Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why and how I came to write a spy novel

For the past year I have been working on a spy novel that I hope will be published this July or August; I'd like to share with fellow authors the reasons why.  It represents a change of genre--from translations or re-creations of traditional Chinese works to "espionage novels."  There are two reasons:  I like reading such novels and I wanted to find out if I could write one.

Almost at the very beginning of this exercise several ideas came to mind that have mostly been incorporated although not in the manner they had presented themselves.  One of these, for instance, is the idea that the spy agency of one country might reach out to that of another .... But in addition to jotting these ideas down, I decided also to read or re-read spy novels to determine what I liked and what I would try to avoid.

It became very clear that the ideological issues that were so  strongly felt by, say Helen McInnes, was not a working model for me.  I do not consider the Iron Curtain relevant any longer or that democracy is locked in battle against communist or anarchist alternatives.  Clearly, the leaders of many countries do not believe that historical inevitability will lead all countries to adopt a form of liberal democracy; the "Whig interpretation of history" is almost peculiarly Anglo-Saxon and the "Idea of Progress" is something that has a different ending envisioned by different cultures and civilizations.  I do not believe that the civilized minds of the world in the near future will all turn out to be varieties of "Westernized Oriental Gentlemen." 

Super-spies too, from Bond t0 Bourne, failed to impress me as suitable for anything other than escapist literature.  They may make for good movies but not for good books, I decided.  I could imagine well-trained agents who might perform as world class athletes, but did not want to write fantasies involving genetically enhanced or modified men and women saving the world from evil mutations.  (I prefer to feed my fantasies with science fiction.)  Too, I found myself offended by the school yard morality--he hit me first--that makes up  the subtext of a great many pulp spy thrillers although vengeance has, I recognize, ancient roots.

It was impossible not to consider the work of John Le Carre; I think I have read at least once nearly every book he has published.  But I confess to finding the world of espionage as he sees it somewhat eccentric; he concentrates almost exclusively on the inner monologues of the main character(s) who often distrust themselves not to mention their lack of faith in their colleagues.  In the movie version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" for instance, Smiley is seen to be thinking far more than he is speaking (in itself, not necessarily a bad thing).  There is much to learn from Le Carre about writing and about spy-craft, but I wanted to write a spy novel involving the Chinese intelligence agency and the Chinese are not much given to introspection, except as acts of political self-criticism.

There are very good spy novels set in or involving the agencies of the People's Republic that have been published recently.  Though literate and filled with much well-researched details, they struck me as overly clever just as sometimes gymnasts become physical contortionists.  I did not find any to serve as a model or inspiration for The Chinese Spymaster.  This will I hope be the first in a series and so I have given it the working title of Operation Kashgar.   I have chosen to ignore the usual spy novel themes of revenge and betrayal; instead there will be geopolitical considerations given the political restlessness in Central Asia and China's long "Inner Asian" borders.

Look for it about a month after the summer solstice.


   


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