On ‘American Spy’ and Finding It on the Page—Lauren Wilkinson, Author

cover of American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Photo credit: Penguin Random House

Episode Notes

Lauren Wilkinson is the author of the novel American Spy, which was published by Random House in 2019 and subsequently named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review, Time, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among others. Including it on his summer reading list, former President Barack Obama described it as “a whole lot more than just a spy thriller, wrapping together the ties of family, of love, and of country.”

In addition to penning a critically acclaimed novel, Lauren has taught writing at Columbia University and the Fashion Institute of Technology and was a 2013 Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellow. Her writing has appeared in publications like Granta, The Believer, New York magazine, and The New York Times, and she also writes for television.

During this conversation, Lauren and host Ted Fox talked about some of the big themes in American Spy, including how we understand the term “American,” as well as the seven-year process she went through to write the book. That story involves a surprising connection between her novel and one of those by one of our past guests, Pulitzer-winner Marilynne Robinson.

Lastly, and on a completely unrelated note, at the very end of the interview, you might catch Lauren’s subtle nod to the New York City diner of Seinfeld fame that is Ted’s go-to background on Zoom.

We guess you could say we believe that, if you can’t go to coffee, you bring the iconic TV sitcom coffee shop to you.


Episode Transcript

*Note: We do our best to make these transcripts as accurate as we can. That said, if you want to quote from one of our episodes, particularly the words of our guests, please listen to the audio whenever possible. Thanks.

Ted Fox  0:00  
(voiceover) From the University of Notre Dame, this is With a Side of Knowledge. I'm your host, Ted Fox. Before the pandemic, we were the show that invited scholars, makers, and professionals out to brunch for informal conversations about their work. And we look forward to being that show again one day. But for now, we're recording remotely to maintain physical distancing. If you like what you hear, you can leave us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you're listening. Thanks for stopping by.

Lauren Wilkinson is the author of the novel American Spy, which was published by Random House in 2019 and subsequently named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review, Time, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among others. Including it on his summer reading list, former President Barack Obama described it as, quote, "a whole lot more than just a spy thriller, wrapping together the ties of family, of love, and of country." In addition to penning a critically acclaimed novel, Lauren has taught writing at Columbia University and the Fashion Institute of Technology, and was a 2013 Center for Fiction Emerging Writers Fellow. Her writing has appeared in publications like Granta, The Believer, New York magazine, and The New York Times, and she also writes for television. During our conversation, we talked about some of the big themes in American Spy, including how we understand the term "American," as well as the seven-year process she went through to write the book. That story includes a surprising connection between her novel and that of one of our past guests, Pulitzer-winner Marilynne Robinson. Lastly, and on a completely unrelated note, at the very end of the interview, you might catch Lauren's subtle nod to the New York City diner of Seinfeld fame that is my go-to background on Zoom. I guess you could say I believe that if you can't go to coffee, you bring the iconic TV sitcom coffee shop to you. (end voiceover)

Lauren Wilkinson, welcome to With a Side Knowledge.

Lauren Wilkinson  2:16  

Ted Fox  2:17  
Your novel, American Spy--awesome novel ...

Lauren Wilkinson  2:20  

Ted Fox  2:21  
... is the story of Marie Mitchell, whose defining moments as an intelligence officer take place during the latter stages of the Cold War. And whenever I have the chance to talk to a novelist, I always like to start by asking them to read from their book. So if you're willing--and you said you were, which I really appreciate--this is a passage from when Marie's on assignment in Burkina Faso in 1987, and she's been sent there to help undermine the government of Thomas Sankara.

