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I, Spy: Valerie Plame Makes Her Fiction Debut In CIA Thriller

Sep 28, 2013
Originally published on September 28, 2013 11:16 am

Vanessa Pierson, the heroine of Valerie Plame's first novel, is — ahem — "blonde, lithe, and nicely sexy." She is also a CIA agent, determined to lasso a nuclear arms dealer named Bhoot before he arrives at an underground nuclear facility in Iran.

But just as her informant is about to tell her where Bhoot will be, he's shot by a sniper who misses Vanessa — or does he simply overlook her? How will Vanessa Pierson halt the terrorists, protect the world and, by the way, also keep the secret of her forbidden romance with David, a fellow CIA ops officer with green-flecked hazel eyes?

Blowback moves through assorted picturesque world capitals, including Vienna, Paris, London and Prague, with occasional glimpses of the comparatively mundane suburbs around Washington D.C. The authors are Sarah Lovett, a career suspense novelist, and Valerie Plame, who may be the most famous former CIA covert operations officer who was ever portrayed by Naomi Watts in a major motion picture.

As a spy thriller, the book contains its fair share of shootouts and high-speed chases, but Plame tells NPR's Scott Simon that she and Lovett wanted the novel to paint a "realistic portrait" of a female operations officer. Someone, she says, "who is genuine and isn't just using sex and guns — although they're great, too — to collect intelligence."


Interview Highlights

On the similarities between herself and Pierson

The great thing about fiction is you can fix things and make things better. I think Vanessa is a smarter version of where I was. And it's definitely informed by my experiences in the CIA.

It is fiction, but of course I was able to draw on my experience. I developed my expertise in the agency in nuclear counterproliferation. And that's why that's the main theme of this first book, hopefully in a long series. But it's sort of ripped from the headlines.

On why Pierson blames herself after her asset is shot

There is definitely a sense that when you, as a CIA ops officer ... are handling assets, they are delivering to you their trust and their well-being. And you feel very protective of them, even if they're not very nice people.

On the isolation of having a job you can't discuss

It's lonely. That's why, in many ways, the CIA is the world's biggest dating agency, I think. I imagine it's much like two actors that get married because they understand that universe. You know, I'm pretty sure the agency's divorce rate is rather high.

On the glamour of spy thrillers versus the reality of CIA operations

I would say ... there's a lot of downtime. You spend a lot of time waiting. You're waiting in a bar, or in a restaurant, or at a corner to make your meeting. You're doing a lot of surveillance detection routes to make sure that no one is on your tail. You can't put that in a book before the reader puts it down really quickly. However, both Sarah and I felt very strongly [that] we wanted to make it a realistic portrait, particularly of a female operations officer in the CIA. For the most part, to my mind ... how they're portrayed in popular culture is paper dolls — really props more than anything else. And I wanted a strong but realistic character.

On the recent NSA leaks, and being surprised and outraged by what they revealed

I find it absolutely astounding. The revelations about the extent and the breadth of the NSA is nothing short of breathtaking. This goes to the very essence of the Fourth Amendment and, broader, what we want as a democracy and that very perilous tension and dynamic between security and privacy. And we really do need to have a national dialogue on this, on how much we are willing to give up to be kept safe.

On reclaiming her life after the 2003 leak

I love my career. I thought if I was lucky I would retire as a senior intelligence officer, still working on the issues of counterproliferation. But that didn't happen, so — new chapter. We moved away from Washington and have settled into a new community and, you know, rebuilt our lives.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Vanessa Pierson is, ahem, quote, "blond, lithe, and nicely sexy," unquote. She's also a CIA agent, determined to lasso a nuclear arms dealer named Bhoot, also known as The Ghost, before he arrives an underground nuclear facility in Iran. But just as her informant is about to tell her where Bhoot will be, he's shot by a sniper who misses Vanessa - or does he simply overlook her? How will Vanessa Pierson halt the terrorists, protect the world and, by the way, also keep the secret of her forbidden romance with David, a fellow CIA ops officer with green-flecked hazel eyes? "Blowback" is the title of a new espionage thriller that moves through the sordid, picturesque world capitals, including Vienna, Paris, London and Prague. The authors are Sarah Lovett, the suspense novelist, and Valerie Plame, who may be the most famous former CIA covert operations officer who was ever portrayed by Naomi Watts in a major motion picture. Valerie Plame joins us from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thanks so much for being with us.

