© claire mccormack hogan

Former CIA analyst McCloskey’s debut, Damascus Station (Norton, Oct.), combines a tale of old-fashioned tradecraft in Syria with a taboo relationship between an American agent and a woman official who works deep inside the Assad regime.

Why did you choose Syria as the setting for your first work of fiction?

I worked on the Middle East for many years while at the CIA and watched the Syrian war closely. When I left the agency, I was also struggling to process the tragedy and hopelessness of that conflict, so I started writing about it. As I got deeper into the project, I realized the setting provided both an opportunity to reveal an authentic side to the CIA and to craft characters, many of them Syrian, who would demonstrate something true about war, love, power, and loyalty.

How did your professional background help you craft the story?

The CIA background was invaluable, for things both big and small. On the big side, I knew what it felt like to work inside the CIA. I had a sense of how the agency functions, I had a catalog of real-life characters, and I had a group of helpful people willing to talk to me to fill in gaps. On the little side, I had a wealth of authentic detail in my head. For example, the existence of a hot dog machine at Langley. That fun little fact is completely true—indeed, it’s almost too insane to make up. Ultimately, though, this is a work of fiction, so there are places where I bent reality. But when I did take such liberties, I typically tried to show the reader that I was in fact breaking the rules, instead of simply pretending that the rules didn’t exist—or that I didn’t know they existed in the first place.

You portray the Syrian power structure as one that tolerates all sorts of internal atrocities, including pedophilia and scalping. How accurate is this portrayal?

There is a wealth of open-source material demonstrating the Syrian regime’s complicity in horrendous war crimes. The scalping and pedophilia in this book are figments of my imagination, but they are drawn from the sad reality that there’s a deeply violent and even sadistic undercurrent to this regime.

What’s it like to submit your material to the CIA Publication Review Board?

The PRB is professional, efficient, and helpful. They had a few minor issues with the book, which were logical to me and relatively simple to address. The best part of working with them is that they literally return the manuscript with segments redacted by black highlighter, which I always think is pretty fun to see. There’s a certain novelty to it, a kind of throwback cold war espionage vibe.