“Maggie Duncan?” you say. “That name sounds awfully familiar.”
Well, of course it does! Maggie’s a four-time Flash! Friday champ AND the winner of Flashversary II. She’s a member of my very own beloved Shenandoah Valley Writers, as it happens, and TODAY is the launch of her latest work, The Better Spy. We’ve already interviewed her here in two parts (here and here) for her Flashversary win, which means today we can skip past the basics and dig right into the SPY STUFF.
I trust you’re already following her on Twitter and at her blog. Next up: read today’s fun interview and leave a comment: Maggie is generously GIVING AWAY a copy of BOTH The Better Spy and My Noble Enemy to a randomly selected (by me) commenter.
Let’s jump in!
If I’ve done my math right, this is your FIFTH published book, starting with Fences in 2012 and continuing through today’s release of The Better Spy. Tell us a bit about your journey.
It’s actually my sixth. I won a small publishing contract in a contest back in 1999 and had a collection of short stories published, Rarely Well-Behaved. However, in 2012 when it went out of print and I regained the publishing rights, I polished up the stories and re-issued them in two collections, Fences and Other Stories and Blood Vengeance. Spy Flash came out in 2012. Blood Vengeance and Spy Flash are “linked short story” collections, meaning the stories stand alone but are part of an over-reaching arc in the book.
I’ve always known editing, beta-readers, editing, proof-reading, and editing are key to a successful book, but I reached the point with both My Noble Enemy and The Better Spy, where I was changing words just to be changing them (aka “happy to glad” changes). At some point you have to tell yourself, let it go. (Cue theme song from “Frozen” here.) The effort pays dividends in the end, though, and that’s what I’ve taken away from my personal publishing history, as well as when I was a magazine editor.
The Better Spy is a collection of stories; My Noble Enemy, which just released in May, is a novella. Just how insane have these past three months been for you? How have you kept (haha) your sanity? What made you choose the story-collection and novella formats to tell these particular stories?
The Better Spy is a novel in stories, which is similar to linked stories, except the linkages are closer, tighter. The Better Spy focuses on the aftermath of a specific spy mission in a main character’s life, and most of the twenty-three stories would be considered flash fiction. Only a couple exceed 3,000 words.
Yeah, the last couple of months I’ve often asked myself, “What were you thinking?” But it just worked out that way. For My Noble Enemy, I wanted to do something longer than a short story, and I wanted to bring a secondary character to a conclusion. It wasn’t quite enough for a novel, but it fit a novella perfectly. Besides, I’d never done a novella before, so… And if I’d written a novel about the subject matter of The Better Spy, it would be about 300,000 words long. Hitting the highlights of the time period using short stories was the way to go.
Several of your books feature your beloved superstar spy couple, Alexei and Mai. Will you please introduce us?
Alexei N. Bukharin is a Soviet defector who came to work for a super secretive U.N. espionage organization. He also works for an internal Soviet cabal called the Red Circle, whose goal was to bring down the Soviet Union from within, so at times real people on both sides of the Cold War appear in my writing about him. When his partner of many years moved up to management, Alexei became the training agent for nineteen year old Maitland “Mai” Fisher. Her mother was a Bletchley Girl in World War II, the famous British code-breakers, and her father was an operative for British Intelligence, but they joined the same U.N. spy group as Alexei when it was formed. They were killed when she was five, and she was raised by her guardian, a spy master, who recruited her when she was sixteen years old. She often says, “Spying is in my DNA.”
Oh, and they’re married, so I can spice my stories up with a little marital discord and make-up sex. 😉
You’re known for thoroughly researching whatever you’re writing about. Without setting the authorities on us, can you tell us how you went about researching for this latest book?
What I write I call historical thrillers, and my degree is in history, so I love to research. In fact, it’s another time when I have to force myself to stop. So, most of what appears in The Better Spy is based on historical background on the IRA activities in the 1980s. Because I made up my own espionage organization, the United Nations Intelligence Directorate, I don’t have to rely on CIA or other organizations’ protocols — I got to make up my own. So, we shouldn’t be in trouble.
