Baltimore Writers’ Club: A Q&A with Jessica Anya Blau and Tracy Walder about ‘The Unexpected Spy’

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In 2015, popular Baltimore novelist Jessica Anya Blau (The Trouble With Lexie, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, etc.) decided to try her hand at something completely different — ghostwriting. After working behind-the-scenes on a few books, including a bestselling memoir of child abuse and dysfunction, she was offered the opportunity to collaborate on a very different project – the memoir of a sorority girl from the University of Southern California who ended up working for the CIA and the FBI. An ex-spy named Tracy Walder, then a high school teacher in Dallas, was ready to tell her story.

Jessica and Tracy met over the phone when they both happened to be in visiting their families in Southern California, and hit it off immediately. The two were later in California together, discussing their pitch with an agent at CAA, when they got a call from an editor from St. Martin’s Press. By the next morning, they had both a book deal and TV show. The show is being produced by Ellen Pompeo of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame and Timberman-Beverly Productions (Masters of Sex, Unbelievable, etc.).

After months of hard work they completed a draft. The next step, as with any book revealing classified information, was to send the manuscript to the CIA for approval. They did so. The CIA returned it with around one hundred pages redacted – i.e., removed. Undaunted, they rewrote the book without the redacted portions and sent it in again. Again, it was returned with major redactions. They rewrote the chapters with major redactions a third time and sent it in once more. When they finally got it back, they decided not to rewrite, but to publish the book with the blacked-out sentences.

While The Unexpected Spy: From The CIA To The FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorists was making its way to print, not one but two books appeared by young women with similar stories! One was The Targeter: My Life In The CIA, Hunting Terrorists And Challenging The White House, by Nada Bakos, and from Amaryllis Fox, who happens to be the wife of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA.

When several books come out at once on the same topic, it is rarely a coincidence. Instead, it indicates a cultural phenomenon, something going on in the zeitgeist. This time, it’s this: Back in the early 2000s, patriotic, barely-out-of-college young women joined the CIA to help fight the war on terror experienced firsthand the shocking disconnect between what the CIA knew about terrorism and U.S. policy. By 2010, all of them were out of government positions and ready to think about telling their stories. A decade later, we are ready to hear them. St. Martin’s certainly thinks so, having announced a print run of 75,000 for The Unexpected Spy.

In 2003, Tracy Walder personally worked on a chart showing that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and the major active terrorists threats, most of which revolved around a thug named Zarqawi who at that point had no connection to Hussein. After being delivered to the White House, the chart was physically altered to make the opposite point — Hussein and Zarqawi were in cahoots — then displayed by Colin Powell when he announced the war.

“I wanted Bush impeached for treason,” writes Tracy Walder. This is a bit shocking to read, but apparently, didn’t bother the CIA reviewers at all. Other things – single words, sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs – did. This was despite the fact that the authors had already changed people’s names and been purposely vague about specific locations and certain activities — omitting anything Walder believed to be classified information. The CIA wasn’t satisfied, however, and its redactions are included in the text.

A wonderfully vivid dive into the real-life of a female intelligence agent, The Unexpected Spy received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, where it was called “a thrilling tale… fast-paced and intense.” The other pre-pubs, Booklist and Kirkus, chimed in with high praise, remarking on its seriousness, candor and intimacy, as well as its excellent writing. The collaborators must be glowing.

We were able to catch up with both of them for a behind-the-scenes look at the project.

BFB: Like you, Nadia Bakos went through the CIA review process – in her case, it went on so long that she filed a lawsuit. Amaryllis Fox, on the other hand, apparently published a book that was not vetted by the CIA at all. How do you feel about this? 

Tracy:  To me, having my book reviewed by the CIA’s Publications Review Board (PRB) was the most important and necessary thing that I could do.  When you leave the CIA, you sign a non-disclosure agreement that states you will submit to them anything you would like to publish.  It is an arduous process. However, I feel that it is absolutely necessary to protect the lives of my former colleagues and the integrity of the work that they do. Not submitting material to the PRB puts lives at risk and undermines the oath that we all took to protect national security.  My process with the PRB, though at times frustrating, was relatively smooth.    

BFB: Your decision to include the redactions in the book is interesting – didn’t you worry that readers would find it frustrating? Sometimes, in the case of the one-word redactions, it’s almost funny. Like in the part where Tracy is carrying top-secret papers in a SOMETHING through the airport, a SOMETHING she cannot put down even to go to the bathroom – though on the plane she dozed off with the SOMETHING resting on her belly beneath crossed arms. There’s only so many things it could be, really — a folder, a box, an envelope… I know you can’t tell us what the SOMETHING is, but what possible purpose does this redaction serve?

Jessica: I can’t even begin to guess what was going on in the mind of the review board readers at the CIA. Even more interesting than single word redactions was when we got back pages and pages of redactions with only one word NOT redacted. Like EAT. Or, TOOTHPASTE.  I mean, what about if, and, though, thus, well, etc.?

Tracy: It is almost beyond impossible to know why the CIA redacted the words/sentences that they did.  Some things were understandable, but I truly do not know for certain their reasoning behind some redactions.  My only logical conclusion was that they felt that in some way it compromised intelligence-gathering methods or sources.

