Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Michael F. Stewart


Do not read further—classified materials. Reading this interview may improve your writing and help you land that next big advance due to the clandestine techniques learned herein.

Please join me in welcoming former CIA agent, J.C. Carleson in her interview tell-all.

J.C. Carleson has written WORK LIKE A SPY, a business advice book that is as applicable to the publishing world and thriller writing as it is to Wall Street.

In Work Like a Spy, author J.C. Carleson applies lessons learned from her years as an undercover CIA officer to the business world. Quite simply, the techniques used in the clandestine world are broadly applicable, universal methods for getting what you want from other people.

In the business setting, you may be seeking a new job, a promotion, a big sale, or a regulatory ruling in your company’s favor. Whatever it is that you seek, someone has the power to give, and this book will teach you new strategies to get it. Broken into three parts, WORK LIKE A SPY includes an introduction to the basic skill sets used by CIA officers, clandestine methods that can be applied at the organizational level, and techniques that can be applied to specific business situations.

Early reviews rave.

“In this clever twist on the career self-help genre, former CIA agent Carleson takes the principles that she learned in clandestine service and applies them to today’s business world.” ~PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY.

“J. C. Carleson has written the cure for the common business book. Part business advice book, part memoir, part window into the world of covert intelligence, it will both inform and intrigue the reader. Going beyond the typical business anecdotes, Carleson gives us a glimpse of the world of covert officers, international intrigue, and true high stakes encounters. More than just telling stories, though, WORK LIKE A SPY uses examples from the CIA to provide a set of principles that can be used to succeed in any organization.” ~Alexander J. S. Colvin, Professor of Labor Relations and Conflict Resolution, ILR School, Cornell University

Hi, J.C., I promise not to call you a spy as I understand that operatives hate the moniker, but you were an operative for nine years in the CIA, why break cover to write books when you could still be living the life of swanky cocktail parties, daring escapes, and seduction for your country?

I confess to asking myself that same question from time to time (well, minus the seduction for my country part, since that most assuredly does not happen outside of Hollywood)! But the truth is, high-stakes covert operations moved from the diplomatic cocktail circuit to the war zones after 9/11. I am so grateful to those of my former colleagues who continue to spend year after year working in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but once I had children I needed to find a profession that afforded more balance. It’s still quite possible to have a long, “normal” career (as normal as life can be while living undercover, that is) outside of the war zones, but it severely limits one’s career trajectory. Rather than choose between repeated war zone assignments or career stagnation, I decided to give something else a try.

You describe WORK LIKE A SPY as containing techniques that allow readers to get what they want, so how can an author use CIA techniques to land a major publisher?

Two concepts are heavily emphasized in both the world of espionage and the world of publishing: the hook, and the pitch. (And yes, CIA officers really do use those same terms.)

In general, writers seeking publication treat their hook and their pitch as stagnant concepts — once crafted, they are never changed. CIA officers, on the other hand, go to great lengths to customize each and every pitch. Every target is viewed as a unique opportunity, and the techniques outlined in my book explain how case officers determine what sort of a hook will be most likely to entice and persuade a particular target. CIA officers treat hooks and pitches as living, changing tools — a practice that I think would serve writers well.

It would be nice if a well-written book would sell itself, but the reality is that writers also need to be responsive to industry and personality variables when pitching their books. That seems like a vague and impossible task until you break it down into specific, actionable steps…which is exactly what CIA officers do every day.

In my contacts I have a card from a CIA agent who agreed to talk shop with me. It’s still there. It has been there for five years and I’ve never contacted him. Self preservation perhaps? Maybe, but like it or not, there’s an air of mystery that pervades the CIA. Please declassify for authors CIA techniques that could be useful in writing in any genre, not just espionage. How can someone writing a thriller use elements of what WORK LIKE A SPY has to offer?

