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Interview: July 13, 2001

July 13, 2001

Move over gentlemen, there's a lady joining the head table of master espionage writers. Gayle Lynds had already established herself as an author-to-watch in what has traditionally been a male-dominated genre. Her novels, MASQUERADE and MOSAIC, along with her collaboration on THE HADES FACTOR with Robert Ludlum won critical acclaim with fans and peers alike. Now, the publication of her newest thriller, MESMERIZED, leaves little doubt that she will be seated at that table for a long time to come.

In an interview with's Ann Bruns, Gayle reveals some fascinating background about the influx of Russian KGB in the US, the scary state of our counterintelligence agencies, and some insight into a little known medical phenomena called cellular memory.

TBR: In researching for your latest thriller, MESMERIZED, you obviously tapped into numerous resources within the intelligence community. Can you give us any statistics on how many known ex-KGB agents are living in the United States today?

GL: Alas, I've never been able to find out the specific number of KGB, GRU, Stasi, and other spies from the Eastern Bloc we took in. I've been told, however, that outside Moscow, the largest group of retired KGB lives in the Washington, D.C. area, a piece of information that riveted me and propelled me into writing MESMERIZED.

As the Soviet Union was crumbling --- particularly from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 --- the trickle of spies defecting to the West turned into a flood, and their preferred destination was the United States. As a side note, it cost us about $1 million to debrief each defector. In the end, we took in so many, were starting to receive so much repetitive information, and the cost to debrief and resettle was piling so high that Milton A. Bearden, chief of the CIA's Soviet Division at the time, sent word to CIA stations around the world that the Company had little interest in recruiting more KGB. The unimaginable had happened. One of our top priorities --- turning Communist agents --- had become our last. There was a certain amount of grinding of teeth within Langley about that. Some thought we missed out on discovering some important details by turning back would-be defectors.

TBR: Is there any expressed concern that they might, in fact, be secretly manipulating funds, etc., to reestablish the former USSR as they were in your novel?

GL: To put it simply, the amount of wealth --- cash, diamonds, artwork --- that's left the country is larger than most nation's budgets. And it was sent out by both Soviet and Russian officials and oligarchs. It's one reason Russia remains poor and weak today, a staggering giant.

Being practical, I doubt the Soviet Union can be resurrected. From an ideological viewpoint ... my, my that's an interesting question. People will do all sorts of thing for love that they wouldn't bother with for money. So I'd be nervous, considering how well funded some Russian ex patriots are today.

TBR: In a recent interview, you indicated that your fictional mole was based on actual rumors that eventually culminated in the arrest of the real life FBI mole, Robert Phillip Hanssen. And you also stated that your whole premise of the KGB defector revealing the identity of a low-level mole to protect a more deeply infiltrated mole is not purely your writer's imagination at work either. Do you have the sense that we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg in the FBI's investigation of counterintelligence corruption?

GL: Because of the demanding nature of their work, intelligence agents have a tight esprit de corps. Their sense of comradeship, of being all in this together, of knowing one has to trust one's fellows are important traits to being successful in intelligence. But those same characteristics also provide cover, making it easier for a traitor to be almost invisible.

Yes, I think we're going to see more revelations. Much will depend on how enthusiastic the Bush administration is in pursuing Americans who spy against their own.

TBR: I had to laugh when Jeff Hammond finally ridiculed those who believed the Cold War was truly over --- the same sarcastic thought crossed my mind very early in the book. Despite the fact that the "Cold War" is usually defined as a fairly specific political period when both the US and the USSR were deeply involved in the spy game, wouldn't it be naive to think it will ever become nonexistent?

GL: Thank you for noticing. Oh, if it were only true that the Cold War were over. Remember our high hopes when we celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall? Of course, reality set in with the unmasking of Aldrich Ames in the mid 1990s and then Robert Philip Hanssen this past spring. Both men continued to spy for Russia long after the old KGB had been broken into bits and reassembled into new abbreviations.

But then, to be realistic, nations have always spied not only on enemies but on friends, the theory being that one never knows when one's friend will become one's enemy. That attitude hasn't changed, and as long as any nation uses an enemy to help justify its existence, we will have war, hot or cold. Plus, there's the very real addiction to Big Toys That Kill. Alas, we don't yet seem able to evolve past all that. But I have hope we'll grow up someday.

