Writers Kathleen Kent and Alma Katsu are both known for their historical fiction and mysteries, but did you know that, in real life, both worked in the shadowy world of national security and intelligence? In this interview, the authors of BLACK WOLF (Mulholland Books, February 14) and RED LONDON (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 14) compare notes on what it’s like to write thrillers on matters close to home.
ALMA: When people find out you once worked for CIA or the Defense Department, I think they’re surprised to find out you’ve written anything else, but one thing we have in common is that we’ve both written in a variety of genres. For you, it’s been historicals, crime thrillers, and now espionage. How did you come to write a spy thriller?
KATHLEEN: Before I committed to writing full time, I lived and worked in New York City for over twenty years. Ten of those years were spent as a civilian contractor to the Dept. of Defense working in Belarus and Kazakhstan dismantling weapons of mass destruction. I grew up reading Russian spy thrillers, but as relations between the West and the reformed Soviet Union became friendlier, novelists turned their attention to other countries posing a threat to national security. Unfortunately, recent events have once more resurrected tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
I first went to Belarus (formerly Soviet Byelorussia) in the early 1990’s and spent years working closely with Soviet scientists and politicians, which gave me an inside view of the dissolution, and the later reformation, of the newly emerging republics. I kept a journal of my time there and, once I became a novelist, I knew that, at some point, I would write about my experiences.
I was part of the “duck and cover” generation growing up; the Soviet Union being a mysterious, threatening place that came to represent the ultimate evil in the world. Traveling to the Former Soviet Union left a lasting impression on me as I was able to glimpse the old way of life just before it was swept away. Initially, every guide and translator I had was with the KGB, our phone calls were all recorded, and often there were two-way mirrors in our hotel rooms. It was incredibly claustrophobic and relations with the Soviet government were initially tension filled and distrustful. After a few years, though, the newly independent republics began to openly embrace westernized standards of governance.
BLACK WOLF’s main character, Melvina Donleavy, is a young CIA agent on her first mission to Soviet Byelorussia. She has a unique talent as a “super recognizer”; someone who never forgets a face. Her mission is to confirm that Iranian scientists have infiltrated the country in order to obtain nuclear weapons, a very real threat in the early 1990’s. The ancillary characters emerging from the chaos of a crumbling empire—the Bratva (mafia), the KGB, the sex workers, scientists and apparatchiks—are composite sketches of people whose paths crossed mine.
Besides being a spy novel, the story is also about a serial killer: the Svisloch Strangler, who is based on one of the most prolific serial killers the world had ever seen. In 1990 Andrei Chikitilo, known as the Butcher of Rostov, was captured after spending decades murdering dozens of women and children across Russia and Ukraine. He was arrested by utilizing the novel approach of psychological profiling, developed in the West. Techniques that Melvina introduces to the fearsome head of the Byelorussian KGB, the Black Wolf.
ALMA: I spent 25 years in a Defense Department intelligence agency. (Little known fact: DOD owns 80 percent of the assets in the intelligence community.) People who only know me from RED WIDOW are surprised to learn that I wrote several novels before turning to spy fiction, starting with a trilogy of fantasy novels and then transitioning to historical fiction with horror elements.
All this time, however, I was an analyst at CIA and NSA and, like a lot of people in the spy business, I wasn’t crazy about the way we were depicted in popular culture–particularly women. So, after I retired, I was thrilled when my publisher asked if I’d be interested in trying my hand at a spy novel. I knew right away that I would write about a real case, something mind blowing that happened while I was at CIA (though the facts were changed, naturally, to hide the true event). And I knew the protagonist would be a woman, an example of the type of amazing women you find working in the field today.
In RED LONDON, I combined two stories. The main story has to do with a British woman who married a Russian oligarch and now has to face the music after Russia has invaded Ukraine and her husband comes under intense pressure from the Russian government. MI6 knows her marriage is rocky, and so in coordination with CIA, they try to get her to lead them to her husband’s hidden billions before the Russians can seize it.
The secondary story is no less ripped-from-the-headlines. It has to do with private intelligence: a lot of intelligence professionals are being lured away to work for wealthy individuals, private companies, and foreign governments. Intelligence professionals have training you don’t get with a private investigator or investigative journalist. It’s like putting national-level resources in the hands of a private individual! Often, the former spooks don’t know exactly who they’re working for and are sometimes asked to break the law–we’ve actually seen that happen in real life. In RED LONDON, we see our protagonist, CIA operative Lyndsey Duncan, pitted against a former colleague in trying to find the oligarch’s money.
I know a lot of women enjoy the spy genre–they’ve been fans of Homeland and The Americans, as well as James Bond–and so I hope they can be tempted to pick up books, like BLACK WOLF and RED LONDON, that combine the thrills of the genre with the perspective of a female protagonist. Stories that show what it’s really like to be a woman in the spy business, whether it’s in the 1990s or the present day.