Lauren Wilkinson  2:48  
Yes. So this opens up chapter 19. "I rode back to the house and took a quick shower to cool down. There was a guesthouse owned by a Frenchman nearby that I planned to walk over to for dinner. Like all cities, Ouagadougou was segregated by class, and I stuck to the handful of places where the wealthy hung out, which were always crawling with foreigners. I had no anxiety about that as I would've at home. After just a few days, my idealized vision of Africa had given way to the realities of Ouaga: I'd accepted that there were streets I wouldn't ride my motorcycle on because they were too chaotic. Restaurants--and this was most of them--I didn't want to eat in because there was neither running water nor real toilets in their bathrooms. Every day I spent in Burkina Faso was a reminder of how American I was.

"And although I found it difficult to be there, I thought it was good for me too, because it took me out of my usual context. There was the language, the new culture, the fact that in the United States I thought of myself as Black before I thought of myself as American. In Ouagadougou, routinely, those designations were reversed: People saw me as American first. THE American. I can't say I preferred it that way, but it gave me a new perspective."

Ted Fox  4:05  
Thank you. That was Lauren Wilkinson reading from American Spy. And part of the reason I picked that passage, the passage itself speaks to it; the title of the novel, American Spy, speaks to it; the Time magazine review on the cover, which said "Wilkinson's page-turner asks potent questions about politics, race and what it means to be an American," that speaks to it. How important to you was it to give readers the opportunity to really sit with and unpack the assumptions, the presumed commitments, etc. that the word "American" brings along with it?

Lauren Wilkinson  4:38  
Yeah, I mean, that was very important to me. It was definitely up there in my priorities list, and the reason was because it was just part of my experience. When I went to Ouaga for research, that was the thing that kept being most forefront in my mind that this was an opportunity for me, for the first time really in my life, to just see myself in different terms and to understand myself in the context of being an American. And you know, it was, I was in my early 30s, and it was just a new way for me to experience my identity. And I hoped that that theme would be very present for anyone who read the book.

Ted Fox  5:21  
And I mean, I think it's, it's so interesting, too, just what Marie goes through. And again, I will do my best in talking about it not to give spoilers to people who haven't read it, but just kind of the ideological questioning that she goes through. You know, she's an American intelligence officer in the mid 1980s, and, you know, Cold War and how communism is viewed and really kind of this process that she really goes through--and I think as a reader, you go through with her--of saying, like, Okay, these are kind of the preconceived notions I'm quote-unquote supposed to have as an American. And, Wow, the more I dig into this, I'm really kind of faced with some hard truths about that.

Lauren Wilkinson  6:03  
Yeah, I think she kind of needs to figure out, are the things that she--these preconceived notions that she's supposed to have as an American, do they serve her, you know? Does loyalty to these ideas--you know, should she be loyal to them if she feels that American institutions are not loyal to her? And, you know, I think that's been part and parcel with some of my own struggle, you know, as a Black American and feeling like, you know, bombarded constantly with news about policing and how dangerous it is for Black men in this country. You know, I sort of felt like, Surely Marie would have had to be grappling with some of those same feelings in the '80s. Yeah, and because it is in the Cold War period, Marie, you know, she's a boomer. And so for me, like, that generation, my parents,' my mom's generation, I really feel that the Cuban Missile Crisis was a really defining moment. Like, for something that terrifying in your childhood, I think that that really had a profound psychological effect on a whole generation. I think it created this, you know, this fear of communism, just kind of almost universally. So I think for Marie to kind of--it's like one of her big childhood fears almost, ideological fears that she's kind of facing. And it's a, I think, a big ideological fear for Americans, and she sort of is a symbol of that, or my theory about that. And so, yeah, Thomas, who is a Marxist is--it's like a simultaneous attraction and repulsion because, you know, she's attracted to him as a person, and as a revolutionary, and likes the way that he's challenging her ideas about, you know, what ideas she should be loyal to. But it's also, you know, he challenges that fear of communism that's kind of been ingrained in her.

