The Unlikely Spy

Behind the Writing

Whenever I go out on book tour, I am asked often for advice from writers struggling to finish their first manuscript. My response never varies: “I know it’s hard, but try to enjoy the experience. If you are lucky enough to be published, writing will never be the same again.”

I’m not sure I was always able to follow my own advice while I was working on my first novel, The Unlikely Spy, but I certainly had more fun writing it than any book that followed. I wrote without the pressure of a deadline or without the slightest expectation of being published. I wrote because I wanted to write. I wrote because I had to write.

A bit of background. I knew from the time I was a young boy that I wanted to be a writer. I did not come from a family of means—my parents were both schoolteachers—so the option of tinkering away on my first novel for a few years after graduation was not available to me. I became a journalist instead, in large part because I thought it would provide me with interesting experiences and good training in the art of storytelling. That turned out to be the case. After leaving graduate school before completing my master’s degree, I worked for UPI in San Francisco, Washington, and the Middle East. In December 1987, I met a beautiful and talented NBC News correspondent named Jamie Gangel while on assignment in the Persian Gulf. We decided to get married, and I returned to Washington, where I went to work for CNN. By the mid-1990s, I was the executive producer of CNN’s political talk show unit, which meant that I was responsible for programs such asCrossfireThe Capital GangEvans & Novak, and Inside Politics. It was a pressure cooker of a shop, populated by large egos and hot tempers. Within a few months of taking the job, I knew it was time to pursue my dream of writing a novel. I confessed my desire to my wife. She told me to get busy and was very supportive throughout the process.

I am often asked why I chose to write a World War Two thriller rather than one set in Washington. The answer is simple: I lived a Washington thriller every single day. I needed an escape from Washington. I chose to go back in time and to a place far, far away.

Wartime London and Berlin proved to be just the break I needed from my job. I devoured histories of the war, listened to wartime music, and watched every wartime film ever made. I rose early each morning, usually before five, and spent a few pleasant hours with Alfred Vicary, Catherine Blake, and Peter Jordan. Then I would head to the office and match wits with Patrick Buchanan, Michael Kinsley, and Robert Novak. It was difficult, and it was exhausting. But it was also an immense amount of fun.

I told no one of my secret life, because I wanted to preserve the right to fail in private. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. The manuscript was picked off the slush pile at a major New York publishing house and went to auction a few weeks later. In the winter of 1997, it spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and received widespread critical acclaim. Some of my fans still think it’s my best book. I’m not so sure, but I’m flattered they think so. It was a definitely a labor of love.

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