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Interview: June 2, 2006

June 2, 2006

Along with co-creating the hugely successful Covert-One series with Robert Ludlum, Gayle Lynds has penned such bestselling international thrillers as THE COIL, MASQUERADE, MOSAIC and MESMERIZED. In this interview with's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek), Lynds shows off her "Spy-Q" knowledge and shares what makes Jay Tice --- the protagonist of her latest novel, THE LAST SPYMASTER --- tick. She also explains how she manages to keep her novels genuine and authentic through description and dialogue, and sheds light on the difficult process of writing during personal tragedy. Jay Tice, the primary protagonist in THE LAST SPYMASTER, is one of the more interesting and complex characters that we've encountered in an espionage thriller. He begins the book as a very enigmatic character --- at once a skilled spy and an obvious traitor --- but as the book progresses we learn that there is far more to him, and his actions, than were at first apparent. Did you model Tice, and his situation, after anyone? How did he evolve as you wrote?

Gayle Lynds: I'm glad you enjoyed Jay. I knew him emotionally from the beginning --- a man of a thousand faces, a thousand wiles --- but it took me many drafts to refine him. I've run into a couple of spies like Jay over the years.

They have tremendous power and charisma, while at the same time they are able to quickly veil those qualities and many others, including the configuration of their features, which might make them noticeable at the wrong time. Most of us have been wallflowers at some point in our lives; the best spies turn that into an art form.

One of my objectives in THE LAST SPYMASTER was to lift the veil and give readers an intimate experience of what this man --- extraordinary in many ways but also deeply flawed --- was like, and what happens to such a person as he seeks redemption and succeeds.

BRC: CIA agent Elaine Cunningham almost steals the book from Tice. Who was your inspiration for her? Have you thought of writing a series around Cunningham?

GL: I was crazy about Elaine, too, and I'd love for her to have her own novel someday. There's something about being very competent --- but at the same time modest yet gutsy --- that has always appealed to me, and those traits seem to be at the heart of Elaine.

BRC: One of our favorite parts of THE LAST SPYMASTER was that of the high-tech products, which were the subject of terrorist purchases. Do these products --- such as the StarDust computers, LandFlyers, and Mirror-Me fabric --- actually exist, as working models or otherwise?

GL: I had a lot of fun with them too. Science is advancing with astonishing speed, and I explored what we know, what we expect, and what's hidden. All of the technology in THE LAST SPYMASTER is either in use or will be, perhaps far sooner than we expect or are told.

For instance, in the book, the StarDust computers are not much larger than grains of sand. Fueled by tiny solar batteries, they can be programmed to record two or three simple jobs like monitoring motion and temperature. Then you scatter them like flower seeds across farms and cities or toss them onto trucks or planes that ship material and people. They network and can send detailed data about scientists in clandestine weapons labs or squads of terrorist guerrillas back to control centers where high-octane computers can collate the information for secret use. They will be a powerful source of intelligence.

One of my favorites is the LandFlyer, which looks like a dune buggy topped by a 50-caliber gun. LandFlyers can blast across a desert at 65 miles an hour, hump over chongo rocks at 30 without going ass over teakettle, and do hairpin turns so sharp they'd topple any other all-terrain vehicle. They're military light-strike vehicles that can even keep running on three wheels if the fourth gets shot off. Several have been invented that are similar to mine.

Some readers tell me the Mirror-Me fabric reminds them of the magical cloak that made wearers invisible in the Harry Potter series. The fabric has already been designed. It makes whatever it covers seem transparent by displaying what's behind, in front. Nanometric video cameras record the images behind and, in real time, send the images to nanometric projectors that display them on the front of the cloth. The Pentagon sees a lot of possibility in this invention, of course, particularly for urban warfare.

Readers interested in this topic can drop by my website at, where they can dip into a section called The World of Espionage. There, visitors can even test their Spy-Q.

BRC: Your writing is laced with authoritative phrasing that gives it authenticity. One of our favorite phrases was calling the younger breed of terrorists "diaper commandos." What can you share with us about the research that you did to get the "talk" as well as the "walk" right? Do you share your manuscripts with your sources so they can vet the factual parts?

GL: Years ago, I worked in a military think tank where I had Top Secret security clearance, and shadowy figures drifted through all of the time. That began my exposure to this "speak," and today I have several friends who are part of the clandestine world who keep me up on the latest verbiage. I have no talent for foreign languages; although I sure wish I did, but I seem to have picked up spook speak with suspicious ease.

