How Does a Non-Spy Write About Spies?

I enjoy in-person book events for the one-on-one engagement with readers. I kinda have a spiel: “Hi, I’m P. A. Duncan. I write realistic espionage fiction. Please feel free to ask me any questions about my work.”

Hands down, the most often-asked question is, “Where do you get your ideas?” No surprise there. All writers get asked that question. (Answer: from the daily news.) The second most-asked question is, “So, were you a spy?” With a smile, I usually respond, “If I were, I couldn’t tell you.” Pause. “No, I only write about spies in my fiction,” my equivalent of “I only play one on TV.”

Spies as Novelists

Perhaps the best-known currently is John le Carre, who worked for British Intelligence but who doesn’t really admit to being a spy. Remember, an intelligence organization doesn’t consist solely of the James Bond-type operatives. There are analysts, administrative types, and even budget weenies, aka beancounters. Le Carre is always careful to say that his characters aren’t based on specific people in British Intelligence but that he “knew people like them.”

Graham Greene was another example. Also in British Intelligence–recruited by his sister, who worked there–Greene was already an established novelist, poet, journalist, and playwright before he drew on his experiences in British Intelligence to write what he called “entertainments,” espionage thrillers. Greene was posted in Sierra Leone during World War II, and his supervisor there was Kim Philby, later uncovered as a Soviet agent. Greene also used his time in intelligence to form the plots and characters in his “entertainments.” In that way, some critics consider him more true to the reality of espionage than le Carre.

Of course, we can’t leave out Ian Fleming, also of British Intelligence, who gave us the most iconic spy in fiction, James Bond. Frederick Forsyth and Roald Dahl were also in the intelligence arena and went on to become successful novelists. Forsyth’s thrillers are some of the most intense espionage works of fiction, among them The Day of the Jackal and The Dogs of War.

There are probably others, more contemporary, who don’t yet acknowledge their connections to the intelligence community.

Was I a Spy?

Unequivocally, no. I was a bureaucrat in a Federal regulatory agency, and, let’s face it, espionage organizations are bureaucracies, too. They have managers, good and bad; they have dedicated employees and lazy ones; they have budget officers and human resources specialists, secretaries and clericals, and analysts and writers.

All of whom I encountered in 30+ years in my agency, which, by the way, was the Federal Aviation Administration. Dealing with bureaucracy and with the maintainers of it is something I have extensive knowledge about. Those are the people and situations I work into my fiction.

An antagonistic FBI agent with OCD in A Perfect Hatred? One of my coworkers who, I swear, wore a Hitler-like mustache and who shined his shoes every day in the office we shared. An overly paranoid analyst in A War of Deception? A former manager of mine who thought everyone was out to get her. A covert operative who can’t keep his pants zipped? Another co-worker.

I merely took these real-life characters and made them fictional characters, but I placed them in a different work environment from where I’d encountered them.

It’s What Writers Do

Writers do that all the time–take real people and events and put them in a whole different context. It’s why it’s called fiction. But that process also lends fiction verisimilitude. It makes fiction seem real. You read a book, whether it’s espionage or not, and you relate to an occurrence or a character. That happens because the writer has observed a similar event or person and realizes they can reflect exactly what the writer wants to convey in fiction.

Of course, it’s a fine balance. I have highlighted coworkers who were good workers and fun to work with–colleagues–but the bad ones are ever so much more memorable. I have to be careful that they can’t identify themselves in my fiction.

Still, How do I Know These Things?

One, my original training was as an historian, so I know how to research. There are plenty of nonfiction works about the CIA, MI5 and MI6, and the KGB.

I also have subject matter experts, people I encountered on various inter-agency task forces I was part of, people who prefer to help me anonymously and without giving up any secrets.

I read espionage books, mostly le Carre and Alan Furst because they are realistic. And I absorb the situations and back story they present. For example, several months ago I was struggling with where to have one of my characters meet with a KGB counterpart without attracting attention. At the time I was reading one of le Carre’s books. I believe it was either Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Agent Running in the Field. A similar situation occurred in the book, and le Carre established a meeting place out in the English countryside where no one was around or, if they were, they could be easily spotted.

And it came to me. Instead of a stroll on the National Mall, which I’d used before, I had the two characters meet at a scenic overlook on Skyline Drive.

I don’t believe le Carre has ever taught a writing class, but he gave a good lesson that day.

Finally, I have my own imagination, albeit fueled by The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and Bond movies of my youth, but I’ve learned enough about how the intelligence community works I can judge whether or not what I’ve written is realistic.

And even if it’s not, it’s fiction.