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Hello again. Lots of things to tell you, including some great news about my first book, Lie in the Dark, which is in the early stages of being made into a miniseries for British television. But let's start with a fairly common conversation I've been having recently:
Q. "This new book of yours, the one coming out in August, what's it about?"
A. "Well, the main character is a burned out drone pilot."
Q. "I didn't think drones had pilots. Right?"
A. "True. It's one of the reasons the book is called Unmanned. But there are people who fly them by remote control, usually from thousands of miles away, and my main character is one of those guys."
And so on.
Now maybe you're thinking that the idea of some fellow controlling a joystick while seated in a comfy chair in an air conditioned trailer in the middle of the Nevada desert doesn't exactly sound like great material for dramatic and gripping fiction. But you'd be wrong.
Turns out, these "pilots" lead quite the bizarre double life.
On the one hand, they spend eight hours every work day presiding over an air-to-ground killing machine with an all-seeing eye, way over in a war zone on the other side of the world, literally hours into the future. The stress and tension can be almost unbearable. Whether they're watching a possible enemy target for a missile strike, or shepherding American soldiers through dangerous territory, they're responsible for the fates of pretty much everyone they can see. It's no mistake that the infrared beam they employ to enhance their night vision is known as "the God light," because these drone crews—a pilot, plus a second crewman known as a sensor—function as a sort of omnipotent eye in the sky, making life and death decisions in mission after mission.
As if this wasn't weighty enough, they're watching all the action unfold on video screens that often give them a shockingly close-up view. So, for instance, if they blow up a house of a suspected terrorist, they not only watch the explosion, they might spend the next several hours carefully surveying the wreckage, bodies and all. Grim work.
Then, when the day is done, they hop into the family SUV, drive home to the wife and kids, and try to act like any other person who's just finished a tough day at the office. They fire up the grill, go to their daughter's soccer game, run a few errands at the mall—all of it without being allowed to discuss what went on that day back at the office. Yikes.
It's a mind-bending way of life, with a high incidence of burnout and depression. And, in the case of my main character, Darwin Cole, he's trying to live down a mission in which a missile strike mistakenly killed 13 civilians, mostly women and children. Then, as he nears his lowest point, someone at long last offers him the chance to find out who or what was responsible for the bad intelligence that led to his mistake. And he seizes that chance, come what may. So there you go. Hope you enjoy it.
As for that TV news, I'm pleased to say that Judy Counihan has acquired the production rights for Lie in the Dark on behalf of the UK's Objective Productions, where she's Head of Drama and Film. Notable among her past credits is her role as co-producer of the 2001 film, "No Man's Land," which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
Like Lie in the Dark, the film was set in the middle of the war in Bosnia, so she obviously knows the material well, and has a passion for it. She has commissioned the well-regarded British playwright John Donnelly to script several episodes for what would be a television miniseries. So, please stand by.
As for what I'm writing now, I've just agreed on a contract with Knopf for my next novel, The Letter Writer, based in wartime Manhattan in 1942. More on that in my next dispatch, including some of the interesting materials I've discovered in the course of my historical research.
In the meantime, you can keep track of what I'm up to by liking my new author page on Facebook.
Ideas for novels usually sidle up to me slowly, quietly insinuating themselves into my good graces. I'm often wary. The moment that my interest begins to build, I ask myself if this is the real thing. Am I ready for this commitment? My new novel, The Double Game, broke all those rules. It was a seismic case of love at first sight, an idea that overwhelmed me with so much excitement and promise that I knew I had to say yes right away before it ran off with somebody else.
It was a chance encounter, which came about partly because I'd been researching the old days of the CIA for a TV project. In the course of that work I'd tracked down dozens of old Agency hands from the earliest days of the Cold War. I listened to their wonderful tales from Vienna, Berlin, the Far East, and to their gossipy stories of life in Georgetown, where they once drank and dined with the Capital's journalists and decision makers, a clubby atmosphere in which everybody thought they knew exactly who the enemy was.
