Matt Cook loves to enchant an audience.
As a high school student in Palos Verdes, Calif., he once performed as a close-up magician in front of Hollywood greats including Daniel Day-Lewis and Sylvester Stallone.
Now pursuing a doctorate in economics at the University of Pennsylvania, Cook was once a member of the Magic Castle Junior Society in Los Angeles, where young performers sharpen their magic acts. Now, he's found another outlet for creating alternative realities. His first thriller novel, Sabotage, is being published Tuesday by Tor/Forge Books, followed by a release party and book signing at the Penn Bookstore at 6 p.m.
Sabotage follows the adventures of a team of graduate students working to take down a villain with dangerous weapons technology who controls a hijacked cruise ship and could be linked to the disappearance of a Stanford University professor.
The premise of Sabotage was inspired by Cook's participation as a Stanford freshman in a popular San Francisco Bay Area event called The Game, which has students literally race to solve various puzzles and mind challenges. Though he said he "lost abysmally" that year, Cook returned for the event the following year with a team of students from several academic departments. With their combined talents, the undergraduates came in first.
"It really created a high for me," Cook said. He turned to writing to keep that creative high going and began work on the novel. Drawing on the traits of the team he had assembled for The Game, Cook molded "the good guys" for his book. He based one character, a kidnapped professor, on several of his favorite instructors at Stanford. He completed a first draft of Sabotage during summer break after sophomore year.
The text is written in what Cook described as a "cinematographic" style, something he said he hopes will translate into a movie deal in Hollywood. Cook, who had received a President's Call to Service Award for creating a project in 2005 called Mile-Long Yellow Ribbon to collect signatures from communities across the country showing support of soldiers, explained that he took great care to honor America's men and women in uniform by including a character who is a former combat weatherman.
"That is a Special Forces branch that I think a lot of civilians don't know about," Cook said. "A lot of civilians know about SEALs and some other Special Forces that are really, really neat, and it's amazing what they do, but I thought it would be cool to try to highlight a different area of Special Forces that people might not have heard of."
Neither is it the first literary effort by 25-year-old Cook, who has two self-published works to his name. They are entrepreneurial-themed Fearless and The Startup Star, the latter cowritten with fellow Stanford student Jon Zhang. In addition, he cofounded California Common Sense, a nonprofit that promotes government transparency. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics from Stanford, Cook moved to Philadelphia to continue his studies.
Though a Californian at heart, Cook said he's enjoyed his time in Philadelphia and at Penn greatly so far.
"I can say that the thriller-writing community, and I imagine the writing community as a whole, is the warmest group of people you can imagine," Cook said. "They don't view each other as competitors, they view each other as people who share the same excitements and interests."
Local author Jon McGoran, whose novel Deadout was published Aug. 5, said he hoped to bring Cook into a Philadelphia writer's group called the Liar's Club.
"[Cook] seems like such a smart and poised guy that I don't think he'll have any trouble adjusting to any level of success he achieves," McGoran said.
He said he greatly enjoyed reading Sabotage and is excited by the emergence of younger writers in the thriller genre. Scott Schwimer, Cook's entertainment attorney who also represents authors including Nicholas Sparks, Emily Giffin, and Brad Thor, said he expected Cook to become "a household name."
"By the time I was halfway through his book, I couldn't put it down," said Schwimer, a 1978 Stanford alumnus. Howard Wolf, president of Stanford Alumni, introduced Cook to Schwimer after he learned Cook was writing Sabotage in his spare time. Schwimer often showed his "willingness to help other Stanford alumni interested in breaking into the publishing world," Wolf said.
Cook, who is working on a second novel, said "for the rest of my life, I'll be writing."
Matt Cook, "Sabotage"
6 p.m., Tuesday,
3601 Walnut St. 215-898-7595, www.upenn.edu/bookstoreEndText