The Spy Who Read Me

Women writing about women spies who are, themselves, writing. What’s next for women’s espionage writing?

“Spying and fiction are not entirely different processes,” says historian of British espionage Ben Macintyre, in a conversation with master of spy fiction and former intelligence officer John le Carré. “You try to create an artificial world. And the better and more realistic and more emotionally believable you can make that world, as either a spy or a novelist, the better you are going to be at it.” Yet, Charles McCarry, who was a deep-cover operative for the CIA, and the author of the Paul Christopher novels, doesn’t see continuity between spying and fiction but, instead, between the secret and everyday worlds: “The fact of the matter is, the secret world is too much like the ordinary world to be altogether entertaining. The elements of tradecraft that thrill us in books—cover stories, clandestine meetings, dead drops, telephone codes and so on—are techniques familiar to anyone who has ever covered a big story for a newspaper, negotiated a big contract against serious competition or conducted a clandestine love affair.” Fiction and spying can look like each other, and spying and everyday life can look like each other.

What to make, then, of the new glut of women writing about spying—both in fiction and in memoir? On April 28, 2020, Jung H. Pak—a history PhD who spent 10 years working for the Central Intelligence Agency—published Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator. Pak writes as a former intelligence officer, and as a woman former intelligence officer, about a uniquely powerful, brutal, and secretive male leader. Pak’s biography of Kim was published during an obviously fascinating and enormously consequential context: active, ongoing speculation about his health. It also emerged into a specific literary context: innovative writing by women about the work of intelligence. Intelligence work by women is at the heart of new novels and memoirs about women intelligence officers. Books by Lara Prescott and Amarylliss Fox (not to mention books by Kate Atkinson, Lauren Wilkinson, Nada Bakos, and Tracy Walder) show women serving as spies, writing about serving as spies, and, in doing so, interlacing writing and spying.

Recently, women writing about spying—in memoir and fiction—has moved in two directions. In the past, fiction about espionage synched up with the intelligence concerns and capabilities of its day. But, today, fiction about espionage also sets its stories in the past.1 I focus here on The Secrets We Kept, by Prescott, a novel published late last year but set during the Cold War.2

Meanwhile, a new crop of memoirs takes readers inside the lives of women intelligence officers who served in the relatively recent past, whose service is shaped not by the Cold War but by 9/11 and its aftermath.3 Fox’s Life Undercover is one such memoir and is central to what follows.4

The women writers tell women’s stories of writing and spying. The experiences of practicing tradecraft aren’t precisely McCarry’s, and that’s worth discussing. Most importantly, they chronicle what spying looks like and what the everyday looks like, and, meaningfully, insist on their overlap.

For these women, paradoxically, the practice of being a spy and being an ordinary woman are not dissimilar. “I’m neck-deep in a game of make-believe,” laments Fox, “and the game is so convincing, I have no idea when it began. Or the ‘I’ who is playing it.”  Sound familiar?

Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept isn’t just a novel about spying but a novel—like others today, including Transcription and American Spy—that put writing by women about spying, and writing by women as spying, at their heart.

Prescott’s novel is particularly interesting, because it depicts a real-life CIA operation, and relies on documents from that operation that were declassified only in 2014. Moreover, Prescott foregrounds the work of women—especially, US women intelligence operatives—in the making of a book for intelligence purposes. Boris Pasternak may be the author of Dr. Zhivago, but The Secrets We Kept is about the work of women as spies, the role of women in creating Zhivago, and the intersection between the two.

Prescott’s CIA typist women hammer out—some in sheer fury at being relegated to the typing pool after serving as operatives during World War II—copies of Zhivago, secretly making copies of the Russian novel to be distributed in Russia. “We came to the Agency by way of Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith,” explain the nameless typist women of Prescott’s novel. “We were the first daughters of our families to earn degrees. Some of us spoke Mandarin. Some could fly planes … But all we were asked when interviewed was ‘Can you type?’”5

Prescott’s novel alternates between what it calls its Western half, the CIA operation, and its Eastern half. In the Western half, spies make books out of Pasternak’s fiction, while in the Eastern half, Pasternak makes fiction. “It’s about a book,” Frank tells Sally (who has managed to stay out of the typing pool and in the field), as he prepares to read her into the typists’ activities.6

“Book” does a lot of work here. What Pasternak writes in the Eastern half is a book. What the typists produce in the Western half is a book. And, of course, what Prescott herself makes is a book that is about both Pasternak writing a book and the typists (re)writing Dr. Zhivago. The agents and actors who make up the book—none more so than the typists, a group that speaks with one voice—are made into abstractions.

Prescott’s own public comments about the process of writing the book underscore both her relationship to fiction and her interest in public documents about opaque operations. She routinely notes her parents’ devotion to Pasternak’s novel and the fact that she herself is named “Lara.” She also routinely credits the declassified CIA materials for anchoring and informing her early ideas about what became The Secrets We Kept.

