“CIA Officers Turned Authors” – with David McCloskey & James Stejskal
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian-curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Vann Eason: Welcome to this week's episode of "SpyCast." My name is Vann Eason, and I spent the past month and a half as an intern working with Andrew on the podcast. This week, Andrew sat down with David McCloskey and James Stejskal. David is a former CIA analyst and author of "Damascus Station," a book David Petraeus described as the best spy novel I've ever read. James is the author of "Appointment in Tehran," which had been called a textbook clandestine operation involving a close relationship of U.S. Army Special Forces and a clandestine CIA case officer, which James would know something about since he was both. Where does fact end and fiction begin when you're a former CIA officer writing fiction? What parts of your own story bleed into the novel? Are the characters composites of people you knew in your line of work, or are they entirely fictional?
Vann Eason: To answer these questions and more, David, James and Andrew had a pleasant discussion where they touched on many things, including some tips on the craft of writing, if you're thinking of writing your own novel. George Orwell once said, writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. If you have a demon, listen on. P.S., you can always start by kindly authoring a review of "SpyCast" on Apple Podcasts. Even just one word or one sentence would be greatly appreciated. Now, there's an easy writing assignment.
Andrew Hammond: OK. Thanks so much for joining me on "SpyCast." So I'm really pleased to speak to you both because there's lots of areas where both of your experiences overlap, but there's also differences. So I wanted a compare and contrast of your respective careers but focusing on writing. So I just wanted to start off, David, could you tell us if you've read "A Question of Time" or "Appointment in Tehran"? And, James, have you read "Damascus Station"? And maybe talk about what both of you thought of each other's books as novelists.
David McCloskey: Yeah. I read "A Question of Time" and been lucky enough to read the upcoming one as well. And it's funny. One of the things that I love most about the genre is that I do think there's so much consistency and similar types of conversations that happen in the genre over time. And you can go back decades, and there's similar sort of books and themes and messages. But then there's also this pretty remarkable space in which people can write different stories and places and times. I think it's really wonderful and loved Jim's books. And he's a little bit older than I am. We kind of, you know, grew up in slightly different times but had - were tapping into, I think, a lot of the wonderful similarities in the genre in terms of the tradecraft and places and character and things like that.
James Stejskal: I think you're right, David. I am a bit older than you, having served much of my life during the Cold War. I read "Damascus Station," and I found it really fascinating. I served in Damascus just shortly after the Desert Storm campaign and found your descriptions of the city, of working with the Syrians, descriptions of the market, even, were fascinating to me. And it brought back old memories. And part of the old memories were, of course, the atrocious behavior by the Assad regime, which continues to this day even worse. So I really enjoyed your book, and I'm very much looking forward to your next one - mutual admiration society, here.
David McCloskey: Yeah. No, that's right. And you bring up a good a good point on, I thought, in "A Question of Time." One of the interesting - obviously, we're dealing with different eras and different systems. But one of the things that I really loved was I think both of the books deal in some way with the responses of individuals in a authoritarian society where you don't have a tremendous amount of agency even for those who are high up, higher up the food chain in that place. And so I think they both kind of deal with the intersection of spycraft and the real tradecraft and a lot of the cool stuff that comes with that work, but also dealing with the real kind of human choices that - and dilemmas that present themselves when someone is working for or in a system that they don't like and that is predatory. I really appreciated the kind of rendering of Cold War, East Germany and the system that sprouted up around that and how people reacted to that in Jim's book.
James Stejskal: There's a lot of residuals, too, from this. I mean, the Soviet Union has gone away, but the Russians going from the KGB to the FSB, they've not really changed their behavior much. And I served a bunch of tours in the Middle East and Africa. And what amazed me was you would see that conflict between West and the East, even in these third-world countries. Zanzibar had East German Stasi trainers. The Syrians had the East Germans. They had Soviets training their security forces. And even worse, the North Koreans have been involved. And it's amazing the contrast between how we in the West look at things and how members of some of those hostile - to us, at least - regimes train their people, how different the systems are. It's amazing really to me that more people don't react like some of the characters in our books.
Andrew Hammond: Another thing that I was interested in, as well, you are sort of the perfect gentleman to ask this question. What are the advantages of writing in the genre, having been initiated into the tribe? And what are the disadvantages other than having to submit it to the publication review board and so forth? But I guess with novels that's not - still an issue, but maybe a little bit less of an issue. So yeah, what are the advantages of writing as a former initiate and what are the disadvantages?
James Stejskal: For me, the advantages were the fact that I had been exposed to a lot of the methodologies, the terminologies, the things that John le Carre wrote about extensively. How a member of a Secret Service acts and how it is to be part of one of these amazingly complex bureaucracies, the CIA or the KGB, or even the British Special Intelligence Service. So that gives you a leg up on writing. You still have to be able to elucidate character traits. And I think most of us - I can't speak for David, but I bring a lot of my experiences and the people I met into my books, changing their names and the circumstances quite often. But now that I've been writing for a while, I see folks like le Carre and Graham Greene have also done this, they lived the things that they write about. And especially if you go into le Carre and read his biography, you see many of the characters in his early books are really people out of his life, including his father and mother. So experience builds, I think, the master.
