Skip to main content

Author Talk: April 2004

April 2004

In this interview Gayle Lynds talks about THE COIL, the sequel to her bestselling thriller MASQUERADE. A former magazine editor and newspaper reporter, Lynds had a first-hand taste of the world about which she writes when she was an editor at a private-industry think tank where she held top-secret security clearance. She worked on defense projects that ranged from new hardware designs for weapons of mass destruction to test trial results of cutting-edge military software and new methodologies in counterterrorism. Scientists, engineers and operatives passed quietly through the doors.

Q: The Chicago Sun-Times calls THE COIL "spellbinding," which is what a great thriller is supposed to be. One of the most unusual aspects of it is that it's also the story of a family of spies and assassins. In some ways, I'm reminded of the enormously popular TV series, The Sopranos. Are you doing for espionage what The Sopranos did for the Mafia?

GL: I hadn't looked at it that way, but I like the description. I have an affliction: I'm easily bored. So I counteract it by looking for what's unsaid or hidden or simply missed. In this case, I'd noticed that for years --- from Eric Ambler to Frederick Forsyth today --- authors were portraying their spies as lone wolves, idiosyncratic men (and a few women) who were mavericks and independent thinkers. That's generally true in real life, too.

The problem was that they were also routinely giving their main characters histories of divorce, murdered spouse(s) and/or endlessly failing love affairs.

Most people don't realize there are families of spies, just as there are families of teachers and lawyers and plumbers. For instance, it'd be difficult to find many people in the United States who haven't heard of the notorious traitor Aldrich ("Rick") Ames. What few realize is that both he and his father were CIA case officers.

When Ames's treachery was unmasked, I'd already written MASQUERADE, which features the notorious Cold War assassin known only as the Carnivore, his daughter, who's CIA and the widow of a CIA man, and his niece, who soon will be involved with the CIA, too. Eventually she also marries a CIA man. That book went on to be a New York Times bestseller and People magazine "Page-Turner of the Week."

In its sequel, THE COIL, the saga continues, this time bringing in the English branch, which includes the Carnivore's nephew, MI6 operative Simon Childs.

Every family has secrets. Imagine the secrets and stresses and unspoken guilt that infuse families of spies and assassins. Plus, of course, there are the very real responsibilities that intelligence officers carry. These are not small responsibilities. Operatives work in a world where the individual is always less important than the greater good. That's fertile ground for a novelist. THE COIL takes the family to the next level, just as it seems as if they've slipped back into being stable, even somewhat normal.

Q: At the end of MASQUERADE, your heroine, Liz Sansborough, wanted to return to her work in the CIA, but Langley wouldn't take her back because they had discovered her father was the Carnivore and believed the relationship made her high risk, even unreliable. So when THE COIL opens, it's several years later and she's a university professor who's done a complete reversal: Her specialty is the psychology of violence. I can remember reading no other action-adventure novel recently where the leading character wouldn't carry a gun. Why did you make that choice?

GL: From my viewpoint, a novelist's first job is to entertain and, even better, to enthrall. But that doesn't happen in a vacuum. There must be substance. And of course substance can come from many arenas. For instance, I'm captivated by politics, culture, history --- and psychology. In today's world, the subject of violence seemed important to investigate. For instance, what exactly IS violence? And what does it mean? Do you --- does anyone --- know?

Some people think suspense thrillers are supposed to be thoughtlessly brutal, doused in blood. From my viewpoint, "supposed to be" is not terribly interesting. So as THE COIL opens, Liz has reexamined her life. After all, she's a scholar in violence now. At the same time, she was raised by assassins, became a field operative who carried a gun and killed, her husband was liquidated by the Islamic jihad, and her mother died in an "accidental" explosion. What a heavy-duty history.

Considering the circumstances, her turning against deadly violence made a lot of sense. As she explains, "The problem is, violence isn't some kind of impartial raw material like butter or steel. It's not ethically and politically neutral. Just because someone thinks a cause is worthy, that doesn't mean the violence that's 'necessary' for the cause is worthy."

When Liz's cousin is kidnapped in Chapter One, and the ransom demanded is the Carnivore's files, Liz must make tough choices. At first she uses her wits and karate to defend herself and others. Then the stakes soar. How she handles her moral questions and whether her insights about violence remain unchanged seemed to me to be timely and, well, fascinating --- the sort of thriller that makes my pulse race.

