Your latest thriller DISPOSABLE ASSET is out now, can you tell us a bit about it?
DISPOSABLE ASSET is about a CIA-sponsored assassin who kills an Edward Snowden-like figure in Russia, and then finds herself on the run not only from the Kremlin and the Russian mafia, but from her own agency handlers.
It’s also – like all my books – about loyalty and treason, and the tension between ideological and personal motives. The question that fascinates me is: What makes people spy for their countries, and what happens when their own interests diverge from those of their agency?
In this particular story, the theme of privacy, and lack thereof, permeates everything. The cutting-edge technologies used to track the assassin drive home the very reasons someone might have fled American to expose intelligence overreaches in the first place. And the backdrop of a Russia that ever more closely resembles an artifact from the Cold War portrays where these overreaches might wind up in a worst-case scenario.
Was Edward Snowden’s flight to Russia the inspiration for this book?
Actually, this story started developing years before Snowden. I had the character of the assassin, a ‘disposable asset’ – a young female runaway developed by the CIA, used to complete a high-stakes mission, and then discarded to cover their tracks. La Femme Nikita was an early influence. But the book wasn’t quite jelling. Once the Snowden angle came into it, however, everything fell together.
You’re American, with no intelligence background (that we know of); how did you research DISPOSABLE ASSET?
I do a lot of reading about espionage and intelligence, and in this case also about Russia. I also travelled to Russia several times, and talked at length with Russian friends, and also with some intelligence veterans. Reading provides valuable context, but I find that only primary research really lets me get the little things right. Someone said that good research is like an iceberg – most of it remains invisible below the surface, and the reader sees only the tip peeking above the water.
How did you get into writing thrillers – what was it about the genre that attracted you?
I grew up loving science fiction and horror. And for years, all through my teens and into my twenties, I imitated these books as a writer, and failed to get a publisher interested. Then I went through a mystery phase: Sherlock Holmes and Ed McBain and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. When I was almost thirty years old, I discovered 1970s-era political thrillers – Eye of the Needle and The Day of the Jackal – and they just clicked with my writing style. My first try in this vein was the World War II spy thriller A GATHERING OF SPIES, which found a publisher. And I’ve been writing spy thrillers ever since.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process – do you plot everything out first or dive right in?
I’m of the Stephen King school – instead of planning everything in advance, I like to throw characters into a situation and then watch them try to fight their way out. My favorite stories are always driven by characters. But spy thrillers do require some tricky plotting, so I usually have some general sense of where the story is heading, some primary plot beats in each of the three major acts. I just don’t know exactly how the story is going to reach these beats. And sometimes it ends up going somewhere else entirely.
What advice would you give a writer aspiring to publication?
Keep plugging. Not only will you get better, but there is an element of luck involved – the right book crossing the right editor’s desk at the right moment. And never forget that a writer is someone who writes, not someone who gets published. Don’t let your feeling of worth depend entirely on outside feedback. Easier said than done, of course; a little validation (and a paycheck) helps a lot. But with the advent of self-publishing and e-books, the industry is a lot more open to self-starters than it used to be – just ask E.L. James.
And, finally, what does the rest of 2015 have in store for you?
I have a four-year-old son and a nine-week-old daughter, so I expect the rest of 2015 will involve mostly playdates and changing diapers! I’m trying to squeeze in some work on a new thriller, but sleep deprivation makes it hard to concentrate. All in due time.