the father of two daughters. I think mothers can be as influential on sons as fathers. It’s not necessarily a father-son thing, it is a parent-child thing. I guess I am very interested in it. A little bit of that is what is nature, what’s nurture. A little bit of that is, well, with the case of Alex, what happens if your parent is extremely successful? I think a lot of kids of very successful parents either manage to follow in their footsteps and have great success themselves, or they go in the exact operate direction. They’re total screw-ups. I guess I’m somewhat interested in what tips the balance.
What is your own accomplishment and what is the boost you get from your parents is a great question.
I think so, too. I think all parents want their children to be more successful than themselves. You always want your children standing on your shoulders and reaching for greater heights. But the world isn’t necessarily set up that way. I think actually there are some parents that deep down don’t want their children to succeed them. They’ve actually got their place in life by being so competitive that that competition instinct doesn’t switch itself off just for your kids. I think there’s a lot of interesting drama any way you slice it. One of those things I wanted to do with the novel was give the protagonist an opportunity to actually exceed his father’s level of success and achieve something greater than his father could achieve, but at the same time…given with some strings attached and then set him off and see what would happen and what choices he would make.
Did you try the story in a different format first? A screenplay or pilot?
I played with the idea in a couple of iterations. I wrote a spec pilot which takes place in the world of the CIA, not this story but that world. Then I was between projects and someone suggested I do something I’d never do otherwise, so I decided to write a novel. Overwatch owes its parentage to books. It was a telling revelation that the comps were all literary.
Is there something from TV or comics you brought to novel writing?
Outlining. My comics got better when I started outlining. My process works better when I outline ahead of time but the key is don’t be beholden to an outline
How did you break into the business?
As a young lawyer in Boston, I was writing some scripts and decided to take a chance and come to Los Angeles. I got an agent and wrote a West Wing spec script. It just happened that David Kelley was looking to add writers to The Practice and he was looking for new writers who also had a legal background. And to top it off the place the show was set — Boston — was where I had practiced law. It was totally about being in the right place at the right time.
That’s a great story.
I don’t like telling it because it involved so much luck. The level of competition in the business is so much greater today than when I broke in. Writers are competing with more people than ever. It just seems like the traditional route of becoming an assistant on a show and moving up is becoming harder to do.
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