Then, while looking for info about British double agent Kim Philby's days in Washington, I came across a 2008 interview by the UK's Sunday Times with author John le Carre. In it, he talked about his own days as a British intelligence operative, and he made the rather startling admission that once upon a time he'd actually been intrigued by the idea of defecting to the Soviet Union.
The reporter, it turned out, had badly overstated the case, according to le Carre, but for me it stirred memories of a time way back in 1986 when, as a young journalist, I'd also had the privilege of interviewing le Carre. I didn't have dinner with him afterward, as The Double Game's Bill Cage gets to do with his favorite author, Edwin Lemaster. Nor did le Carre turn out to be an old friend of my father's, as happens with Cage and Lemaster.
But in recalling that day I immediately began to wonder: Hey, what if some American author of equal stature, skill and popularity had ever made that sort of admission? And what if, in turn, the journalist who wrote the story found out years later that maybe there was more to the story than he'd ever imagined at the time? And what if that same journalist—the son of a diplomat, say—had grown up in the thick of the Cold War milieu, coming of age in the very capitals of intrigue—Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Berlin, and yes, also Georgetown—where that author's novels had once been set?
Would he respond by trying to find out more? Of course. Especially if there were an additional key element—an anonymous instigator, who drew him into the search by appealing to the very thing that first attracted him to Lemaster's books—his love for all those old spy novels.
And this was how, literally within minutes of coming across the Sunday Times interview, I got caught up in the idea of a world in which fiction is sometimes more authentic than the so-called facts, where classic spy novels harbor worthier secrets than the people and institutions we've always trusted. As you read the book, I hope some of the excitement I experienced during its creation will prove to be infectious. I'll be touring this Fall to promote the book, so please check back here as August approaches to find out where I'll be stopping. Hope to see you out there.
Greetings once again. Long overdue, I might add. Having finally dug out from the infamous Winter of '1088 inches of snow this year in Baltimore, ladies and gentlemen, but please hold your amazed applause until the chiropractor arrivesI am now eagerly looking forward to publication of Layover in Dubai in mid-July. Anwar Sharaf, the detective at the heart of the book, is one of my alltime favorite characters, so I hope you take a shine to him as well.
It is also a pleasure to have my short story, "The Courier," be included among such talented company in Agents of Treachery, a newly published anthology of espionage short stories. The legendary Otto Penzler commissioned and collected these tales, and perhaps only someone as esteemed as Otto could have pulled it off so well by attracting the likes of Lee Child, Joseph Finder, James Grady, Stephen Hunter, Andrew Klavan, John Lawton, Gayle Lynds, Charles McCarry, David Morrell, Olen Steinhauer, Stella Rimington, John Weisman and Robert Wilson to participate.
On the TV front, work is still scheduled to resume at some point this year on the Legacy of Ashes project with David Simon for HBO, although the timing will depend on how soon David wraps up other current creations, such as the acclaimed new series, "Treme," set in New Orleans. With the Gulf oil slick creeping toward the city, he's certainly not going ro run short of dramatic material anytime soon.
The news from Hollywood is mixed. Kennedy/Marshall productions could never arrive at a suitable timetable to work with the young Bosnian director the producers sought, and as a result they have not renewed their option for The Small Boat of Great Sorrows. There is renewed film interest in The Warlord's Son, however, so I'll keep you posted if and when that moves further along.
Thanks to all of you who've sent emails and letters during the past year. Your words of encouragement are always a boost, so please stay in touch, because I always answer.
The snow is melting (for now, at least), the sap will soon be running, and I am again hunkered down at work on a manuscript while awaiting publication of my next novel, The Arms Maker of Berlin. Look for it to hit the shelves in the UK on May 28 from Hodder & Stoughton, and in the US on August 4 from Alfred A. Knopf. Maybe someday my publishers will synchronize their watches, but at least this time around the transatlantic time lag will only be a couple of months.
The latest book I'm working on, meanwhile, is set in Dubai, one of the world's strangest places. Anyone who has been there will know exactly what I mean. The rest of you will just have to wait for the book, when you can visit vicariously.
