Text of my Presentation to the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC
The Great Game: The Art of Espionage in Fact and Fiction
First, I’d like to thank Mr. Earnest and Mr. Hitz, and say what an honor it is to share a stage with these men … both long-time veterans of the CIA, a Princeton professor and the director of the International Spy Museum. And I’m just a guy who makes stuff up for a living.
And that’s what I’m going to talk about now – how, as someone without access to any classified information, I go about writing believable spy fiction.
Believable is the key word. My top priority is to make a story that’s dramatic and engaging. At the same time, it must remain realistic enough to be believable, so the reader doesn’t reject it out of hand. Realism is the means to the end of believability – not the goal in itself.
I’m going to talk a little about walking this line, between dramatic storytelling and believability; a little about how truth is often stranger than fiction … and then a bit about how I do my research, and about how my personal experience – even though it’s not in intelligence – does help me create spy fiction.
Probably all authors of spy novels take creative license to some degree. Even if they have real-life experience in intelligence.
For example, Ian Fleming worked at Bletchley Park breaking German codes during World War II. Yet when he started writing spy fiction, he invented James Bond, who spying experiences are a lot more dramatic – and a lot sexier – than the one Fleming had. In fact, Bond is one of the less realistic – but more entertaining – fictional spies of all time.
Regardless of whether you’re an intelligence insider or outsider, you’re going to want to write a dramatic story.
And all spy fiction, from the least realistic end of the spectrum – which might be Robert Ludlum – to the most realistic – which might be John Le Carré – must walk this line, of being entertaining but believable.
The writer might strain credibility, but he can never break it.
As soon as I sat down to write my first spy novel, I encountered the problem of creating believable spy fiction – for one reason, because my lead character was pretty unbelievable.
The novel fell squarely into a sub-genre of World War II thriller that I call ‘Beautiful-or-Handsome Deadly Nazi Spy Stumbles Onto The Secret That Can Change The Course Of The War And Is Chased By Phlegmatic British Professor’.
The shining example of this genre is The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett. The book that inspired me is The Unlikely Spy by Daniel Silva, which was clearly inspired by The Eye of the Needle. The story is an old one but a good one.
But how realistic is a beautiful-or-handsome, extremely deadly Nazi spy stumbling onto the secret of the D-day invasion, or the secret of the atomic bomb, or whatever the secret is going to be in this particular outing?
If you ask me, it’s kind of a longshot.
Yet it’s not so far out there that a reader rejects it out of hand. Especially not if the author balances it with grounding details about espionage and daily life during that era.
With World War Two, so much has been written – both about daily life and about espionage efforts on both sides – that it’s not hard to find those details.
Writing a contemporary spy novel is different – and more difficult – since this stuff is classified. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Right now, I want to talk about a particular paradox of making believable fiction. You can’t get too far from reality. But sometimes, too much reality isn’t believable either.
As Mr. Hitz makes clear in his book The Great Game, in espionage truth is often stranger than fiction.
Real-life spies sometimes behave in ways that are sloppy or self-destructive. If a character in a novel behaves that way, you may well lose the reader, who just can’t believe that your spy hero would be as flat-out stupid as people sometimes are.
To use one real-life example – Aldrich Ames removed book bags filled with classified documents from CIA headquarters in Langley without taking any precautions first. As Mr. Hitz points out in his book, a random check by a security guard or a colleague would have resulted in Ames’ capture long before it actually happened.
I came up against a problem along these lines while I was writing my first novel, part of which takes place at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. In reality, as I learned through my research, security at Los Alamos was extremely lax.
My source was Dr. Richard Feynman, who worked on the Manhattan Project when he was twenty-six years old. At the time, he was also pursuing an amateur interest in lock-picking and safe-cracking. In his book Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman, he writes the following about his experience at Los Alamos:
‘We had terribly important secrets; we’d worked out lots of stuff about bombs and uranium and how it worked, and so on; and all this stuff was in documents that were in wooden filing cabinets that had little, ordinary, common padlocks on them. Furthermore, you could get the stuff out without even opening the padlock. You just tilt the cabinet over backwards … and there’s a long wide hole in the wood underneath. You can pull the papers out from below. So I used to pick the locks all the time and point out that it was very easy to do. One day Teller got up at a meeting, and he said to me, “I don’t keep my most important secrets in my filing cabinet; I keep them in my desk drawer. Isn’t that better?”
