Jason Matthews draws on his CIA experience for his first novel, Red Sparrow.
When you decided to write a novel, did you consider writing in any other genre than espionage?
I wrote Red Sparrow when I retired from CIA after 33 years in the Operations Directorate. Choosing the genre was easy: I lived the life for my entire professional career. I thought it would be interesting to celebrate the world of intelligence and espionage using the fascinating accounts over the decades of agents, traitors, mole hunts, illegals, clandestine operations, and the different intelligence services.
Are you an espionage/thriller reader?
I enjoy reading espionage/thriller books (and seeing spy movies), even though I sometimes have to suspend disbelief when a plot stretches reality. The really authentic spy yarns have been written by people who have actually experienced this world. For me, John le Carré is the gold standard: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is possibly the most perfect spy story ever written. Charles McCarry writes brilliant spy novels because he, too, was in the game. For all his flamboyance, I think Ian Fleming is a master spy storyteller because he also knew the life. Fleming’s From Russia with Love is one of the most accurate accounts of an exfiltration operation that’s ever been written (and even the 1963 movie gets it right).
Your depiction of Russia’s intelligence agency and, in particular, Vladimir Putin is chilling.
I found that Vladimir Putin, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Agency, and Russia are great foils for use in a spy novel. It’s obvious that Putin wants to reconstitute the glory and power and prestige of the former Soviet Union, and he’s active domestically and on the world stage to achieve his goals. Russia today seems to be run by Putin’s insiders who are building personal power and wealth in a system defined by favoritism, patronage, and colossal corruption. The intelligence game between Russia and the U.S. may have changed since the Cold War, but the fundamental struggle continues.
In Red Sparrow, your agent, Dominika Egorova, is trained as a “sparrow,” a seductress used as bait in “honey traps.” Does this training—the Sparrow School—really exist in Russia?
There was a Sparrow School in Kazan, in the Republic of Tatarstan, in European Russia, during the Cold War, and the use of sexual entrapment and compromise of targets by the Russians is well documented. I don’t know if there still is an operating Sparrow School, but I imagine honey traps are still used.
I’m halfway into a second book, which continues the narrative with the same characters (and some new ones). There are recruitments, double crosses, despicable traitors, assassination attempts, and a desperate exfiltration operation.