James Stejskal: But as far as disadvantages go, I think beyond having the review, having all your books reviewed by either the Pentagon or the CIA, in my case, both, you also get some issues with people that you have worked with before. I quite often get very hostile questions from some of my former comrades. And my current comrades have got it, but, like, why are you exposing all our secrets? And I'm going, well, actually, I'm not. You know, this the stuff has been around since day one. It's the second oldest profession, I think. Or maybe the first. I'm not sure which is which. But when you have guys like Milt Bearden, who as head of Russia House, writing my how-to manual for spies. I don't really have a problem with writing about it within reason, since I was just one of the minions three - about three floors below him. So anyway, that's my take on it.
David McCloskey: I'd echo all of that, although I've had - I had fewer run-ins with former colleagues irate with my work. Maybe they're just keeping it to themselves. I think for me, the sort of principal advantage is that, done well, you can really convince someone, even though, frankly, a lot of it is made up, you could convince people, the reader - convinced makes it sound sleezy. Let me let me change the word. You can create enough verisimilitude in the foundation of the novel that the reader is willing to accept that what they're reading is true or close enough where they're going to suspend disbelief and they're going to let you usher them into a world of secret knowledge. Which I think, you know, is a really fun feeling when you're in a novel, that you're being brought into this dramatized world, but it's close enough to reality that you're learning something or able to believe that the characters are saying what they're saying and doing what they're doing because it's so close to - close enough to reality.
David McCloskey: So I think, done right, having this kind of background gives you that access and experience, or at least the ability to go to people who might not - in my case, I spoke with a lot of people who probably wouldn't just speak to any novelist about the work, but they would speak to me about things appropriately, but they would pull the curtain back a bit and tell me stories and talk to me about tradecraft and things like that. I think that's the principal advantage. There's obviously there's commercial advantages to that, thinking about, OK, trying to sell books and what might attract someone to reading a spy novel. Well, if they see that they're a former, it's interesting because you think, OK, they're going to bring me into that world. I think the principal downside for me, at least, and this is my personal experience, has been if I let the - if I let reality in some ways seep too much into the - not from a character standpoint, but from a tradecraft, bureaucracy, all of that stuff that's good to sprinkle through.
David McCloskey: But if you go too overboard with how it would have really happened - and again, it's just my experience - I think it can gum up the storytelling. And it can create clunky language. It can make the plot harder to follow. It can make - there can be a proliferation of characters that are difficult for the reader to navigate. And so I had to - when I was writing "Damascus Station," I had to go through it in multiple drafts after I was three or four drafts in to try to get some of that stuff out and to look at where I might have to sacrifice some verisimilitude to accelerate plot or to get to a character point that I wanted to. So I found that there is this balance. But I think the principal downside is let it get out of control, it can it can really make the storytelling more difficult and turn people off to the tale you're trying to spin.
James Stejskal: David makes a very good point there. And I think that's something I'm still trying to learn. Some of these military special operations thrillers, they use too many technical details. They have too many characters. And that's a good point about paring it down. I just don't want to get to the point. This isn't reflecting on your writing because you do a very good job of it, David, somebody like - I'm just going to say there's one series out there that you've got a single protagonist that is capable of doing everything by himself and needs absolutely no help. And that becomes beyond believable at some point, like after about the first paragraph.
Andrew Hammond: That touches on something else that I wanted to ask you both. Being formers who are now novelists, at what point do you draw the line as a subconscious thing, or is that something you're aware of consciously when you're writing? Like, here's where I want to walk up to and here's where I want to, you know what? It's not a memoir, it's a novel. So in novels, things can happen that don't typically happen in the world of formers. So I'm thinking in particular of Sam Joseph falling in love, for example, with a woman from the Syrian government. Of course, like, there's always one instance of everything happening.
Andrew Hammond: But at what point do you both of you decide, OK, here's where I'm going to go and here's where I'm going to allow the genre of the - instead of the spy in the fiction, where does the spy stop and the fiction begin? How do you both decide where that's going to go? Because for both of your first novels - and correct me if I'm wrong - there's to some extent, they're autobiographical. There's elements of both of your own story and thought makes sense, right? You write what you know about or that's a great place to start off. Where does the spy end and the fiction begin? And how do you both draw that line? Is it conscious or subconscious?
David McCloskey: Before I make Jim answer first - because I want him to tell me the answer because I don't know yet - I do want to correct - so I will say almost nothing in "Damascus Station" is autobiographical. I - other than the fact that Sam Joseph hails from Minnesota, like me. I worked in Syria and I lived there, but other than that, there's almost nothing in the book that really directly happened to me. I want to absolve myself of his sins for the record. But I want to hear Jim's answer on how he draws the line on fact and fiction because I'm still - I was trying to figure that out this morning as I was writing.
James Stejskal: Thank you, David. I appreciate that very much. This goes back to the old saying - admit nothing, deny everything and make counter accusations. There are aspects of, for example, "A Question of Time" that I have lived, but they aren't autobiographical. That's the word. There are people that I know whose character traits have been brought into it, so that aspect is there. Someone once said, you write what you know. That's the best way to do it. So that's where I'm going.
