Mark Harril Saunders’s debut, Ministers of Fire, follows veteran U.S. official and intelligence agent Lucius Burling through Afghanistan and China as he struggles to make sense of the post-9/11 world.
Why does Ministers of Fire, unlike many espionage novels, explore the family histories of its spies and operatives?
Like many writers and readers, I’m drawn to the stories that you find in le Carré or Graham Greene, but I always wanted to know what the family background was behind those characters. Imaginative kids in the ’70s, when I grew up, were into comic books. In some ways, my father, who was the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East under the Carter administration, was my superhero, and the fantasy life that I was developing at that time was peopled not with Captain America or the Green Hornet but with foreign diplomats and spies.
Was your father’s involvement in government similar to your protagonist’s?
The episode in the book’s introduction, the American ambassador’s assassination in Kabul in 1979, happened under my father’s watch, so that was really the spark for the novel. Burling shares only the barest biographical similarities with my father, who started out in the CIA, but became a diplomat in his later years in government, and later a peace negotiator. On reflection, though, they both embody the internal contradictions that go along with a sort of Melvillean pursuit of American ideals.
Where do you think Ministers of Fire falls in the spectrum between the espionage genre and literary fiction?
When trying to sell the novel, there’s always a disconnect for people in the business between saying it’s a spy thriller or literary fiction. Graham Greene famously made a distinction between his entertainments and his serious fiction, and I find in Greene’s best books that one will bleed into the other. So I like to think that this happens in this book, that it has the kind of plot where the rug is pulled out from under you, but at the same time the writing and character development is that of a literary novel.
Do you plan on returning to espionage or tackling different subject matter in your next book?
In the future, sure, I could try my hand at something that has absolutely nothing to do with spies, but to be honest, the two ideas I have in mind are both related to the thriller genre. I do think that plot in fiction is important, that it’s a main driver and reveals character. I’ve developed these projects part of the way, and they both involve worlds of deception. One is about counterterrorism, and the other involves the intersection of computer security, derivatives trading, and nuclear proliferation.