Interview with Gayle Lynds — Queen of Espionage Fiction

 

New York Times bestseller Gayle Lynds is the award-winning author of ten international espionage novels, including The Assassins, The Book of Spies, and The Last Spymaster.

Gayle Lynds - leaning on chin 83

“Reigning Queen of Espionage Fiction”

Gayle’s career began with her short stories being published in literary journals while she also wrote male pulp novels (including popular entries in the bestselling “Nick Carter” and “Mack Bolan” series). Since then, her books have won numerous awards and constant acclaim for their spy-tradecraft authenticity, clever plotting, and indelible characters.

Publishers Weekly lists her thriller Masquerade among the top ten spy novels of all time. Library Journal hails her as “the reigning queen of espionage fiction.” And Lee Child says she’s “today’s best espionage writer.” With the late Robert Ludlum, she created the “Covert-One” series. The first, The Hades Factor, became a CBS miniseries.

A member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, Gayle is co-founder (with David Morrell) of International Thriller Writers, Inc. She lives in Maine with her husband and “two bossy, geriatric cats.”

I had the privilege of meeting Gayle at a writer’s conference some years ago, while I was still in the early stages of work on HUNTER. She generously allowed me to pick her fertile brain and encouraged me to forge ahead and complete the book. Not only that, she introduced me to a former CIA officer who served as a vital source for the novel. For all of that, I thanked her in the book’s “Acknowledgments.” I also bought and read The Last Spymastera dazzling, unforgettable CIA thriller with a serpentine plot and terrific characters. To borrow the title from a famous spy movie theme song, “nobody does it better.”

For all those reasons, I’m thrilled to put Gayle Lynds under the spotlight now at The Vigilante Author. When you’ve read the interview, go grab her books (you’ll thank me), which you can find listed and described on her website, GayleLynds.com. You can also read her intriguing blog posts at “Rogue Women Writers.

(As always, click on the photos and cover images for expanded views.)

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The Vigilante Author: Gayle, congratulations on the smashing success of your latest bestselling thriller, The Assassins. [Read the first three chapters here.] The reviews have been fabulous—as usual. The Associated Press raved about it and called you “a master of the modern Cold War thriller.” And the book has won the Founder’s Award from the Military Writers Society of America.

Your focus has always been on spies. So, why write about assassins now?

The Assassins coverGayle Lynds: I became fascinated when I realized most people think of assassins as either psychopaths or sociopaths—monolithic, virtually identical. Not true. They’re as different as any of us are. Plus, there’s a spectrum in sociopathy and psychopathy that allows many people, not just those in the killing trade, to live and work among us undetected. At the same time, I admire anyone with a sky-high skill set.

With those ideas, I was off, creating six assassins, each from a different background—some political, others religious, and one in it simply for the money. All are from the old Cold War days, independent, and expert, or they wouldn’t have survived until today. As they’re hunting each other, it becomes obvious there are high stakes, and one of those stakes is the location of Saddam Hussein’s missing $40 billion fortune. Personally, I’ve always wanted to find it. And I’m not alone—the search for Saddam’s lost wealth is considered the greatest treasure hunt since we went looking for Nazi gold after World War II.

The Vigilante Author: Besides the six assassins, Eva Blake and Judd Ryder star in The Assassins. Their first appearance was in your previous novel, The Book of Spies, which Library Journal named one of the Best Thrillers of the Year. Why did you decide to bring them back in The Assassins?

Gayle Lynds: I’d really enjoyed creating Judd and Eva, and I missed them. As I was wandering around my house envisioning the next book, I realized their stories weren’t finished. That was a mighty fine moment for me. So I happily brought them back in The Assassins to put them through their literary paces and discover who they were now and what they’d do next.

The Book of Spies coverThe Vigilante Author: You’re considered something of an icon in spy fiction. Lee Child calls you “today’s best espionage writer,” while Library Journal says you’re “the reigning queen of espionage fiction.” What started you on this storytelling path?

Gayle Lynds: I suppose you could say I didn’t know any better. Ultimately I blame Kurt Vonnegut. He was a writer in residence at the University of Iowa while I was studying there. I asked him where he’d come up with the terrific idea for his novel Cat’s Cradle, and he said it all started during a summer job he had at a think tank, where “ideas bounced off the walls.”

Since my dream was to write novels, I jumped at the chance a few years later to be an editor at a private think tank that did a lot of government work. There I was vetted for Top Secret security clearance and stepped into an exciting world of research, creativity, hard work—and secrets. Years later, when I was finally able to write my own novels, I found myself influenced by those years. I wanted to write about geopolitics, history, culture, and power. What better place than in espionage? I’ve been doing it now for 20 years, and see no end in sight. I love it.