Perhaps you’ve been putting off that call because you fear that the reality of the spy world just won’t measure up to the thriller version? And…you’d be right.  Trust me, not even the most devoted of thriller readers wants to know about the mundane parts of a CIA officer’s life. But pedestrian bits aside, there are quite a few clandestine skill sets that would serve any writer well. For example:

– Establishing, then leveraging credibility and trust. CIA officers do this so that, when pitch time comes, the target is at least willing to entertain the possibility of recruitment to work as a spy. For writers, this means earning your readers’ trust so that, when the time comes, your big twist will be both credible and tantalizing.

– Exploitation of vulnerability. This is a key concept for CIA officers. Someone with a perfect life in a perfect world isn’t going to agree to commit espionage. There needs to be a reason — a vulnerability. Perhaps a target’s life seems perfect, but in reality, he’s (deeply in debt/disenchanted with the powers-that-be/bored stiff and in need of a risky adventure/etc.)…there are as many vulnerabilities as there are spies. CIA officers work hard to identify and exploit those vulnerabilities. Now, all writers need to do is go back and re-read the last few sentences with a mindset towards character development. Voilà — the same techniques used by CIA officers to identify and exploit vulnerabilities can be used to create nuance and motivation for your characters.

You don’t just write non-fiction but have published a spy thriller of your own, CLOAKS AND VEILS (which at last check had twenty five star reviews on Amazon!), do you have a preference? Which was more difficult to write and why?

Fiction was definitely more difficult to write. It was a big challenge to strike the right balance between authenticity and readability. My editor (correctly) cut a number of scenes out of my novel that were just too detailed. Reality has a nasty way of bogging down a thriller plot…it needs to be included with discretion.

My ideal writing future will include more works of fiction and non-fiction. I’d love to alternate from year to year, since by the time I’ve finished a book in one genre, I’m typically clamouring for a change!

When considering thriller writing, how did you approach it’s writing in a way that leveraged your years with the CIA?

It was very important for me to create a main character who is both very accomplished and very flawed. I’ve never been a fan of books that portray the protagonist as a near-superhero — perfection is, quite frankly, boring. So at the same time as I imbued my character with the skills I learned during my career, I also cursed her with some of the flaws and mistakes I routinely witnessed among real-world spies.

Is it a coincidence that you worked for Starbucks Corporate and the CIA has one within its headquarters?

It would appear that Starbucks has mastered the art of identifying and exploiting vulnerabilities, no? Never, ever underestimate the power of caffeine. (This typed with my second cup of coffee of the morning within jittery reach). Now there’s a conspiracy theory…

The CIA has a writer’s club. Tell us, how common is it for agents to think they can write thrillers? What sort of advice would you give your former colleagues?

I was a member of the club, though I traveled too often to make many of the meetings. Interestingly, I did not meet any other clandestine service officers in the club — the group was populated mainly with analysts. Which makes sense — they’re the more cerebral arm of the CIA, and far more likely to have technical writing experience. The only advice that comes to mind is really more encouragement than it is advice: Keep writing! Readers are fascinated by the inner-workings of the intelligence community, and they’re always hungry for more well-written accounts, both fiction and non-fiction.

What’s next for J.C. Carleson? Another non-fiction? A sequel to CLOAKS AND VEILS? Can you tell me without needing to kill me?

At the moment I’m working on a second non-fiction book — a follow-on to WORK LIKE A SPY that focuses even more on the use of tradecraft in the real world, at the individual level. That sounds…awfully vague, doesn’t it? Keeping secrets is a practice that dies hard, I suppose!

Thank you, J.C.! It was a pleasure and good luck with your book launch!


J.C. Carleson is a former undercover CIA officer. She spent nine years conducting clandestine operations around the globe before trading the real world of espionage for writing about espionage. She is the author of WORK LIKE A SPY: BUSINESS TIPS FROM A FORMER CIA OFFICER, and CLOAKS AND VEILS.

To learn more about J.C. Carleson, please visit her website.

Michael F. Stewart
Latest posts by Michael F. Stewart (see all)