David McCloskey: I agree with that. I think there's - I think about "Damascus Station" and the process that went into writing that. And then now, you know, where I'm at in my second book where I'm soliciting some beta reader feedback. I think there is a - you make an important point around just - there are going to be blind spots that you have in the writing where you have to let other people in so that they can - not everybody, but a select group who can bring something to bear to help you figure out where you've gone wrong. I'll offer a slightly - maybe an answer that's a bit of a cop-out on your question, Andrew, around fact and fiction, which is I generally try to start with reality. How would this actually work? And then I think about whether or not that's got to go because it's getting in the way of the development I'm trying to do with this character or with an exciting plot point that you don't want to miss out on. But if I break the rule, I guess my bottom line is I want to know when I'm breaking rules. And if possible, convince - show that maybe there is an exception or create some knowledge in the reader's head that I'm aware that I'm breaking this rule. I have enough command over this, not just the fictional universe, but the reality of the agency or how this operation would actually work so that I can explain to you why it looks a little bit different in this book or in this case. So I'm trying to be conscious of breaking the rules.
David McCloskey: I think some of the fiction in the genre that doesn't work for me all the time is when you get the sense that the author is breaking rules, but they don't even know that they're breaking the rules. I think a lot of guys who write, mostly guys who write spy fiction, they're breaking rules, but they also know they are. And they're doing it because for story and to create this sort of pulsing sensation and the plot that's just propulsive and that's what they're going for. And they kind of know, like, hey, this isn't how it actually goes. I'm doing this for ABC reasons. I think the stuff that doesn't work, oftentimes you get the sense that the author themselves don't really know that they're breaking rules.
James Stejskal: No.
David McCloskey: And I think that's a situation that I try to avoid by starting with reality and then...
Andrew Hammond: And I maybe never framed the question properly. I don't mean autobiographical in the sense that it was following the twists and turns of each of your own individual lives. I guess I more meant the backdrop, the - some of the threads that informed each novel and so forth. For example, "The Sopranos," the writer David Chase was never in the mob. He never killed anyone. But he grew up an Italian American. He went to see a psychiatrist. He'd done - there's lots in the show that is him, but there's lots that isn't, as well. And I guess I just meant more informed by your - the backdrop of your lives rather than following the twists and turns of your own personal story.
James Stejskal: Much - I think David would probably agree with - much of what I write is informed by my experiences - where I've lived, who I've known, things like that. Although I have been known to draw things from things I have researched and read, which is also very important because you want to get the details. But I think experience plays an extremely large part, in my writing, anyway.
Andrew Hammond: And another question that I wanted to ask was one point both of you were in the CIA and compared to other countries, so for example, the U.K., where I'm from, or lots of other countries, there's quite onerous official secrets acts. It's very difficult for former intelligence officers to do what both of you have done. So I just wondered if you had any reflections on the proliferation of books by formers. And I guess there could be arguments going either way. I know I've read somewhere that someone said that as far as they're concerned, the only person that should write books are ex-directors of the CIA. And that's how - I personally don't see how you enforce that double standard. I think it has to be a one or the other.
Andrew Hammond: I guess the question is I remember reading the - someone once said that because in Napoleon's army they relied on meritocracy, every soldier had a marshal's baton and his knapsack. So I guess the - I guess I was wondering, does every CIA officer have a novel in his backpack or briefcase? Do you think everybody's got a novel in them? Do you think that everybody should be writing a novel? Or is it best left to the people that have the interest and the willingness to engage with the genre? I've kind of lost the thread of the question, a little bit, but...
James Stejskal: David, you're at bat.
Andrew Hammond: Help me - dig me out of a hole here. Help me understand being a former, writing a book, and some of the differences between being an American and the CIA and maybe some of the colleagues that you have met over the years where that's not possible, what both of you have done?
James Stejskal: Perhaps we don't carry a marshal's baton in our knapsack, but we do carry the Bill of Rights. Everyone has the right to write what they want. Unfortunately - or not unfortunately, I think fortuitously, I should say - we've also signed non-disclosure agreements that say all our stuff will be reviewed, which I think is appropriate because sometimes things get in the print that should not be. So CIA employees or military employees, I've heard that the SEALs are especially prolific in writing stories, but that's a different story. Everyone has the capability and the right to do it, but not everybody wants to. There are a lot of people that differ completely from my view. I think as long as I'm not - if I'm talking about old news, things that have been surpassed, things that have been declassified in some manner or another, I don't have a problem with writing about that, but there are people out there who would disagree vociferously with me and say, no, you shouldn't write it at all. So.
Andrew Hammond: Any thoughts, David?
David McCloskey: Yeah, I think in terms of the back part of your question around, does everybody have a novel in them? I think - I always, I don't know, because it's broader than the agency, I think. I have a lot of friends who have, you know, 30% of a book on their computer or they've got 80% of a book on their computer. And I always think when I get this question, I start to think about it. There's a great quote, which I think is from Ken Follett, where he says that to be a novelist, you've got to be literate, imaginative and stubborn.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
David McCloskey: They're the three traits that he gives. And I think that - I think that's pretty true. And I put a lot of emphasis, actually, on the stubborn part because it does, to some degree, come down to a willingness to just write the thing. And obviously, there are people who are better storytellers than others or better writers. But I generally think that anyone possessing those three traits in some quantity is capable of writing a book. I think no one knows - the publishers don't even know what's going to sell or what anyone's going to like so how can the writers? But I think everyone can get a book done on their computer if they've got some combination of those three things.
James Stejskal: So I have a question for you, David. How many novels have you started before you actually got "Damascus Station" done?