TBR: Although Beth Convey is initially the heroine of MESMERIZED, Jeff Hammond, the Washington Post reporter and ex-FBI agent, quickly becomes equally important in the scheme of things. Did your story just evolve in that direction or do you prefer a balance of both male and female protagonists to provide a broader canvas to draw upon?

GL: No one's ever asked me that. In fact, I'm not sure I was consciously doing it. But now you've made me realize that I did the same balancing act in MOSAIC and MASQUERADE, too. I love what Flannery O'Connor once said, something like: "I don't always know what I think until I write it."

I like to tell big, sweeping stories, and to do that I need characters who can express a divergence. So you're right. Plus, isn't it nice if a couple of them fall in love?

TBR: One of the most appealing facets of your novel were the characterizations of the individual Russians who comprised the enemy, in particular General Alexei Berianov. Did you have any models for these characters or were they purely fictional?

GL: Oh, my. Found out. Yes, as a matter of fact, I did base Berianov and others loosely on several Russian oligarchs and politicians. They're such fascinating people. They started out squeezing rubles and became billionaires in less than a decade. What writer could pass that up?

TBR: How valuable was your background as both a reporter and a think-tank editor with top security clearance in formulating your storylines as an espionage thriller writer?

GL: Very valuable. As a journalist, I learned to love research. One of my professors, a colorful character who would shout his lectures, had great advice: "Ask! Ask! Ask!" So I learned that it's better to look like an idiot than to not ask the question. Now I'm willing to look like an idiot at the drop of a hat or a fact.

As for being a think-tank editor, that gave me a real dose of what it's like to work in a secure environment. We had to use codes to enter various parts of the building, and everything was kept under lock and key. Security people went around after us, making certain we behaved. I worked on projects that ranged from making deserts bloom to developing weaponry that could wipe life from entire continents. Schizophrenic but never dull. While I was there, I heard whispers about brain-washing programs the government was conducting. Those whispers were the beginning of MASQUERADE.

TBR: MESMERIZED also contains another intriguing aspect --- the young Washington lawyer, Beth Convey, becoming the recipient of a heart transplant from an ex-KGB agent who had defected to the United States. She experiences violent dreams, strange sensations, odd food cravings --- all purportedly reflecting cellular memories that have carried over from her donor. What first sparked your interest in this controversial medical theory?

GL: My daughter, Julia Stone, sent me a clipping from New York about a strange result some heart-transplant recipients were describing called cellular memory. Some 300 people told anecdotal stories about changes in tastes, feelings, even attitudes. They weren't particularly complaining, mind you. Most found it fascinating.

Well, I was fascinated, too. I remember when anyone who wrote about cloning was thought to be indulging in science fiction. Novelists have always taken what's new in science, math, and the arts and woven them into stories. Where fact intersects with the imagination is an exciting --- and useful --- place to be.

TBR: You have referenced Claire Sylvia's memoir, A CHANGE OF HEART, as an excellent example of the anecdotal evidence supporting the belief that memories and characteristics can be transferred from donor to recipient. Were you able to talk with any of the people who believe they've had such experiences?

GL: No, alas, I wasn't. However, I did extensive research in articles, books, and online. I was amazed at how much information I found.

TBR: In MESMERIZED, your character's donor was male as was the real-life donor for Claire Sylvia. Does the gender of the donor have any impact on the recipient? Are Beth's aggressive tendencies after the surgery more of a plot device or is there evidence to suggest that significant changes in behavior are a possibility?

GL: According to my research, some recipients felt that they were indeed impacted by the sex of their donor. For instance, Claire Sylvia reported finding a different kind of woman attractive. However, having a man's heart didn't turn her into a homosexual. As much as anything, I suspect that if cellular memory is real, then it's the attitudes of the donor --- the preferences and dislikes that we all have --- that impact the recipient, and that can include aggressiveness or passivity.

TBR: Without giving anything away, MESMERIZED ends with the line that "it's not over yet." Were you making general reference to the ongoing unrest in Russia? Or is it possible we will see more of Beth Convey and Jeff Hammond in the future?