BFB: Cities, hotels, streets and architecture are described in detail, but the place names are never included. (Except for Langley and Quantico. Guess those secrets are out.) Since Tracy’s bio tells us she traveled to Afghanistan, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Algeria, Morocco, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and England, why omit the place names in the book?

Tracy: This is something that has mystified me, too.  I am not sure I understand the logic behind it, so sorry!

BFB: Another question about Nadia Bakos – based on her book, it seems like at one point she had the same job as Tracy, working on Zarqawi, and had the same reaction about the lies relating to Sadam Hussein and the WMDs. Yet you two never crossed paths?

Tracy:  It is hard to know for certain why our paths didn’t cross, but here’s my guess: Nada, whom I would love to meet in person someday and who has been very supportive, worked on the analyst side of the “house” while I was on the operations side.  Also, though she started at the agency a bit before I did, she did not move into the counterterrorism center until right before I left.  Finally, she was in the targeting group, and I was in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Group. 

BFB: Why do you think the CIA hired so many very young people to work on counterterrorism? Why so many women?

Tracy:  When I began at the CIA, particularly in the counterterrorism group, it was prior to September 11th, 2001.  The more experienced folks were working in the more traditional groups which I can’t name, but I am sure it is not a surprise to anyone where our focus was given the lengthy Cold War.  Counterterrorism was simply not viewed as a high priority.  They certainly were not going to put someone right out of college in those more traditional groups, so that is why I ended up where I did.  After September 11th, it continued to fill with young folks and women because that was simply where the need was and they needed as many people as possible.

BFB: Jessica, as a collaborator, I could see your touch in the extensive physical descriptions, the details on clothing, and the snappy dialogue. I believe the ingredients your chocolate chip cookie recipe are included as part of metaphor at one point. What was it like, merging and managing your and Tracy’s sensibilities?

Jessica: Tracy and I are both Southern California raised Jews. We both went to college in California, too. So, I “got” her immediately. She’s a way better person than I—far more courageous, more studious, less of a mess-up. And, it’s no exaggeration to say she’s saved thousands and thousands of lives with the work she did overseas and at Langley. In many ways, she’s someone I’d love to be. So jumping into her head was fun, and not hard at all. Tracy has a great ear for dialogue, too, and never let a word get in that wasn’t authentic to her or anyone else who “speaks” in the book. It really was a collaboration in that every sentence, every comma, every word was thought through by both of us.

BFB: There are some horrible chauvinists in this story. When you were in the CIA, you experienced it from spies from other countries. When you went to the FBI, you found the whole organization to be sexist. I don’t know about the FBI, but the CIA now seems to be run mostly by women. Can you comment on this?

Tracy: I did not experience any degree of sexism at the CIA.  It was a wonderful, welcoming, engaging place to work and I naively assumed that the FBI would be the same.  The CIA was an amazing place for women, my group chief was a woman and many other group chiefs were as well.  I found there to be lots of advancement for women at the CIA and am not at all surprised that it is being mostly run by women.  I believe other agencies could take a page from them.

BFB: What progress has been made on the TV show? Are you writing the script?

Jessica: There’s an established showrunner working on the script now. The TV people are all great, smart, women who really understand who Tracy is and how heroic she is.

BFB: Tracy, you taught a course in Spycraft at Hockaday, a private school for girls in Dallas. Tell us about that class, and why you felt it was important for the students.

Tracy:  Though the CIA has made excellent strides in terms of advancement for women, I believe other national security agencies have not.  The other day, I was watching the news and they had a panel of “intelligence experts”, none of which included a woman.  I think for many years, women have been made to feel that these types of careers are a “man’s” place.  A few years ago, a British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officer, stated that women are ideal for espionage because we are excellent at multi-tasking and tapping into different emotional resources.  Additionally, the head of Israel’s intelligence service, the Mossad stated that “Women have a distinct advantage in secret warfare because of their ability to multitask,” Tamir Pardo said to Israel’s Lady Globes. He also added that women are “better at playing a role” and superior to men when it comes to “suppressing their ego in order to attain the goal.”

I ultimately would like to change the gender narrative in national security and foreign policy.  My class exposes young women to foreign policy and national security and in a way “normalizes” the conversation around it for them.  They see that it is a college major, job, etc. for both men AND women.  I will be leaving my school at the end of the semester to work more with the non-profit Girl Security, where I sit on the board of directors.  Girl Security is a nonpartisan, 501c(3) organization increasing the representation of women in national security by building a pipeline for girls and young women through learning, training, and mentoring support.  This allows me to have an even broader reach as we go into schools nation-wide with our curriculum. 

BFB: Jessica, I hear you’ve also written a couple of novels in the past few years. Can you tell us anything about that? What can we look forward to?

Jessica: I’m revising two novels now. But, you know, Marion, I hate talking about my work. It’s like talking about a pregnancy when all you’ve been doing is having lots and lots of unprotected sex.

The Baltimore launch of The Unexpected Spy will feature both authors in conversation at the Ivy Bookshop on February 27 at 7 pm.

 

Marion Winik


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