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Interview: April 29, 2005

April 29, 2005's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed Francine Mathews, author of BLOWN. Mathews explains how her job as a CIA analyst influenced the writing of this sequel to THE CUTOUT and her inspiration for the character of Raphael. She also talks about the differences between mystery novels and thrillers, and provides readers with the storyline for her next book, which is set during the Second World War. Though you've written other thrillers, there was a four-year period between THE CUTOUT, your debut espionage novel, which introduced Caroline Carmichael, and its sequel, BLOWN. BLOWN picks up almost immediately from where THE CUTOUT left off, and in fact the two books together read like one long, exciting work. Did you originally conceive both books as one extended project? Or was THE CUTOUT conceived as a single, stand-alone work?

Francine Mathews: I never intended to write a sequel to THE CUTOUT. As time went on, however, I found I'd left the story's conclusion open-ended, and that readers in particular were anxious to know Eric Carmichael's fate. He's a critical character in BLOWN, and part of the motivation for writing this book was to resolve his story. I've received too many emails from readers asking: "What happened to Eric???"

BRC: What inspired you to use a marathon as the setting for the book's opening terrorist attack? Do you run? Have you done marathons?

FM: Ever since 9/11, I've been concerned about the focus of much of the public dialogue on domestic terrorism. We hear a great deal about airports, and bomb threats, and those are very real; but personally I'm far more aware of how hugely vulnerable we are as a society in the places we take safety completely for granted --- subway stations, shopping malls, sports stadiums, mass events like a marathon. I knew I wanted to set BLOWN in the heart of D.C., and bring the vulnerability home by showing how casually something like ricin can be handed out to hundreds of victims without anybody "officially" noticing. The choice of the Marine Corps Marathon as a venue was self-indulgent: My husband ran it while we lived in D.C., and I clearly remembered following his route and seeing the Marines passing cups of water every few miles.

BRC: You worked for several years as a CIA analyst. What did you do in that work? Were there any events that occurred during the course of your work that influenced your writing in BLOWN?

FM: I was trained for a year in operations --- which means paramilitary training, tradecraft training, etc. --- but worked for three as an intelligence analyst, which essentially means I wrote predictive pieces for the White House and other policymakers on key foreign policy issues. I worked for a small unit that compiled psychological assessments of world leaders --- a job I gave my heroine, Caroline Carmichael, who is the expert on a particularly dangerous terrorist's mind. I also spent some time on the Pan Am 103 Task Force, which supported the FBI's investigation into the bombing of that plane over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The task force lived in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, and my work there was my introduction to the whole CTC world, which I loved. I respect the people who staff it more than anybody else I know in intelligence. And so I modeled many of my characters in both THE CUTOUT and BLOWN on friends or mentors who work counterterrorism issues.

BRC: Has conducting research for your novels changed since 9/11? If so, how?

FM: Writing about terrorism has changed profoundly; I don't think researching it particularly has. The insidious aspect of terrorism is how easy it is to use on a population --- and so the methods, means, and movers are fairly easy for a writer to identify. Crafting a story that can hit people where they live, however, has gotten much harder. You really can't set the story anywhere abroad. We've had buildings fall and people die here at home. And that means life is trumping fiction.

BRC: Who is your inspiration for Raphael, the intriguing, enigmatic genius laboring in the Office of Technical Services?

FM: What a great question! I love Raphael. His work stems directly from Antonio J. Mendez's excellent memoir, THE MASTER OF DISGUISE. Mendez created the CIA's Office of Technical Services, or "Q Branch" as it's affectionately called, and he is famous for crafting extraordinary technical effects. But Raphael himself is inspired by a man named James Hogue, who at the age of 28 created an elaborate "legend" for himself --- a completely backstopped false identity --- as an 18-year-old home-schooled track athlete named Alexis Santana. He applied and was accepted to Princeton University, my alma mater, and was only exposed as a fraud in his junior year --- when he went to jail. A friend's brother was his roommate and track buddy. I found the story fascinating for obvious reasons, but more importantly, I saw immediately that James Hogue/Alexis Santana could thrive in the Office of Technical Services, where fraud is a cultivated art.

BRC: You indicate in your acknowledgment that BLOWN was cleared for publication by the CIA. How does that procedure work? Were you required by your employment agreement with the CIA to submit works such as BLOWN for clearance? And was there anything in BLOWN you had to change?