Ted Fox  8:16  
I'm really glad you mentioned that, too, because I remember--I wasn't thinking about it as much when I was kind of thinking about the interview for today--but I remember reading it, and when she's a young girl and her experience of talking to her sister and being worried about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I think that's a really insightful point. Because I think so often, when we look back at history or in terms of military history, we look at the things that were, that became World War II, or that became Vietnam. But this was this experience that was so traumatic and such a real threat--and such a real threat to where you were in the U.S. It wasn't, Oh, if I would have to be sent off to fight somewhere; it's no, I'm sheltering in place under my desk in a school. And I think you're right. And it's interesting, too, because the age we see Marie at, I don't know that I was even thinking--Oh yes, she is a boomer based on how old she is. But we're seeing her kind of in, you know, as a 30-something woman as an intelligence officer. That's a really interesting point.

Lauren Wilkinson  9:20  
Yeah, I made her my mom's age exactly because I jump around in time through the book.

Ted Fox  9:27  

Lauren Wilkinson  9:28  
This is like, this is too hard. (laughing) Let me just give her a birthday I know so I always know how old she is. Yeah. (both laughing)

Ted Fox  9:35  
So, of herself as a teenager, Marie says, "I spoke and dressed well, did well in school, accepted that I had to be twice as upright for white folks to think I was half as virtuous." And one would have to be willfully ignorant of race and what it has meant and continues to mean in this country to think that that was an experience unique to her. But in terms of a character, in terms of how you thought about her, what do you think the acceptance or the tolerance or the reality of that double standard, of that white privilege, how did that shape Marie Mitchell, the individual, in terms of who she became?

Lauren Wilkinson  10:15  
Well, I feel that the character is really shaped specifically by, like, middle-class Black respectability politics. I feel that that's something that her father is trying to instill in her. You know, it goes even a little deeper than I'm saying because in my head, on some level, I do think that, like, there's an element of colorism involved. I think that's, I think that her father really embraces this particular type of respectability politics, and it's extended into some colorism. I think that's the reason why he's attracted to, you know, Marie's mother, who I say in the book can pass for white. So I think, like, it's a way of looking at the world that she is indoctrinated in, similarly to her fear of communism. And then I think as she gets older, she has to question if the lessons that she learned from her father, about respectability, if they are serving her--and in fact, if that's the way that she also sees the world. So for me, it's just, like, her coming to the conclusion in general a couple of times over the course of the book, just saying, you know, I think I believe this thing, but I've never really investigated it, and then her investigating it and realizing, Oh, maybe--maybe I don't know. (laughs) For me, that's definitely what that passage was about.

Ted Fox  11:44  
So she's telling the story, the narrative of the book, she's telling it as a letter she's leaving to her twin four-year-old boys, Tommy and William. And this was really cool for me individually because it took me back to a conversation I had a couple of years ago on this podcast with the author Marilynne Robinson. And she did the same sort of thing in her Pulitzer-winning novel, Gilead. And I asked her that question then, and I wanted to ask you, what appealed to you about this approach? As opposed to just saying, Marie's the narrator, and she's just going to kind of be talking to us as the readers directly. 

Lauren Wilkinson  12:17  
The reason I was so excited, you're gonna laugh: I literally stole it from Marilynne Robinson. (both laughing)

Ted Fox  12:22  
That's perfect.

Lauren Wilkinson  12:23  
I stole it from Gilead. And it was because I wrote--it's entirely practical. I wrote the short story that the novel eventually grew out of ... 

Ted Fox  12:35  

Lauren Wilkinson  12:35  
... in third person. And it was too distant. I kept getting the, you know--so short story was in third. Then I wrote the novel in third. And my editor and agent, who is a great reader for me, she was like, This is just too distant from them; there's no emotional closeness. I wrote it in first, and I was still having a problem because, you know, my conception of Marie was that keeping secrets is like the thing that has kept her alive. (laughs) So she wasn't racing to tell the world her story. And then I kind of was at an impasse, and I read Gilead at that time, and it came in at the perfect time. And I was like, Oh, this is great! (Ted laughing) This is so intimate, and so beautiful; I'm stealing this. (laughs) And it worked. It's really funny: You're the first person to mention Marilynne Robinson, but that's exactly who I took it from.

