Valerie Plame, whose own career as an undercover CIA agent was effectively ended when her cover was blown by several members of the George W. Bush Administration in 2003, has collaborated with seasoned suspense author Sarah Lovett (the Sarah Strange series) to write the first of a series of thrillers focusing on a female CIA agent, Vanessa Pierson.
The first book in the series is BLOWBACK, which has earned blurbs like this from David Baldacci: “Plame and Lovett have hit a home run in their fiction debut.”
James Patterson said, “Want to read a thriller about the real CIA and how it actually works? Then dive into this corker from former agent Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett.”
Plame, herself, who was the subject of the film FAIR GAME (Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, 2010) has said, “In some respects this is a reflection of my younger self when I served in the CIA, with all the faults that hindered me and all the attributes that helped my career. Vanessa is not a fantasy—her world and actions are real, with all their attendant complications and consequences.”
The 24 questions that follow deal with Plame’s life and the life of her fictional alter ego, Vanessa Pierson, in the suspenseful debut thriller novel BLOWBACK:
Is there any way to get true justice when unscrupulous individuals destroy your reputation, as happened to you in Washington, D.C. ?
There’s that old saying, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?” However, both my husband and I worked hard at rebuilding our lives, personally and professionally. Bitterness is so useless. My career was ruined and we went through the ringer in Washington for quite a few years. It’s really hard to hear yourself being called a traitor and a liar and being accused of nepotism and having people say that I was ‘a glorified secretary’ and so forth—all those things that were thrown at us. As difficult as it was, we made a determination that our marriage was not going to fall victim to that. We moved away from Washington and rebuilt our lives in New Mexico. While I thought that I would end my career, hopefully, as a senior intelligence officer, serving overseas and working on things like nuclear proliferation, that obviously didn’t happen. So, this is a new chapter, and I’m delighted to kick it off with a spy thriller, BLOWBACK. Hopefully, it will be a long and lasting career.
How many novels do you envision writing that focus on the female CIA agent Valerie Pierson ?
Well, I’m hoping 50, but we’ll see how the first one goes. It has had really great word-of-mouth and amazing reviews from people like James Patterson and Lee Child. And, so, hopefully, it will go well.
How did the writing partnership with Sarah Lovett (author of 5 previous suspense novels) come about?
Sarah and I had both worked with our publisher at Blue Rider Press previously, David Rosenthal, and he was the one who suggested that we work together. I think it was really by happenstance that we both happened to be in the Santa Fe area. We’ve worked out a great working relationship. I come with a lot of plots and characters and places, and she really understands the craft of writing. We really enjoy working with each other. In fact, we are working on the second one right now, and I think it will be even better. We’re both working mothers, so we completely understand when one says to the other, “Oh, gotta’ go! The school nurse is on the other line!” It’s really helpful.
What is the second book (tentatively) entitled?
It’s tentative, but I’m thinking BURNED. I wanted to stick with sort of CIA glossary vernacular.
At one point in the book (p. 39) you refer to “a burn bag”? What’s a burn bag?
A burn bag is all the classified material that you need to take care of.
Do you think that your 13-year-old twins could read the books?
Oh, absolutely. In fact, my son did read the book when it was in galleys. Usually, children are so underwhelmed by their parents. (Laughs) They just roll their eyes. But he came back and said he read the whole thing and he really liked it, so that made me feel really good. At this age, I think it’s highly individualistic, because kids mature at such different rates.”
How has the career change from undercover CIA operative to author been? Hard? Easy?
To be candid, I think I was in shock for years after my identity was outed by the Bush administration. It went from where it was so important to protect that part of what I was doing. There was no outside recognition, and I didn’t seek any. I didn’t want any. And then, all of a sudden, I’m this very public person. For a couple of years, a lot of things were attributed to me, even if I couldn’t speak because I was still working at the CIA and in the midst of the political scandal. It took me quite a while to come to terms with the new reality. But we are now in Santa Fe. I’m very much involved in education. When I can, I use my voice to speak about nuclear proliferation. Then it doesn’t feel as painful.
I think you’ve done remarkably well; this seems like a new adventure for you, really.
Thank you. Yeah, this is a new adventure.
What are the odds that the nations of the world are going to refrain from the chemical attacks you allude to in the novel and which just occurred in Syria? Our president has taken a stand against the use of chemical weapons and it is in the news right now, because of Syria. The novel has a line, “But the recurring dream always felt like a premonition, as if it came from the future, instead of the past.” Do you think this ban on the use of chemical weapons is something that can be achieved?
Unfortunately, because of human nature, genocide has been with us since the beginning of time. While generally I’m an optimistic person, I think it will continue. However, Syria—it remains to be seen how that will unfold and if we really can get an accurate account of what Syria has, and if they’re able to really give up their chemical weapons. Chemical weapons, like biological weapons— there’s a reason that there are international treaties against them because of how indiscriminate they are. They kill both children and innocents, as well as soldiers and the like. That is why the world reacts with horror when any of them are deployed. I’m heartened by the recent exchange that we saw yesterday (September 24th). Although Obama didn’t, by chance, happen to shake hands with (Hassoun) Rouhani (the 7th and current president of Iran), there appears to be a window of opportunity there for diplomatic exchanges, which, when you consider that we have not had any diplomatic talks with Iran since 1979, that’s really astounding. I’m always heartened when diplomacy allows for reasonable people to resolve their differences. But these threats are genuine, they’re out there—whether they’re nuclear or chemical or biological. Mankind is nothing but a race between knowledge and catastrophe. The history of mankind is a race between knowledge and catastrophe.
What was the closest you came to being “outed” while working undercover as a CIA agent in the field?
