Former CIA agent Valerie Plame makes her first venture into fiction with Blowback: A Vanessa Pierson Novel, the first in a spy thriller series.
What led you to join the CIA?
I come from a family where public service is actually considered noble. My father, who served in the South Pacific during WWII, made a career as an Air Force officer, my brother was wounded in Vietnam with Marine Recon, and my mother was a public school teacher. So when I was given the opportunity to serve my country with the CIA and actually get paid for doing fascinating work, I was thrilled. I developed an expertise on nuclear counter-proliferation—essentially, making sure the bad guys don’t get a nuclear device.
Which aspect of the work of CIA agents does the public understand least?
What pop culture gets wrong every time about the CIA is that it’s not a lone-wolf experience. Every operation, every analysis, and every complex project is the work of a dedicated team of professionals, all of whom bring their unique talents to the table. If you don’t work well with others, you may enjoy some success, but it will not last through your career.
Why try fiction?
I have always been bothered by the usual depiction of female CIA officers as cardboard characters, too heavily dependent on their sexuality or physicality. Guns and sex are wonderfully entertaining and have their place, but I wanted to create a more realistic female protagonist who actually uses her brains to gather good intelligence. Fiction writing varies greatly from crafting a memoir, of course. I’ve learned a lot about pacing, plot points, and suspense from my wonderful coauthor, Sarah Lovett. She’s an established thriller writer on her own, and our publisher at Blue Rider Press, David Rosenthal, suggested that we work together. It’s a productive and easy working relationship—it also helps that we are both working mothers.
Could you discuss your work with Global Zero?
After I left the CIA, I had no idea that I could ever work again on nuclear issues—about which I’m passionate. Then, out of the blue in 2009, I was asked to help narrate and appear in the critically acclaimed documentary Countdown to Zero, about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. One of the producers of the film was the international nonpartisan group Global Zero, and I’m now part of their leadership cadre. Their goal is a world without nuclear weapons. Its leaders include Sir Richard Branson, Queen Noor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and many other world leaders—prime ministers, presidents, generals. Most importantly, students from around the world put consistent pressure on our politicians to reduce the threat of nuclear war or accident.