Project Aedinosaur aimed to bring Russian-language copies of Dr. Zhivago to the Soviet Union. It used famous cultural events, such as an international book fair in Brussels, to promote the novel, and move copies of it to the Soviet Union. Beyond providing the text to Soviet citizens, the operation also kept Pasternak in the spotlight, by playing up prominent public appearances or occasions, including when Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature. During the Cold War, the secret world engaged the open world by secretly (even if it was sometimes an open secret) publishing fiction, knowledge that is today open and the stuff of fiction.

The chapter headings name not events, or time frames, or individuals, but abstractions: “The Muse,” “The Carrier,” “The Swallow.” And yet, The Secrets We Kept also dives into individual stories, some that are told in a participant’s own voice and some that are not. The secrets that emerge, the ones that matter most, braid together (as McCarry might say) spying, tradecraft, and ordinary life.

Yet, though these revelations are deeply personal and directly tied to espionage, they are not the same ones described by McCarry. Instead, the novel reshapes what that relationship between tradecraft and ordinary life looks like.

In The Secrets We Kept, it turns out that Sally doesn’t work only for the CIA but also for the Soviets and loves Irina, a Soviet-American CIA operative, who also loves Sally. The novel also depicts the typists’ reaction to the women’s relationship; years later, rumors circulate that Sally and Irina are both still alive and living together, and the typists write, “Secretly, we hope so.” Women writers writing about women spies who are writing write about how to keep and reveal secrets in women’s voices.

Spying as writing, writing as spying, and writing about spying loop back on one another.

The reshaping of secrecy and revelation that occurs in the novel plays out differently with memoir. The memoirists, as former intelligence officers, operate under separate legal realities and constraints than do novelists. They are expected to keep secrets, even when they move into the open world.

The story of Life Undercover isn’t only the one told between the covers.7 The refining of the relation between transparency and secrecy that we saw with the novelists is even sharper when the writer tells the story of her own life and when that story is shaped both by the secrecy of acting as an intelligence officer and her ongoing obligations to maintaining secrecy.

Take Life Undercover. Fox’s early years, moving around, because of her economist father’s job, her relationship with her adored older brother, rambles around her grandparents’ house in the English countryside, receive lovely, lavish detail—the kind of detail that raised eyebrows when she wrote of her time in the CIA, but that actually stands out in a memoir that foregrounds government service.8 The death of her friend Lisa on Pan Am Flight 103, followed by 9/11, set the stage even more powerfully than her meeting as an 18-year-old with Aung San Suu Kyi and her first, unrealized, recruitment for her entrance to the secret world.

Fox weaves her government service into her own story and her own story into government service most vividly when writing about living out a marriage and the experience of new motherhood: “Only no one has briefed [her infant] Zoë on the mission, and she doesn’t play her role right,” under the eye of the Chinese Ministry of State Security. Her intimate, everyday life is open to another country’s spy agency, because of her own job as a spy. Fox writes matter-of-factly about her treatment: “From the moment we step foot on the ground, our every move is watched. It’s subtle at first … But soon … when I leave a pashmina shawl in a taxi, it’s returned to my front door by a policeman in uniform, despite our having paid for the ride in cash and not having told the driver our address.” Fox digs deeper still, “And, yet, from behind that pinhole and fixture, they’re watching. ‘Just pretend to be yourself,’ Langley has taught us, apparently without irony. I pee. Wash my hands … ‘What would I do next? If I were really me?’ I’ve asked myself that question in other hotel rooms in other countries. But it’s here, in this Chinese bathroom at dawn, that I realize I don’t know the answer.”

McCarry likened spying to the more ordinary work of doing business, or having an affair, or being a journalist, but these are neither Fox’s experiences of espionage nor her experiences of ordinary life. For her, life as a spy and ordinary life overlap most powerfully when she thinks deeply about who she is, the roles she plays, and the complicated interplay between those two realities. In writing her memoir, Fox interlaces ordinary life and life undercover in novel ways.

To understand what makes Fox’s memoir novel, it helps to get a sense of how the lines between writing about espionage and the practice of espionage have shifted around. The work of intelligence is, by its nature, secret and opaque, and, from that vantage point, writing about intelligence can look dangerously open and transparent. Even so, intelligence officials, both current and former, today, do not simply talk in public about how to do intelligence; they talk about what talking about it means both for the public and for intelligence. Alex Younger, who, as the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), is codenamed C, as were his predecessors, wrote openly, under his own name, in the Economist about these intersections: “Despite inevitable tensions between the secret and published world, the relationship has generally been of mutual benefit.”

Meanwhile, Scott Shane, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who recently stepped down from covering intelligence for the New York Times, sees it rather differently; in telling the story of his own (unrealized) recruitment to the CIA, he writes of turning away from government spying to spy on government spying. Shane wonders, “What if I’d joined that secret world? There would have been the satisfaction of witnessing, rather than having to pry loose, what the agencies are up to.” Younger, the head of an important part of a secret world, acknowledges, in print, the virtues of the publishing world, while Shane, who works in the publishing world, uses print to point out the difficulty of bringing the secret world into print.9


America Learns What Russia Knew

By Katherine Voyles

The memoirists write as insiders who are now outsiders who are still obliged to keep the secrets of insiders. The novelists are outsiders who travel inside through once-secret, now-public information. Real-life covert operations that involved producing and distributing fiction were turned into fiction in Prescott’s novel, while covert operations, detailed in books, became public, not through covert operations but through contentious dynamics between writers and the CIA’s Publications Review Board.