FM: I signed a Secrecy Agreement (in my own blood, of course) when I left the CIA. That obligates me to submit written work for review, so that if I let slip anything classified they can excise it. They hate the word censor. I send them the manuscript and ten days later they send me a letter authorizing its publication without objection. The truth is, they give significant leeway to fiction. I was asked to change one word in THE CUTOUT and none in THE SECRET AGENT or BLOWN. They've told me that fiction is inherently deniable, no matter how much it's based on fact.

BRC: It appears from the conclusion of BLOWN that you might have some other plans for Caroline Carmichael. What do you envision?

FM: I'm toying with a story idea entitled THE IDENTITY THIEF, about a man who washes up on their virgin island and is nothing like what he seems. I won't say more than that.

BRC: Aside from Caroline, will any of the supporting characters in BLOWN turn up in a future book?

FM: If I write about Caroline again, I'm sure her friends will come along. Agency people are incestuous, loyal, and tight-knit.

BRC: Your next project is titled THE ALIBI CLUB. Can you tell us a bit about that work? And what other projects are you working on now?

FM: THE ALIBI CLUB was a joy to write --- I just finished the manuscript. The story is set in May 1940 as the German army is about to march into Paris. An American lawyer is killed because he knows way too much about one German secret and the French atomic research program --- both based on historic fact --- and a group of people preparing to flee the city ahead of the Nazis have to deal with the secrets, the components of an atomic bomb, and the murder. It's a wild ride. World War II is a period I love to inhabit in fiction.

BRC: You acknowledge a number of books and authors that contributed what you describe as "aid and inspiration" while writing BLOWN. What writers of fiction, if any, have in general influenced your work? And what type of books do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

FM: I tend to read primarily men when I read thriller fiction --- John le Carre, Daniel Silva, Robert Harris, Alan Furst. I love all of them for their mastery of craft as well as their plotting skill and sense of historic perspective. I would say that only le Carre is a true influence among that group, however --- because he understands the dark inner night of the intelligence operative, having lived out in the Cold. You can't fake that sensibility.

I also write under the pseudonym Stephanie Barron --- a series of detective novels featuring Jane Austen as detective. So of course, I read Jane's work constantly, as well as Regency-era history. Napoleonic warfare stuff. Biographies of British statesmen. Interior design books relevant to the period. My favorite book this year is THE MASTER by Colm Toibin, a novel about the life of Henry James.

BRC: You began your writing career authoring mystery novels. What differences are there between preparing to write a mystery novel and preparing to write an espionage novel? What are the similarities? Do you ever see yourself returning to mystery writing?

FM: Well, I write a Jane Austen mystery every year, so I haven't exactly departed from that genre. However, there are clear differences in the approach. Thrillers demand a compelling hook and what I like to call an existential imperative: a driving plot issue so consuming the reader has to remain engaged with the book right to the final page. The book turns on a significant threat that hits the reader where he or she lives, and a sense of jeopardy toward the main character the reader can share. My mystery novels, on the other hand, are series works, and thus fall into a comfortable world already known to most of my readers. The threats are local, not global; the characters are intimate and the reader feels a part of their lives; and the point is to solve a puzzle, not save the world. Mystery readers feel that they are in control of the threat; thriller readers want to live in excruciating suspense.

BRC: Are there any additional genres you would like to try? Have you considered writing a nonfiction book about your work with the CIA?

FM: I'll tell you the truth: I'd write fiction over fact any day. As long as I can use my Agency memories and experience to spin yarns, I'll do it. Better people than I --- Evan Thomas, Thomas Powers, Milt Bearden --- have written nonfiction studies worth consulting. But as for other genres: I never rule anything out. The stories come to me unbidden, and I write them down.

BRC: The number of women writing espionage novels has increased over the years but still pales in comparison to the number of male writers in this genre. What are your feelings on this issue? What advice do you have for women who may want to write espionage thrillers?

FM: As a kid, two of my favorite writers were Helen MacInnes and Mary Stewart. They both wrote books that might be called "thrillers" or even "spy novels," but seemed compelled by the conventions of the day to call them romantic suspense. There's nothing wrong with that. But I think women writers of espionage today can call upon their familiarity with workplaces that used to be closed to them --- police forces, the FBI, intelligence operations --- with greater plot authority than before. In a car chase written for Bond, the woman is screaming in the passenger seat and always takes the bullet. In a car chase written for BLOWN, Caroline Carmichael is at the wheel. I think, however, women writers may invest their characters with a larger emotional life than male writers; and that's all to the good.