Ted Fox  13:34  
I'm sure she would be happy to know that. And it's funny because I feel like both times now I've asked this question, it's been really practical kind of answers. So your answer there, and when I asked her, she said, I don't know, I just had this image of this guy writing a letter to his kids, so I just decided, Yeah okay, maybe that's a book, and I'll go from there. (both laughing) So I think that's perfect.

Lauren Wilkinson  13:54  
It's such a great--I mean, it's such a beautiful book. She's a ...

Ted Fox  13:56  
It was.

Lauren Wilkinson  13:57  
... genius. Yeah, I loved it. I just was like, how are you doing this? I don't know, it felt--to me, that's one of those books you read where you're like, Oh, this is like magic. You know, like, there's some sort of alchemy happening that I can steal elements-- obviously, I did--but it's like, to recreate whatever magic she's creating on the page is--I don't know how you do it.

Ted Fox  14:18  
So American Spy is a work of fiction. The book jacket notes that it was inspired by true events, and you've mentioned a little bit of the research here. What kind of research and background work went into writing the novel?

Lauren Wilkinson  14:32  
I went to Burkina Faso. I envisioned her being there for around six weeks, so that's as long as I was there. I didn't want to write something as if I were like an authority. I wanted to write it as if--you know, it's not my culture--so I just wanted to write it as if I was an outsider and try to be as accurate as possible. And I also went to Martinique. My family is actually from Barbados, and it was important to me, I think, to sort of honor that, but I wanted her to be a French speaker. Just for the purposes of the story I wanted her to be a French speaker, and Martinique is very close to Barbados. And I was there, I went there with my dad, did research as well, and my half-sister, her mother lives in Martinique, so I was able to sort of interview her and just kind of get some of her thoughts and some of her experiences. Read some biographies in French of Thomas Sankara, read some memoirs of CIA agents--or, you know, CIA officers, female CIA officers--and read some stuff about the FBI. You know, there's so much archival information about Sankara, which is really great. You know, I watched a lot of videos of interviews and stuff, which was awesome. That always really helps make things--it's much easier, I think, for historical fiction after like the '70s or '80s, when you can kind of just watch a video and see how the person moved and kind of spoke and get a sense of them.

Ted Fox  16:07  
I'm guessing if this were true, you wouldn't be able to tell me anyway, but assuming that you've never been a spy ...

Lauren Wilkinson  16:13  
No. (laughs)

Ted Fox  16:13  
I mean, you talked there about reading like, you know, the CIA memoirs or things like that. Was that a, did that ever feel like a difficult world to get your arms around in order to feel like as the writer, I'm doing this in a way that is at least, I hope, or it feels authentic and true to life? Because it certainly is a--it's a very specific type of profession and way to move through the world.

Lauren Wilkinson  16:37  
Yeah, it was tricky for me because I kind of put, I put the cart before the horse. I knew that I wanted, like, spying--you know, like the racial subtext to be in the book--and I wanted to use the spying as a metaphor for that. And then I was like, Oh, I actually have to, like, understand the genre a lot better. (laughs) So then I, like, played a lot of catch-up. You know, I read a lot of--that was like my earliest research, was reading a lot of spy novels and just trying to kind of get into the mindset of--or I hoped to, anyway--of someone who would pursue being a CIA officer, you know. And yeah, I never had any personal experience. But I will say that I took--it took me like seven years to publish this book, or to write it. And in year six, my mom was like, Did I ever tell you about being recruited by the CIA? And I was like, What?! No! And why hasn't this come up before this moment? 