He was sitting near the front of the meeting, and I’m sitting further back. So the meeting continues, and I sneak out and go down to see his desk drawer. I don’t even have to pick the lock on the desk drawer. It turns out that if you put your hand in the back, underneath, you can pull out the paper like those toilet paper dispensers. You pull it out, it pulls another, it pulls another … I emptied the whole damned drawer.’
So I had a scene at Los Alamos in which my beautiful and deadly Nazi spy stumbles onto the secret of the atom bomb. And, using Feynman’s book as a reference, I had my character finding classified blueprints in a poorly-locked desk drawer.
The information about the poor quality of the lock was accurate. But my editor found it unbelievable, and I quickly saw his point. In the novel as it was published, the locks at Los Alamos are better than they were in reality – because the reality was so unbelievable it would throw the reader out of the story.
In a minute I want to move on to discussing the challenge of writing contemporary espionage, where details like those in Feynman’s book are a lot harder to get, since they’re classified.
But first I want to give one more quick example, as long as I’m talking about World War II and truth being stranger than fiction.
William Goldman in a novelist and Hollywood screenwriter whose work includes, among others, All the President’s Men and Marathon Man. He also worked on the movie A Bridge Too Far, about the battle of Arnhem during World War II.
In his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman talks about what a wonderful experience he had making the movie, and how certain he was it was going to be a huge popular and critical hit. Because it had all these great moment – all these unbelievably dramatic stories – and they were all true.
When the movie was released, it turned out the critics didn’t like it. Because they didn’t believe it. These true stories were just too incredible to be swallowed.
Goldman gives a few examples; I’ve chosen just one. He writes:
‘The Jimmy Caan part involved perhaps the most extraordinary incident. He was a sergeant whose captain has been killed. What he does is he takes the corpse and drives a jeep wildly through German lines until he finds an Allied emergency medical area. And he carries the dead captain and puts him on an operating table. And a medical officer says “Get that man out of here”. And what does Caan do? He pulls out a gun, points it dead at the officer, and commands him to operate.
And it turns out his captain was alive.
Now, an enlisted man threatening an officer over a corpse, actually taking out a weapon and commanding the offer to obey him – I’d never heard of a thing like that. But I guess John Wayne had done that so often that nobody believed it. Just another piece of phony Hollywood theatrics.’
So, sometimes sticking too close to reality can get a writer into trouble. And moving too far from reality can also get a writer into trouble.
Finding that zone of believability isn’t so hard when you’re writing World War II fiction, where there’s so much information available that you can pick and choose what you need.
But finding it with contemporary spy fiction is harder.
This past summer I published a book called THE WATCHMEN, which is about a CIA interrogation of a captured Al Qaeda lieutenant.
A lot of people ask me how I know the stuff in my books – and I got the question more than ever with this book. There are lots of details about interrogation techniques, cryptanalysis, and the theory and practice of mind control.
The answer is: I do some research, and I make the rest up.
The thing I make up are founded on educated guesses. But they are speculation – and they need to be dramatic as well as believable. Again, they need to be in that zone that all good fiction inhabits.
When I started trying to figure out how the CIA might interrogate an Al Qaeda lieutenant, I found lots of hints, in news items and on the Internet.
But most of that stuff is speculative too. I needed a solid bedrock to start with – some real information from which I could make my educated guesses.
I found it in a book called The Search for the Manchurian Candidate by John Marks.
The book uses declassified documents to detail CIA efforts in the fifties and sixties to develop a mind-control program. This gave me a good idea for what the CIA had wanted to achieve, and although many of the experiments had hit a dead end, it gave a solid base for speculation.
For instance, the CIA tried at one point to use LSD and other drugs to come up with a truth serum. The actual experiment started with the Navy, and was codenamed CHATTER, and then was folded into an agency program called MKULTRA.
And as far as I know – and of course, I don’t know for sure – no truth serum was ever found. But clearly, disorienting a prisoner using drugs can serve a purpose in interrogation, and that made it into my book.
I also learned that the CIA had some success using the Personality Assessment System, developed by Dr. John Gittinger during the 1940s.
Gittinger’s system classified people into different types – like ‘externalizers’ and ‘internalizers’ – and then used these types to predict their behavior and their response to different stimuli.
So in my book, the CIA psychiatrist administers a PAS to the Al Qaeda prisoner. Then, when the test reveals he is an externalizer who should become more talkative after consuming alcohol, the psychiatrist recommends giving the prisoner a drink.
All this stuff sticks pretty close to reality – or to what the reality might be, as best as I can tell.
I found more information on interrogation techniques by subscribing to an email newsletter used by police officers who question suspects.
