Q+A: Steve Saroff

Aug 24, 2023
Dimitris Passas

1) Searching through the Internet and reading about your personal background, the first question I was meaning to ask concerns your relationship with the protagonist, Enzi. We know that Enzi is a kid who ran away in his teens and slowly climbed the ranks making something of himself, earning money and respect. How much of yourself is reflected in Enzi's personality?

S.S.: I have dyslexia and started reading and writing slowly and with difficulty. And as a kid, I failed most classes and started running away when I was 14. My mother also died when I was 10, and my father, a scientist, was mostly absent from my childhood. I also spent years drifting in the western U.S. as a laborer. So, there is a lot of me in Enzi (though my personality aligns more with Pascal's). Once I learned to avoid bullies and ignore critics, dyslexia became my advantage because it has let me see and hear things differently, which in the world of invention and art is often what is needed. My first nationally published short story appeared in Redbook magazine, selected from an over-the-transom submission from a pool of 50,000 submissions that year. The Redbook editor told me that my story (submitted as a typed manuscript) probably had more spelling and grammar mistakes than anything previously accepted by Redbook. Dyslexia can be a superpower. It can help find the sound and shape of the "interesting" in what matters.

2) Throughout your novel, you cauterize the ills of the corporate world in a straightforward and relentless manner, inextricably linking money and lies. Moreover, you discern/highlight the phenomenon of businessmen having an inflated ego to the point that makes them blind to obvious fraud schemes and security threats. Is your opinion based on your personal observations while being an entrepreneur?

S.S.: I invented the world's first financially successful internet email system, which became wildly popular when Kinko's/FedEx acquired its code. I also wrote and received a patent for a self-cloning feature of my software, which was essentially a benevolent virus. These things brought the attention WorldCom, a giant corporation, which, through one of its subsidiaries, purchased my tiny start-up. I ended up in a director role that had me traveling constantly and interacting with other executives connected with WorldCom, which then went spectacularly bankrupt after being caught in a multi-billion dollar fraud that I was not aware of. There are good and ethical business people out there, but for many of my years in business, I mostly met the other kind, and a few found a place in Paper Targets.

3) Enzi is dyslexic and has trouble spelling words correctly. Nevertheless, he thrives in acknowledging shapes and patterns in everything, trusting the language of mathematics which is brimming with symbols and condensed meanings. How important was this trait/flaw for you when crafting the character? Was it meant to function as a contrast to something else?

S.S.: Early on, I learned that the rules of grammar and spelling were created by people who try to describe how the world communicates but who often don't see or hear what is most important. Run Bob Dylan's, or Taylor Swift's lyrics by your typical high school English teacher, and the graded results would be C minus, and the teacher's corrections would strip the magic away. In Paper Targets, I tried to show that the world is a beautiful place of patterns and sounds and that there are unconventional ways to see the world.

4) Montana, Seattle, and New York are the three cities in which the action unfolds. The description of each setting is so detailed and confident that it implies a deep knowledge of those places. Have you spent a lot of time living and observing all three settings or are the descriptions just a figment of your imagination?

S.S.: All the settings in Paper Targets are places where I have spent significant time. The oil fields of Montana, where Enzi and I worked through an awful winter, to the great bars where Pascal and I have had conversations, are all places I know. From those glass-walled office spaces in the sterile towers of Seattle to the basements where coders worked in their grey cubicles, and all the way to New York City and Katz's perfect pastrami sandwiches, all my writing is, and will always be, from my experience. After my software company was acquired, I even hung out in the Rainbow Room at the very top of the NBC building for a press event focused painfully on me, and just like Enzi, I wondered how in the world I had ended up at a place I did not want to be.

5) While I admit that I enjoyed every single page of “Paper Targets”, the only thing that I found a tad irksome was the dialogue regarding the purely technical aspect of the story that sometimes became too much for me, a person who ignores the basics of computer coding and programming. Did you ever feel, while writing, that perhaps this element would turn against your novel/story?

S.S.: A writer's burden is that readers have varied tastes. But I wanted to write a true book with true words. Most technology in books, TV, and film, is reduced to a charade and is impossibly made up. All the technology described in Paper Targets is correct. I worked hard to make it brief, much as I worked hard to make descriptions of love and loss correct and brief. Most people can relate to love and loss. However, fewer people have first-hand experience with code. But since code is running much of our world now, I felt obligated to be true to it. Also, there are only 3 pages of code description in a 220-page book.

6) Is the correlation between juggling and programming a valid remark/observation that you made as a professional or something that you heard from another person? I found it to be extremely illuminating and explained some fundamental things about working as a computer coder.

S.S.: I was taught to juggle by someone I was once a business partner with. Juggling and coding are similar for all the reasons described in Paper Targets. Just don't mix juggling clubs with a hot tub late at night.

7) At one point, Enzi ponders: “Memories are the most difficult codes to break”. What does this mean exactly for Enzi’s character and most significantly for you as a human being and an author?

S.S.: We all learn from experience, and then experiences become our memories; our lives are memories. And anyone, myself included, who might have regrets, thinks of what could have been done differently. Our way forward is through understanding our own past and, thus, "Memories are the most difficult codes to break" (the line you thoughtfully quoted), gets to the absolute core of why I wrote Paper Targets.

8) Tell us about your future writing projects. Are you currently working on a new novel or do you take some time off, recharging your batteries and researching your next venture?

S.S.: I am forever involved with too many projects. I am involved with several start-ups, and I am working on two new novels. One based around Pascal, who, in writing Paper Targets, was the character I most enjoyed hanging out with over coffee in the morning.

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