Ted Fox  17:39  
Right. (laughing)

Lauren Wilkinson  17:39  
Like, you know what I've been doing for, like, a long time now. (laughs) She told me, you know, she was a social psychology Ph.D., and they'd kind of gotten in touch with her through the University of Michigan, where she was doing her degree. And she went for an initial interview, and there's a story in the novel where Marie's convinced that her address book disappears. And that really happened to my mother. She went to D.C. for like just a preliminary interview, and she lost or misplaced this address book. You know, she's convinced that someone took it or something--that it was in her hotel room, and she was always really good at keeping track of it. And for me, the joy of that was like, not if someone actually took it, or if they did it, but just like the paranoia that it had incited in her. So I, you know, I kind of I liked that. (laughs)

Ted Fox  18:36  
I mean, it's like it almost serves the purpose whether it actually happened or not. It's the mindset that you would be in of, Okay, well, this seems completely plausible, even if it didn't actually happen.

Lauren Wilkinson  18:45  
Yeah. And she was like, I can't--she just knew, she was like, If I'm already thinking this way, I can't. (laughing) I probably am not gonna be good at this kind of job.

Ted Fox  18:55  
This isn't the right career path for me. (both laughing)

Lauren Wilkinson  18:57  
Not for me. Yeah. So I was like, That was wise of you to understand that early on.

Ted Fox  19:04  
You talk there about reading, you know, really kind of immersing yourself in the genre. And that's one thing that, to me reading it, is so interesting about something that, if you would, you know, describe it as a thriller. You mentioned earlier, it jumps around timeline-wise some. How do you know how much to give us as readers at any one time and how much to hold back? Because I feel like that would be kind of an ongoing negotiation from you as the writer behind it of, I want to keep them hooked in and I want this to be tense, but I want it to keep moving so I can't give you too much too quickly.

Lauren Wilkinson  19:43  
Yeah, there's no formula, unfortunately. It was just trial and error, over and over and over again. For me writing this book felt a lot like filming a documentary, except you just were following someone around. It's like footage of someone's whole entire life. And then you have to decide what footage is going to be in the hour and 20 minutes that you're going to tell the story about them. Except, like, I was making the footage and then also editing. So it was just like--the question that you asked is about, like, how I knew how much information I'm going to be giving and how I'm going to be doling it out. That's what took me seven years to write it. (laughing) To bring that out.

Ted Fox  20:29  
Did you end up with a lot--that's an interesting analogy--did you end up with a lot, getting a lot more down about Marie and her life than we ended up seeing?

Lauren Wilkinson  20:39  
Yes. Oh, absolutely. I mean, I wrote a version--like midway, maybe year four, year five-- where my agent called me into her office, and she was like, This is terrible. (laughs) And it was because I just was like trying to figure out who she was on the page, you know? Like, she goes on a road trip through the United States in that version; I knew the second that she [her agent] said it that she was 100 percent right. It was terrible. Because it wasn't--maybe it was an interesting story, but it was not the story of a spy. She didn't start spying until like--you know, it was like a 300-page manuscript, she doesn't start spying until like 250. I got really distracted trying to figure out who she was. I mean, that was my process. And I felt very, you know, it felt very inefficient, for sure. I wish that I was someone who knew exactly where they were going to go and what they were going to do. And I just, I'm just not a writer like that. I just had to, I had to find it on the page. So yeah, I mean, I kept rewriting it. And I had this weird experience--I probably wrote this book like six or seven times--and I had the experience of making a small change in the beginning and it having like a butterfly effect and having a really profound impact as it went on. And yeah, it was tricky. (laughing)

Ted Fox  22:14  
Yeah. I can only imagine. (both laugh) I already said that I don't want to spoil anything, so I'm going to ask you a question about the ending that I hope is both meaningful and exceedingly vague. (laughs) I don't know if there's a Venn diagram where those two things overlap, but I'm going to try. So there is more action awaiting Marie when the story ends. And I could imagine a scenario in which you decided to show us how those circumstances play out, but you don't. And I'm wondering, in the course of writing it, do you remember when you figured out how the book would end and why it became clear to you that that was the spot to do it?

