HOW TO WRITE A 21ST-CENTURY SPY NOVEL
As the world gets more complex, so must fiction.
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.