Chris Pavone’s third novel, The Travelers, is an international spy thriller, but it’s also a book about work—and what it is we think we’re doing in our jobs, and why. And what happens if we find out we’re wrong.
Nearly all of us work, a lot: many people spend more waking hours working than doing all other things combined. And nearly all of us spend our lifetimes working for someone other than ourselves.
Me, I’ve had a lot of employers, beginning when I was 15 years old. I worked as a draftsman for the Department of Environmental Protection and as a teacher, in N.Y.C.; at a big bank and a small ad agency, a tiny law firm and a few giant ones; as a cashier and a dishwasher; preparing deli sandwiches and stringing tennis racquets and pruning evergreens into conical Christmas-tree shapes. But mostly I worked in publishing, where I held a dozen different job titles at eight different companies, including a small independent one and a large independent one, a privately owned international conglomerate and a publicly traded one.
Sometimes, I had very little—if any—idea for whom I was really working: at the end of the day, who reaped the profits? Was it a privately controlled German foundation or a global array of stockholders? A middle-class guy on the Upper West Side or Rupert Murdoch? Were we pursuing mere profit, or self-perpetuation, or something bigger? Making the world a better place? Or perhaps a worse one?
After years of working on books, I eventually took a more business-oriented job, for the same sorts of reasons that most people take most new jobs: fancier title, higher pay, opportunities for advancement. Now my work was focused on increasing revenue and decreasing expenditures, about administration and budgets, about commerce.
If I squinted, I could’ve been working in nearly any industry. I didn’t like this job, and I was pretty sure I was bad at it. I confided in my boss, who gave me a pep talk: think of this company, he told me, as something you’d started in your garage. You should wake up every day and ask yourself, what am I going to do today to improve my business?
I couldn’t think of a worse way to wake up every day. So I quit.
My stakes were low: in the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter for whom an editor works. Nor, for that matter, a novelist. But for some jobs, it does matter, doesn’t it? Lawyers and consultants, biochemists and nuclear physicists, politicians and lobbyists, soldiers and cops and diplomats and mercenaries, spies.
For this new novel, I started thinking about a story in which a normal, everyday character with an international job—could be me, could be you—gets seduced into becoming a covert asset, paid to report on the people he meets, and the gossip he hears, to the CIA.
Or, at least, that’s what he thinks.