The Vigilante Author: And so do your many readers! The world of espionage and spies is often seen as being male-dominated. What’s your take on this?

Gayle Lynds: Spies generally are men, and spy authors are, too. But on my refrigerator is a CIA magnet (really) that proclaims: “We are looking for a few good women.” Times are changing. Gayle - new photoWomen make first-rate intelligence officers, and I think we are first-rate writers in the field, too. But after every book I receive emails from men who are voracious readers of spy and adventure thrillers who tell me I’m the only female author on their bookshelves. That sometimes happens from female writers, too. Who knew I’d be a pioneer?

I’m happy to say that readers of all persuasions can now find great books by great female authors in the field. But like fine wine or a record-breaking World Series team, those of us who publish traditionally are few, just eight of usbestsellers and award winners. To make it easy to find our books and backgrounds, we’ve created a blog called Rogue Women Writers. RWW includes a former CIA officer, a former Reagan White House NSC officer, and several world travelers. Please visit!

The Vigilante Author: I’m on my way! And in addition to your personal example, your work launching International Thriller Writers has to be encouraging a lot of female writers to jump into the genre, too.

So tell me: Where do your heroes and heroines come from? Drawn in part from real life? Totally your imagination?

Gayle Lynds: I’m a dipper—something from Aunt Margaret here, a walk from Dewey Clarridge there, a revelation from a friend who passed away a few years ago who’d been undercover far too long and who’d had to live with far too sharp a memory.

And then there’s my imagination. As Robert Ludlum was, I’ve often been accused of having worked undercover in intelligence. I never had the honor, and neither did he. How he explained it says it for me, too: “I have friends—and an imagination.”

Masquerade coverThe Vigilante Author: Readers are no doubt curious how a nice girl like you got into writing about the often-nasty world of spies, traitors, and their bloody machinations. Let’s start with your upbringing and early life.

Gayle Lynds: I grew up in a little city in the Midwest—Council Bluffs, Iowa, where I still have many friends. My mother would ride the bus home from downtown where she’d been to the bank, to the doctor’s office, to the grocery store, running errands. At home, my grandmother would help her unpack the parcels and make coffee. Then they’d sit across from each other at the kitchen table ostensibly to drink a cup and let Mom relax, but really for her to tell where she’d been, who she’d seen, what she’d heard. We had little money, so storytelling as a form of insight and entertainment ran deep in my family.

At the same time, they loved books—and I became an early and grateful addict. Books gave me a way to leave the rattling trucks of Highway 64 behind and travel to other worlds, explore ideas and experience the different ways people lived. Thank goodness for our Andrew Carnegie library! As soon as I was allowed to ride the bus alone, I made weekly trips to it, bringing home armloads of books. In between reading, I began to dream the impossible: I wanted to write novels.

The Vigilante Author: Every author faces challenges and obstacles. What have you had to overcome along the way?

The Last Spymaster coverGayle Lynds: There are too many obstacles to list. And after a while, what’s the point of dwelling on them? What matters is the book I’m working on now, and then the next book after that. I feel very grateful and fortunate to be able to do work I love, and to receive emails and notes from readers who tell me they avidly read and enjoy my books. My biggest regret is that I’m not a faster writer.

The Vigilante Author: Ha. You’re a speed demon compared to me. If you figure that one out, let me know.

I always ask authors if they have some kind of conscious theme, message, political, or philosophical point of view in their stories. Well?

Gayle Lynds: I’m foremost a storyteller, but at the same time I want to slip in insider details that will increase the pleasure of my work for my readers. I love it when someone tells me they had a great ride reading one of my books—and they felt smarter when they finished. So no, the way I look at my work is that my job is to give both sides of a question the best argument I can, and let the reader decide what he or she thinks.

The Vigilante Author: But your tales do deal with serious conflicts in the world. For example, many people believe the Cold War is over. I’m betting you’d say it’s just changed. How do you do research to keep up with the contemporary world of espionage?

The Coil coverGayle Lynds: Since my background is journalism, I’ve always stayed abreast of the news. The fun part is to read between the lines. Currently, I take three newspapers every morning and two news magazines a week. Throughout the day I receive situation reports from a noted global intelligence company. Other people follow the horses or play fantasy baseball. Me, I’m just an old-fashioned news junkie.

The Vigilante Author: I spent some years in journalism, too, and these days I consider myself a recovering news junkie. But let me try to stir the pot a bit. What do you think of U.S. intelligence agencies?