I also have a background as a newspaper reporter, which means factual errors give me a nasty rash. Therefore, none of my books go to my publisher without being thoroughly vetted first.

BRC: Another element of THE LAST SPYMASTER that we thoroughly enjoyed was the multiple settings. We often felt as if we were peeking over the shoulder of the narrator, watching the action. Did you visit each of the places in which THE LAST SPYMASTER takes place, or how did you research the writing?

GL: Some I've visited, like England and France; others not. I have an extensive research library that's grown to terrifying proportions over the past 20 years. As in life, though, simple is often best. Two of my most reliable sources are National Geographic and AAA.

I also do a lot of research on the Internet and am heartless about interviewing friends who've just returned from distant climes. Plus I have three secret informers --- my daughter, Julia Stone, who lives in New York, and my son and daughter-in-law, Paul Stone and Katrina Baum, who live in Washington, D.C. I'm afraid I impose on them frequently to answer questions and photograph sites.

BRC: THE LAST SPYMASTER contains a number of twists, turns and surprises, from the beginning until the last page. Did you have a good idea as to where the book would be going before you sat down to write it? Did the finished novel turn out to be the story you thought it would be at the beginning, or were you surprised?

GL: I always knew where I was going, but the final twists ended up differently from what I'd originally envisioned. When writing a novel, I sometimes find I have to move plot points forward or backward because of logic or drama. One of the major revelations I had planned for the ending needed to be moved earlier. My editor came up with a beautiful twist for the ending as he was reading one of the drafts, and that took the place of the one I'd had to move.

Jay Tice, the last spymaster, changed too because of my editor's ideas. Originally the reader had been in Tice's head --- close-third viewpoint, but my editor suggested I make the viewpoint more distant so the reader could grow with Tice, discover him almost as he discovered himself. That made the story far more dramatic.

I worry about people who are so married to their ideas that they have no flexibility, can't see any other vision. I will crawl over glass for a good idea. I am eternally grateful to those who lend me their fertile imaginations.

BRC: What has been the most challenging aspect of writing an international spy thriller in a post-9/11 world?

GL: Actually, for me, it's easier. The malaise of the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 years is over. Americans hunger to understand this new, dangerous world to which we can no longer close our eyes. Certainly we can't escape it. Topics, ideas and characters permeate the dynamic. It's a petri dish, a hothouse --- a novelist's dream come true --- and it's also very important for us to understand.

In our country, people have always turned to books for information, and the lens of political fiction has been a long-favored source of our self-education.

At this point, my one rule has been not to deal directly with terrorism. So many fine authors are jumping onto the subject that it's covered beautifully. Instead, I look for what's not being said, for the nuances that are fascinating and, if done right, entertaining while educating, which is why THE LAST SPYMASTER deals with the dark underbelly of the nearly untouchable weapons trade.

BRC: What, for you, was the most difficult part of writing THE LAST SPYMASTER?

GL: The hardest part was working while my husband Dennis Lynds's health was failing. Oddly, I had no idea my concentration was compromised. I did know it was a struggle to focus, but I kept thinking it was a temporary lull and my brain would snap online again soon.

I'd always been a relatively fast gestator of ideas, fast thinker, and fast writer. I'd turn in a final draft that I'd reworked extensively, my editor would polish and make suggestions, I'd burnish the manuscript once more, and it was finished.

But when Dennis started to go downhill, the writing that had come relatively easily to me became like slogging through quicksand. With THE LAST SPYMASTER and THE COIL before it, my editor had to read and work on several drafts. Plus, I was late in delivering them. I think they're my finest books. During this time I grew as a writer, with a terrific editor shepherding me and advising me.

For me, it was a humbling experience, one that I treasure because I learned a great deal about myself, plus I was able to be with my husband to the end. After a valiant fight, he died last August.

I finished the final 50 pages of THE LAST SPYMASTER a month later. It was good therapy, and I needed it.

BRC: What was the major influence that led you to begin writing thriller novels? Do you read novels in any other genres? Are there any authors who have influenced your writing, if not your choice of genres?

GL: I was one of those dreadful children who read widely and indiscriminately and obsessively anything that had words on it --- from soup cans and toilet rolls to GONE WITH THE WIND and WAR AND PEACE. I had no idea a kid from Council Bluffs, Iowa, could grow up to be a novelist. It was my dream --- and very secret.