That said, I do a lot of reading on some very odd subjects. Just the other day, I needed to know what a noise suppressor for an AK-47 looked like, so that should leave a footprint of some sort for the FBI. Just kidding. Not really. Yes, kidding.
From James Bond to Jason Bourne to Maxwell Smart, in spy fiction it can seem that the juiciest roles are men’s. First: based on your research, is that an accurate impression? If so, do you see it changing? If not, please illuminate us! And (a related) second: Can you point us to other women spies in fiction that readers might enjoy meeting? and third: who are your favorite spy writers to read?
Yes, I’d agree with that, which is why I rarely read current espionage fiction. I usually end up grinding my teeth in frustration. It’s already changed in mystery writing, courtesy of Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, among others. It’s changing in the thriller genre, more slowly, though. I think it will eventually change in espionage literature, too, because the reading demographic in that genre is skewing more to women, and women want to see strong women characters.
As I said, I don’t read much espionage fiction, actually, because I don’t want to be derivative. I mainly read LeCarre and Alan Furst, and because they write Cold War and between-the-world-wars historical thrillers, respectively, their women characters are generally in the support role and reflect the time period or the country they’re based in. I’ve read all of Ian Fleming, years ago, and recently re-read Casino Royale. I was frustrated by the sexism, even though it was indicative of the time Fleming wrote it. However, Fleming has the day-to-day routine of espionage down pat, and I think he would have been dismayed at the way his character of James Bond has become so flamboyant. A flamboyant spy doesn’t last long.
What drew you to espionage as a literary genre?
I’ve always been fascinated by espionage, likely from my pre-teen obsession with “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” television show. (There’s a reason Alexei is a Russian!) I like exploring the moral dilemmas covert operatives face, the blatant manipulation, the ability to fool people, all for what they think is a greater good. During the Cold War, we were told the KGB had only an evil intent, but in the post-Soviet era when many KGB operatives wrote books or moved to the U.S. and cooperated with U.S. intelligence agencies did we discover they spied for the same reasons we did: national security. They thought, just like us, they were keeping their homeland secure. Fascinating stuff. Fascinating people, and quite often more mundane than you’d expect. They have mortgages, car payments, day care expenses, like the rest of us.
You’ve also won some recent accolades, such as your based-on-real-life “Blood and Guts,” which semifinaled in the NYC Midnight contest and just last week WON the Blue Ridge Writers’ Fiction contest. Tell us more about that!
It’s interesting because when I committed to writing fiction, I told myself that I wasn’t going be the woman writer who exploits my family’s stories, but just about every story I’ve had published has had a hint of my family history. “Blood and Guts” got me through round two of the 2014 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, and the judges’ feedback was very positive. I liked the story a lot because it is based on how my father got his Bronze Star in World War II, so I polished it (I’m always polishing stories) and submitted it to the annual Blue Ridge Writers Contest. I wasn’t sure how it would be received, but the judge was a Gulf War vet who liked the fact I got the military “stuff” right. Blue Ridge Writers is a chapter of the Virginia Writers Club, so the story will go forward to the state-wide Golden Nib Contest. Fingers crossed.
What’s next for you????? What are you working on now–can we expect to see a lot more of Mai and Alexei?
I’m working on another novella! It’s called “The Yellow Scarf” and is about the Yugoslavian civil war of the 1990s, specifically the sniper war on the city of Sarajevo. Mai and Alexei, and a personal tragedy they suffer, are the principal characters. I’m also getting a literary novel ready to pitch to agents. It’s called Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season, and it starts with a couple who are renovating a room in an old house and find the bones of a baby inside a wall. In the ensuing search for who put it there, many secrets come to light.
And yes, I have at least ten novels in various stages of development involving the spy missions of Mai and Alexei, including one set in the present day where Alexei is a house-husband and Mai is the head of the United Nations Intelligence Directorate.
THANK YOU, Maggie, and mega congrats on today’s release — we’re all wishing you tremendous success! To you readers: thanks for joining us. Please leave a comment or question below, and on Wednesday we’ll randomly draw a name to win a copy of BOTH of Maggie’s latest works, The Better Spy and My Noble Enemy.