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Interview With Gayle Lynds
Gayle Lynds is the New York Times bestselling author of four thrillers, including The Coil, as well as co-author of three novels with Robert Ludlum. She lives in Santa Barbara, California. Gayle Lynds' latest bestselling novel is The Last Spymaster (St. Martin's Press), an exciting modern espionage thriller. In this interview, Gayle discusses her inspiration for The Last Spymaster and the state of the intelligence business today. She also shares her childhood memories of the fateful day when she first realized the incredible power that words can have.
I'm intrigued by the idea that this is the Decade of the Spy. Why is it called that?
What an explosive era in intelligence we live in today. Not even during the Cold War was the intelligence community as intensely in the public eye. Headlines shout the latest revelations, while espionage soars in popularity in books, films, games, and on the Internet. This truly is the Decade of the Spy.
Citizens are so acutely aware of the nation's need for increased vigilance that applications to the CIA have never been higher. The president has created a brand-new espionage czar - the Director of National Intelligence - the most radical structural change in our intelligence community since the CIA was fashioned from the OSS of World War II. The dangerous uncloaking of Valerie Plame as a CIA undercover operative has resulted not only in an on-going investigation but charges against a very high government official - the vice president's chief of staff.
Sales of spy novels - sometimes they're international political thrillers, too, as mine are - have done a complete reversal from the 1990s when publishing declared anything espionage as dead as the Cold War. Half the books appearing on fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists are often related to espionage. Fictional spies appear with astonishing regularity on big and small screens. Hit movies like Syriana, The Constant Gardener, and Munich garner award nominations, while television series like Alias and 24 become near icons, and remarkably quickly. Google lists more than 30,000 entries under "spy club," "espionage club," and "spy fans."
The Decade of the Spy is both fascinating and perilous - the stuff of great drama. It rivets the public, it rivets me, and it's not likely to be over soon. And it inspired me to write The Last Spymaster.
In the novel, the last spymaster - Jay Tice - is at the top of the trade. He's based on several spies I've known or researched. It seemed to me that all of the best shared three traits - ingenuity, resourcefulness, and an unusual understanding of human nature. As one character describes Jay, "The man of a thousand faces, a thousand eyes, a thousand wiles. Trusted, honored, revered." And highly dangerous. You want that man on your side.
As a spymaster, Jay developed his own method to acquire assets, which he called the BAR code: Befriend. Assess. Recruit. To create that, I simply distilled basic case officer spycraft - it's imperative to know as much as possible about the potential, and then to use that information to gain his or her trust. The goal is to convince a potential to do one job for you, no matter how small or seemingly innocent. With that, the fledgling asset is compromised, and the spymaster is on his way to owning his soul.
Much of tradecraft is common sense. Although spy schools teach a great deal, the finished training is in the field. For that reason, mentors play a crucial part in a spy's education. The reader actually gets to experience this by being with Jay as he trains a young operative. As Jay explains, the espionage world is like no other, a culture based not only on lies but on trust. It can be schizophrenic, but it can also be rewarding. No one ever leaves it unchanged.
And in the end, if they develop into one of the rare grandmasters as Jay has, they become enigmas. "He's capable of anything within reason - his reason," one spy observes. "He's brilliant, witty, egotistical, impatient, and - above all - courageous. As a spymaster, he exudes an optimism that's contagious, and his people acquire a sense of pride and an esprit de corps others envy. Partly that's because he's got such a strong sense of who he is that he doesn't bother much about what a bureaucracy's going to think."
I was captivated by the magical cloak that made wearers invisible in the "Harry Potter" series. Now it seems as if there might actually be a real one. In The Last Spymaster, you describe a lot of terrifying advanced technology - and an invisibility cloak of sorts is among them. Is all of that real?
The short answer is no. The long answer is a resounding yes. Science is advancing with astonishing speed, and I had a lot of fun pushing the envelope, exploring what we know, what we expect, and what's hidden.
You're right about the cloak - it's on design boards right now. In The Last Spymaster, I call it Mirror-Me, a sheet of fabric that makes whatever it covers seem transparent by displaying whatever's behind, in front. Nanometric video cameras record the images behind and, in real time, send them to nanometric projectors that display them on the front of the cloth. The Pentagon sees a lot of possibility in this invention of course, particularly for urban warfare.
There's also real technology behind small computers I invented for the book. Not much larger than a grain of sand, I call them StarDusts. As one spy explains, "These little babies are amazing. Tiny solar batteries fuel them. You program them to record two or three simple jobs like monitoring motion and temperature." They can be scattered like flower seeds across farms and cities or tossed onto trucks or planes that ship materiel and people. Then they'll network and send detailed data about scientists in clandestine weapons labs or squads of soldiers back to control centers where high-octane computers collate the information for secret use.
