Thursday, September 29, 2011

Writing About Spies: Some Observations

A spy, like a writer, lives outside the mainstream population. He steals his experience through bribes and reconstructs it.  ~ John Le Carre.

I am often asked, "Why do you write about spies?  Were you one yourself?" To answer the last question, no, I never worked as a spy, though I did work briefly as an analyst in military intelligence prior to joining the Foreign Service as a young man. I write about spies and espionage simply because it's sexier than writing about bland diplomats who play by the rules. Spies conceal their true identities and steal secrets through bribes mainly. Diplomats chat it up with their counterparts at boring cocktail receptions, then retreat to their offices to write up dry dispatches to their foreign office or ministry about what they heard. The Austrian satirist Karl Kraus said, "How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read."

Spies, on the other hand, exploit human weaknesses to get information and then pay for it under the table. When dating my to-be wife, a British female friend described me, to my chagrin, as "the perfect son-in-law."
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Diplomats court, spies break hearts. Spies are the bad boys, the rakes, the rule-breakers. There's something about the outlaw that fascinates people, draws them to the law-abiding rest of us. Images of James Bond come to mind. Sexy and dangerous.
Anything but.

"What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives." So said Le Carre's character Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. 

and from my latest spy thriller, Tribe . . .

"Past this point lies a hermetically sealed inner world of secretive bureaucrats who labor intensely in office cubicles swathed in ice-white fluorescence. Only the push-button combination locks on office doors, ubiquitous safes and occasional special access control units in corridors distinguish this place from a zillion other unremarkable office warrens of insurance companies, state agencies or computer conglomerates. This includes the workers, mostly sporting department store suits and shopping mall haircuts. Serious, sexless, sober people with a passion not to stand out."

"I stare at this man.  I wonder now as I have every day for the past twenty years how is it that they allow such little men to play God with other people’s lives. Middle-class, suburban super-functionaries who shop for grass-seed on Sunday and smuggle rocket-propelled grenade launchers to tribals on Monday."

In my quarter-century-long government career, few of the spies I knew were charismatic swashbucklers. The vast majority were family men and women, with a liberal sprinkling of alcoholics, sex-addicted, and mildly nutso characters. Most worried about making their mortgage payments and getting their kids into the gifted program just like the rest of us. And most complained about the straitjacket of red tape that ties up the professional lives of all government functionaries.

Serious spies work hard and laboriously at their tradecraft. Ex-CIA officer Valerie Plame is an example of a serious, sober professional who built a knowledge base on nuclear proliferation brick by brick while serving for years under deep "nonofficial cover" until the Vice President and his evil minions outed her. Russian SVR "illegal" Anna Chapman, on the other hand, comported herself like a Gen-X party girl with tradecraft more attuned to a three-ring circus than to the gray world of spies (An Open Letter to Anna Chapman).

The allure and mystique of espionage is what people like to read about. So, I draw on my personal experiences, meticulous open-source research and the insights of anonymous sources in the intelligence community to spin out tales that keep the reader guessing and tsk-tsking and shaking their head while, at the same time, grinning mischievously and wanting more.

 See also --

Writing the National Security Thriller, Part I: Tips for the Lay Author 

Writing the National Security Thriller: Tips for the Lay Author Part II: People, Places & Things

Writing the National Security Thriller, Part III: Spy Tradecraft

1 comment:

  1. Great post with good suggestions. For those who haven't "been there," thorough, wide-ranging research is the only hope. On the other hand, even having been part of the clandestine services does not make one an expert. I deeply admire John le Carré and my own writing has been favorably compared to his, but I should point out that David Cornwell (the 'real' le Carré) has said in interviews that he makes most of it up, and he wrote the brilliant Constant Gardener without ever having been to Kenya.

    The mark of really good writers is that, even as they are making it up, they are making it up well. Verisimilitude does not mean real or right but having the appearance of being real.

    There is another side to getting things right or believably right in thrillers, which has to do with technical detail. I have read many an espionage novel that probably gets the ambiance of the intelligence community correct--having only second-hand knowledge myself, I can't give testimony--but messes up miserably on the science and technology, which is my beat.

    There are so many places to lose your readers and no substitute for doing your homework and writing well.

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)