Thrillerfest 2012: Would You Make A Good Spy?

The ThrillerFest Conference, hosted by the International Thriller Writers, recently came to town. Held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Grand Central station, the event was hardly what we’d call discreet. But then again, the revelation of state secrets wasn’t on the itinerary. The only secrets set to be revealed dealt with the writing of good books. And one of RT’s favorite panels during the conference had to be the “Would You Make A Good Spy?” discussion. Lead by Panel Master Gayle Lynds, the chat centered on the creation of a believable (fictional) spy. Calling spying the world’s “second oldest profession,” Lynds claims that writers and spies have a lot in common because the two groups both know how to lie. However, during the panel itself, we found thriller authors Mark Greaney, Maria Gustafsson, Dan Mayland, Keith Raffel, Keith Thomson and Andrew Kaplan to be honest and forthcoming when they listed the requirements of any good spy. Here’s what they had to say: 

Panelists discussed what it takes to make a good spy

Despite never serving in a clandestine organization (he swears), Twice A Spy author Keith Thomson definitely knew what he was talking about as he made his case for what it takes to gather intelligence: “People skills are paramount. These spies are recruiters for a fraternity. They have to have an affability to convince people to turn on their country and commit crimes.”

In order to explain his thoughts on the making of a great spy, ex-war correspondent and fiction writer Andrew Kaplan turned to the MICE acronym: Money, Ideology, Compromise and Ego. To turn someone, he pointed out, you’d have to get inside their heads. And the four best ways to do that, according to Kaplan, are: Cold, hard cash, appealing to patriotism, threatening to compromise their position or playing to their ego. The author said in order to successfully gather secrets, the ability of a spy to recognize an asset — and then recruit the said asset’s assent — is important. If readers want to see how it is done, they should pick up Kaplan’s upcoming thriller Scorpion Winter, which features Scorpion, a covert operative turned freelance spy.

Dan Mayland said that a spy’s number one skill has to be compartmentalization. The author used the protagonist in his August release, The Colonel’s Mistake, to illustrate this point. Mayland’s upcoming thriller features ex-CIA station chief Mark Sava. After leaving his job, Sava has been trying to live a normal life — emphasis on trying. Mayland says of his hero, “Sava cannot tell his girlfriend about his past which creates an emotional distance between the two. He has to lie to those he loves and works with and, in order to function, he must compartmentalize.”

Author Keith Raffel uses his real life experience as a member of the council on Senate Intelligence for his writing, including his September release, A Fine and Dangerous Season. Raffel believes what makes a good spy or intelligence officer, as well as a fiction writer, is curiosity. “You have to constantly be listening. On the subway, on the bus. Turn others’ ideas into your own.”

Mark Greaney is the author of the popular Gray Man series, which will soon be on the big screen starring Brad Pitt as Court Gentry. Greaney said his protagonist Gentry, who is a spy living off the grid, can most assuredly be described as an anti-hero. The sometimes questionable morality of his character is an integral part of creating Gentry’s role as a believable spy. The author said, “Spies are not Paladins. The CIA does not just work with good guys, because if you’re only hanging out with good guys, it will not teach you what you need.”

Author Maria Gustafsson has an intimate knowledge of living a covert life. She grew up in Sweden during the Cold War in a town that was the country’s main defense point. After years of experiencing suffocating security and almost complete isolation from outsiders, Gustafsson said that a spy’s greatest weapon is one of anonymity. To survive, they must have a discrete, believable cover. 

So do you have the skills to make a great spy? Let us know in the comments below. And for more coverage of ThrillerFest as well as thrilling novels, make sure to check out RT’s Everything Mystery/Thriller/Suspense Page!