By Francine Mathews
I had one of the best evenings of my writing life this past Monday, when I got to sit down with spy novelists Dan Fesperman and Karen Cleveland at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Karen, whose debut novel, NEED TO KNOW, earned raves this past spring, is a former employee of the CIA. So am I. We were at the museum Monday purely as Dan’s backup singers, while he talked about and signed his latest novel, SAFE HOUSES. Why? The book is a superb rendering of a female case officer’s life in the field–and its possibly mortal consequences.
I first met Dan’s books when I read LIE IN THE DARK, set against the backdrop of wartorn Sarajevo. Dan covered the destruction of Yugoslavia firsthand as Berlin bureau chief for the Baltimore Sun. (He also lost friends and former colleagues at the Sun’s sister publication, the Annapolis Capitol Gazette, a few weeks ago, for which we cannot offer him enough furious sympathy.) A journalist who has reported from thirty countries and three war zones, Dan is a master of acutely observed detail and a consummate spinner of mordant tales. He has won the Hammett Prize, the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and the CWA New Blood Dagger. His books, translated into eleven languages, have earned praise from fans and reviewers all over the world. But I think SAFE HOUSES will rank as one of my favorites. So I asked Dan to talk about writing it with the Rogues.
“With most of my books I can look back to a single moment of inspiration and say, yes, that’s where it all began. That isn’t the case with Safe Houses. It emerged haltingly, from a scatter of unrelated items, and in retrospect it’s difficult to say how they finally came together. Over in the haze of one corner of my memory is a news account about a declassified archive that had once belonged to an obscure spy organization known as The Pond. Across a cobwebbed hallway, peeping above the rim of an old box, are my notes from a long ago research interview with Betty McIntosh, who worked for the OSS and CIA. In the foreground, bookmarked on my desktop computer, is a wire story about the arrest of a CIA station chief in Africa on multiple charges of rape.
I stirred all those items into the pot, sort of like on one of those evenings when it’s time to prepare dinner and it’s too late to go to the store, so instead I make do with the offerings of the refrigerator. Chop, simmer and stir, while hoping for something flavorful to emerge.
But as I weighed and measured these ingredients, I clearly remember one important decision. Once I’d settled on the book’s structure – two alternating narratives, set in different eras and places, with the bedrock tale originating in Cold War Berlin – I knew right away that two CIA women would be at the heart of the action. They would be challenging entrenched authority, so I wanted them to be underestimated and perhaps undervalued. And that immediately set the course for my research: I had to learn more about what life must have been like for an Agency female in 1979.
The first thing I did was go back to the McIntosh interview, which I’d done for a TV project that never went to production. Having served with the OSS during the war, and then, years later, having worked from around 1960 onward for the CIA, McIntosh had plenty of interesting tales. But the item that stood out this time was her description of what the atmosphere had been like when she rejoined the intelligence business.
During the war, she said, her field contributions to the OSS were welcomed by her male colleagues, who accepted them at face value. But by 1960, the prevailing attitude at headquarters was more dismissive. Men tended to regard her – and other women – as glorified secretaries.
From there, I consulted a handful of women who I knew had once worked for the Agency. The most helpful of these was Francine Mathews, who, probably because she’s a writer, had an inherent understanding of the sorts of observations and detail that would be the most valuable in shaping a fictional character. (Thank you again, Francine!) (Gosh. I didn’t see that coming, Dan. You’re very welcome.)
But to my surprise, some of the most valuable material came from the Agency itself, in a collection of about 120 declassified documents called, “From Typist to Trailblazer: The Evolving View of Women in the CIA’s Workforce.”
The material wasn’t always exciting reading, but it was often revealing. There was the 1953 Panel on Career Service for Women (the so-called “Petticoat Panel,” a name which says something all by itself.) There were career summaries, personnel evaluations and fitness reports for decorated female employees. There were official Agency reports on discrimination and the glass ceiling.
The single best and most entertaining item was a 23-page transcript of a panel discussion held in around 2004 (the exact date wasn’t included), titled, “Divine Secrets of the RYBAT Sisterhood: Four Senior Women of the Directorate of Operations Discuss Their Careers.” What a treat! The four participants – Carla, Susan, Patricia and Meredith (Their last names were redacted. I’d love to speak to them further, but so far all my inquiries along that line have been quashed) – had joined the Agency between 1965 and 1979, and their discussion had a loose and casual feel. Not only was the timing of their careers perfect for my own characters, they spoke candidly and in Agency vernacular. They were witty, wise and forthcoming – rich material, which I eagerly plundered.
More work remained, of course, but from then on I was far more comfortable with the idea of taking my planned leap of imagination. Those four women had put me at ease, and I hope I did them justice.”
Oh, you did, Dan, you did–because your women’s voices shout from the pages of SAFE HOUSES with absolute clarity. Thank you for writing it. And Rogues? Look no further for this summer’s Best Read.
Welcome Dan – so great to have a writer with your experience and expertise as a guest here! Your account of women working (and gaining respect for their efforts) at the CIA is encouraging — we need more talented young women joining the ranks. Now I can't wait to read SAFE HOUSES. Thanks for taking the time to be with us!
Thanks, Karna. Much appreciated. And another thank-you to Francine for inviting me to post here. It was a pleasure and an honor to share the podium with her and Karen Cleveland at The Spy Museum event. I hope to keep learning more — one of the best side effects of being a writer.
Dan, thanks so much for stopping by our blog, and Francine, thanks for the great intro! Would love to have been there at the Spy Museum with all of you. Dan, I know the Rogue Readers will appreciate your insightful and incredibly interesting post, and (like us Rogues), will want to read your latest book because of it. (Way back in 1983, I was the first female police officer for my department. Being a trailblazer sucked, constantly in the fishbowl, watched all the time, but boy does it make for some great fodder for novels.) I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of SAFE HOUSES to read your fictional take on all this wonderful research. If it's half as good as your other novels, we're all in for a treat!