Lauren Wilkinson  22:55  
Yeah, actually, that's a great question because I always knew how the book was going to end. Because for me, the reason that the--Marie has a childhood trauma with her mother leaving home.

Ted Fox  23:10  

Lauren Wilkinson  23:11  
So I felt that the one thing in her life that she would never want to do is have that experience happen. And that's where the book ends. So for me, it felt like those were the two poles, to kind of get Marie to do the one thing that she would never want to do, to me was the end of the book. But you know, I've thought about a sequel. If I wrote one I would want--I find Ross to be a very interesting character. I would want to write it maybe from his perspective or something like that.

Ted Fox  23:44  
This is kind of the handler intelligence officer who's kind of recruiting her to her mission.

Lauren Wilkinson  23:51  
Yes. Mm hmm, exactly. But right now I'm--right now I've kind of stepped away. Recently, I've been planning a heist in fiction, so ...

Ted Fox  24:01  
Oh, excellent.

Lauren Wilkinson  24:01  
(laughs) We'll see. That's where my mind is right now.

Ted Fox  24:05  
I was gonna say, too, in terms of genres, learning genres and setting real kind of-- requirements is probably the wrong word, but there definitely are ... I have kicked around heist ideas in my mind many times, and then when I try and sit there, it's just the mechanics of when they're done well, it just seems so seamless. Like, Oh yeah, like these things just flow into each other, and isn't this cool, and there are all these, like, cool people and characters. And it's like, Wow, that's really hard to create that and get that to work that way. (both laughing)

Lauren Wilkinson  24:36  
Yeah, I'm having the same experience. But I think that I'm attracted to these genres that have those rules, and it's kind of seeing if I can figure them out and work within the confines of them. Yeah, it feels like I need that structure. You know, there's that adage, If anything can happen in your story, then nothing does. (laughs) So I think maybe I like to try, you know, learning or getting invested in a new genre.

Ted Fox  25:04  
Yeah, very cool. So near the end of the book chronologically--this isn't the end of the page numbers--but in 1992, Marie says, "Throughout my life, the most consistent way I've revealed who I really am is through whom I've chosen to love." And for me, this was one of those lines you encounter in a book--it's, you know, a specific character saying it, but you immediately, for me as a reader, wonder, Okay, I feel like the author tapped into something about humanity in general. Like there's kind of a profundity to that line. Do you think this is true to all of us to a certain extent, that one of the, I guess the truest expressions of who we are, is in who we choose to--whether they're worthy of that love or not, I guess--but who we love?

Lauren Wilkinson  25:57  
I mean, you know, I hadn't thought so far as everybody.

Ted Fox  26:02  
Just making big statements over here. (both laughing)

Lauren Wilkinson  26:05  
No, you know, I certainly thought maybe it was true about myself. And I feel that I've gathered insight into myself based on the people that I've loved who deserved it and who didn't, you know, in equal measure. So yeah, I think that Marie has all of these sort of preconceived notions about herself and what she believes. And then I do think that the people that she loves in the book do undermine that ideologically. And then also just, you know, I think she has a fear of abandonment and intimacy. And I think that she does--you know, there's a character in the book, Robbie, who's very loyal to her, and I think she does love him. She's just really afraid because he's always been available to her. And so, you know, I don't think it's a coincidence that the person that she knows that she's in love with is a relationship that can't possibly work for so many reasons. So, I'm glad that it felt like it, you know, something that resonated with you because I certainly feel like, Yes, it's true of me.

Ted Fox  27:22  
Lauren Wilkinson, the book is American Spy. Thank you so much for making time to talk to me about it. This has been great.

Lauren Wilkinson  27:29  
Thank you. I'm glad to be at Tom's. (both laughing)

Ted Fox  27:34  
With a Side of Knowledge is a production of the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame. Our website is withasideofpod.nd.edu.