Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Matthew Dunn

ThrillerFest forecast: Gayle (force) Lynds . . .

Gayle will readily tell you that her first attempt at writing was dreadful.  It was a poem–one of those feared school assignments that culminated in three minutes of torture standing in front of the entire class. But it rhymed, as only a grade-schooler’s could, and garnered an “A” from her teacher. She was eight years old at the time, living in Iowa, and though the years have passed and she has had countless short stories published and filled her mantle full of awards for her many spy novels, Gayle can still recite the piece line by line. (Due to copyright law and Gayle’s modesty, I cannot reprise it here.) One could venture to guess that the wind starting blowing that day; one that has only gotten stronger. But then one of things Iowa is known for is tornados.


Iowa is also famous for its Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. For years emerging writers have made the pilgrimage to Iowa City to work on their manuscripts and to exchange ideas about writing and reading with each other and with the faculty. Pulitzer Prize winners Tennessee Williams and Michael Cunningham were students. Kurt Vonnegut was a faculty member. It’s where Gayle received her degree in journalism along with an unofficial minor in literature. You see, when Gayle wasn’t in class studying to be the next Katharine Graham, it was a good bet you’d find her at one of the local bars with teachers and students from the Writer’s Workshop discussing (and perhaps enjoying a drink or two) the art of fiction.

Gayle loves to read and in college she had a deep desire to understand the engineering behind a good story. What made the characters interesting; the relations captivating? How do you draw the reader in so that they never want to stop turning the pages?

Inexplicably, she was drawn to it. But writing fiction couldn’t pay the bills. Or so she was taught growing up in rural Iowa, where practicality was like putting on your shoes in the morning. You didn’t leave home without it, and for Gayle, being a reporter was the sensible way to keep good ones on her feet. So, fresh out of college she took a job doing investigative reporting for The Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, and plotted a career from there. But all the while her eyes were–figuratively and literally–on the stars, dreaming of being a science fiction writer like Isaac Asimov, one of her favorites.

Like many of Asimov’s fictional characters, Gayle soon found that life’s road was full of unexpected turns and somewhere along the way, science-fiction writing got left behind like a beloved coat set on a park bench on an unseasonably warm day. She didn’t mean to, but she got married, moved to California, and had children and there just wasn’t time to go back. Also, her career was evolving, the most notable position being as an editor at a government think tank where security was so tight Gayle was required to take everything off her desk and put it into a safe every time she left her office, even if it was just to visit the ladies room. Shadowy characters filled the many anonymous offices, appearing and disappearing like the hours of each day. Looking back, Gayle says it was a spy novelist dream job, only she wasn’t a spy novelist. Not yet.

Divorce precipitated the dusting off of her old college typewriter. Maybe it was the freshness of the Pacific Ocean breeze or just an old wind kicking up, but Gayle knew she had to write; had to take a shot, do or die. She had bills to pay and young children to raise but that didn’t stop her. She worked and wrote, attending writing workshops whenever she could. And when she was worn out, she wrote some more. To get good at it, Gayle will tell you, you need to exercise like a runner doing five miles every morning and another five each night. She doesn’t know why runners run, but Gayle knows her writing derives from a need to communicate. To be a writer, Gayle believes, you have to want to connect with the reader.

Gayle’s first connection was a short story called “Satan’s Tears,” published by the North Dakota Literary Review. It wasn’t science fiction, but a study of the human condition in what would become one of Gayle’s trademarks–three-dimensional characters. (A hero should not be all good nor a villain all bad, Gayle advises.) She wrote more literary short stories and enjoyed great success in getting them published. However, literary magazines, as well respected as they are, sometimes only sell 400 copies. The math was easy. Gayle needed to write something a little more, dare she say as a literary voice, profitable.

What’s the exact opposite of literary fiction? Male pulp fiction. (Well, maybe not the exact opposite, but I don’t think the two could comfortably share the back seat of a Pinto on a long drive up the California coast line.) That’s what Gayle decided to write next. It was fast and uncluttered writing that paid up to $3,000 per novel. No advance or commission on sales, just give-us-your-manuscript and here-is-your-money work-for-hire. Here was something that could buy groceries, Gayle thought, and even though it was a genre dominated by male writers, she dove in headfirst, continuing the story of Nick Carter, America’s answer to James Bond, 007. “I never thought about it,” she admitted when I asked about being a woman in a man’s world. In no time she was churning one out every four months, completing five Nick Carters and later, two in a Mack Bolan series. The pace was electric, and she credits these two, decisively male characters with helping her learn to write high adventure.

Growing up, Gayle considered herself a tomboy. Athletic and an only child, she blended in with the boys of the neighborhood more easily than the girls. “It could be where I found my male voice,” Gayle concedes, but she quickly points out that when she reads, she identifies with both male and female characters. She adds, “I think women have a better propensity for that then the men.” Wherever it came from, she makes it work. So much so that her first spy novel, Masquerade, was at first accepted by a New York publishing house only to be rejected a day later by the woman president who concluded that ‘No woman could have written this novel.’ Well, a woman had written it and history would prove it wasn’t a fluke.

Her initial shock turned to aggravation. “How dare they!” Gayle recalls. It had taken her years to write Masquerade and they had flip-flopped on it in less than twenty-four hours. Undeterred, Gayle quickly found another publisher and her debut thriller became a bestseller. It ranks number eight on Publishers Weekly list of best espionage fiction, one spot ahead of Ken Follett’s classic The Eye of the Needle. The real wind was beginning to whip.

Once Gayle started writing thrillers, she never looked back. The genre provided a canvas big enough for the type of sprawling stories and characters reminiscent of Charles Dickens novels, but with spies. She likens her writing to Dickens’s, an endless exploration into the deeper recesses of the human condition but carefully plotted not to retread previous characters. She is a voracious reader (as was Dickens) who spends a great deal of time researching what she is writing about. She is curious by nature and, like many of her colleagues, a people watcher and an amateur psychologist. Combine these traits with her interest in history and politics and you’ve got the makings of award winning fiction. Oh, and don’t forget the stint at the Top Secret think tank. That didn’t hurt either.

But where did the creativity come from? Gayle credits her parents. Her mother was a fabulous cook. Her father was an artist who worked in wood and, she added, was a bit of a character. She recalls the time as a child when they all got dressed in their Sunday best and went to a show at a high-class movie house. After everyone had taken their seats, she noticed her father, presiding proudly over his family in a neatly pressed suit and wing-tip shoes, had not worn any socks. It still makes her laugh.

These days, Gayle is as busy as ever promoting her newest novel, The Book of Spies, which hit the shelves in March. Fans in California can catch her this spring at their favorite bookstore. For those living on the East Coast, she will be in New York City in July as a Spotlight Guest at our very own ThrillerFest V.

Many of Gayle’s novels have been prize winners. She has worked with Robert Ludlum, written for television and co-founded International Thriller Writers. Reviewers from the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal have called her writing “superb” and “immensely satisfying.” I think the review from an avid thriller reader on summed it up better than the pros when he said, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Not bad for a tomboy from Iowa who once thought her writing was dreadful.

Gayle Lynds’ website:


The Book of Spies
The Last Spymaster
The Coil
I’d Kill For That
The Hades Factor
The Altman Code
The Paris Option



Matthew Dunn, the author of six novels, is a CPA by day and a writer and musician by night. His latest project is a thriller set in Nashville that combines action and suspense along with a soundtrack of original songs. The lead character, a detective from NYC, works the amateur night circuit in search of a killer and trades songs with the suspects along the way. Check out Matthew’s novels and songs at