Alma Katsu is the award-winning author of five novels, most recently red widow, The depthand Hungry. Prior to the publication of her first novel, she had a 35-year career as a senior intelligence analyst for several U.S. agencies, including the CIA and NSA, where she was a national intelligence officer. Owen Matthews reported on conflicts in Bosnia, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq and Ukraine, and was Newsweekoffice manager in Moscow. He is the author of two political thrillers with KGB Major Alexander Vasin, Black Sun and Red traitor (due July 20 from Doubleday) and several non-fiction books, including Stalin’s children, Glorious Misadventuresand An impeccable sky. Prior to their virtual event at Poisoned pretty Wednesday, July 21 at 16 EDT (via Facebook Live), Katsu and Matthews sat down to discuss the details of writing spy fiction.
Katsu: Congratulations, Owen, on the publication of Red traitor. I’m so glad we have the opportunity to talk about the pleasures and dangers of writing spy novels. I would like to start with a question that may seem a little cheeky, but which I have had in mind recently after recording a show on the spy industry. The producers used historians to write it, and in reviewing the manuscript, it struck me how much of what the public knows is shaped by historians and journalists, people who are outside the actual profession. What was it like writing about a field you can only know from the outside?
Matthews: Outside – as in, have I never been a spy? Let yourself continue to believe that Alma 🙂 In fact, a good portion of the people I met in the field during my 25 years as a foreign correspondent were convinced that all Western journalists were spies. But for the record, I actually only met two – a guy who wrote for Jane’s Defense Weekly in Afghanistan, who was so interested in the serial numbers of tanks and helicopter gunships that it gave no odds whether he was actually a spook or a journalist. . The other was a sporty American guy who showed up at a Kurdish leader’s press conference at a hotel in Ankara in 2002 and was immediately clocked by any correspondent in the room as an outsider. We shredded his bullshit claim to be a journalist in seconds (with the help of Google) and kicked him out. But to answer your question – my first two attempts at fiction (Moscow Babylon and The shadow of the sword) were basically autobiographical reports. Thanks to Hemingway, I thought that’s how you wrote fiction. About 90% of the events, characters and settings were based on my direct personal experience in Moscow in the 1990s, Chechnya in World War II and Ukraine in 2014. The novels were horrible – or at least it did not work and came across as incredible. For some reason, it’s much truer to write about characters and places I know from movies, books, or my imagination – as I do in the Black Sun trilogy – based on my own life. Go figure.
Katsu: For me, the challenge is how to write realistically about a field when your audience’s perception is largely shaped by television and film. One of the main reasons I wanted to write red widow was that women in intelligence have not been well represented in pop culture: we are often portrayed as sex objects or sidekicks or anomaly in a man’s world. While we really are professionals, although it is necessary to navigate our jobs and careers in a slightly different way than men. Since the novel came out, I’m proud to report that I’ve received plenty of praise from former intellectuals who say it’s the most accurate representation of the CIA’s culture they’ve ever read.
That’s why I decided to tackle the genre. What attracted you to writing spy fiction?
Matthews: Reading spy thrillers. Although I’m actually not convinced that the tag is meaningful at all. The best spy thrillers – John Le Carré is the perfect example – are actually simply great novels of our time, which happen to take place in the secret world. Why are not Joseph Conrad or Jack London or Fyodor Dostoyevsky known as thriller writers? Their books are quite exciting. Crime and punishment is a murder mystery told from the point of view of the murderers.
Katsu: Was there anything you felt was missing in the genre that you wanted to fix? Something overlooked that deserved to be highlighted?
Matthews: Every writer needs his protagonist to have a secret and to be hunted. And the spy world gives you that plot structure on a record – what greater secret is there than being a spy, and what better hunt is there than a spy hunt? In terms of correcting a genre or highlighting a point, I think any writer worth their salt writes because they think they can tell a story better, move in motion, more exciting than the next guy. I would add that most of the actual spies that I have known are actually far less interesting and lead much more boring lives than one would imagine, so the banal reality has to be corrected with a heavy dose of fictional danger.
Katsu: William Colby said that the ideal spy is “the little gray man”, who is ubiquitous and therefore overlooked, and who can therefore slip in and out without being noticed. They may be less interesting on the surface, but what’s going on downstairs is where the real drama lies.
Let’s shift gears for a moment. You have quite a lot of experience with Russia after working for Moscow Times, as the author of the TV show London degree, among other. Should we assume that you have particular insight into the Russian point of view?
