I interviewed Mr. Henshaw before, for his debut novel, Red Cell, here at BlogCritics. So when I received a copy of his new publication, The Fall of Moscow Station, I knew it’d be a good read And it is.
In first interview he told me the writing of the first book had some drama as in his wife giving him a challenge. At the time I asked him about it,“So I love the story behind the book, that your wife said, essentially, you had to write this book in one year or she’d get your laptop. Can you share that story with our readers?”, and he replied as follows.
Back in 2003, my wife and I were recent college graduates, still paying down students loans and living as cheaply as possible in Northern Virginia, which is an expensive place to be for a GS-11 government analyst. At the time, I had been threatening to write a book for years but, like many writers, needed that swift kick to get moving. Procrastination has killed many would-be writers’ careers before they ever got started, and my wife decided she wasn’t going to let that happen.
Then I received an Exceptional Performance Award at work that came with $1,500 attached. My manager, in a strange bit of foreshadowing, asked me whether they shouldn’t just make the check out to Apple (I do love my high-tech toys). I laughed that off, assuming that we would just throw the money at one of our student loans or maybe a home improvement project. But my wife surprised me by delivering that swift kick in the form of a challenge — I could use the money to buy a Mac PowerBook, but I had to use it to write my book and I had to finish it in one year or she got the laptop. She didn’t even care if I got published. She just thought I was a good writer who needed to be developing my talents and that challenge, she said, would get me invested and keep me motivated.
The first draft of Red Cell actually took five years to finish, as I was learning to write a novel the hard way and I was a little overambitious in the scope of the plot — the first draft clocked in at 180,000 words. Some major life events interfered as well, but my wife was satisfied with my progress and let me keep the laptop anyway.
Red Cell was good and so is this one. Thanks again to Mark Henshaw for doing a new interview with me.
How did you come up with this story? How would you summarize it?
I had The Fall of Moscow Station in mind since I started writing Red Cell, the first book in the series and was always building towards it. Both Red Cell and Cold Shot alluded to the existence of some foreign player helping hostile countries acquire technologies otherwise beyond their reach that shift the global balance of power. Moscow Station tells the story of how Kyra Stryker and Jonathan Burke finally uncover who that player is and try to shut him down.
The only puzzle I really had to solve was the hook needed to kick the story off. Then GRU deputy director Gen. Yuri Ivanov — a former Spetznaz officer — disappeared and washed up on a beach in Turkey back in 2010. The official story was that he drowned while vacationing. How does the Russian equivalent of an ex-Navy SEAL who has a full-time security detail drown on vacation? Using that as the hook was a no-brainer. I just promoted him to director of Russian Foundation for Advanced Research (their version of the US DARPA) and the story ran from there.
Can you tell me about the book’s dedication and elaborate on what it means and why you included it?
While I was researching The Fall of Moscow Station, I spent a lot of time reading up on the Russians betrayed by Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. Ames and Hanssen are directly responsible for the deaths of more than a dozen people men and had no better reasons for their treason than greed and narcissism. Most of those Russian agents were motivated by far better causes and trusted the US to keep them safe— they deserved far better fates than what they suffered (I’m sure the Russians would disagree). Some of the other men Ames and Hanssen betrayed escaped only because creative, brave CIA officers were ready to risk their own lives and freedom to get them out.
Espionage is not a game and treason gets people killed.
You refer in your book, on page 89 and 90, to Edward Snowden. What do you think of his actions?
I’ve been asked that a lot. The question, more precisely stated I think, is whether Snowden is a hero and whistleblower or a traitor.
How can we tell the difference between someone who is legitimately trying to expose government wrongdoing and someone who’s just trying to hurt their agency or country? After wrestling with the question myself, I eventually came up with a two-part test that I use to answer the question for myself anytime someone leaks classified information.
First, did the person exhaust all of the sanctioned avenues for protesting an activity/program/decision that they consider unethical before going public? Every US intelligence agency has an internal office where employees can go with ethical concerns; and if they don’t feel their concerns were fully addressed, they can go to the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Justice or the Congressional intelligence committees. There’s no evidence that Snowden tried any of those avenues, much less all of them.
Second, was the classified information the person leaked narrowly confined only to the activity/program/decision that they considered unethical? A legitimate whistleblower would focus on the immediate issue and try not to endanger other activities and programs that aren’t really questionable. It’s no secret that Snowden has leaked and continues leaking information well outside the scope of the original program he claims drove him to go public.
In short, he didn’t try very hard (if at all) to work within the system to address his concerns before going public, and he hasn’t narrowed the scope of his leaks to his original complaint. Ergo, he fails my two-part test and I consider him a traitor trying to damage the US.
There are other reasons I consider him a traitor that I can’t go into here; but Jeffery Lewis of armscontrolwonk.com has a pretty good summary of the holes in Snowden’s story and an interesting theory to explain them.
