Governments rarely reveal the names of their secret operatives—indeed, the CIA even hides the names of deceased agents who received medals and awards for their service. Starting in 2003, when a White House source revealed Valerie Plame Wilson to be an active CIA covert operative, “Plamegate” scorched the airwaves for several years as denials, court battles, and outrage rang in the halls of government. Plame and her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, wrote books in 2004 and 2007, respectively, to make sure their sides of the story were told (though Plame’s memoir appeared with redactions made in the CIA vetting process). Both books were best sellers and became the basis of the 2010 film Fair Game, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.
Plame has now transitioned to writing espionage fiction, teaming with Sarah Lovett, the best-selling author of five thrillers about a strong and smart forensic psychologist, Dr. Sylvia Strange. Scheduled for an October release, their series debut, Blowback, introduces Vanessa Pierson, a high-octane agent with a knack for reading faces, who is on the hunt for an elusive nuclear arms dealer.
LJ: Valerie, your skill in describing facial features as indicators of emotional intensity is very sharp. Is this something you learned to do while training to become an operative for the CIA, or is it a personal talent?
VP: There is a vast difference between seeing and observing. Most people remain in the former space whereas it requires concentration to actually observe. There are few things I enjoy more than an opportunity to people watch…from a sidewalk café in Paris to an international airport lounge. You learn can learn and infer so much.
It’s Sarah’s writing skills however, that makes it come alive on the page.
LJ: Often, contemporary novels, TV shows, and movies featuring love interests of the main characters get into hot-and-heavy depictions of their sexual encounters. Your Vanessa certainly expresses a deep attachment to Agent David Khoury, but their bedroom scenes are discreet. How does an author know when to be explicit and when to be subtle?
SL: Valerie and I don’t need to lead our characters into the bedroom or anywhere else. Vanessa Pierson and David Khoury are bright, intuitive, and competitive—and they are deeply in love. The demands of their professional lives mean weeks, even months, go by between trysts. The erotic side of their relationship, their lovemaking, is a vital connection. When logic says “no,” their bodies say “yes!”
I enjoy reading—and writing—sex scenes, whether they are subtle or explicit, as long as they aren’t gratuitous. For Blowback, Valerie and I were focusing on bringing Vanessa to life with all her obsessions, foibles, passions, and relationships. The challenges of her world are unique and yet universal. There are more encounters to come for Vanessa and Khoury—and readers who enjoy hot sex won’t be disappointed.
LJ: What is it like to write in tandem with another author? It is a pretty unusual method in the spy genre but worked out so well for the two of you. What were some of the obstacles to making this method work?
VP: Sarah and I share a vision for Vanessa and the series—and that’s really the biggest challenge in any collaboration!
LJ: Was this manuscript put through a vetting process with publication reviewers at the CIA, or perhaps you are not allowed to say?
VP: Like every CIA officer, I signed a secrecy oath when I joined, promising never to reveal sources and methods. I take that oath seriously and have never disclosed classified information. I am required to vet all written material through the CIA’s “Publication Review Board”, which I did, and received their permission to publish. They understand that the book is fiction.
LJ: Are you planning a franchise with perhaps several books already in the pipeline? Is there a shared future for Khoury and Vanessa?
VP: Sarah and I are already at work on the next book in what we hope becomes a popular series. I think there is a desire for a strong female CIA character who is realistic but still entertaining and who takes the reader to exotic international locales. The dynamic between Khoury and Vanessa will absolutely continue—they genuinely love each other, but professional obligations and realistic conflict do not make an easy path for the couple.
LJ: Is being a secret agent a career that you would recommend for a young woman these days?
VP: When speaking to young adults in university, I always encourage them—especially the women—to consider a career in public service. We need the best and the brightest. I loved my career and was so proud to serve my country. It is obviously not a job for everyone, but I found it incredibly satisfying and exhilarating.