Another of my favorites is the LandFlyer, which looks like a dune buggy topped by a fifty-caliber gun. "I love American engineering," a weapons trafficker in the book says. "LandFlyers can blast across a desert at sixty-five miles an hour, hump over chongo rocks at thirty without going ass over teakettle, and do hairpin turns so sharp they'll topple any other all-terrain vehicle. They can even keep running on three wheels if the fourth gets shot off." They're military light-strike vehicles. Several have been invented that are similar to this.
Part of my job as a fiction writer is to try to understand meanings and then to put them into a context where the reader is entertained - and gets an insider's perspective. The cutting-edge technology in The Last Spymaster will be in actual use someday, perhaps far sooner than we expect - or are told.
You seem to know a lot about illegal weapons trafficking, too. An important element in your plot involves a very dangerous shipment.
Death merchants have played a vital role in wars since the beginning of recorded history. At the end of the 1800s, a legendary dealer named Basil Zaharoff brought the business into modern times. He was outgoing, a natural pitchman who claimed to be Greek when it suited him. He'd been very successful until he started repping submarines and discovered he couldn't talk anyone into buying them because they were so expensive.
Desperate, he went to Greece and ingratiated himself by saying he was "first a Greek, a patriot like yourselves, and only second a salesman." Then he did something new - he offered to sell on credit. The result was the Greeks bought one sub. As you probably know, Greece and Turkey had a historic feud that flamed into bloody combat periodically. So Zaharoff went to Turkey next. He terrified them with stories about Greece's menacing new sub. By the time he'd finished, they'd outdone the Greeks and bought two submarines.
Zaharoff left an enduring legacy. He proved to the industry that the most practical means to maximize profit was to sell to all sides any way you could, because that bred conflict, and conflict led to war, and war meant increased demand for weapons. Lying, inciting fear, and selling on credit are still basic and very effective tools in use today.
The United States has the most rigorous laws of any country to stop illegal gun trafficking, but the laws are almost impossible to enforce. The result is that the country that produces the most weapons, sells the most weapons, and makes the most profit from weapons is the United States.
You anticipated the existence of Robert Hanssen, generally considered America's greatest traitor, in your spy novel Mesmerized - you even got the first name right. I've heard you've predicted other events in other books. That's amazing. How do you manage it?
Hanssen wasn't that difficult. Sometime around 1999 I figured out there had to be a highly placed mole in the FBI by noting how much heat the CIA was getting for Aldrich Ames and others, while being aware that some of the blown missions and leaked secrets had to be from someone with high-echelon access inside the FBI.
So in Mesmerized I created a highly-placed FBI mole. Before the book was in stores - in fact, while it was at the printers, in February 2001 - Hanssen was arrested. That was unnerving but also very exciting. Interestingly, it turned out I'd even accurately postulated some of the clues that led to his discovery. As for calling my mole "Bob" - that was sheer dumb luck.
To me, the world at large is not only fascinating, we ignore it at great peril. One of the good results from the horror of 9/11 was that Americans realized we'd had a long enough post-Cold War nap. It was time to figure out what in heck was happening beyond our borders.
We are a nation of readers, so of course we turned to books, but not only nonfiction. One of our favored resources to educate ourselves is through the lens of good political fiction, which is what the best spy novels are all about. The key to that sort of excellence is relevance - the books must be relevant. Those of us who plow these literary fields must keep ourselves informed. I subscribe to three newspapers a day and a dozen magazines a month, as do many of my fellow authors. So much of what is apparently secret is in the very air we breathe. If we pay close attention, we pick up a hint here, a potential trend there, a whispered confidence over the phone.
The results can be startling, even to us. For instance ...
You started your fiction career as a writer of literary short stories, and then you wrote pulp male adventure novels. How could you write in two such diverse fields?
Because I didn't know any better. I had to stop writing the short stories when I went through a divorce and needed a way to feed my children, who had thankfully grown accustomed to eating. The adventure books - they were allegedly by Nick Carter - were a wonderful opportunity for me to experiment and learn while earning money.
I consider myself fortunate: I love stories and ideas. At base, what that also means is I love words. I think my life as a writer emerged from an incident when I was twelve. I had one sibling, a sister who was six at the time. She had a lump on the side of her neck, and my mother had been taking her to doctors to find out what it was. I arrived home from school one afternoon to find Mom on the phone with our family doctor, crying, making a note to herself. Within minutes, my father showed up, and they drove off. She forgot to take the note with her.
As soon as I settled my sister with a book, I ran to the note. On it was a word I didn't know - "malignant." I instantly looked it up in our old Webster's. That was how I discovered my little sister had terminal cancer. Ah, the incendiary power of a single word. Two years later, after a titanic struggle, she was dead.
Words can launch wars and heal hearts. I have too much respect for them to not honor what they can create in stories and books. Yes, I wrote Nick Carters, and they were damn good Nick Carters. And I wrote the short stories, too, which I loved. Any form is limited, whether it's genre or mainstream. The goal is to work within the canvas to create something worthwhile. It may not be art, but it should have value.
One reviewer says you've "joined the deified ranks of Ludlum and Le Carré." But why didn't you go back to literary or mainstream fiction instead of moving into the spy thriller field?
