Interview With Alex Berenson

In late 2003, after coming back from almost three months in Iraq as a reporter for The New York Times, Alex Berenson decided to write a novel that would explore the complexities of the fight against terrorism in the post-9/11 era. That novel, The Faithful Spy, was published by Random House in April 2006 and is now out in paperback. Berenson graduated from Yale University in 1994 with degrees in history and economics. He lives in New York City. The Faithful Spy is his first novel. It won the 2007 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

In the interview, Berenson explains why he made the switch to fiction, what al Qaeda has in common with the CIA-and why Keanu Reeves is his new favorite actor.

You're a reporter by trade. Why did you decide to write a novel?

As a reporter, you have to follow certain rules, of which the most basic is to tell the factual truth. Once you unmoor yourself from the facts you're not a reporter any more. To be blunt, you're lying. And I never forget that, not when I'm working for The New York Times. But sticking to the facts can be frustrating. Sometimes you can't get the facts, no matter how hard you try. You have to leave questions unanswered. I wanted to see how it would feel to build a world where for once I had all the facts, and I knew what everyone was thinking.

The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson
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So? How did it feel?

Pretty good. They lie to each other all the time, my characters. Sometimes they even lie to themselves. But they always tell me the truth.

You're probably not the first author to feel that way. Why a spy thriller specifically?

I liked the tension and the speed. Maybe one day I'll try my hand at literary fiction, something slower-paced. But for my first novel I wanted to write a tight book, a book that would keep readers in suspense until the last page, that would be gritty and real and build to a conclusion that feels surprising and inevitable at the same time. Also, and maybe this is cruel, I wanted to see how my heroes would react to extreme pressure. John Wells has worked for years and years to build his cover inside al Qaeda and along the way he's lost the trust of the CIA. Now he's as alone as a human being can be. Meanwhile, Jennifer Exley, his handler at the agency, has also given everything up for her job -- her marriage, her children. Yet they both know they must keep fighting, that they can't afford to give up, because Qaeda will never give up.

Why a modern thriller, instead of, say, one set during World War II or the Cold War?

The topic resonated for me. I live in New York. I work about a hundred feet from Times Square. I think New Yorkers feel terrorism a little bit more viscerally than other Americans. I think we all feel we're going to get hit again sooner or later. Then of course I saw the other side of the coin firsthand as a reporter for the Times in Iraq, where the United States is intersecting with Islam every day, for better and worse. Our effort to reshape the Arab world, to reshape Islam -- because that's what we're doing, let's be honest -- is one of the great stories of the first part of the twenty-first century. I don't know whether we'll succeed or fail. But I wanted to write a book that would comment on that effort.

The terrorists in your book are all Muslim. Do you think some readers will feel that's unfair?

If they do, they're deluding themselves. Yes, terrorists come in all shapes and sizes. But Muslim terrorists are by far the greatest threat to the United States, and Europe, too. Across the world, from Algeria to Indonesia, hundreds of millions of Muslims are struggling for survival. They're angry at their leaders, and they're looking for a solution. In Europe, millions of young Muslim men are alienated and unemployed. Fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden offer them an answer: Blame the United States. Blame Israel. Blame your leaders, because they aren't real Muslims. Go to war to reclaim the glory of Islam. Americans are killing Iraqi civilians. Give the infidels a taste of their own medicine. That message is attractive for people who don't have anything.

Then are you saying you're sympathetic to bin Laden?

Not at all. His methods and his goals are repugnant. Even in war, deliberately targeting civilians is criminal. And I suspect that very few Americans would want to live under a Muslim theocracy. I know I wouldn't. But ...

But ...

But though I don't admire bin Laden or his methods, I respect his seriousness. He and his men want to destroy the United States as much as we want to destroy them. They are risking their lives for their cause. They aren't going away anytime soon. We're fooling ourselves if we pretend otherwise. So writing about this conflict is very different than writing about the Cold War. In the Cold War, the two sides were recognizable to each other. They played by the same rules: Don't kill civilians, don't target the other side's agents. Don't push too hard. Neither side wanted a nuclear holocaust. The game was a chess match, complex and difficult but controlled. Of course no one did a better job capturing that complexity than John le Carré. Now we're confronting an enemy that doesn't just want to win the game. It wants to tear up the board. And thus it's difficult to sympathize with the other side. But as a novelist you have to make both sides real to the reader. The bad guys can't just be cardboard cutouts.

How did you reconcile that contradiction?

By portraying the terrorists as honestly as possible, as real people. They all have reasons that they've joined Qaeda; they aren't idiots or psychopaths.

You mentioned le Carré. Is he your model?

AB: I admire le Carré's skill as a writer, his ability to create characters and build complex, real worlds. I'm not sure our politics are the same. Anyway, it would be more than a little premature to make that comparison. If I keep doing this -- and I hope I do -- maybe in twenty years.

Your book feels very real. Did you have help from the CIA or former agents?

To be honest, no. I drew on three major sources of information. First, the time I spent in Iraq helped me understand the military, which plays a major part in the book. Second, I've done quite a bit of investigative reporting for the Times, so I've dealt with FBI and federal prosecutors as they investigate criminal cases, and I appreciate the government agency mindset. Prosecutors have incredible power: the power to search a suspect's home, to make indictments and arrests. Yet they also have enormous responsibility. If they make a mistake, they can destroy the life of an innocent person, or allow someone guilty to go free. At the CIA the stakes are even higher. Meanwhile, the people at the top, who are political appointees, have their own agenda, which is basically not to embarrass themselves or their administration. So the folks on the front lines are under incredible pressure to balance these competing demands. I think I do a good job portraying that pressure.

Finally, and this will come as no surprise, I found a tremendous amount of information from open sources: books and electronic databases and the Internet. It's all there, from how the National Security Agency intercepts electronic communications -- to how to build a truck bomb. Comforting, huh?

This is your second book. Was the first also a novel?

Actually, it was a short history of Wall Street called The Number -- nonfiction, also published by Random House. It came out the week we invaded Iraq, so not too many people have heard of it.

It doesn't sound like it has much in common with The Faithful Spy.

On the surface, it doesn't. But in an odd way, The Number prepared me to write this book.

How so?

Fiction is hard. Much harder than nonfiction. Nonfiction, you look around the world and you tell the story as best you can. Fiction- you have to look inside your head for the answer. If it's not there, you have nothing to write. Fiction is far more personal. It can be terrifying. And I'd never written much fiction before, maybe a couple of short stories in college. If I hadn't written The Number, I'm not sure I would have been able to finish The Faithful Spy. Because I had that experience, I knew that sometimes you have to push on, that you can always fix your mistakes, but you trap yourself if you keep writing the same paragraph or page over and over.

So you're Keanu Reeves's biggest fan. Why?

Well, I was very fortunate to sell the movie rights to The Faithful Spy well before it was published. It's in development now at Regency and Fox. I think the sale was due mainly to the fact that my agent shipped the manuscript to Keanu's manager, and apparently Keanu is interested in playing John Wells. I always have to smile when I refer to him as Keanu, like I know him, which of course I don't. But I owe Keanu one for sure.

You've written two books and you work full-time for The New York Times. How old are you?

Thirty-three (January 6, 1973).

You don't sleep much, do you?

No, I sleep. I write fast, not super-fast, but my writing is very clean, which helps. I'm not married, and I don't have kids. And I knew what I wanted this novel to be. I knew it was something I had to do.

(May, 2007)