Debut novelist Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy is the best kind of spy thriller, centering on a richly drawn lead character and drawing from a complicated history. Wilkinson shares a look behind the creation of her spy, Marie Mitchell, and the true story of Marie’s real-life mark.
American Spy got its start as an assignment in graduate school—a boring origin story, I realize. My professor instructed the class to write a story that subverted common clichés about life in the American suburbs. Given that prompt, an image immediately popped into my mind: It was of a woman who seems to be a “normal” suburban mother, until an attempt on her life reveals that there is more to her story. I didn’t set out to make this woman a spy, or to write a spy novel. It’s more accurate to say that I stumbled toward that backstory because it was an interesting answer to the question of who it might be that wanted her dead.
But once I understood that I was writing a spy novel, I realized that I’d have to read as many as I could. My favorites were The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré and The Quiet American by Graham Greene because of their cynical representations of intelligence work. I felt that Marie Mitchell, my main character, who is a black woman as well as an American spy, would have a lot of good reasons to articulate similar cynicism about serving a country that isn’t particularly invested in serving her as a citizen.
My novel also revolves around a fictionalized account of a real historical figure: Thomas Sankara, who was a Marxist revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso during the 1980s. My precise reason for including him is obscure even to me—the only thing I can say for certain is that I found it surprising that so charismatic a figure, and one with such a compelling life story, is not better known outside the country of his birth. I hoped to change that.
When I went to Burkina in 2013, it was because I felt it was a moral imperative to visit the country if I was going to be writing about its most celebrated former leader. Mostly, I enjoyed my time there, scooting around the capital city on a rented moped and talking to as many people as I could in my embarrassing French. The one fly in the ointment was that I got terribly sick with a stomach flu—this, like several other experiences, eventually made its way into my novel. I did a lot of that while writing: trying to ground the elaborate inventions that overrun my book with mundane, true experiences. I did it in hope of creating the illusion of realism.
I sold a version of my novel at the end of 2014 and spent the next several years rewriting it. During that time I produced a half-dozen versions of the same story. This felt like a wildly inefficient approach—it still does—but now I think that inefficiency is an inescapable part of creating a narrative. In my experience, you have to find the story you want to tell and the only way you can do so is by writing toward it. Put another way, it felt like I’d been following a stranger around with a video camera for most of her life, and then had to go over the film to look for the moments that would let me tell the story that I wanted to about her. So I know Marie very well because I know the things that have happened to her for which there was no space in the book. Because of that she seems real to me, real enough to illicit feeling: sympathy for her, anger at her. I even find her funny. This is all very bizarre for me, because I also know better than anyone that Marie isn’t real.
After I sold my book, I wrote almost every day (or at least sat at my desk, staring at my computer) for 12 hours a day. It was a big story, and approaching my telling of it with intense discipline was the only reliable method that I knew. Now I feel like I wrote too hard for too long. These days, I tell myself that I won’t write a book that way again because if I couldn’t assure myself of that I would likely never write another novel.
The act of working on American Spy—not the finished product—defined my life for four years. And now the book is done and on the verge of being out in the world. It’s been tricky for me to recalibrate, to find a new way to define myself. But I will though, eventually. I have no other choice.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of American Spy.
Author photo by Niqui Carter