HOW TO WRITE A 21ST-CEN­TURY SPY NOVEL

As the world gets more com­plex, so must fic­tion.

Esquire Middle East - - BOOKS - BY LEA CAR­PEN­TER

AFILM STU­DENT ONCE ASKED HITCH­COCK how long you can hold the cam­era on a kiss. The direc­tor ap­par­ently an­swered, “Twenty to 25 min­utes,” which shocked the stu­dent, un­til Hitch­cock added, “But first I would place a bomb un­der the bed.” A bomb un­der the bed dur­ing a love scene is the essence of sus­pense. When I ini­tially imag­ined the out­lines of my new novel, Red, White, Blue, I be­gan by think­ing that the spy genre, like a Hitch­cock film, was de­fined by sus­pense. I thought that be­fore I could tell a love story, I would have to place that bomb.

Early on, for my re­search, a jour­nal­ist I ad­mired ar­ranged a visit to Lan­g­ley. The per­son who gave us our tour had been the pub­lic face of the CIA’S en­hanced-in­ter­ro­ga­tion pro­gram, was called be­fore Congress to tes­tify about it (had writ­ten a book, too), and later ap­peared on 60 Min­utes to make the case for a choice — de­stroy­ing video­tapes of those in­ter­ro­ga­tions — that be­came a sort of sym­bol for the mo­ral cal­cu­la­tions the agency has had to make in the post-9/11 era. He walked us to the Memo­rial Wall of stars, with each star rep­re­sent­ing an of­fi­cer killed in ac­tion. He pointed to one and told us, “I was with him.” And then he said, “It was the same day my child was born.”

Lit­er­a­ture has given us bril­liant spies. There is the glam­our of Flem­ing’s Bond, the anti-glam­our of le Carré’s Ge­orge Smi­ley, the in­scrutabil­ity of Greene’s Alden Pyle. The walk­ing mo­ral hall pass that is Lud­lum’s Ja­son Bourne, who can­not re­call why killing comes nat­u­rally to him. In fic­tion, as in life, we want killers on the watch, though we don’t usu­ally want them to look like killers. And in the new wars, they of­ten don’t. “The lit­tle girl who looks like your lit­tle sis­ter’s hip­pie friend on hol­i­day might be a weapon of mass de­struc­tion,” says Jimmy Silva, the an­ti­bourne an­ti­hero of Mile

22, a film I wrote about the costs of see­ing what we wish to see. I re­mem­ber think­ing, stand­ing at that wall at Lan­g­ley, that maybe es­pi­onage is

de­fined less by sus­pense and more by or­di­nary peo­ple fac­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances. Like hold­ing your dy­ing friend while your baby’s be­ing born a world away. The pri­vate reck­on­ing with choices you have no choice but to make. That, I thought, I could write about.

As I talked to cur­rent and for­mer case of­fi­cers, the word I kept re­turn­ing to was in­ti­macy. The cul­ti­va­tion of trust, the gift of be­ing able to per­suade some­one to do some­thing unimag­in­able, be­ing able to “spot and as­sess” an as­set and their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, to present a risk as an op­por­tu­nity. Spies are in the in­ti­macy busi­ness. Nor­man Mailer de­scribed the CIA like this:

“The na­ture of the dif­fi­culty be­gins to dis­close it­self. We can­not house an ex­pla­na­tion be­cause we do not know which of our facts are bricks and which are pa­pier-mâché painted to look like bricks. We can only watch the way the bricks are han­dled.

“It is painful, none­the­less, to re­lin­quish one’s hope for a nar­ra­tive, to ad­mit that study of the CIA may not lead to the ex­po­sure of facts so much as to the epis­te­mol­ogy of facts. We will not get the goods so quickly as we will learn how to con­struct a model which will tell us why we can­not get the goods.”

We are still try­ing to con­struct, and de­con­struct, that model. “Es­pi­onage isn’t a math prob­lem,” one of my char­ac­ters says, “it’s a paint­ing,” by which I meant that there is never one an­swer to any ques­tion; the parts will never make a whole. Gifted spies un­der­stand that es­pi­onage is a long game — chess, not check­ers. Un­like a novel, it never ends. The last three words of Mailer’s CIA novel, Har­lot’s Ghost, are “To be con­tin­ued.”

In my own novel, I tried to tell a story about trust and lies and ac­ci­dents, about the oc­ca­sional fine line be­tween com­mit­ting a crime and de­liv­er­ing a mercy blow, a story of loss and how we re­cover from it. I used the Mailer quote as my epi­graph, though I could have used one from other writ­ers I ad­mire who’ve cre­ated iconic spy char­ac­ters. Smi­ley, Pyle. Jack Lovett in Joan Did­ion’s Democ­racy, who

ES­PI­ONAGE ISN’T A MATH PROB­LEM, IT’S A PAINT­ING.” THERE IS NEVER ONE AN­SWER TO ANY QUES­TION; THE PARTS WILL NEVER MAKE A WHOLE

just hap­pens to be stand­ing, and wait­ing, in the con­trol tower when his lover, Inez, ex­its onto the run­way in the rain. My case-of­fi­cer char­ac­ter has no name, as, I learned, your iden­tity and los­ing that iden­tity is also a theme in the lit­er­a­ture and life of es­pi­onage; look at Bourne. Bourne would check be­neath the bed be­fore he kissed the girl. Most of the peo­ple I’ve met in the busi­ness would check. As for my bomb, I de­cided in­stead to write about the choices spies make along the way to find­ing it. Once you make those kinds of com­plex choices, even if you do find that bomb, it will rarely be easy to dis­arm. Once you find the bomb, an­other story be­gins.

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