After a 2003 newspaper column on nuclear weapons in Iraq disclosed that she was a CIA operations officer, Valerie Plame was “burned”—finished with the CIA. The international controversy that ensued led to hearings, lawsuits, even arrests. Plame wrote a memoir, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, which was the basis for a film starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.
And then Plame turned to fiction. Her first thriller, Blowback, introduced a female covert CIA ops officer named Vanessa Pierson, on the trail of the world’s most dangerous nuclear arms dealer. In Plame’s second thriller, the recently published BURNED, Pierson’s mission takes some even more frightening turns. It’s a story of high stakes—the novel opens with a bomb explosion in Paris—and emotional tension, with authenticity jumping off every page.
Let’s start with Blowback. How did you make the decision to write it?
I hadn’t really considered writing fiction up to that point. My [memoir’s] publisher, David Rosenthal, had moved over and started his own imprint called Blue Rider Press. He’s the one who suggested it to me and I thought, “Okay,” because I really despise how female CIA officers are portrayed in popular culture. He put me together with my co-author, Sarah Lovett, who had written thrillers. She really understands pacing and tension, and those are inherent to a thriller.
Did you intend to write a series when you were writing the first book?
Yeah, you always hope it will take off, and I hope that there are many Vanessa Pierson’s out there.
It’s not just the larger aspects of your main character that I enjoyed, but the smaller things, such as the fact that when someone goes overseas and gets a housing allowance, that person may try to find something even cheaper and keep the difference.
I made it as realistic as I possibly could without including classified information, including the interpersonal dynamics both within the organization and the sort of operations that you’re dealing with in your professional life and trying to have some sort of personal life. So good, I’m glad you appreciated it.
Your novel definitely has a ripped-from-the-news aspect. I couldn’t help but think about ISIS while I was reading about your extremist group, and sharing the CIA team’s fear about their acquiring nuclear weapons.
Without question, ISIS, which Prime Minister David Cameron called “pathological,” has a nihilistic view. There are very absolutist terms in their power-hungry agenda, and if they were to acquire some sort of new nuclear capability, they would use it to advance their aims, which is absolutely horrifying. I mean, they’ve demonstrated through the beheadings that the historical conventions do not apply to them.
I want to talk to you about how other film writers and novelists have used CIA operatives in their work. In another interview you said there’s a lot of waiting, that it’s an inherent part of the job. Author Barry Eisler, who also worked for the CIA, has said that the CIA is much more of a government agency than people realize. How do you take this reality—that it is a government agency and there is a lot of down time—and still make it fast-paced action story?
It’s a bureaucracy, there’s no question, and there are sometimes these long lulls followed by periods of complete chaos. And, naturally, to translate that onto the screen or into a book, you have to condense, you know? No one is going to read the book if you have a lot of waiting, so naturally, you have to condense those periods. It really is, in many cases, patient, creative operation work. That’s really much of the time what it is.
There are way too many guns, that’s for sure, when you show the CIA in movies. You don’t go after intelligence with a weapon! That’s all very dramatic, but I was hoping in BURNEDand Blowback to correct that balance a little without it being boring. You want to be entertaining, that’s the point.
I was trying to think of other depictions of female intelligence operatives. For instance, in the novels of Tom Clancy, it’s hard to recall any.
When they do show up, they’re highly sexualized; their physicality is emphasized. They’re either arm candy or the villainess; there are no good, appropriate, strong women in those roles that exist. But they exist, and I wanted to show that.
I’m a huge John Le Carre fan, but after reading your interviews, you made me realize that the only female intelligence operative in the George Smiley books is an old alcoholic who does research.
I know. She’s an old biddy that’s withered up and goes home to her cats. It’s either that or a sexpot; there’s no in-between.
In the movie Spy Game, with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, except for a traitor, Charlotte Rampling, all the CIA women we saw were cover wives for Redford while he was off recruiting on his own.
And this whole lone-wolf thing at this point is so cliché.
In your book, we see a team of men and women, and it’s almost like showing any group of colleagues and how they interact together.
Let’s face it, women are much more collaborative in their approach and that was my experience, so I wanted to touch on that.
You’ve been in the situation when you had to meet someone who was potentially dangerous, or you had to hand off an object or document in an undercover role. How do you do this and control the nervousness and the adrenaline surges?
I think the trick is not resisting, if you will. That is, being aware of your physiological reactions and taming them. A little adrenaline is good; a little stress is good to keep you sharp and alert. It’s when it goes into overdrive that you can’t function anymore. So, the trick is that sweet spot.
You’ve also said that people need to be able to follow their instincts, but what if you’ve made some really big mistakes in the past? Do you start to doubt your instincts?
You don’t get through this life without making mistakes and errors in judgment. I’ve found in my career that I’m a little OCD, in that I check and then check again, you know?
Have you ever written an action sequence that’s in some way based on something that you went through and you were able to now, through fiction, change the outcome to be more of what you would’ve wanted it to be?
Oh, that’s a good question. There’s not a direct correlation, but of course, with fiction, you’re God. You’re deus ex machina. You get to pull those strings, so there’s the satisfaction of that. But, the truth is, in real-life CIA intelligence collection you do not know the outcome of the operation sometimes after years of work. You have hints; you have thoughts. But you might never know, if you did a covert action, what kind of impact it had. It’s hard, but it’s part of the deal. Whereas in fiction, you’re much more omniscient.
Valerie Plame, a former CIA covert operations officer, was born on Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. Her career in the CIA included assignments in counterproliferation operations, ensuring that enemies of the United States could not threaten America with weapons of mass destruction. She and her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, are the parents of twins. Plame and her family live in New Mexico.
To learn more about Valerie, please visit her website.
Photography credit: Norah Levine
Sarah Lovett’s five suspense novels featuring forensic psychologist Dr. Sylvia Strange have been published in the United States and around the world. A native Californian, she lives with her family in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
To learn more about Sarah, please visit her website.