Gayle Lynds: Espionage is often referred to as the fourth leg of U.S. government. The three other legs are the White House, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. Our intelligence agencies play a vital role in the ability of government to make good policy. Without accurate information, much of it secret, the government flies blind.

No matter how much you read that’s critical of the CIA, FBI, DIA, etc., the truth is their officers and staff do remarkable work. You hear about their errors, but seldom about their accomplishments. They keep the secrets. That’s their job. I salute them with a grateful heart.

The Vigilante Author: There’s no doubt that the I.C. is filled with dedicated patriots, and that too often the portrait we get of these brave, talented people and their work is too one-sided and overly critical.

The Hades Factor coverYou had the enviable opportunity to collaborate with one of the seminal writers of spy fiction, Robert Ludlum. What was it like to work on the “Covert-One” series inspired by him?

Gayle Lynds: Bob had never deliberately done a series before, and I hadn’t either. This was early in my career, and I’d published a couple of well-received spy novels and was being called the female Robert Ludlum. Apparently he enjoyed my books, which was why I was approached to help create the series.

What I hadn’t been told was that he was gravely ill. Sadly, he died shortly after the first came out. I think he would’ve been pleased that it—The Hades Factor—became a CBS miniseries. I wrote two more in the series, but by then I was so busy with my own career that I had to retire. I think back with pleasure on those days.

The Vigilante Author: So tell us something about where you live now—family, lifestyle, pets, kids, anything of interest.

Gayle Lynds: My previous husband, fellow author Dennis Lynds, died in 2005. We’d lived in Santa Barbara for decades, where we’d raised our children. He’d been not only a great love, but my writing and editing partner, and his loss was devastating.

Gayle & John on John's backhoe

Gayle & husband John on John’s backhoe

But then five years later I got lucky again: I met retired Maine district court judge John C. Sheldon, and in a swift series of events we embarked on a bicoastal romance. I can tell you from personal experience that there are a lot of miles between Maine and California.

We married a year later, in 2011—yes, on both coasts—and bought a house outside Portland, where we’ve lived happily ever since, in the middle of a 14-acre forest. I’ve spent all of my life in cities, so this is quite a change, and a welcome one, for me. [For more about that, see Gayle’s website.] I figure I’m in an ideal place with the ideal man to live and write.

The Vigilante Author: I’m really happy for you. Why don’t you tell us a bit about your writing methods. For example: Are you a meticulous outliner, as Robert Ludlum was—or are you spontaneous and “seat of the pants,” more like Lee Child or Stephen King? Or some hybrid?

Gayle Lynds: I’ve been both, depending on the book and my state of mind. Currently I’m back to outlining and can’t imagine why I ever stopped. Who knows what the next book will bring!

At work in her former office in Santa Barbara

At work in her former office in Santa Barbara

The Vigilante Author: Every author has a favorite place to work. Describe yours.

Gayle Lynds: My office is tiny but wonderful. I work at a PC with a large screen, and beyond that is a lot of glass looking out over our backyard, the forest, and 45 miles on a clear day to Mount Washington. I’ve never liked working without a view. In Santa Barbara, I had the ocean. Here, I have the mountains. Nature inspires me, and keeps me sane, which isn’t always easy for a writer.

The Vigilante Author: Gee, I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. Seriously, you’ve accomplished a great deal in your career. What gives you the greatest pleasure or pride?

Gayle Lynds: I began as a writer of literary short stories and of male pulp fiction. Yes, doing both at the same time, and publishing both. I love words, stringing them together, making pictures for the mind. And I also love adventure and politics and power.

At Heather's house

The Maine coast: taking inspiration from nature

I never understood why one had to choose to be a literary writer or a commercial writer, but that’s what I was told by both sides as I started out. To heck with such nonsense. I’m proud to write the best I can, in a form I love. It’s not the size of the canvas that matters; it’s the quality of the work on it.

The Vigilante Author: A hearty amen to that. I’ve never felt that popular fiction had to lack literary merit. In fact, it’s hard, demanding work to craft a story as you do, one that large numbers of people will enjoy.

In that vein, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Gayle Lynds: Be the best you can be every day, and never quit.  That goes for life, too.

The Vigilante Author: And what’s next on the horizon for your many fans?

Gayle Lynds: I’m writing a new spy novel. Shhh! Don’t tell!

The Vigilante Author: Boy, won’t they ever be surprised! But hey, I won’t breathe a word.

Thanks so much for taking precious time away from that new project to do this interview, Gayle. I hope it brings you a lot of new readers. You deserve many more, and they’re in for a treat.

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To learn more about Gayle Lynds, to sample and obtain her exciting spy thrillers, or to contact her, visit her website.

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