Spy fiction is not a genre I usually read (ok, never read) much to the chagrin of my friend, fellow writer and fellow member of the best book club ever (The Nightlighters), Elizabeth MacKenzie Biedell. When Elizabeth unveiled her choice for our next book club book, Red Sparrow, she began to extoll the virtues of spy fiction. After a few sentences, I held up a finger and said, “hang on, that sounds like it needs to be a blog.” She kindly obliged and wrote the following as a guest blog for me. Thanks, Elizabeth!

And without further ado…. 

Red Sparrow and Writing What You Know by Guest Blogger: Elizabeth MacKenzie Biedell

Write what you know. Its one of the first pieces of advice given to new writers. And it’s very fortunate that some former intelligence officers have done just that. The movie Red Sparrow, based on the book written by former CIA officer Jayson Matthews, opened this past week. The book, like so many other similar spy novels written by former spies, is rich with first-hand experience woven into the details of the subject matter.

red sparrowThe book opens with a surveillance detection route (or ‘SDR’) which is an officer’s most critical skill for reaching recruited spies undetected while in foreign lands. Mathews, a CIA case officer who served for over three decades and has undoubtedly performed hundreds of these, maybe thousands, makes the experience feel very real. These long circuitous walks or car rides are typically several hours to ensure you do not have someone following you when you meet with a source, known as an ‘agent’ in US intelligence parlance.

Spy fiction, as this genre is known, has long been my favorite kind of book to read. I love the real feel of the streets, human motivations, ethical challenges, and settings in different countries. These books are a window into a world unseen by most of the earth’s population. So the ones written by former spies are the real thing and aim to describe an unknown world as well as to entertain. Some of our most prolific spy novelists, Ian Fleming and John LeCarre among others, both served in the British intelligence service.

I love the real feel of the streets, human motivations, ethical challenges, and settings in different countries.

And lest you confuse spy fiction with thriller or mystery, this genre comprises both thriller as well as literary novels that happen to take place among changing allegiances, often in wartime, that challenge and excite the reader who tries to imagine herself in the situation.

Charles McCarry, another modern former spy turned spy novelist, maintains his books are not thriller. Thriller is characterized by holding suspense by letting the reader know more than the character. McCarry chooses to write, according to him, about “the ‘normal facets of life, including love, death, and dreams of a successful life” set in difficult international contexts. His books, and many like them, often don’t feature violence because human psychology as it grapples with questions of loyalty, morality, and conscience provides plenty of drama. Alan Furst, a historical spy fiction author, calls these books literary espionage.

I would tend to agree. Many spy novels feel very literary indeed.

Many spy novels feel very literary indeed.

David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, has read all of Mathews books and told him of Red Sparrow, “I have to admit it, I love it.”

To David I say, there is nothing to be ashamed of! Admit away! Because David, you also mentioned that there is something in Mathews books that “feels real.” So if it “feels real” and its written by a former spy, you can take comfort knowing that parts of it actually are and you are learning while being entertained.

Some of my favorite authors in the spy fiction genre include David Ignatius, Olen Steinhauer, Ken Follett, and Graham Greene. And I ‘admit” I also enjoy Daniel Silva, Tom Clancy, and Vince Flynn.

In addition, there are a few women authors of spy fiction that I enjoy and I look forward to sharing that in part II of this guest blog. Til then, happy reading! — Elizabeth MacKenzie Biedell

Elizabeth MacKenzie Biedell double majored in Leadership Studies and International Studies and minored in Women’s Studies. She also earned two masters degrees, one in International Peace and Conflict Resolution and the other in Comparative Theological Studies. She’s written OpEd pieces for CNN. You can check them out at the following links: http://ow.ly/7WSJ306G2lp, http://ow.ly/JnE7306G2tM. Most importantly, she is an amazing mother of two, a calming bedrock to her friends, all-around wonderful human being and an aspiring author. (Jeez, total underachiever. Am I right? :))