Did you have to do a lot of research for BLACK WOLF, because it feels so specific? Which part was the trickiest, and was this because it was hard to find research materials or the right experts to talk to?
KATHLEEN: Often writing about countries in transition is difficult because there may be fewer reliable research resources than during times of stability. I’d kept a diary during my years in Belarus and Kazakhstan which helped tremendously in writing the book. I would have forgotten many of the details—the sights, the sounds, the smells—of daily life in the Soviet Union. Without it I wouldn’t have remembered, for example, that a bottle of Wite-Out and a box of paper clips was gold to Soviet office workers, and helped to foster warm relations while I was in-country. Fortunately, I was also able to draw on the experiences, and the phenomenal memory, of the man who’d been my boss for twenty years, Lowell Mintz (to whom BLACK WOLF is dedicated). He was the visionary who saw the potential for cooperation with the Former Soviet Union and he initiated the proposals of dismantlement to the Dept. of Defense.
ALMA: One of the things I like about writing spy novels, as opposed to the historicals, is that I don’t have to do a lot of research. After thirty years on the job, it’s all second nature! Unfortunately, RED LONDON was not so easy as current events intervened: I had turned the manuscript into my editor when Russia invaded Ukraine, and that changed everything in the story. Things moved so fast that I had to do two rewrites to keep up with what was happening on the ground. I realized that I’d have to get out ahead of what was happening in real life if I didn’t want to be constantly rewriting–which, miraculously enough, I managed to do. It’s one of the neater tricks in the book and readers will just have to pick up the book to see how I managed to do it.
Of all the genres you’ve written, which is your favorite? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on writing the western, as I’ve written one, too (The Hunger).
KATHLEEN: My first novel, THE HERETIC’S DAUGHTER, was a labor of love, in particular for my mother’s family. The main protagonist, Martha Carrier, was my grandmother back nine generations and was one of the first women to be hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. I grew up hearing about her courage during the trials and there was never a question that that story would be my first book. One of my favorite writers is Cormac McCarthy and, because I grew up in Texas, I wanted to give tribute to the canon of western mythology that was such a big part of my childhood. THE OUTCASTS was a lot of fun to write. My father, a Texan many generations back, used to say (out of my mother’s hearing) that all the witches were on her side of the family. But all the horse thieves were on his side!
ALMA: Those both sound fascinating. My Western, THE HUNGER, was one of my favorite books to write because despite being a child during the golden age of TV westerns, I didn’t know that much about that period in America in any real detail. THE HUNGER is a reimagining of the story of the Donner Party (yes, the notorious cannibalism story) and I learned a lot about the frontier period and what made some people walk away from everything they knew to start a new life in the unknown. America was a very different place then, but we can still see it in our national character today. I’d love to write another Western. There’s so much to explore.
Personally, while I enjoy having had the opportunity to write in a variety of genres, it’s been challenging in terms of building an audience. You hope readers who enjoy your work will follow you wherever you go, but at the same time it can be a bit much to ask someone who loves fantasies, let’s say, to pick up a spy novel. What’s been your experience?
KATHLEEN: I love the challenge of writing in different genres, but I know what you mean about keeping a loyal following. Often it takes years to build a strong readership for a series, the expectation being that an author will consistently write in one particular genre. I wrote a contemporary crime trilogy which did well, but after the third book I felt that, to continue the series, might weaken the narrative. Despite the risk of losing some readers, I think it’s better to know when to go on to a new story with fresh characters. I truly believe that the fires of creativity are fed by taking risks.
ALMA: What’s next for you?
KATHLEEN: I’m currently working on two novels, waiting to see which one comes to fruition. The first is a sequel to BLACK WOLF, which will be set in Kazakhstan, where I also spent a lot of time. The second is a stand-alone book, set in New York City in 1977 during the summer of the big blackout. I had first moved to Manhattan from Texas in the late 1970’s and it was a wild and lawless place, but also quite a bit of fun.
ALMA: It sounds like all your stories have a historical aspect to them. Do you have a favorite time period?
KATHLEEN: I’m drawn to times and places in transition, where the inherent chaos of reformation adds to the narrative tension. I set THE TRAITOR’S WIFE during the English Civil War, THE OUTCASTS a few years after the American Civil War and BLACK WOLF at the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I like adding as much resistance as possible to my characters right from the start as it brings out the best, and the worst, in human nature.
ALMA: I don’t know if my work is quite as dispersed as yours, but in August, I have a story coming out on Kindle as an Amazon Original Story, BLACK VAULT. After the Navy’s report on unexplained aerial phenomena came out, there was so much public interest that I thought of a story that shows how CIA would handle a UFO investigation. I’ve described it as Slow Horses meets the X-Files. I’m also working on my next horror novel. This one is contemporary, a first for me!