VALERIE PLAME: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Let's clear this up immediately: blonde, lithe, the initials V.P. So, is Vanessa Pierson Valerie Plame?

PLAME: The great thing about fiction is that you can fix things and make things better. I think Vanessa is a smarter version of where I was. And it's definitely informed by my experiences in the CIA.

SIMON: Well, that raises another question. So, did you take some top-secret operation and just thinly fictionalize it to this book and, you know, are...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...are there Russian agents reading this now and saying, oh, this is what we were looking for?

(LAUGHTER)

PLAME: It is fiction, but of course I was able to draw on my experience. I developed my expertise in the agency in nuclear counter-proliferation. And that's why that's the main theme of this first book, hopefully in a long series. But it's sort of ripped from the headlines.

SIMON: Vanessa's asset is shot just after she disregards the signal to abort their meeting. Does she blame herself?

PLAME: She does. There is definitely a sense that when you, as a CIA ops officer, when you are handling assets, they are delivering to you their trust and their well-being. And you feel very protective of them, even if they're not very nice people.

SIMON: So, who do spies talk to when they have a bad day at the office?

(LAUGHTER)

PLAME: It's lonely. That's why, in many ways, the CIA is the world's biggest dating agency, I think. I imagine it's much like two actors that get married because they understand that universe. You know, I'm pretty sure that the agency's divorce rate is rather high.

SIMON: You've written a story here with shootings and chases and champagne in suites at the Four Season. But is a lot of spy craft people just scrunched over their laptops sipping coffee?

PLAME: I would say more likely there's a lot of downtime. You spend a lot of time waiting. You're waiting in a bar or in a restaurant or at a corner to make your meeting. You're doing a lot of surveillance detection routes to make sure that no one is on your tail. You can't put that in a book before the reader puts it down really quickly. However, both Sarah and I felt very strongly we wanted to make it a realistic portrait, particularly of a female operations officer in the CIA. For the most part, to my mind, they come across as how they're portrayed in popular culture is paper dolls - really props more than anything else. And I wanted a strong but realistic character.

SIMON: A sidebar: have any of the revelations that there have been in recent weeks about the National Security Agency surprised or outraged you?

PLAME: Yes, and yes. I find it absolutely astounding. The revelations about the extent and the breadth of the NSA is nothing short of breathtaking. This goes to the very essence of the Fourth Amendment and, broader, what we want as a democracy and that very perilous tension and dynamic between security and privacy. And we really do need to have a national dialogue on this on how much we are willing to give up to be kept safe.

SIMON: Back to your book for a few questions. To avoid any confusion between Vanessa and Valerie, did you ever consider making your hero a stout middle-age bald guy?

(LAUGHTER)

PLAME: Not for an instant. Because, as I...

SIMON: That would have thrown them off the track, you know. It would have spared us the whole first part of this interview.

PLAME: There you go. Exactly. The genesis was, again, to try to paint a portrait of a female operations officer who is genuine and isn't just using sex and guns - although they're great too - to collect intelligence. Much more of how it's done.

SIMON: And I think a lot of people want to know, do you still miss being in the field?

PLAME: I do. I love my career. I thought if I was lucky I would retire as a senior intelligence officer, still working on the issues of counter-proliferation. But that didn't happen. So, new chapter. We moved away from Washington and have settled into a new community and, you know, rebuilt our lives.

SIMON: Valerie Plame and, along with Sarah Lovett. She's written a new spy novel, the first in a projected series. It's called "Blowback." Thanks so much for being with us.

PLAME: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.