David McCloskey: I think I wrote - in one sense, the answer is none because the book that I started writing five years ago changed so much that it's not even like - "Damascus Station" isn't even the same. But I actually think that the right answer is one, and I think I wrote 110,000 words - maybe it wasn't 100,000 words - in 2014, when I left the CIA, and it was all just this kind of reflection on Syria, my experiences, all that. But it's purported to be a novel. And I started a new job. I left the agency and never did anything with it and came back to it in 2019 and looked at it, and I thought, this is terrible. And I basically throw all of it away. So I'd probably say I wrote a book that didn't go anywhere and that was terrible in many different respects - no plot, overdone writing - and then I put that aside and wrote "Damascus Station." So I think my answer is one. I think I wrote a whole book, threw it away, and then wrote "Damascus Station."
James Stejskal: It's a good thing you were stubborn on "Damascus Station," that's all I have to say.
David McCloskey: But, Jim, what about you on that one? Did you - do you have Frankenstein scraps somewhere of a dead book?
James Stejskal: Actually, I have Frankenstein scraps of several. I've been thinking about writing some historical fiction, a lot of it World War II or Cold War stuff. So I've started several. And then after I got out, retired out of the agency, I decided to write history, primarily because I was in Africa at the time, and I was interested in writing about World War I in Africa. But then after my seminal experience with the Pentagon getting one of my history books cleared, which took about 16 months, I said, let's try something new. And so I went back to writing fiction. And "A Question of Time" was my first one. And the difference - my book on special forces Berlin took about 16 months to get through the Pentagon. My fiction book took 14 days. I said, OK, this is the way we're going for a while.
Andrew Hammond: Just to give yourself a little bit of an easier time. Another thing that I was wondering was with the spy fiction genre, in the United States, 17, 18 intelligence agencies, depending on how you want to count them, and that shakes out in different ways, whether you're looking at civilian or military. I was wondering if you had any thought. So every CIA officer has the Bill of Rights and has rucksack or a briefcase but so do people that work for the NSA, the NRO, the DIA, the NGA. So why do you think CIA officers are so - or CIA former - sorry - are so common in the spy fiction genre compared to their colleagues in the IC in the United States?
James Stejskal: You see some of these agencies represented and then you see some agencies that are just created out of thin air, which happens a lot, I think, in the thriller side of the house, not so much the spy side. But the agency tends to hire people who are very well experienced in writing stories, whether it's the story - a true story - or whether it's later on, a novel or something like that. And I think there's going to be somebody that's going to come out and shoot me for this, but I'm going to say there's a lot of people that are really good at telling their stories, and I think many of those people are in the agency. I would like to see more books. I've seen a few from the FBI, and obviously, you see a lot of TV shows about, you know, NCIS, for example. I said, I was not aware that NCIS was involved in so many amazing things. But according to the TV show, they are. So I expect we're going to see some more of this. Whether or not you'll see a book about the U.S. Postal Service undercover inspectors, I'm not sure.
Andrew Hammond: Just to quickly insert, I never thought about that before. The people, the personnel and their writing abilities. So as an analyst, David, your role for the PDB as a case officer, you have to write coherent cables back to headquarters or other places. So I guess there is more of a - yeah, that craft is honed on a regular basis. Whereas if you're analyzing aerial imagery or looking for patterns and metadata or something, then it's a slightly different skill set, whereas people in the CIA are much more used to writing. Do you think there's anything there? That's what you were saying, right?
James Stejskal: Yeah. And you get critiqued for it. It's amazing how many messages come through, and they will be read by the people on the fifth floor and then up through the seventh floor. And sometimes they come back down and say - before they go up there, someone will say, what exactly are you trying to say here? And you are constantly under review for your writing. You have to be able to get a message across, and you have to get it across well. And when you're writing - when you're out writing about some new element, the person back in Washington reads your message and thinks its gibberish, then you're going to have to learn how to write things really well, or you're not going to hang around the agency very long.
David McCloskey: There are far more edits on short articles I wrote that weren't even going to the president and on the book. So you're writing is being critiqued at all levels. And I think when I did write for the PDB, I think - I don't think I'm making this up. I believe it was nine or 10 layers of review, which you'd probably argue that sometimes that makes it worse, but it still is - you have to be able, at all stages, to roll with the punches and to write and to try to make things very clear. The other point I was just going to make on why there might be more CIA formers writing is people writing spy novels that feature CIA officers is, I think, in general, especially when you're talking about anything related to special activities center, or to running - recruiting and running human assets - you're dealing with a fairly intriguing - there's a lot of - a lot you can do with plot there that you can't - you might not be able to do with a imagery analyst, for example. You can put the imagery analyst in the book, but they might not be able to carry the whole story. So I think there is maybe some sexiness in the work of the agency that some of the other entities in the IC may not have. But I think there's got to be a decent number of books written by FBI formers and special agents and things like that are - maybe they're not spy novels but, like, crime fiction that kind of laces in with spies - I don't know. But it's a good question.
James Stejskal: There are quite a few in - I happen to know this 'cause my brother's an FBI agent and he has also written sort of a memoir. I'm waiting for his first fiction novel, though, now.
Andrew Hammond: We'll be right back after this.
