By Mary Kennedy
Recently, I sat down with M.E. Harrigan, author of 9800 Savage Road.
You’ve received wonderful reviews for 9800 Savage Road, your first novel. General Michael Hayden, who was Director of the NSA from 1995-2005 says you “put a human face on one of America’s most secret–and most valuable–intelligence organizations.” How did the book come about, and were you surprised at the very positive reviews from your colleagues?
I actually wrote the book to honor the memory of my father, a newspaper editor who taught me the value and wonder of words. The subject I knew most about was NSA, so that’s what a decided to write about. I was thrilled to receive such a glowing review from General Hayden–and Nelson DeMille and all the others.
I noticed that you’ve worked for the NSA in a variety of positions, including Somali linguist, technical editor, missile system analyst and manager of Elite engineers and projects. How does your own work experience at NSA compare with that of Alexandra O’Malley, your protagonist?
Like Alex O’Malley, I was an Intelligence Analyst, a generalist at the agency rather than a specialist such as a linguist (except for a short time as a Somali linguist) or cryptologist. Like Alex, I loved challenges and was a (thoughtful) risk taker. Alex is sort of me on steroids.
What was the most difficult part of writing and selling your first novel?
My primary writing experience was publishing hundreds (perhaps thousands) of intelligence reports, all of which (I hope) were non-fiction. Writing fiction and dialogue was challenging. Because I am the very first insider to publish a book about NSA, it made it somewhat easier to find an agent, but that wasn’t easy either.
What’s next on the horizon for Alexandra, or have you moved on to other projects?
I am working hard on a sequel, called Shadow Spies, A Novel of the National Security Agency. This one is easier, as I now have a grasp of all the processes involved in writing and publishing a book.
Do you speak at conferences about your experiences at the NSA?
Yes, all the time. I speak at bookstores, at symposiums, at libraries, book clubs, Rotary Clubs, all over. Most recently I spoke to employees of Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson and to meetings of the Cosmos Club in Tucson and Phoenix. Everyone loves hearing about NSA from an insider!
Did your novel have to be approved by the NSA before publication?
Everyone who works there signs an agreement to submit anything they write for publication to a pre-publication review board to make sure the work does not contain classified material. Because I was the first insider in NSA nearly 60 year history to publish a book about the agency, this process was much more difficult than I expected. Basically, those involved in any aspect of the review process tried everything they could to keep me from publishing: they ignored me, they badgered me, they “distorted the truth,” and they threatened me with lawsuits. General Hayden stepped in twice to make them stop. (I do like that man.) Even now, they dislike me for publishing, even though the book is unclassified, patriotic and presents NSA in a very positive light. Fortunately, I am a very determined and tenacious person! I just never gave up.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Perseverance and a willingness to make changes.