GL: "Yes" to the ongoing unrest in Russia. "I don't know" to whether Beth and Jeff will appear in a new adventure. I must say I'm fond of them and miss them. I'll just have to wait to see whether they knock on my writing door someday to say they'd like to come in for a chat. They're friendly sorts, and they don't like boredom, so perhaps they will.

TBR: Political philosophies aside, there was some logic to the desires of these Russian agents in wanting to see Russia's government returned to it's former Soviet Union. Has the US exacerbated the current instability in Russia by attempting to encourage democratic ideology in a country that hasn't the infrastructure to support it?

GL: Absolutely. We are so enthusiastic and optimistic that it's difficult for us to comprehend the differences in culture and philosophy between the United States and Russia. Having said that, we made one enormous mistake that's cost Russia, us, and the world greatly. And it's not about democracy; it's about economics.

To have a viable Capitalist system, a nation must have working banks and a respected judiciary. That's bottom line. Absolutely necessary. But as part of the high cost of communism, Russia had neither. We were naive to think that by encouraging democracy, which the Russians want and are capable of having, their economy would work. Russia's terrible financial freefall was and is so vast that no amount of money we, or any other nation, throw at it is going to solve it in a mere decade. Democracy cannot thrive where gangsterism rules.

However, there's still the future. And the Russian people are not only warm and big-hearted, they're survivors. They don't trust their government, but they do trust themselves and the Russian soul, and well they should.

TBR: Robert Ludlum was one of the all-time masters of the espionage thriller and you recently collaborated with him on the Covert One novel, THE HADES FACTOR. Are there other novels in the Covert One series that you've collaborated on that are yet to be published? Will the series be continued through yourself and/or other writers now that he's gone?

GL: I thoroughly enjoyed working on THE HADES FACTOR with Bob. I grew up on his work, and it's obviously had a big impact on me, since I've chosen to till the same fields. Yes, my second collaboration with Bob, THE PARIS OPTION, will be out next spring. I hope you like it.

TBR: It must be immensely satisfying to be the first female to receive such high recognition among the formerly all-male masters of the espionage thriller. Do you feel some burden of responsibility now to pave the way for other women writers in this field?

GL: I love the field so much that I keep forgetting I'm something of a pioneer. One of my favorite fan letters is from a fellow who said he looked around his library, which is apparently frightening because he has so many books, and realized I was the first female author he'd bought. And he loves my novels. I'm very proud that bookstores report that half my readers are women and half men. Very nice. That tells me I'm telling stories that appeal to a wide variety of people, which is, simply, what I want to do. I'm just a storyteller.

I'm terribly excited that Francine Matthews has landed with a big splash with her first espionage novel, THE CUT OUT. She's got a great background in intelligence work, and her writing is terrific. I'm hoping more women writers enter the field, too. Many of us have read spy thrillers for years, introducing them to our husbands, boyfriends, and fathers, as well as vice versa. May the word continue to go out.

TBR: What authors of this genre or any other have inspired you as a writer?

GL: I read everything. When I was growing up, I even read Campbell soup cans. In fact, when I was a little girl I saw words inside the cardboard cylinder around which toilet paper is wrapped. So I tore apart the cardboard, and that's how I learned that Crown Zellerbach was the largest paper producer in the world, in those days. Ah, sweet words!

Besides Bob, I'm fond of the classics --- Helen MacInnes, Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follett, and now I'm a big fan of Nelson DeMille. I should also tell you my husband's books have had an enormous impact on me. He's the best writer I know --- Dennis Lynds, aka Michael Collins.

TBR: Both John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum's espionage novels have been adapted into successful movies, although "purists" objected to the way the plots were altered. Would you be receptive to having your work adapted for a film version? Would you want to write the screenplay?

GL: I'd love to see all of my books made into movies. It's such an interesting, vital medium, and I'm a big popcorn freak. However, I doubt I'd ever want to write the screenplays. I have too much respect for films; I'd be a rank amateur. Besides, writing my behemoth tomes seems to take all the brain power I can muster.

TBR: Have you formulated any ideas for your next project that you can share with us?

GL: All I can say is that I'm working on my next suspense story, and I'm in the early throes of it, when I'm convinced I'll never quite get a grip. At the same time, oh, such excitement! Can't wait to find out what I don't know!