Andrew Hammond: And out of the CIA formers that have written novels, the first question is how did both of you know each other? Is it through being novelists who are formers? And across that community - which, sure, there is more than - disproportionately more CIA than other parts of the IC, but it's still, generally speaking, a pretty small club - do you all know each other? Is there a kind of former CIA officer novelist writing club where yous all meet up for supper once a quarter or something like that?
David McCloskey: We probably should actually do that. That's a good idea, Andrew.
Andrew Hammond: What's the - the spy museum - we've got a great rooftop, cocktails, canopies.
James Stejskal: There you have it. You can set it up for us. I think David is the only other agency novelist I know of. That's a good idea. I think it would be interesting. Some of them might not want to associate with each other, but you always see that. There's probably more cohesiveness amongst military writers than there is amongst agency writers.
David McCloskey: That is definitely true. There's - it does seem like there should be more. I mean, there's a guy down here in Texas. His name's Taylor Moore, and he was at the agency for a bit, and his debut came out maybe eight or nine months ago, so I'm in touch with him. But - and, of course, there was Jason Matthews, who I think has, sadly, recently passed, but I think was a real kind of light in the genre for the past decade. But yeah, there just aren't - I think Jim's right. There's so many more authors I can think of who are in a former military special forces community that are now writing. There just aren't that many, comparatively, from the agency. Obviously, the military is a lot bigger, but there's a small handful of formers from Langley writing.
James Stejskal: For - thinking about it now, too, I'm wondering - if John le Carre was invited to join a spy writers conference, I think he would probably come up with some very interesting language to tell everybody where to get off the bus because he benefited from his service with the military and with the MI5 and MI6. But I think he held most people from those services at arm's length once he had gotten out and become a professional. I think many, especially in the British service, it seems, they have bad taste in their mouth about their former occupation. I know Graham Greene did. Le Carre, his frustrations with the service and in his government - although he was not against England, he questioned a lot of what everyone did. So those guys would be difficult to bring into a club. But I think these days, there are a lot of people that, especially in the American service, would be more amicable to partaking in something like that.
Andrew Hammond: Another thing that I was wondering as well was - I mentioned at the beginning the similarities in your experience, but there's also differences as well. David, you were an analyst, and, James, you were a case officer. So I just wondered if you could reflect on that a little bit. I guess it would make sense if there were certain things that analysts were stronger on than operators and certain things that operators were stronger on than analysts. So I just wondered if you two ever compared notes or thought about how that may inflect or change how you work within the genre of spy fiction.
James Stejskal: Just to irritate David - and my wife would probably agree with me - is that I think the analysts have much better grammar.
Andrew Hammond: OK.
David McCloskey: That's - yeah, that's true, although it is - I think it's an old - I think they must teach this to you at FTC, at the (inaudible), Jim...
James Stejskal: Yeah.
David McCloskey: ...Because I do think it's a case officer-influencing tactic with the analysts, to puff up the analysts and make the analysts feel like they're smart. I think the case officers do that...
James Stejskal: OK, you got me (laughter).
David McCloskey: ...To kind of, you know develop the analyst.
James Stejskal: It's a recruitment technique. I don't think there is - I think, again, it goes to the experience level. Analysts see, hear and experience a lot of the things that the operations officers do, and then I think there are things that the operations officers don't experience that the analysts would. Now, my question was, how would you categorize the difference between your writing experience or the experience of other people who have served as an analyst over that of a person who is more of a knuckle-dragging case officer?
David McCloskey: I don't think the analyst job is really conducive - like, if you're trying to turn it into fodder for a book, it's not very good. You can't carry a spy novel on the work of an analyst, but you can carry it on, I think, the work of a case officer. And I think that - I don't know. The approach that I generally - I don't know. I just try to lean in on the storytelling and the stuff that's consistent, whether you're a former or not, which is - it's plot and character, and it's probably character first. And I think - I don't know. I've got an approach of - I'm not a case officer. I was not a case officer. But I knew a lot of them and spent time with them in the wild. And so I could take that analytic eye, I guess, to what the job was like and how it worked and what they did and speak with a lot of them as I was putting my book together to try to create a real sense of character and action and tradecraft and all of that.
David McCloskey: But my sense, at least from speaking with a lot of former case officers to build the book, was - I don't know if they have a desire to write a novel or a nonfiction account of what they did, but they're all very thoughtful about the job and very - and thoughtful about people. This is why they're good at this job to begin with is they know how people work. And I find that they're very insightful about character in the book, very insightful about that because it's what they did for a living. So they can kind of understand when something doesn't seem right in the book with respect to a character and what they do and what motivates them. And I think that's a really helpful tool to have in your toolbox as a writer.
Andrew Hammond: So let's go into the mechanics of how you bring it all together. Where's the best place to start? Characters. So a lead character - how did you come up with the person that was going to carry your novels? Give us a sense of that. And then from there, speak about the plot and the - you know, the trade-off. Is it plot-driven, or is it about the characters and the plot? So the connective tissue that brings them all together. Tell us how you both conceptualized the novels. Anyone can start.
