Author Talk: July 17, 2009
Stephen L. Carter is a law professor and has written 11 fiction and nonfiction titles, including the novels THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK, NEW ENGLAND WHITE and PALACE COUNCIL. In this interview, Carter explains how his latest book, JERICHO'S FALL, differs from his previous work and was inspired by his fascination with the prominence of mental illness amongst the intelligence community. He also discusses his research on the CIA and elaborates on the difficult lives spies lead.
Question: JERICHO'S FALL is a departure from your previous novels. What made you decide to turn your attention to a spy thriller?
Stephen L. Carter: I was ready for a change of pace. My other novels have been large --- as the reviewers like to say, multi-layered. I wanted to try a short, straightforward page turner, a book to be read for the sheer pleasure of the story. Thrillers are fun to read, and, as I discovered, they are also lots of fun to write. If readers like JERICHO'S FALL, I expect I will write more of them.
Q: In your 'Author's Note' you write that "the problem of mental illness among intelligence professionals is often said to be endemic." This link between intelligence work and madness is certainly born out in your character Jericho Ainsley. Why do you think this link exists and is this what drew you to Jericho's story?
SLC: In researching my previous novel, PALACE COUNCIL, I became fascinated by the problem of mental illness in the intelligence community, an issue much-commented on in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly because of James Jesus Angleton, whose paranoia when he ran counter-intelligence at the CIA nearly tore the place apart. I thought that structuring a story around an ex-spy who was losing his mind might provide a nice hook, and the rest just followed.
Q: Jericho is former Director of the CIA, former Secretary of Defense, former White House National Security Advisor ("former everything" as you refer to him). You seem equally interested in how his career affected not only him but his family, and in particular his ex-lover Rebecca DeForde ("Beck"). Why did you decide to make Beck the center of the story?
SLC: My first novel, THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK, dealt in part with what happens to the family of a man who is embittered after losing a tough confirmation battle for the Supreme Court. Here, I thought about the men in public life who have been brought down (or nearly brought down) by their relationships with women. We always find out what happened to the men, but rarely what happened to the women. In Beck DeForde, I wrote a character who was once "the other woman" to a famous man, and has had to rebuild her life after their tempestuous relationship ended. The idea of drawing her into the conspiratorial web surrounding her ex-lover was irresistible.
Q: Have you always been fascinated with the idea of spies and secrets?
SLC: It is not spying itself that interests me, it is the people who do it. I have done some reading about the toll that intelligence work takes on families, and here I have tried to imagine it fictionally.
As to secrets, I teach a course at Yale Law School on secrets and the law. We build powerful walls to keep secrets, and most of them are probably not worth keeping. Those that are, sooner or later tend to leak through the wall. No doubt there are some secrets that should be kept, but classification and national security tempt those in power to keep in the darkness acts and words that should be dragged into the light. One rule of thumb I wish all officials would follow is this: Don't do anything you're not willing to defend in your memoirs.
Q: What sort of research did this novel require? Did you have to investigate the history of the CIA? What it's like to work in the intelligence community? Interrogation techniques etc.? Did your research into the intelligence community unearth any surprises?
SLC: I did a lot of research about the CIA, its history, its structure, its personalities, as well as about various mental illnesses. One thing that struck me was how much mental illness there has been, historically, near the top of the Agency. I mentioned Angleton. Frank Wisner, the father of the clandestine services, had a nervous breakdown while on the job. There are other, smaller stories, as well.
Q: After his retirement, Jericho went to work for a big financial firm where he may have been using his former ties and connections to perpetrate a massive financial fraud. While you are clear to point out that this is fiction it does seem that many government big wigs transition to the financial sector. Should we be troubled about this tendency? Have there been financial scandals involving former CIA agents?
SLC: The CIA has had its share of financial scandals, but the larger problem, I think, is the way that people parlay government service into multi-million dollar stints lobbying and litigating against the very agencies they used to run. Such conduct is not, nor should it be, illegal; but it does not look good either.
Q: Can people who dedicate their lives to keeping secrets and trading in conspiracies, ever really retire from that kind of work?
SLC: Of course one can retire, but this line of work has to have a lasting effect. If you live your life not talking about your work, it can be difficult to settle into a life where you can talk about everything. And people who have been on the inside often suffer when forced to sit on the outside instead.
Q: JERICHO'S FALL is set mainly in a small town in the Colorado Rockies. How and why did you choose this particular setting for the novel?
SLC: I have spent a lot of time in the Colorado Rockies over the past 30 years, and it is a region of the country I dearly love. There are, moreover, many places in the mountains where cell phone service is iffy or non-existent. Being cut off from the outside world is of course red meat to the thriller writer...
Q: Jericho's house, Stone Heights, is itself a character in this novel, one with its own secrets and surprises. It harks back to such stories as WUTHERING HEIGHTS or REBECCA or an Agatha Christie mystery where the physical setting is as much a character as the people. Did you have any of those stories in mind as you wrote this?
SLC: Oh, yes. I remember reading Thomas Hardy as a teenager, and being fascinated by the way that the house or the pond or the moor was always brooding over the action. Here, I had in effect two "physical" characters, the house itself, and the mountains that surround both Stone Heights and the town of Bethel. By the way, the town of Bethel is fictitious, but of course bears a biblical relation to Jericho.
Q: In your previous books characters from earlier novels have gone on to appear in future novels. Will we see more of any of the characters from this novel?
SLC: If I keep writing short thrillers like this one, we will certainly see some of these characters again. By the way, one of the minor characters in JERICHO'S FALL, a law professor named Tish Kirschbaum, was also a minor character in THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK. So I have kept the connections going.
© Copyright 2009, Stephen L. Carter. All rights reserved.
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