In retired CIA officer Charles McCarry’s stand-alone thriller The Shanghai Factor, an American sleeper agent posted to Shanghai falls for a beautiful young Chinese woman who may be a spy for China’s government.

Do real spies find happiness in real relationships?

In my time there was no secret regulation forbidding the pursuit of happiness. As in the outside world, sometimes the magic worked and sometimes it didn’t.

Is China of particular interest to you?

China, hidden and mysterious, has always interested me. I’ve written about it in other novels before The Shanghai Factor, and in order to save the life of my series hero, Paul Christopher, locked the poor fellow up for 10 years in a one-prisoner jail in a desert in Xianjing province.

You published your first novel, The Miernik Dossier, in 1973. How do you keep each new novel fresh?

Writing for me is not a premeditated act. It just happens—characters keep coming out of nowhere and doing things I never expected them to do. The most persistent and most productive of these has been Paul Christopher, whom I didn’t expect to see again after he appeared in The Miernik Dossier. But in due course he brought me seven more books and the great crowd of his lovers, relations, friends, targets, and tormentors.

After all these years of writing, has it gotten easier?

Writing has taught me a lot—though far from everything—about writing, so as time has passed it has become more pleasurable, if not easier. I’ve done other things in life, but writing is by a factor of 10 the most difficult among them. And of course you never achieve what you set out to achieve, so you must keep on trying to do better. My wife says that my last words will be, “Why did I ever type that semicolon in 1975?”

How do you see the CIA at this time?

The short answer is, “I have no idea.” I resigned from the Agency 46 years ago, and I don’t know a soul who works there now. Everyone I knew during the Cold War is either dead or on the Grim Reaper’s short list and anyway would be as isolated as I am from current reality.

You have said that spying is “a young man’s game,” and yet the most interesting characters in the business, at least in fiction, always seem to be the old boys.

I must have said that before I became an old boy.

What’s next?

Usually after finishing a novel I have a head full of bad ideas for the next one. Not this time, but I suppose Christopher or some newcomer will pounce, as has always happened before.