James Stejskal: Since I was hesitating there. My - in my case, my first novel developed in one direction and then went off in a second direction because I had a protagonist who serves as the primary foil all the way through that novel. And then he sort of does a handoff to another one of his colleagues, a younger version of him, primarily because I was just trying to emphasize that there is never one single person that does things, and it's all part of a team effort. So my characters are built, as I said, on the characteristics of many people I know, but they also fit a purpose within the storyline. And the storyline was one I've had in my mind for a long time, about an East German intelligence officer who is actually a mole for the Americans and gets to a point in his career where he realizes that he has been endangered and has to escape to the West. So all of these characters embody different people I have run across, either in real life or, in some cases, in literature. I didn't know this East German senior officer, but I gave him many of the characteristics that I have seen from actual cases of former Soviets or former East Germans who defect to the United States or to Great Britain and the kind of disaffection that they experience and why. So it's - as I said, it's build on fact, but then it becomes fiction in the telling.
David McCloskey: Yeah. Mine was - once I had thrown away the manuscript from 2014 and realized that it was total junk, I started, I think, with kind of two big ideas. And they were - one, I wanted to get Syria right. And then two, I wanted to get the agency right as much as I could - not just the tradecraft, but hopefully something deeper about the moral code and the culture of the place and what it's like. But those were just - that was kind of like the sandbox that I was in. It was, like, Syrian civil war and CIA. So what do I do there? And for me, both "Damascus Station" and the book I'm working on now, the plot process has started with an image and frankly, the character process, too. There's an image that was in my head before I started the Syria book about an interrogation room in Damascus and my characters all being across the table from each other. And I thought that would allow me to get the CIA right, to get Syria right, and to show a lot of the complexity and tension of this war in a way that was really high stakes for my characters.
David McCloskey: And I didn't know who the characters were going to be, and I didn't know how I was going to get there. But I started with that image of, OK, how do I get them all in the same room in this basement in Damascus? How do I get there? And the book was really the process of figuring out the answer to that question. And it has, strangely enough, been the same with this book I'm working on now, where I had an image of a Russian woman riding away from a big kind of opulent villa in the Russian woods outside of St Petersburg, and the place is burning to the ground, and she's riding off. And the whole book has been trying to figure out who is that woman, and how did she get there? And why do we care? Once I have that image, then I start to - I do a little bit of outlining - not much 'cause I found that you can spend too much time doing that instead of actually writing. And then I just start writing. And in the case of "Damascus Station," most of it was written in about four months. In this case, it's taken longer because I wrote about 90 pages last year in this kind of spring that I ended up throwing away 'cause it just wasn't right. And then I went in a different direction to get to the burning farm.
David McCloskey: And so for me, it's a very - you try to pick your sandbox, but the sandbox is this frustratingly wide area, and you don't exactly know what's down there. And the only way I can express it is that you just have to write and write to dig up what's down there, which eventually is the book. And don't - I try not to start with some predetermined view on plot because I think if I'm not surprised by what happens as I'm writing, I don't think the reader will be. And so I - and it ends up being very iterative and frustrating, and you end up throwing a lot of stuff away, but I haven't found a better way to do it. So I just - I try to constantly write to get there. And I think from a character standpoint, I do ultimately think that at least what keeps me coming back to books is character and the idea that I'm not necessarily sympathetic to somebody, but that I'm interested in what they're going to do next and why they're doing it. And I try to be, I think, more true to character than plot if I can be, understanding that there's trade-offs and there are certain expectations in the genre that you just can't avoid.
Andrew Hammond: What's the process that both of you had? Did you have set times when you would write? I remember reading about one British novelist, and for the whole day he worked for two hours, took two hours off, worked for two hours, took two hours off. Anthony Burgess, the author of "A Clockwork Orange" - he was a functioning alcoholic, so he had what he called the martini method, where he couldn't have his first drink of the day until he had written, I think it was 500 words. So he would basically just sit in his chair, desperate for this martini, and would have to get 500 words out. So it doesn't have to be quite as dramatic or as extreme as both of them, but did you both have a process, or were there particular places that you wrote well or that you - that didn't work? Do you need complete silence, or did you prefer a cafe? How do you bring all together? What's the secret sauce that both of you have?
David McCloskey: So my - I don't know where this quote is from, but I think it's good. And another writer said, you know, I don't - like, basically, I get inspired at the same time every day, and it's at 9 o'clock. I sit down and try to make it as much a 9 to 5 as possible, something like that. And so I'll sit down at the same coffee shop every day, and I get the same cup of coffee, and I try to sit in the same seat. And I will show up and sit there and try to write. And some days, it's terrible, and you know it's terrible when you walk away. And then other days, you're rolling, and the day flies by. But I just found that there really isn't any substitute, as painful as it can be sometimes, for just sitting down and writing the damn thing. And so I generally just - I try to get about 2,000 to 3,000 words down on paper a day when I'm in the middle of it. And good days might be 4 to 5. A bad day's maybe 1,500. But I generally - I won't let myself leave until I've gotten about 1,500 to 2,000 words at a minimum. And once that's done, then it's OK. I've done something. I've dug up more dirt on the on the big side of the book, and I can go home happy. But I just - that's my process. It's pretty simple, but it works for me.
James Stejskal: I have an office in my home. Luckily, I have no small children, other than myself, to bother me. So I'm surrounded by my books and my computer. I try to turn off mail and the internet. I always find myself going back and checking things on the internet because there's some little niggling question that I will research, and it will lead me off into about 12 different cubby holes before I realize I actually didn't need that bit of information at all for my story. And then I go back to writing. I generally start out in the morning, depending on if it's my turn to walk our big dog or not. I'll walk up into my office. I'll basically sit there with my coffee and start hacking away. And if I get 1,000 words done a day, then I'm pretty happy. I think it probably takes me a bit longer to write something than it does David. My first novel probably took me 10 months, my second one a little bit shorter. But the one I'm working on right now, I'm probably getting in close to a year. I keep backing off 'cause of other commitments, but I should have had it done already. So I'm a lot more intermittent of a writer. And I also find myself going back and reading about other authors. Stephen King did a really good novel - not a novel - a story of his writing, how he did it.