Matthews: What is a Russian point of view? There is no more a Russian point of view than there is an American point of view. For example – Rachel Maddow and Donald Trump. Same nationality, different views 🙂 As it happens, I personally do not know any Russians socially who admire Putin. Except for my mom, it is, but she’s a little gaga.
Katsu: What do you think we in the West are wrong about Russia?
Matthews: Russia is dangerous not because it is powerful and well-organized, but because it is weak and ridiculously chaotic. Putin is not an evil genius, he is very ill-informed and lucky with only one key skill – he is good at opportunistic disruption. He does not even have full control over his own murderous security services, as if you think about it is much scarier than if he were. In any discussion of Russia between a Westerner and a Russian, the Westerner will always claim that things in Russia could be better, the Russian will claim that his country could be much, much worse. Both would be right. As for Western writers who are mistaken for Russia, my pet is names. Why are so many novels about Russia full of characters with names that do not actually exist in Russian? How hard can it be, guys?
Katsu: And what about Russia’s view of the West? What do we need to know about how they think of us?
Matthews: The Russians are convinced – or more precisely, the Kremlin propaganda machine has successfully convinced the Russians – that the West hates and fears Russia’s power and works day and night to keep them down. Looking at polls, an alarming number of Russians believe that the West is actually at war with Russia right now through subversion and propaganda and funding of opposition activities to undermine law and order and then chaos. The reality – which is the West, for the most part does not worry so much – is too painful to consider. It is like a divorced couple where the weaker party hates the other and is convinced that they remain as obsessed with their ex as they are.
Katsu: It is quite the dysfunctional relationship that got worse because Russia has a national propaganda culture. It can not be expelled from their psyche and I am afraid it is exported pretty expert here as well as to other countries. I say this based on many years of work as a social media researcher working with some of the best researchers in online disinformation as well as my time in open source intelligence, which is (basically) the study of propaganda.
Let’s shift gears again and look at espionage through the historical lens. What was the appeal of writing a historical spy thriller?
Matthews: Cold War = high stakes. The impending threat of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis is about as exciting as you might wish as a writer.
Katsu: And why were you attracted to this particular moment?
Matthews: I’m attracted to novels that are closely based on real events and situations – whether it’s Le Carrés Little drummer girl or Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. Since we are talking about fiction here, the desire as a reader to get to the emotional truth of the story using characters that someone has just imagined in their heads is a bit irrational. But in this case, there were two extraordinarily true stories that happened in 1962 that fascinated me – the drama of CIA spy Oleg Penkovsky and the events aboard the Soviet submarine B-59 off the Cuba coast at the height of the missile crisis. who came inside a whisker to trigger a nuclear war. I decided to weave them together using my investigator main character as a link. Maybe it’s because we know that real people made these extraordinary decisions that our imagination demands to know more, get into their heads, to investigate why these men acted as they did and how it might have felt to have the world fate in your hands. Although the real truth of it, I suppose, is that anyone who happens to have the fate of the world in their hands does not know it at the time and probably wishes it was someone else’s problem.
Katsu: Is there anything you want to say about these characters? As a writer of historical fiction himself – horror fiction, nothing to do with the world of spies – I know that it is difficult to decide how to turn real people into fictional characters.
Matthews: An excellent question. IN Black Sun, all my main characters were closely based on real people, but did not actually bear their names. IN Red traitor that’s also true except for one man – submarine captain Vasily Arkhipov. I could have easily given him another name, but chose not to do so for the most part because he is so remarkable and a little known that I wanted readers to know who he was and what he did. There are not many men in history who literally saved the world from the nuclear holocaust. My fictional portrait of Arkhipov is based on the memories of his comrades-in-arms and his wife and is largely fully sympathetic. If he had been less of a hero in history, I would have changed my name – as I did for my morally ambiguous and flawed stand-in for the spy Oleg Penkovsky, whom I call Oleg Morozov. It is bad karma to exchange real people you have never met. However, people you have met are fair game.
Katsu: It’s a smart way to handle it. I went from living very close to the historical record, using real people as the characters in my novels, to using mostly fictional characters who were aggregates of the actual people or representatives of a type in the one coming out spring 2022 , The burning. Especially the one that is about the Japanese internment is very personal to me as my in-laws have been interned in Topaz.
Many thanks for the fascinating conversation, Owen, and for the fascinating novel that looks at the Cuban missile crisis from the Russian side.