While I was in denial, I got married, had children, earned a degree in journalism, and became addicted to politics --- first local, then national, and finally international. For personal reading, I dove into Helen MacInnes, Robert Ludlum, John le Carre, and Mary Stewart. But I was also reading a great deal of nonfiction as well as novels by Gail Godwin, John Gardner and Tim O'Brien.

Ultimately, my interests finally coalesced. It became obvious even to bonehead me that what I hungered to do was explore global politics --- ever-changing but ultimately timeless and critical to our daily lives --- without boring people. I wanted to entertain so readers could learn while having a lot of fun along the way.

There was only one form for that in my humble opinion --- international thrillers. They look like an elephant, must run like a gazelle, and when done well, are impossible to put down. I like that combination.

BRC: What is your writing schedule like? How long does it take you, all other things being equal, to write a novel, from concept to completion? Do you have a "bank," if you will, of novel ideas that you draw upon?

GL: I'm going back to writing a book a year. I've missed being able to do that. I pretty much work all the time. Life interrupts work. When I'm not actually writing, I'm cogitating, turning over ideas, struggling with plot, immersing myself in my characters. My personal opinion is that the foundation of good writing is good thinking. Often it's the hardest part, too.

I love your question about concept. I usually conceptualize several years ahead before I actually sit down to write the book. I looked back in my notes, and my first ideas for THE LAST SPYMASTER occurred in 2000 --- that's when I had the title, too. I know basically what my next three books are as well. I start open boxes for each new book, and toss in notes and clippings. It's fun to think ahead. For me, those future books are glittering carrots dangling in front of me, my reward for finishing one book so I can immerse myself in the next.

BRC: You are the Queen of the International Spy Thriller with a solid battery of work in this genre behind you in what's become a "guy's game." Why do you think there are not more women writing international spy thrillers?

GL: Thank you for that wonderful compliment.

As for why more women aren't in the field…I'm the one who didn't know I wasn't supposed to. I just jumped in feet first, because the stories I wanted to tell compelled me to. I should've known it was going to be tough when the president of a publishing house wanted to buy my first thriller, MASQUERADE, back in 1995, but then decided against it because "no woman could've written this book." The president was a woman!

But the next person my agent went to was Steve Rubin (a man, I emphasize), the president of Doubleday, who bought it without a single query. His faith was rewarded: MASQUERADE ended up being a New York Times extended list bestseller in paperback. As you can imagine, that made me smile a lot.

Still, it hasn't been easy. After Steve, other publishers had a hard time believing my books should just be treated like everyone else's --- the covers should look like spy thriller covers, the books should be sent to thriller reviewers, and so forth. Instead, I was positioned as a slightly romance, slightly James Bondian author --- which obviously I was not. I have a lot of respect for both fields, but putting my books in them was a disservice to them and to me. The result was that during that period buyers found they weren't getting what they expected, and my natural audience wasn't easily attracted.

However, that's completely reversed now, and I seem to have many readers who claim to love my books. I can't believe how devoted they are. They say they've "found" me.

My experience is that both men and women buy thrillers in vast quantities, and generally they don't care whether the author is a man or a woman. A good book is a good book is a good book --- and that's what they're looking for.

Still, our industry is uncertain. I'd hoped that whatever success I'm having would make it easier for women to find homes for their novels. When I look around, I see more and more being published, as well as more men, and I cheer all. Soon there will be a tipping point, and everyone will look around surprised at how many women there are, and how good they are. Prejudice is just silly and such a waste.

BRC: You are the co-founder of International Thriller Writers organization. How and why did you decide to help develop this organization?

GL: David Morrell and I are co-founders and co-presidents. Neither of us ever intended to do anything more than assemble a meeting of thriller writers who had been telling both of us for years that they wanted their own organization. Then we were going to bow out gracefully. Ah, the best-laid plans....

Somehow we ended up being voted in charge, and it has been a great deal of work but so much fun and so very rewarding that neither of us regrets it. ITW is a terrific organization, moving and growing very fast. We have our first conference, Thriller Fest (, coming up later this month, and our first anthology of short stories written by more than 30 thriller writers, appropriately called THRILLER, comes out this month as well. Sometimes it seems as if we have a tiger by the tail, but I wouldn't have missed this for anything.

BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?

GL: The book I am working on now comes from the premise that all governments lie. All spies lie. It's imperative they keep critical secrets. But there's a line between necessity and hubris, between security and self-importance. I'm fascinated about exploring that lightning-bolt area. Readers can expect it in 2007.