Your training and experience allows you to pivot and to deflect questions that maybe you’re not completely comfortable answering. My cover was completely intact when my identity was betrayed by the Bush administration. They said, “Oh, everyone in Georgetown, in the cocktail circuit, knew where she worked..” That is utter nonsense. I could count on one hand, on the fingers of one hand, who, outside the members of the intelligence community, knew. So, my cover was very secure, and that comes with really being able to live your cover and being able to completely integrate it, and it’s even better if it has the benefit of being true.
How accurate are the female agents depicted in such dramas as HOMELAND and ZERO DARK THIRTY when compared to the reality you experienced ?
think Carrie in HOMELAND is really compelling TV. Claire Danes is such a brilliant actress. But notice that she doesn’t have friends. Her interpersonal skills are somewhat lackluster, and that really doesn’t make for a very good intelligence officer. It takes a great amount of curiosity in others, as well as good interpersonal skills. It’s really well done. The question is: Can they sustain the story line? It is still very much a man’s world, especially within the ops world. Vanessa Pierson’s challenge is to navigate it successfully, never losing her morality, femininity, or self.
Vanessa in the book both smokes Dunhills (“God, she needed a cigarette!” p. 232) and jogs. Is this a contradiction. What’s up with that?
I know people who do that. It speaks to the power of the nicotine addiction. (Laughs.)
Do you smoke?
As long as my mother doesn’t read this, I’ll say, “Once in a while.”
Is there any special significance to the choice of books mentioned throughout the novel. For example, MADAME BOVARY on the writing desk in Chapter 26, or BITTER LEMONS OF CYPRUS by Lawrence Durrell in Chapter 36, or GREAT EXPECTATIONS near the end of the novel?
Those are all favorites of mine. And they seem to have some link into what we are talking about at those points. I lived in Athens for a couple years and I’ve visited Cyprus quite a few times; it’s one of my favorites..
What about cooking? There are mentions of MASTER CHEF on television in BLOWBACK (p. 150) and cooking seems to be a recurring theme in the novel. Is cooking a hobby that you enjoy in real life or simply a fiction for the character?
The whole driving force to even write this was that I really wanted to show a CIA agent who is much more realistic. Still CIA, but much more realistic. Not a caricature. Not a cartoon. Not a cardboard character. The life can be rather lonely, so cooking is something that is always with you. And, yeah, I do love to cook. My husband and I entertain a lot. We have a really wonderful group of friends.
You give credit to an expert on weapons for various details like the Dragunov rifle and “168 grain hollow point boat tail” bullets. Who is that expert?
I trained a lot with weapons, but Paul Evencoe is the real expert. To get it just right we used Paul, whose encyclopedic knowledge of weapons is truly impressive. He’d answer questions like, “How big a wound would that make? What bullets would be best used?” He was unbelievably helpful.
The chief difference between living in New Mexico and living in Washington, D.C.—and I don’t mean the climate?
When we first moved here and we went to a dinner party, we were absolutely gobsmacked that the conversation around the table only lightly touched on politics, because we had a director of a symphony, we had a bookseller, we had an artist, we had an actor, and everyone brought these really rich life experiences to the table, whereas, in Washington D.C. it’s still very much, in many ways, a one-industry town.
It sounds like you’re enjoying that, enjoying being away from Washington, D.C.? How do your twins like it?
We love it. We’re very happy here. The twins are doing really well. They have school. They have friends. I’m looking out at the mountains right now and it’s absolutely a magnificent part of the world.
In the film version of your life (2010’s FAIR GAME) Naomi Watts, playing you, says, “One by one, everybody broke except me. You can’t break me. I don’t have a breaking point.” Do you think this will be true of the heroine of BLOWBACK, Vanessa Pierson?
That will be true in BLOWBACK and in the next book, her career will be threatened constantly, both from external forces and from internal forces. I think it’s fair to say that the CIA hires people for the service who are really mentally tough.
Will the love interest in BLOWBACK, David Khoury, continue?
Yes, of course! We could put in a few more love scenes. He’s a composite character of people that I knew. I love the fact that he’s Muslim and he’s Arabic and French but, also, in many ways, the All-American boy. In the next one, the character will be richer and more complex.
How about the mole that is just barely mentioned in Chapter 59?
Yes. How is it that Bhoot knows where Vanessa is or where her assets are? That will be further explored.
Here’s a line from the novel (p. 307): “And we all know how much the military boys will want to play with their guns.” Any comment.
I just think it’s that classic saying, if you’re a carpenter and you have a hammer, every problem you see is a nail. We have the most powerful military in the history of the world. There are many, many who can’t understand why we don’t deploy it more often.
Is there going to be an underlying theme that you are going to try to convey in the Vanessa Pierson series, like “Keep passing the open windows” in John Irving’s books or “Life turns on a dime” in Stephen King’s?
I think one of the elements of a thriller is ultimately a moral dilemma. It’s that place where you’re invested in your character and your character faces many compelling questions. There are many aspects to the thriller: you want a page-turner, but I think at the heart of it, it has to turn on moral questions that resonate. As I said, my thinking was, to show a much more realistic character, who is flawed like the rest of us but maybe a little bit smarter in some ways. She’s still a young woman. She’s somewhere in her late twenties and will be wrestling with judgments.
Do you have any last thought(s) you’d like to express?
It was David Morrell, who also lives in Santa Fe, who told me about ITW and the newsletter. Hopefully, your readers will pick this up and read about BLOWBACK and enjoy the novel.
Valerie Plame’s career in the CIA included assignments in counter-proliferation operations, ensuring that enemies of the United States could not threaten the country 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.
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.
Photography: Norah Levine