Hayden Center Event Recap: The Quotes of Authors

A flyer for the Spy Fiction event depicting the authors and moderator.

The next Hayden Center event is Thursday, May 15, at 7 p.m. ET, when Michael Morell, former acting and deputy CIA director, sits down with Matthew Pottinger, President Trump’s deputy national security advisor and former National Security Council senior director for Asia, to discuss “China: National Security Consensus?” They will be joined by two former leading CIA analysts on China: Christopher Johnson, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and John Culver, who retired last year as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia in the National Intelligence Council after decades at CIA.

Meanwhile, in case you missed it, here are outtakes from the last Hayden Center event, in which Schar School visiting fellow and former CIA official David Priess discussed spy fiction with popular authors Brad Thor, Karen Cleveland, and Alma Katsu. The conversation is available on YouTube and as a Lawfare podcast.

Brad Thor:

  • You should write what you love to read, because that’s where your passion is.
  • There is no American dream without those willing to protect it, so I’ve always been enamored with our warrior class, whether these be people in the military, law enforcement, or the intelligence community.
  • I buy a lot of pitchers of beer and a lot of steak dinners. I could not do what I do without the generosity of people who have served – whether it’s in the special operations community, or the intelligence community.
  • It’s only through the grace and generosity of people who have been in the world and been in these places that are willing to work with me that I am able to get those things right. So, I’m just very fortunate to have the network that I do.
  • It’s one of the issues that thriller authors deal with: You hope you’re not giving bad guys ideas. But, by the same token, if I’m giving bad guys ideas they’re really not as good as we think they are. But a couple of books ago, Use of Force, I opened with the Burning Man festival in the desert, in Black Rock City, in Nevada. There was a federal review of the security situation because of the book, and they decided that what they had seen in my book was very plausible and they wanted to tighten things up at Burning Man.
  • There have been instances where I have suggested things in the book that have gotten the attention of the government. So, if I’m helping in my own very minuscule small way to make the nation a safer place through the stuff I put in the books, then that’s a good thing.
  • I’m a big believer in what Robert Frost said: “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
  • Show up every day on the job as if it was your first day—and could be your last day on the job. I always want to strive to improve and get better. And that’s one of the great things I think about writing is that you always can get better.

Karen Cleveland:

  • When I wrote my first book, I decided to write about a CIA analyst because I was a CIA analyst. It was a world that I knew, and it was a world I was part of at the time.
  • I did try to take what I knew about those careers from working within them and apply them to my books.
  • I did have to submit all of my writing to the the CIA Publications Review board. That is sort of a life-long agreement that any CIA officer signs up for.
  • It is nice to have that check, I think. Because, I joined the CIA to help make our country a safer place and the last thing I would want to do is accidentally disclose anything classified, so I think it is a nice check to have.
  • I think one of the things that gets drilled into you as an analyst is that you can’t waste words, and policy makers have some real time constraints. You need to get to the point and you need to make them care about the issue and you need to make your argument compelling enough that they read your analysis to the end.
  • What people think about the CIA from movies and television a lot of times is this very flashy high-tech organization, and CIA is very high-tech but not in a flashy way. A lot of people work in cubicles and windowless vaults. Do you write it from that perspective? Or do you jazz it up a little bit?
  • I think it is important to show these strong female characters. There are so many different kinds of people who work at CIA. It’s not all gun-toting, globe-trotting men. There are plenty of gun-toting, globe-trotting women.

Alma Katsu:

  • I kept thinking: “I should be able to write a spy novel, right?” You know, I had this whole career in intelligence, and I can write. I should be able to put the two together. But it wasn’t until my editor really encouraged me to give it a try. And I knew there were things that I wanted to see in a spy novel that I wasn’t seeing in most spy novels up till now.
  • There was the aspect of knowing how gutting it is when you maybe have been working with a traitor—that somebody you know has been a traitor to the country. And I just wanted to bring that deep personal experience to that story.
  • The things they’re trying to protect are sources and methods. The entire time I was writing it, that was going through the back of my mind. You know, what could I say that wouldn’t strike anywhere near classified information.
  • I have really been heartened by the kind words people have shared, a lot of folks who have retired, who have worked in the intelligence community telling me how true to life it is.
  • Two-thirds of my career were spent with NSA. And NSA is a really interesting place to work—highly technical. And that’s the thing: The things the intelligence community protects the most are sources and methods, and it’s a story that probably deserves to be told. The people that work there are uniquely gifted people who give their lives in the service of the American people.
  • It’s really rare when there’s a clear-cut moral right and wrong.

David Priess:

  • I’m a big fan of Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, which is really foundational for anyone in this area. More recently, another foundational one is David Ignatius’, Agents of Innocence, a remarkable look inside a Middle Eastern operation.
  • Satire is starting to become an area of spy fiction.