When I was five months pregnant with my second son, I spent most of my days interviewing special operations officers. It was fall 2011, a Navy SEAL team had killed Osama bin Laden that May, and in August a helicopter crash had resulted in the greatest loss of life in special operations forces history.
I was writing a novel about a mother whose son goes missing in Afghanistan, and while a lot of people far more knowledgeable than I were also trying to understand what had happened in May and in August—whether May was linked to August, would this “forever war” ever end—I was interested in something different. I wanted to know what it felt like inside the mind of a special operator.
When I met members of the community, I didn’t ask about the bin Laden raid, or any raid. I asked about how their bonds with mothers and children and spouses survived under the radical pressures of multiple deployments. I tried to understand the concept of risking your life to save someone. And then I remember thinking that if you ask any mother whether there is someone she’s willing to die for, of course she’ll say yes.
Two months after that book, Eleven Days, was published, I was at the beach with a former CIA case officer, a family friend who had read the novel and asked me to lunch to talk about it. I remember he used the phrase “shiny things” that day. He said something like, “Everyone in Washington is chasing shiny things.” He explained how in the context of the Agency, a “shiny thing” is a plum recruit. He explained this with a level of cynicism, implying (I thought) that in a way a shiny thing is a chimera. I had the sense that while his own experiences had been broad and exceptional, there was something else, something existential, in his view of life in that line of work. Maybe he was getting at the idea that hunting shiny things could wear a person down. It was our talk that convinced me to try and write about the CIA. Of course the intelligence world, like the world of special operations, is defined by an ethos of discretion. If you meet someone from these worlds who wants to tell you all their stories, chances are, they’re not going to have the best stories. Chances are, the people with the finest stories are the people you will never meet. But I tried.
As I did with Eleven Days, I started by placing a woman at the center of my narrative. In Red, White, Blue, my main character is not a mother who has lost her son but a daughter who has lost her father. As I talked to more and more people currently or formerly in the intelligence world, it struck me that the fundamental skill required isn’t firing fancy weapons or jumping out of airplanes or mastering the art of surveillance. It’s far more human and complex. It’s empathy. You can teach someone how to load an M4 far easier than you can teach them to be empathetic. Empathy is the ability to look at another person and understand why they do what they do. Sometimes the other person is an asset you want to recruit. Sometimes it’s a foreign officer who wants to recruit you. And sometimes it’s someone about to commit an unimaginable crime. The radical end of empathy, I came to believe, is understanding why someone would do that. And then perhaps convincing them not to.
Chances are, the people with the finest stories are the people you will never meet. But I tried.
The training, the Farm, the art of recruitment, dead drops, brush passes, spotting and assessing and developing an asset—I learned all these things. Anyone can. Only then I concluded that, while not exactly dull, these things are not exactly new either. I concluded that telling a reader how to recruit as asset was far less compelling than trying to make a metaphor of things spies do and then, as John le Carré put it, “mirror the big world in the little world of spies.” As I did with special operators, I set out to understand the emotional make-up of someone willing to assume not one but several new identities, in doing so risking the loss of whomever they were underneath it all. Someone I interviewed told me about lining up mobile phones on a table, each one linked to a distinct, separate identity he inhabited at the time. I thought, a tableful of phones is not a life. I wrote that line into the novel.
What is and is not a life is, I think, what my family friend was really trying to describe that day at the beach. I think he was, if gently, even without meaning to, cautioning me away from glamorizing “tradecraft,” away from the typical tropes of the genre. He was trying to encourage me to look at the people, as he felt I had done with the prior novel. Maybe he thought I could illuminate another community that had endured unimaginable loss over more than almost two decades of perpetual combat. After he read a galley of Red, White, Blue, he wrote me a note. Its simplicity made me smile, as I now know spies rarely write anything down. “You did it,” he said.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Red, White, Blue.
Screenwriter and author Lea Carpenter was a founding editor of Zoetrope magazine and is currently a contributing editor for Esquire. Her first novel, Eleven Days (2013), is an affecting portrayal of maternal love during a time of war and was inspired by her father’s career in Army intelligence during World War II. Her latest novel, Red, White, Blue, is a haunting modern-day spy story that plumbs the depths of American espionage through the story of a daughter grappling with the truth of her late father’s secret life. Carpenter lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.
Author photo by Michael Lionstar.