The Last Spymaster is a good example. In it I could tell a whopping good tale while exploring my lust for politics, history, and culture. I was able to dramatize the changes in espionage during the Cold War and afterwards while showing the selfless choices, the sometimes stupid moves, the costs, the humanity, the moral ambiguity of those who live in it.
There's a lot of romance to espionage. And that's because it's a heightened reality in which the stakes can be enormous. The heroes are often larger than life, and so are the villains. In it, everyone lies. Everyone hides something. Everyone bleeds real blood. And almost everyone works for a government, and all governments lie. Holding on to one's ideals while working for a better world is the most difficult personal challenge. Those who succeed against such odds are the stuff of quiet legend, occasionally receiving secret honors and awards, and living out their days without telling tales.
This is an exciting literary field, too often maligned, probably because it's popular. Important books - literary books - have arisen from it. My goal is to make a contribution.
How did you acquire Top Secret security clearance?
Years ago, the quirky and brilliant Kurt Vonnegut taught some literature classes I attended. As writers often do, he worked many jobs to support his family. One was as an editor at a think tank, which he described as bristling with so many ideas that they seemed to bounce off the walls. From that percolating petri dish came the genesis for his novel, Cat's Cradle. Being no fool, I thought that perhaps if I landed a job at one, too, some fairy dust might sprinkle onto me as well. So my first job out of college was as an editor at a think tank. After the FBI vetted me and I received clearance, I soon discovered Kurt was more than right - not only did ideas bounce off the walls, so did the people. The place was exciting and surrealistic, fertile with secrecy, information, pocket protectors in neon colors, rotating sexual liaisons, imaginations run amok, and a sort of swaggering cockiness that at its best swung the doors to potential wide open.
The scientists and engineers worked on projects around the globe, primarily military, everything from making deserts bloom to creating armaments that could wipe life from entire continents. We kept our classified documents in office safes. Every time I moved into a different part of the building, I had to tap in my security code. I was pretty lousy at some of it - for instance, I often forgot my ID badge. Still, shadowy figures passed through, and I made friends.
Best of all, I, too, found an idea for a novel - Masquerade. There were water-cooler rumors that the U.S. government had been performing secret brain-washing experiments on unsuspecting citizens, looking for ways to control minds as another arrow in their Cold War quiver. Later I discovered the talk was true. Among other names, the program was called MK-ULTRA, and although the government officially closed it in the 1970s, a source "suggested" it continued under different names. One of the most recent is MARINADE. Yes, "marinaded brains." There's a healthy black sense of humor in the clandestine world.
What's your opinion of U.S. intelligence? It seems to be in a shambles.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of our intelligence agencies' incompetence is greatly exaggerated. Here's the bad news: The attacks of 9/11 halted all U.S. air travel, caused flights to be delayed around the globe, closed the U.S. stock exchange, created an international financial tsunami, threw the U.S. military into high alert, put other nations' militaries on high alert, and triggered an atmosphere of vulnerability within this country that Americans had not experienced for nearly two centuries - not since the War of 1812, when the British burned the White House.
So now consider this: We've had only one 9/11.
Since 9/11 was so disruptive, why hasn't it inspired another attack - large, medium, or small - on our soil since? All through the Cold War, we had enemies who also had the technology, brains, and will to wound us just as deeply and cause worldwide reverberations, but it never happened. Thank you, U.S. intelligence.
Because the CIA and other agencies are critical to our security, and these are very insecure times, we're more than ever aware of their shortcomings and their illegal and immoral actions and the need to reform the institutions and some of those operating within them. But seldom do we hear of their victories, and there are many. For instance, the CIA captured seventy terrorists before 9/11 and hundreds after. It helped to stop the Millennium Plot, which would have been devastating.
Spies cannot operate without secrecy, and ours regularly fall on their swords to preserve not only their anonymity but to protect decisions made in the White House and Congress. Always remember that intelligence is the hidden arm of national policy.
So where do we stand in the war on terrorism?
The big picture is that Al-Qaeda is losing. Its leaders realize America and her allies have forced Osama bin Laden to shelve his great dream of a global caliphate for the distant future. In large part this is due to the successes of U.S. intelligence and the military. But at the same time, we haven't achieved our basic goal either - we can't guarantee against another attack. But no free society ever can truthfully make such a guarantee, because in the uneasy balance between national security and individual rights lies the oxygen that fuels democracy. That oxygen is critical; without it, democracy dies. In The Last Spymaster, you'll learn more about all of this.
I stand at the head of the line wishing we had no need for spies, soldiers, and police. I deplore violence. And the intelligence community, the Congress, and the Oval Office do indeed need to clean up their operations. Still, I'm very grateful that in today's dangerous world we have brave and selfless people who work hard to protect us. They pay high prices personally, and they deserve our respect. As I wrote The Last Spymaster, it was a refrain that never left my mind.
**You can visit Gayle's website at GayleLynds.com. You can read an excerpt from The Last Spymaster here.
Posted with permission of the publisher.