Andrew Hammond: That's a good book.
James Stejskal: I will go back and look at things like that. And that inspires me for about six hours, and then I lose it again.
Andrew Hammond: Try the martini method.
David McCloskey: Martini method is a good - I'm going to start trying that. That's a wonderful way to force the words out.
James Stejskal: Well, I don't do martinis. I do do gin and tonics. So you do what you can, and you try to filter out everything else while you're writing and try to keep to a good story. It's amazing how many chapters I have stuck away on my computer that I will write, and I'll say, that has nothing to do with this book. And I'll put it away someplace else, and I might be able to pull it out again, or it might inspire me. But, yeah, I think it's good to write. Whether or not it goes into the story or not is immaterial. But as long as you're exercising your mind and getting the story down, you can change it as many times as you want unless you're on a deadline. Luckily, I'm not. But, yeah - and I think right after this, I'm going to go home and get a gin and tonic.
David McCloskey: What's your - I'm curious what your ratio is between words that end up in the book and then words that are cast aside on the computer.
James Stejskal: What ends up in the book is about 90,000. What actually I write seems to be, like, 70,000. And then I have to work at stretching. I'm getting better at that.
David McCloskey: So you - OK. So you - that's interesting. My - I have - I typically have two files open during the day. One of them is the manuscript, the draft, and then the other one is what I call my scrapyard. And that's all the stuff that I've collected over the course of the writing process. Not the research, but it's like actual stuff that I've written that I've discarded. And some of it could be short, could be a little graph, or it could be a whole chapter. And I think on "Damascus Station," the book is 125,000 words. And I think that scrapyard was about 300,000 words.
James Stejskal: Not that prolific. I get a few scraps, but, yeah, I may end up with 120,000, 130,000 to get 100,000 words in a book. So I...
David McCloskey: Prolific implies productive, though, in some respects, so I have a quibble with that.
James Stejskal: I'm sorry if I'm accusing you of something you're not. But sometimes I feel like I'm not prolific at all. And it's a real struggle to get the words out and on paper. And then other times, they just come out.
David McCloskey: Yeah.
James Stejskal: Sometimes you're inspired, and sometimes it's just more difficult to express what you want.
Andrew Hammond: And just as we get towards the close of the interview - for the writing, is - I think it's quite interesting that both of you have described - I believe, David, you called it, like, an archaeological dig. And you mentioned it even earlier in the interview, digging around. And, James, you said the - what was it? - I think it was like, it's like building a house without a blueprint. You're just...
David McCloskey: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...You're building a room over here...
James Stejskal: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: ...And then you're trying to join it up over here. I haven't written a novel, but when I was writing my Ph.D., which was around 100,000 words, some of these same things were the case. Like, when the writing was going well - I don't play the piano, but I felt like I was playing, like, some beautiful piece on the piano. But when it wasn't, it felt like I was...
James Stejskal: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...Hacking through the jungle...
David McCloskey: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...Where people were shooting at me, and there were mosquitoes biting me. And I friggin' hated it, and I just wanted to get out of the damn jungle. So it could go from one extreme to the other for me. And then I know that when - sometimes when I was writing, I would come up with some paragraph, and I would be like, that is a great paragraph. I would try to put it in the body of the piece, and it wouldn't fit. And...
James Stejskal: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...I would be like, God, damn it, I'm going to get this...
David McCloskey: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...Paragraph in this if it's the last...
James Stejskal: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: ...Thing I ever do. And I would try to crowbar into the rest of the narrative. So, yeah. Give me some of your thoughts on that.
James Stejskal: I have gone down many blind alleys and written about them and then found out that they didn't quite fit. And then I'll find another one that does fit. Then I'll put it in there, and my editor will come back and say, what were you thinking? So my ideas don't always jive with what the reader actually reads. So I don't know how many maps you could - David talked about outlining. I've done outlining, too, but my outlines always end up describing a completely different journey than what I end up with.
David McCloskey: They never survive. They never survive contact with the actual book.
James Stejskal: Yeah.
David McCloskey: Yeah.
James Stejskal: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: The other thing I find bizarre, and I just, I actually - this is a bit of recency bias here 'cause this happened - it literally happened to me this morning as I was writing. I literally took a scene - and this book has already been through first draft, and so I'm on a reader's draft now, which means it should be presentable. It should be OK - rough but OK. I literally took a scene from Chapter 30 and moved it to Chapter 10 and with very few changes. I'm a recovering management consultant.
James Stejskal: (Laughter).
David McCloskey: I did that for a number of years after I left the CIA. And I wrote project plans that sometimes got things wrong, but rarely did they get something so out of order, as to say, something that's going to happen in Week 30 of the project, we're actually going to do it in Week Four. Like, that never happened 'cause it's this very linear thing for the most part. And I just find with the book, it's just not. It's almost this thing that is either going to work with you or fight you. And it's very - I don't know. I have - I've almost come to develop a mystical view of the thing because I - there aren't a lot of rules to how this stuff gets put together.
