October 20, 2014

Spy vs. Spy: Espionage Thriller Author Panel Offers Intrigue | LJ Day of Dialog 2012

Nearly 230 librarians, authors, and publishers gathered for the 15th annual LJ Day of Dialog at McGraw-Hill on June 4. Designed to foster better communication and relationship building, the event also emphasizes the strength of the library market, not only for book purchases but as an engine for book sales and author discovery. This year’s Day of Dialog featured five presentations: Two author panels, a conversation with New York Times columnist Gail Collins, a conversation on digital collection development and best practices, and a perennial favorite, Editor’s Picks. See more from Day of Dialog.


LJ reviewer Jeff Ayers (Seattle P.L.) moderated the last author panel of the day, I Spy: The Return of the Espionage Thriller, with five authors.

Chris Pavone (The Expats, Crown) began writing when his wife got a job in Luxembourg and he was the stay-at-home dad of four-year-old twins. Trying to make conversation with a reticent mother at the playground one morning, he imagined that the seemingly unfriendly woman was actually a spy who could not reveal any information about herself, prompting his decision to write a female POV.

Alan Furst (Mission to Paris, Random) sets his books during World War II because, he says, “the way to get at what police states are like was to write about the the time when the two biggest, the Russians and Germans, fought it out with the Brits and French.” And since he couldn’t find what he calls “a panoramic book about the time,” he decided to write it.

Francine Matthews (Jack 1939, Riverhead: Penguin Group USA) was inspired by a photo of young John F. Kennedy juggling oranges in Nuremberg in the 1930s. Knowing that “the streets behind him teemed with jack-booted thugs,” she says, she thought about what his experience there at that time would be like and decided to make him a spy for Roosevelt.

Mark Henshaw (Red Cell, Touchstone: S & S) actually spent time in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) unit about which he writes: Red Cell, formed September 13, 2001, has free access to any information that any other analyst can see, and doesn’t have to coordinate with anyone. The author calls the unit “literary gold.”

Ben Coes (The Last Refuge, St. Martin’s) explains the resurgence of spy thrillers: “Readers of terrorism-focused books want to understand something that’s going on that threatens us. People are interested in our enemies and in being taken inside what happens when our enemies are plotting against us. Readers also want to read stories about America winning.”

The panel covered a number of related topics, including what the authors consider to be the definition of espionage. Matthews called it the “craft of intelligence,” but pointed out that it’s also “broader than that when you’re a writer. People trade in secrets. Espionage is  a metaphor for the most crucial things in life that people will kill to protect or kill to know.”

Furst added, “Espionage means to me that it requires discipline. If you’re writing a spy novel, you will find yourself edging over to what are called ‘special operations,’ where your spies run, jump, get on and off trains, they’re shooting. They have to do something other than have conversations and make love–though I don’t know why,” he joked. “Spying means being very, very, quiet and stealing information that other countries are trying to keep secret. I like it best when the political import of that secret in that year in that moment is made clear by the author. I like to show why this is a valuable secret.”

Matthews and Henshaw, both previously employed by the CIA, discussed the little-known fact that the agency employs a lot of women. Matthews explained, “My whole chain of command was female. Agents would breastfeed on their lunch hour, which is not the popular image. But it’s 9 to 5 and you literally are not allowed to take any work home, so it’s good for women with kids.” Henshaw added, “There are only two positions that have not been held by a woman: director and director of clandestine services, who actually send out the spies.” Every other high-level position either is held or has been held by a woman. Punctuating the exchange, Matthews offered Henshaw a celebratory fist-bump.

All of the authors were adamant that character is the most important element in their books, with Coes saying that “character is absolutely why people read books, whether it’s about fighting terrorists or romance. That’s why series with recurring characters are so popular.”

Henshaw confirmed that  “you have to care about the person who has to make that moral decision or it has no weight. the most unsavory thing you’re going to do is ask someone to commit treason for you. if you don’t care about the person who’s doing those things, the novel just dies.”

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