That gave me some insight into reading body language, watching a suspect’s eyes, and catching what they call ‘negation behaviors’, which indicate that a lie is being told.
When a right-handed person looks to the right, he’d often trying to create information, or come up with a life. When he looks to the left, he’s often trying to retrieve information, or remember the truth.
All of this found its way into my book, and helped give a sense of reality.
But by the last act of the book, I wanted to go into more dramatic territory. The story required that the Al Qaeda lieutenant resists the interrogation successfully, and more coercive methods must be brought to bear.
So I started taking a little more license – making things up. The techniques my doctor uses are still based in reality. They concern things the CIA did explore – like creating multiple personalities in a prisoner.
But in reality, as far as I can tell, the agency never succeeded in perfecting these techniques. In my book, the techniques work.
I was walking the same line as when I was writing the beautiful-deadly Nazi spy.
The goal is to find as many grounding details as possible, to anchor the less realistic elements of the book and keep it in ‘the zone’ – yet still be able to explore the story’s drama and characters without having my hands tied.
In conclusion, I want to read and talk a little about a brief quote from Stephen King’s book On Writing:
‘The dictum in writing classes used to be “write what you know”. Which sounds good, but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets or a man who murders his wife and then tries to dispose of her body with a wood-chipper? How does the writer square either of these, or a thousand other fanciful ideas, with the “write-what-you-know” directive?
I think you begin by interpreting “write what you know” as broadly and inclusively as possible. If you’re a plumber, you know plumbing, but that is far from the extent of your knowledge; the heart also knows things, and so does the imagination. Thank God. If not for heart and imagination, the world of fiction would be a pretty seedy place.’
What makes Stephen King’s stories connect to so many people are not the vampires or the haunted hotels or the possessed cars. They’re the characters and the stories.
People recognize what he writes about – ordinary settings, characters with marital problems, girls who are afraid of being humiliated at the prom, men who are afraid of not being brave or strong enough when it counts.
The fact that these girls have telekinesis or the men have precognition might make the stories more entertaining. But King keeps them in ‘the zone’ by balancing the far-out elements with, to use his word, heart.
He says that a plumber knows plumbing, but also knows more. And while I’ve learned something about espionage – having been reading and writing on the subject for several years – I also know other things.
One of the definitive experiences of my life came when I was twenty-two. I’d just graduated from college and gone to live at my parents’ house while I figured out my next move. They were gracious about that – but it was nothing compared to the graciousness they were about to show.
I’d been living in their house for about two weeks when, one night, I mistakenly started a fire with a cigarette. The cigarette fell out of an ashtray onto a towel. I saw it happen, and checked the towel, and decided that it wasn’t burning. Then, in what was maybe the stupidest single move I’ve ever made, I left the room.
About forty-five minutes later, from downstairs, I heard the sound of the upstairs windows blowing out. That was my first clue that maybe the towel hadn’t completely escaped being ignited by the cigarette after all.
When I tried to go upstairs, I found that the entire second floor was burning. It took twenty minutes for fire trucks to arrive – this was about two-thirty in the morning – and by that time, most of the house was gone.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt. And my parents, as I mentioned, were extraordinarily forgiving. Insurance rebuilt the house, which ended up nicer than it had been.
But it was still a tragedy – I lost everything I owned, including the four unpublished novels I’d written in college.
I reacted by running away – getting in my car and spending a few months driving around the country, visiting friends.
It was also a learning experience. Finding myself with nothing except a car and the clothes on my back was tough. But it was also exhilarating.
Losing all my personal possessions made me freer than I’d ever been before. And driving out into the country with no goal, and nothing waiting for me back at home, gave me a chance to reinvent myself.
This experience echoes through my novels. All of them feature characters who suddenly leave behind everything they’ve been, and everything they’ve had, to reinvent themselves.
It may be a sleeper agent who is activated and must abandon the identity they’ve been using for a decade. Or it may be an innocent who is drafted into service by an intelligence agency, and leaves behind their ordinary life for something new and unexpected.
Many of my characters are also unusually fallible for this genre. I learned from the fire that anyone can make a stupid, careless mistake – even me. I also learned, from my parents, how forgiving and generous people can be. All of this informs my writing. And hopefully people recognize these things when they read the books.
All fiction – whether it be espionage, horror, literary, mystery, fantasy, what have you – works, when it does work, because it involves us on a human level. Tragedy, sacrifice, honor, and love … these are the things that make a reader involved.
I may be an intelligence outsider, but I can research and use guesswork to create a convincing portrait of the world of espionage. Whether or not the stories work satisfyingly depends on something else … heart and imagination.