Normally, I’m the one in control of these interviews. But when someone yanks you out of your Hyundai, throws a black bag over your head and drives you out to the middle of the desert so that you may interview someone, well, you do it. Not least because they’ve got a gun shoved up into your gonads. So! Here, then, is my interview with CIA spy and new author, J.C. Carleson, whose debut novel, Cloaks and Veils, is out now. You can find her at her website — jccarleson.com.
This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.
A true, slightly embarrassing story about the relativity of language.
I moved to Spain right after the birth of my first child, and right when I decided to get serious about writing. Between moving to a new country where I didn’t know anyone, learning how to be a parent, and writing full time, I was pretty isolated. Okay, very isolated. My interactions tended to be limited – the cashier at the grocery store, the janitor in my apartment building, the nannies watching the other children in the park, etc.. In Spain, these jobs are held primarily by immigrants from South America – and so it was that I learned to speak a Latin American form of Spanish even though I was living in Spain. (The difference is akin to the difference between British and American English.)
I was also fortunate to have a lovely woman from Ecuador as a house cleaner – to this day I swear that I learned most of my Spanish from the endlessly patient Dolores. We quickly developed a method of communicating that involved short words and lots of elaborate body language. My husband couldn’t understand a word of what either of us was saying, but Dolores and I understood each other perfectly.
Once I mastered the basic vocabulary I asked Dolores to teach me all of the bad words. She’d only whisper the really bad ones, and would shriek, giggle, and go red in the face when I repeated them back. She preferred milder words, so among others she taught me “joder” (pronounced ho-dare). She assured me that it was a benign invective – along the lines of “darn” or “dang”. It has a satisfying, slightly guttural sound to it, so I tossed it into my daily vocabulary. Couldn’t find the right change while the taxi driver was waiting for me to pay? “Joder!” I’d mutter while rooting through my wallet. Ancient elevator in our building creaking and groaning more than usual? “Joder!” I’d say to the neighbor riding up with me. Particularly hot day out? “Joder!” I’d say to the person next to me on the metro while fanning my face.
I used the word a lot.
And then one day I was pushing my baby in a stroller behind a slow-moving gaggle of pre-teens in my neighborhood. Unable to get by them on the sidewalk, I perdona’d and por favor’ed several times to no avail before finally saying “joder, niños!” in a fairly loud voice. Now, I thought that translated roughly into “geez, kids”, but the group went silent and turned on me with wide, shocked eyes. Several almost tripped in their hurry to get out of my way.
I began to suspect that joder did not mean what I thought it meant.
Later that day I asked a bilingual friend for help. Fuck. In Spain it basically translates into “Fuck” – both the act and the exclamation.
Dear Dolores hadn’t intentionally steered me wrong – in Ecuador and in some other South American countries, joder is apparently a mild term. Company appropriate, you could say. Not so in Spain. Which meant that I had spent more than a year generously tossing “fuck” into conversations with strangers, neighbors, my child’s daycare providers, my husband’s co-workers, etc…. Joder.
Lesson learned: The nuances of language matter. Sometimes a lot.
Why do you tell stories?
I got used to being paid to lie in my old career and I wanted the paychecks to continue.
More seriously, storytelling is a huge part of working undercover. Huge. You have to create a persona, live a cover story, and disguise your intentions – and you have to do it convincingly. I discovered that I was pretty good at storytelling while working for the CIA. I’m also a lifelong bookworm – a true book lover – so stepping into fiction after leaving the espionage business felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:
Finish something. A novel, a screenplay, whatever. But finish it. I could write opening chapters all day long. It’s only with the blood, sweat and tears of bringing something to The End, though, that you can truly learn about effective character development, plot coherence, and pacing.
Plus, everyone has an unfinished manuscript in their drawer. Harness your competitive streak and actually get yours done.
What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?
You’ll never make it as a writer without an MFA. Bollocks.
What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.
I may be the wrong person to ask, because I love a flawed character and I think that unreliable narrators tell the most interesting stories. Maybe I’m weird, but as a reader I’ve never felt the absolute need to side with or believe in the characters of books. I don’t even have to like them. I just want them to tell a damn good story, even if that story is full of lies. I am aware, however, that some editors don’t share this opinion. In fact, CLOAKS AND VEILS was rejected by several editors who felt that the protagonist of my book, a female CIA officer, was not convincing or likeable enough because she makes a few highly-consequential mistakes and has a tendency to let her personal life become intertwined with her professional life (to say more would be a spoiler). But as someone who spent nearly a decade as a CIA officer, I can tell you with absolute certainty that real-life spies are every bit as flawed as the rest of the world – and probably more so. They most certainly make mistakes, and they most certainly bring work problems home and personal problems to work. My protagonist is absolutely imperfect. She’s also absolutely realistic.
But if by “strong character” you mean “interesting, well-developed character”, then I think it’s all about the voice. I love a character who can tell me a story just in the unique way he or she walks down the street or reacts to a mundane situation. Does he pet the stray cat, or does he kick it? I want to like the character or hate the character by the end of the first page – even if that opinion changes later on. As long as I’m not indifferent, then character development is going well. A strong character transports readers in every scene just by walking and talking and reacting in a way that is intriguing, or different, or even shocking.
Bonus question: Gillian Flynn does an incredible job of telling a great story via a deeply flawed, highly unlikable character in DARK PLACES. Her protagonist, Libby Day, is lazy, selfish, mean-spirited…and utterly fascinating. As a reader you doubt half of what she says, but you can’t help but listen anyway. She may be weak in spirit and morals, but she’s sure as hell interesting. (Chuck do I get a bonus for my bonus question for coming up with a strongly written, weak character?)