Other news? Well, there is some on the television front. I'm going to be working this year with the incomparable David Simon (The Wire, Generation Kill, and so on) to create the pilot for what would be an HBO dramatic series based on Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner's outstanding history of the CIA. Early days on that one, so don't expect to see it in your TV listings for quite a while. If you're an ex-spy, bored in retirement and just dying to tell old war stories, shoot me an email. If, on the other hand, you're a veteran of "black bag jobs" who is only interesting in tapping my phone, please try to give me some advance warning so I can think up code names for my children.
Speaking of my children, they were with me on a cold but happy January 20th, when we rode a packed Amtrak to Washington to be on the Mall with more than a million other celebratory people for the inauguration of President Obama. I'm sure we'd be easy to spot in one of those panoramic photos. We're the threesome in the heavy coats, standing near the Smithsonian Castle.
Another item worth passing along is a splendid mention among very heady company in the January 30 edition of The Week, the respected British magazine with a healthy U.S. circulation. British author Charles Cumming, who has written some very fine novels, picked his list of the six greatest thrillers of all time. Five of them were written by John le Carre, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Robert Harris, John Fowles and Eric Ambler. Hiding there among the works of those giants wasdrum roll, collective gasp of surpriseThe Prisoner of Guantánamo. See for yourself at: www.theweek.com.
Please look me up at a bookstore near you if I get out and do any touring this fall. Or, at the very least, just look for the book! I'll be posting an appearance schedule as the publication date approaches. In the meantime, you can find me in late March in Charlottesville, Va., at Virginia's Festival of the Book, at events on March 20th and 21st. That's just about the time that the Vintage paperback edition of The Amateur Spy will be available in the U.S.
As always, thanks to those of you who have taken the time to pass along your comments and encouragement, which always give me a boost, especially on those difficult days when the writing of every word seems like agony.
Best of luck to everyone in surviving these tough economic times. And remembereven though publishers hate it when I say thisif you're really struggling but your itch to read remains incurable, chances are you can find my books at your public library.
I'm finally coming up for air after turning in another manuscript. And just in time, too, with The Amateur Spy due out shortly in the U.S. If you happen to live in one of the cities where I'll be visiting while on book tour in March and April (check the Events calendar), please drop by and say hello.
The manuscript was a real joy to work on. It's tentative title is The Arms Maker of Berlin, and much of it is set in neutral Switzerland during the Second World War. Although the country was hemmed in by Axis armies throughout most of the war, the capital city of Bern nonetheless became quite a hotbed for spies of all the combatants. It made for a surreal settinga gentleman's war of intrigue, often played out in drawing rooms and cafes. It was a place where you could never quite be sure who was telling the truth, and who was spinning a yarn of disinformation. If you didn't choose wisely, lives would be lost. One of the best parts of the research was spending a month digging through declassified OSS records at the U. S. National Archiveseverything from harrowing infiltration reports to the lavish expense accounts of operatives. They did enjoy their cognac. Unceasingly interesting material.
And now, of course, I must pull myself out of this dream of the past, slap my face a few times with cold water, and journey back to the present for the upcoming book tour. The Amateur Spy is very much a here-and-now sort of novel, set in the precariously placed kingdom of Jordan, which, come to think of it, enjoys a status not unlike Switzerland's during World War IIofficially at peace with all its neighbors, yet also a prime listening post for every major rival in a dangerously contentious region. It, too, was a joy to write and research.
On the film front, now that the Writers Guild strike has ended, I'm hoping that plans for a film version of The Small Boat of Great Sorrows will continue to move ahead. The Kennedy/Marshall Company has brought on board a director, Danis Tanovic, whose film, "No Man's Land," won the 2002 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and a screenplay has been written by Gil Dennis, who won a 2005 Oscar for best adapted screenplay for the Johnny Cash biopic, "Walk the Line." Fingers crossed.
Late this March I'll be headed to Dubai for several weeks to begin research for my next novel. From all I've heard about the place, it should be a fascinating journey, with a touch of the bizarre. (And if any of you have any contacts there, please pass them along by email!)
Hope to see you somewhere out on the road.
