The Spy Who Read Me

From Public Books:

“Spying and fiction are not entirely different processes,” says historian of British espionage Ben Macintyre, in a conversation with master of spy fiction and former intelligence officer John le Carré. “You try to create an artificial world. And the better and more realistic and more emotionally believable you can make that world, as either a spy or a novelist, the better you are going to be at it.” Yet, Charles McCarry, who was a deep-cover operative for the CIA, and the author of the Paul Christopher novels, doesn’t see continuity between spying and fiction but, instead, between the secret and everyday worlds: “The fact of the matter is, the secret world is too much like the ordinary world to be altogether entertaining. The elements of tradecraft that thrill us in books—cover stories, clandestine meetings, dead drops, telephone codes and so on—are techniques familiar to anyone who has ever covered a big story for a newspaper, negotiated a big contract against serious competition or conducted a clandestine love affair.” Fiction and spying can look like each other, and spying and everyday life can look like each other.

What to make, then, of the new glut of women writing about spying—both in fiction and in memoir? On April 28, 2020, Jung H. Pak—a history PhD who spent 10 years working for the Central Intelligence Agency—published Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator. Pak writes as a former intelligence officer, and as a woman former intelligence officer, about a uniquely powerful, brutal, and secretive male leader. Pak’s biography of Kim was published during an obviously fascinating and enormously consequential context: active, ongoing speculation about his health. It also emerged into a specific literary context: innovative writing by women about the work of intelligence. Intelligence work by women is at the heart of new novels and memoirs about women intelligence officers. Books by Lara Prescott and Amarylliss Fox (not to mention books by Kate Atkinson, Lauren Wilkinson, Nada Bakos, and Tracy Walder) show women serving as spies, writing about serving as spies, and, in doing so, interlacing writing and spying.

Recently, women writing about spying—in memoir and fiction—has moved in two directions. In the past, fiction about espionage synched up with the intelligence concerns and capabilities of its day. But, today, fiction about espionage also sets its stories in the past. I focus here on The Secrets We Kept, by Prescott, a novel published late last year but set during the Cold War.

Meanwhile, a new crop of memoirs takes readers inside the lives of women intelligence officers who served in the relatively recent past, whose service is shaped not by the Cold War but by 9/11 and its aftermath. Fox’s Life Undercover is one such memoir and is central to what follows.

The women writers tell women’s stories of writing and spying. The experiences of practicing tradecraft aren’t precisely McCarry’s, and that’s worth discussing. Most importantly, they chronicle what spying looks like and what the everyday looks like, and, meaningfully, insist on their overlap.

For these women, paradoxically, the practice of being a spy and being an ordinary woman are not dissimilar. “I’m neck-deep in a game of make-believe,” laments Fox, “and the game is so convincing, I have no idea when it began. Or the ‘I’ who is playing it.” Sound familiar?

Link to the rest at Public Books