Does it help to be able to draw on your military intelligence work when writing these books? To having been part of the very Red Cell the characters are part of? Can you summarize what the Red Cell does?
There’s no question that having been a military analyst helps – so much so that I wonder how anyone can write any good military-heavy thriller without some firsthand experience. If I didn’t have that background, I’d probably be writing historical fiction instead.
That’s especially true for my experience serving in the Red Cell. There’s a lot of misunderstanding, even inside the CIA, about the Red Cell’s mission. In a nutshell, the Red Cell’s mission is to drive policymakers and other analysts to question conventional wisdom and their own assumptions by offering alternate theories that explain current events or alternate scenarios for how current events could turn out.
Then-CIA Director George Tenet established the Red Cell on Sept. 13, 2001 because it was obvious that Sept. 11 was partly the result of what the 9/11 Commission would later term “a failure of imagination.” Everyone falls into mental ruts—it’s the way our brains work—and it becomes easy to ignore evidence that some event outside the realm of our normal, everyday experiences is in the offing. Tenet wanted to make sure that there was at least one unit that was examining theories that were “plausible but not probable” (if a theory is probable, the regular expert analysts should be proposing and defending it).
Of course, not everyone agrees one what’s plausible vs. what’s impossible, so Red Cell analysts have always run into a fair amount of hostility from other analysts who feel like they’re being second-guessed by people who aren’t experts in their (often narrow) field. To add insult to injury, the Red Cell usually prefers its members not to look at ideas related to their usual analytical specialties. People who aren’t experts bring “the beginner’s mind” to the table—they don’t automatically rule anything out because they aren’t coming to subject with any preconceived notions or biases.
The Red Cell isn’t trying to predict the future and it doesn’t really care whether its theories prove right in the end. The metric for success is whether it got decisionmakers and analysts talking about the ideas. You have to actually consider a hypothesis to prove it wrong; and just by considering it, your horizons expand even if you don’t agree with it in the end.
Your books contain a combination of real life facts, both people and places and events, with some that are fictional. Is it hard deciding when to draw from facts versus fiction?
Not really. I always opt for facts when I can. The more a novel is based in fact, the greater the you-are-there and this-could-actually-happen realism an author can offer the reader. I never make up places or buildings, or even rooms if I can help it, and I base my descriptions of them either on personal experience or photographs. For example the real CIA Red Cell vault really is located in 2G32 Old Headquarters Building at Langley, and the description I gave of it in my first novel is exactly what it looked like when I was there (they’ve since renovated). When I write a chase scene, I’ve always got a map in front of me and use the real street names and landmarks, and I use Google Street View photographs of the route if they’re available. All of the historical events and people that I reference are real.
The real world offers vast resources for an espionage author. I see no reason not to tap into them as much as possible.
With your intelligence background do you have to submit these books to any agencies for clearance before publication? How does that work?
Yes, I do. Everyone who works for the CIA has to sign a prepublication review agreement that stays in force even after they retire. Anything they ever want to publish on intelligence or any subject to which they had access to classified information has to be cleared by the Agency’s Publications Review Board (PRB). That applies to fiction and non-fiction alike.
The process isn’t hard. You just submit a draft to the PRB and they come back to you with a list of requested changes or deletions. If you disagree with one of their requests, you can appeal. The CIA Director has the final say.
The PRB is usually pretty fast and professional, and their requests are usually reasonable, though sometimes a little inscrutable — they can ask you to change something because it treads on something classified you aren’t cleared to know. I know that some former officers have complained that the PRB was trying to censor them—looking back, it seems like those authors had an axe to grind and wanted to use the gory details of their careers as the stone; I suspect they knew perfectly well before they submitted the draft that the PRB wasn’t going to clear it, so I don’t have a lot of sympathy for them. In my experience, the PRB will be as reasonable as you let them be.
What’s the status of the efforts to turn Red Cell into a movie?
Red Cell will probably never become a movie. The story only works with China as the antagonist, and the CIA’s key asset in the story is a man motivated by what he experienced during the Tiananmen Square massacre. So the Chinese government would never let an adaptation of Red Cell show in their country, and China has become too big a market for Hollywood to produce a movie that couldn’t play there or which would offend Beijing.
That said, I’ve drafted a screenplay adaptation of Cold Shot that integrates Red Cell’s first few chapters to introduce the characters. We’ll see if there’s any interest in that.
What’s next for you? Any plans to write any standalone books?
I’m still trying to figure that out myself. I do have ideas for some standalone stories, but I don’t know yet whether I’ll be staying in the Red Cell universe or stepping outside it in the next novel. That will depend, in no small part, on what Simon & Schuster wants to see. I’ll have had that discussion with my editor by the time you publish this.
What’s next in the series?
That would be telling, now wouldn’t it?