Q: The Coil is a secret group of international moguls with staggering power. According to your Author's Note, they're based on a real one. Tell us how that happened.

GL: About nine years ago during other research, I stumbled upon one of those paragraphs that are the lifeblood of a novelist. It mentioned a yearly meeting of powerful world leaders that called itself the Bilderberg Group. I was instantly intrigued. Unlike the World Economic Forum, with its hundreds of government and business VIPs who usually gather in Davos, Switzerland, and Allen & Co., which is legendary for its smaller but even more elite summits in Sun Valley, Idaho, I had never heard of the Bilderbergers.

For good reason. As it turned out, the organization not only shuns publicity, it requires attendees to keep their invitations secret and to divulge nothing about the weekend itself. I spent months confirming the Bilderbergers even existed, although it had been founded decades before, in the early 1950s, and half its membership includes famous Americans like Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, James D. Wolfensohn (the World Bank) and Donald Graham (The Washington Post).

Today, the Bilderbergers are quietly but publicly acknowledged in Europe and Canada, but not here in the United States, not yet, which of course intrigues me even more. By the way, they named themselves for the venue in the Netherlands where they first met --- the Bilderberg Hotel.

We novelists tend to base our tales on actual events, and then we turn to our imaginations. I theorized that since such an exclusive congregation existed, it was logical at least one small cabal based upon mutual interests had formed within. So I took bits and pieces of what I knew about the real Bilderbergers and created a similar group I called the Nautilus (named for a fictitious hotel on the north coast of France where I imagined they first met in the early 1950s). Then I called the cabal the Coil, for the hidden spiral within a Nautilus shell.

Q: Then are the Bilderbergers what led you to write about globalization in THE COIL?

GL: Yes. In real life, the Bilderbergers initiated the European Common Market, which of course grew into the enormously powerful and, at least in my opinion, useful European Union. Unlike Adolf Hitler and Kaiser Wilhelm II, the EU is successfully uniting Europe without devastating war.

The Bilderbergers are also credited (or discredited) with fueling the formation of NAFTA. I suspect we'll eventually see a similar trade association in Asia, because the Bilderbergers want it. But it's not going to happen for quite a few years; the economic problems associated with NAFTA --- particularly the loss of jobs to other countries because of globalization --- will slow the formation of other large trade associations.

In any case, globalization is now a hot topic, and it should be, because it's impacting all of us. However, when I first began writing THE COIL, I'd mention it and people would say, "How do you spell that?" It's amazing how quickly events have caught up with THE COIL.

Q: What's next for you? More spy stories? What about terrorism? That seems to be the focus of the clandestine services these days.

GL: I like what Robert Gates, former DCI, once said: "When a spy smells flowers, he looks around for a coffin." Secrets of all sorts --- from the offices of heads of state to the safe houses of the clandestine services, from Afghani caves to the hot and dusty training camps of the next generation of fedayeen --- are my literary meat. Right now, the flowers are being carried mostly by terrorists of all sorts, and the stink is pervasive.

In THE PARIS OPTION, I wrote about the ETA (Basque nationalist movement) being secretly backed by a branch of al-Qaeda. The recent bombing attacks on trains in Madrid, in which hundreds were killed and injured, may be a tragic affirmation of that link, since the bombings appear to be the work of al-Qaeda, perhaps via the Basques. The threat is escalating of terrorist groups finding common ground not only because of their various shared money-washing fronts and banks, but because their youngest members are training together right now in such diverse places as Pakistan and Algeria and Idaho. These brainwashed youths are the next generation of terrorist leaders. On a very small scale, if Chechnya separatists sweat with al-Qaeda commandos learning hand-to-hand combat in the Philippines, and November 17 trains with the Shining Path in Iran, they have laid foundations for future cooperation that could have devastating consequences.

By the way, that sort of cooperation is addressed also in THE COIL. So, yes, my next novel deals with a specialized aspect of terrorism, and that's all I'm going to say about it. As J. Edgar Hoover once explained, "There's something about a secret that's addicting." This one, I'm keeping.