David McCloskey: And I've found, now in my second book - I mean, I haven't written that many books - it's like a totally different animal than "Damascus Station." And it's got its own energy and life, and so it's a very different process. I don't know. It's very - emphasizing your point, Andrew, that, like, there are days where I'm totally in it, and then there's other days where you just want to rip your hair out and you think, why in the hell am I subjecting myself to this torture? - because it's miserable. You know, I think every day is kind of this three-legged stool of fear, joy and self-loathing. And it's just a question of, like, how - what the proportion's going to be that day, you know? But you're going to get all three of them at some point.
James Stejskal: You just reminded me of a very, very poignant nightmare that I've had with mine, too. I sometimes jump around in my writing. And I'll write Chapter 30 assuming it's going to be a Chapter 30, and then I'll go back and write some of the intervening stuff. And I'll put it all together at the end, and the editor will come back and say, doesn't this chapter go way up here instead of way back there? And I'm going, well, maybe.
James Stejskal: I'll have to go through the entire timeline again. My editors have learned that they have to set up a timeline on my stories and figure out - and they put it out in Excel format and say, OK, these are the things that happened. And then they have to come back and show me why my writing is off and why this should have happened here instead of back there. So that's one of my worst nightmares in the writing.
Andrew Hammond: Just to close out now, let's talk about the books that you are currently working on. David, "Damascus Station," you're working on a new one on Russia, I believe. And James, you've done "A Question of Time," and "Appointment in Tehran," which was Berlin, Tehran. And where's the city - it's quite interesting that out of those three novels, they're all based on a city, which is quite interesting. So I was just wondering - tell us a little bit more about what you're working on at the moment, and when can listeners expect to get the next installment of David and James?
James Stejskal: The third book I'm working on right now is called "Direct Legacy." And it actually doesn't key in on one city. It keys in on one province, and that's the province of Northern Ireland, or...
Andrew Hammond: Oh, wow. OK.
James Stejskal: ...Ulster, as some people would call it. It's actually finished, and it will be coming out in late June, I hope. So I'm actually starting to work on my fourth book, which is going to take us to Northern Africa. And that's going to be an interesting slog right now. I'll go home and work on that one this afternoon. But "Direct Legacy," I think, is going to be interesting because it involves an American in Ireland during the Troubles, and it's based on some - oh, I can't say that, can I? It's - yeah, it's totally made up. It's fiction.
Andrew Hammond: OK.
James Stejskal: Yeah. Anyway.
David McCloskey: And I've been lucky enough to read an advance copy of it, and it kicks ass, so I'm going to be excited to see that one out in the wild in June. That's great to hear.
James Stejskal: Thanks, David. The check's in the mail.
Andrew Hammond: On that topic - the check in the mail, how much did you pay David Petraeus to say it was the greatest spy novel that's ever been written? I'm just teasing, obviously.
David McCloskey: He was - yeah, I was - he was very generous with that. I was - that was a wonderful gift to get in a - blurbs also come at a point where the book doesn't feel real, at least for me. So. It's just - the book's still a PDF file, even if it's a pretty one, and it's not out there yet. It's cool to - that was a huge gift. It came last - I think it was last February or something when he read it. So it was - that really - it's been obviously so helpful to the book and to me. So it was a real gift.
James Stejskal: Well-deserved, though.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, that's awesome. And it's not just him. There's multiple people that have been raving about it and many people that really know what the heck they're talking about. Yeah, that's great. And tell our listeners when we can expect the follow-up.
David McCloskey: Yeah. It's not a sequel.
Andrew Hammond: I'm sorry - in sequel, but - yeah. Sorry.
David Mccloskey: So probably - we don't have an official date yet, but Norton did purchase it, so it'll probably be out the back half of '23 - so a little bit over a year, which is good 'cause I'm not done with it yet - so a little bit of time.
James Stejskal: Good time for martinis.
David McCloskey: Yeah, exactly. But I'm trying to write a story about officers under commercial cover, both Russian and American. And I think it's really - it's - from a sort of plot standpoint, it began as this idea around, what would it look like if we got really serious about dealing with the Russians and were willing to take the gloves off to a degree that we haven't been from a covert action standpoint? And as the plot progressed, and, obviously, with what's going on now in Ukraine, you know, it made it, I think, easier for me and a lot of the people I'm speaking with about these kind of things to imagine scenarios where the agency is much more aggressive. So that's been good.
David McCloskey: But, I think, from a character standpoint, it's really become this story about identity and thinking about a lot of the unique aspects that go along with being an agency officer who's under commercial cover. And again, I've got Russian characters in the book who are dealing with, what does it mean to deal with truth and with the nature of your own identity in a system like the one that Putin's constructed? - which isn't - it's not Stalin, but it's not an open system either. And it's become a - kind of an exploration of identity and agency in kind of both of those realms. So I'm excited about it, and I'm hopeful that I'll have the finishing touches put on it here in the next couple of months and that people get to read it next year.
Andrew Hammond: I really appreciate your time. And it's been a really fascinating conversation. And it's actually been great to have both of you here and to compare and contrast and draw out some of the commonalities and differences about your experiences of being authors. So thanks ever so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalogue for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter - @INTLSpyCast - and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at email@example.com. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter - @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.