Okay, the biggest news first: The Kennedy/Marshall Company, whose production credits include Seabiscuit, Snow Falling on Cedars and The Bourne Identity, has purchased the film rights for The Small Boat of Great Sorrows. If the movie ever actually goes into production, I might even be able to send my children to college. Although they, of course, are more interested in obtaining cameo roles, preferably as the downtrodden children of domineering parents.
I'm also pleased to announce that I've contributed a tale to Baltimore Noir, a collection of mystery short stories published by Akashic Books. The stories were compiled and edited by good friend and fine writer Laura Lippman, who also pitched in with a tale of her own.
As any discerning reader must have figured out by now, these various publication dates must mean that right now I'm either A) Being terribly lazy, or, B) Already hard at work on book #6. The correct answer is "B," and in preparation I spent several weeks last October in Jordan and Greece, doing interviews and taking notes at various locations which will eventually work their way into the book. I'm trying something a little different this time, by telling most of the narrative in first person. The story opens on a small Greek island, then moves quickly to Amman, and it's all about... well, on second thought, better not give away too much before I've even finished the first hundred pages. Suffice it to say that most of it will be set in the Middle East. And if I'm ever going to finish, I'd better get back to work.
It has been quite a year for traveling, most of it having to do with the publication of The Warlord's Son, which came out first in the UK.
In July I spent a week at the wonderfully strange "Semana Negra," a 10-day carnival wrapped around a book festival in the coastal town of Gijon, in the northern reaches of Spain's Asturius province. A friend had described it to me as "like Bouchercon (the North American mystery confab) if it were done by Fellini," and that sums it up pretty well. For starters, where else would a few dozen jet-lagged scribblers be greeted like conquering heroes. Yet, that's exactly what happenednot once, but twice, first for a lavish buffet lunch en route from Madrid, then at journey's end in Gijon. A large crowd and a marching band were on hand for both arrivals, and a photographer for Spain's largest daily newspaper, El Pais, snapped Alan Furst and I as we (somewhat bemused and bewildered, but happily so) made our way from the train. The rest of the week was something of a blur. Dinners and drinks lasted well into the night. Author interviews and writing seminars took place in a tent just around the corner from street performers and a giant Ferris wheel. And there's nothing like eating a plateful of boiled octopus and barbecued sausages just after midnight to produce an interesting cycle of dreamsat least, it did for those of us who actually made it back to bed before dawn. One of the week's highlights was being able to strike up a friendship with American writers Bob Reiss (aka Ethan Black) and Rebecca Pawel, and also with the British writer Robert Wilson, and his wife Jane, who are lucky enough to live just across the Iberian peninsula in Portugal.
A few weeks later I was in in Great Britain for the entertaining mystery festival at the old spa town of Harrogate (the place Agatha Christie disappeared to, in one of the her darker episodes). Once again, Robert and Jane Wilson were good company, and there was plenty of fun to be had at the hotel bar with the likes of Val McDermid, Simon Kernick, Laura Lippman, Mo Hayder and, well, too many others folk to name without going on about it forever. As if to accommodate the festival's atmospherics, a spree killer just happened to be on the loose at the time in Yorkshire.
My U.S. tour in the Fall was no less eventful, and many thanks to everyone who stopped by or said hello in Phoenix, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, Austin, Washington, New York, Raleigh or my past and present hometowns of Charlotte and Baltimore. Special thanks to Lorraine Adams, author of the fine novel Harbor, with whom I was privileged enough to share double-billing at events in New York and the Miami Book Fair, and also to the witty Lorenzo Carcaterra, author most recently of Paradise City, who doubled-up at the podium in San Mateo. The best event of all was probably the three days I spent at this year's Bouchercon, in Toronto, where there was almost always someone around with which to share a drink, a dinner, or more than a few laughs.
As for now, I'm hard at work on my next book, tentatively titled The Prisoner of Guantanamo, which I'm due to finish this summer. And, yes, I've visited Guantanamo, too, as well as the lovely Camp Delta, a foreboding and darkly fascinating place which, in its way, is about as bizarre as anywhere I've traveled. But seeing as how the Pentagon isn't likely to let you see for yourself anytime soonunless, of course, you're in the Army or the, ahem, "Agency"I'll be happy to be your tour guide as long as you can wait until publication.