Spying as writing, writing as spying, and writing about spying loop back on one another. And they do so through the interactions between the secret work of espionage and the open world of books made by espionage. Just like Prescott’s focus on the espionage potential of another book, spying is, indeed, “about a book.”


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. icon

  1. The hand-wringing over whether the end of the Cold War meant the end of espionage fiction crystallizes the notion that spy fiction and the practice of spying are synchronic.
  2. The Cold War continues to influence stories of espionage: Transcription, by Atkinson, takes place during both World War II and the Cold War, and moves backward from 1981 to 1940 and to 1950,  and Wilkinson’s American Spy starts in 1992, and stretches back to 1962. The importance today of the Cold War as a setting for novels distinguishes our moment from previous ones; in 1998, the New York Times quoted an unnamed representative of Scribner declaring spy fiction centered on the Cold War era “done.”
  3. A different crop of memoirs by intelligence officials, including Joshua Campbell, James Clapper, James Comey, Michael Hayden, and Andrew McCabbe, are interesting, because, though some (especially, Hayden and Clapper) write about the Cold War, and some write about post-9/11 (Comey and the high-stakes fight over the reauthorization of  Stellar Wind), they all emerged into a world in which their discussions of Russia and their interactions with Donald Trump were top of mind. Bakos, Fox, and Walder, by contrast, all left intelligence work before the Russian interference in the 2016 election started, which according to the Mueller Report, was in the summer of 2014.
  4. Bakos’s The Targeter and Walder’s The Unexpected Spy are also noteworthy.
  5. Atkinson tells how Juliet Armstrong begins her work by transcribing conversations among British fascists before Peregrine “Perry” Gibbons puts her to work, among the moneyed English as “Iris Carter-Jenkins,” to locate the Red Book, which records the names of British fascists. Wilkinson’s novel begins in 1992, in the suburbs, before shifting back to the final decade of the Cold War, spending time in New York and Burkina Faso and Martinique along the way. Marie Mitchell’s story unfolds as a mother’s letter to her twin sons about her love for them, her work as a spy at the end of the Cold War, her complicated admiration for and attraction to Thomas Sankara, and her very identity as a Black woman working in federal law enforcement.
  6. American Spy reveals Sankara is the father of Marie’s twins, and she is drawn to his politics. Transcription reveals that Juliet isn’t Perry’s girl after all, that he is removed from M15, because of his relationship with men, that Juliet is Merton’s girl, “‘He’s been your handler a long time, hasn’t he? I wonder how much loyalty you carry for him?’ ‘Surprisingly little,’” that she can turn on Merton, and that Perry can, once again, make her his girl.
  7. And to understand that history, it’s crucial to understand how Bakos brought The Targeter to print. In April 2018, Bakos sued the CIA. Mark S. Zaid, Bakos’s lawyer, who specializes in issues of security clearances and whistleblowing, claimed that the book’s publication had been held up for two years by the CIA’s Publications Review Board, and took issue with the amount of redactions. The Targeter went through the review process and was published in June 2019. This all hovered in the background when Vogue ran an excerpt from Life Undercover, on August 9, 2019. On September 5, Yashar Ali revealed that Life Undercover had not been cleared for publication by the CIA. On September 11, two interesting things happened. Mary Louise Kelly’s review of the book ran in the Washington Post; the piece wove together the story in Fox’s memoir with the story of Fox’s memoir’s public presence. Kelly’s own piece zeroed in on the details in Fox’s writing that got Kelly’s attention: how Fox communicated with assets (Starbucks gift card balances and e-mail drafts folders), her details about training at The Farm, her use of covert communications when living under nonofficial cover, and more. Kelly, it should be noted, is also remarkably frank about her own decisions around national security and motherhood, in her piece about Fox. And, Zaid, the same lawyer who represented Bakos, announced that Fox was his client. Walder’s The Unexpected Spy, published in February 2020, wears its prepublication process on its sleeve; black bars cover parts of the text.
  8. The reactions to Jim Comey’s A Higher Loyalty underscore just how much government service and insider experiences, and not the person doing the serving, are top of mind when reacting to these kinds of memoirs.
  9. These memoirs and novels are published, as the very tensions they depict and embody through the very fact of their publication continue to play out. Shane’s colleague Charlie Savage wrote about the 2019 Department of Justice Inspector General’s report on the origins of the Russia investigation in an article called “We Just Got a Rare Look at National Security Surveillance. It Was Ugly.” Savage brings to light how Michael Horowitz’s report illuminates corners of the secret world through its intensive discussion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant process on Carter Page. Politico, on the same day as Savage’s article, discussed the dangers of that brightness by outlining how the report’s frankness could be used by foreign intelligence services to their advantage.
Featured-image photograph by Central Intelligence Agency / Flickr