You’re former CIA. What can you tell us about the CIA that most people don’t know or wouldn’t expect?
– There’s a Starbucks inside CIA headquarters. And a Dunkin’ Donuts.
– The CIA has a writers’ club. I was a member, but I traveled too much to make many of the meetings.
– The CIA has a dedicated publication review board. Like all CIA officers, I’m required to submit my writing to them prior to publication for the rest of my life. (They even reviewed this blog interview!)
– CIA officers hate being called spies. They’re not spies – spies are people who commit espionage against their own country. CIA officers RECRUIT spies.
– The overwhelming majority of CIA employees are not undercover.
How did “telling stories” come in handy while at the CIA?
There is a great deal of motivation to develop excellent storytelling skills when angry and heavily armed men are asking you questions like: “What are you doing with this top secret file from our prime minister’s office?” or “What were you doing meeting with the president’s top aide at 3:00 a.m. in a deserted park?” or “Why are you sneaking across our border with $200,000 in cash and passports in three different names?”
Storytelling is a survival skill in the CIA.
What kind of person becomes a spy?
May I let one of my characters from CLOAKS AND VEILS answer that question? Here’s Caitlin (she has good reason to be cynical), on page 53:
“You know, the people who recruit CIA officers think that they’re looking for Boy Scouts. The perfect patriot who speaks four languages, ties sailor knots, jumps out of airplanes, and goes to church on Sundays. But you know what they really want? They want people who can cheat and lie and steal—and then go to church on Sundays without the least bit of remorse. They need people with a hidden dark side.”
Do you have bad-ass spy gear? Will you share?
Of course I do. But I’m not sharing. I’m saving it all for the zombie apocalypse.
What’s the strangest place you’ve been, and why?
In Kabul, Afghanistan, in the back of a jeep driven by a chain-smoking Afghan man, with my feet propped up on a Stinger missile. The missile was just slightly too long to fit, so I was holding the unlatched door to keep it from flying open. Every time we hit a big bump the driver would turn around, cigarette dangling out of his mouth, laugh hysterically, and say “Boom!”.
Why? Business as usual.
Sell us on Cloak and Veils. First, the 140-character Twitter pitch…
CLOAKS AND VEILS: A disturbingly authentic spy thriller about one CIA officer’s fight to survive after an operation goes terribly wrong.
And then by telling us exactly how this is a book only you could’ve written.
ER was a popular TV show when I was in high school, but my father had to leave the room every time I watched it. He was a doctor, and he used to get so upset about the technical errors that he would end up yelling at the TV set. “You don’t do that during open heart surgery!” “What kind of an idiot would give those medications at the same time?” “An ER doctor would never do that!” These were things that most viewers would never notice, but were glaringly obvious to him.
I feel the same way about many spy thrillers — particularly when it comes to female protagonists. I just cannot bring myself to read a book in which the buxom stripper assassin pulls a throwing star from her cleavage and hurls it expertly at the Russian mafia thug at the same time as she detonates the explosive device hidden in her stiletto heel, all the while holding witty conversations in fluent Japanese and German. Just…no.
Please note that I’m not bashing the genre as a whole – there are many, many outstanding books, and I’m a huge fan of many authors in the field. But far too often, CIA officers are portrayed as invincible super-heroes. They have unlimited resources, they are experts at everything, and they never, ever screw up. Personally, I find this level of perfection boring. I wanted to write a spy thriller in which the protagonist, a CIA officer, is a real person who makes real mistakes within a real, flawed organization, and then and has to use real skills to survive. Trust me – there’s nothing boring about authenticity when it comes to the CIA!
Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!
Jose Saramago’s BLINDNESS. (Do NOT judge it by the execrable movie.) It’s post-apocalyptic brought down to a personal level – everyone losing their vision, one person at a time. It shows the basest of human behavior right alongside the most heroic. It’s at times gruesome and at times poetic, and it makes you cringe and then turn the page anyway, over and over again. (It seriously makes you think about cleanliness and plumbing in a whole new way…not for the faint of heart.)
Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?
Favorite word? Mistral. As in le mistral. (Come on, try it. It totally sounds better with a French accent.) It’s the name of the strong, Mediterranean wind that blows through the south of France. It just sounds romantic, and maybe a bit spooky. It’s a word that transports.
Favorite curse word? As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m a sucker for learning curse words in foreign languages. But I always come home to good, old-fashioned “fuck” as my favorite. It’s just so damn versatile.
Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)
I’m a red wine gal. Big, full-bodied, grab-you-by-the-throat reds – you’ll win my friendship forever if you serve me a Cabernet from Heitz Cellar, for example.
Don’t ever serve me anything pink. If I ran the world I would banish Rosé wines and pink cocktails. Blue cocktails too, come to think of it.
What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?
I worked for the CIA, remember? We’re the ones who built the evil robots. So I know where the secret off button is. (Note to tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists: I’m joking. There is no off button.)
What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?
I’m taking a brief break from fiction for my next book, but storytelling is most definitely still involved. WORK LIKE A SPY: BUSINESS TIPS FROM THE CLANDESTINE WORLD is coming out in February 2013. It’s a leadership/management book in which I apply lessons learned from my CIA career to the business world. After that I think I’ll return to fiction, though I haven’t decided whether to write a sequel to CLOAKS AND VEILS or start something completely new.