Anna Pitoniak writes thrilling books, and for her third novel, Our American Friend (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 2022), she pulls out all the stops. There’s a mysterious first lady, a journalist who’s offered the chance to write her biography, romance, espionage, and globe-trotting. Laura Caine was born under communism and is now living in the White House, the wife of a desultory, controversial president. Sound familiar?
Pitoniak tells me “there’s always multiple threads of inspiration when I write, but the pattern across all three of my novels is how people, women in particular, deal with the contrast of personal ambition and broader loyalties.” She acknowledges that the specific seed for Our American Friend was a Melania Trump profile she read in GQ in spring 2016. “A tiny detail snagged on my consciousness,” she recalls. “Melania grew up in relative luxury in communist Yugoslavia with a father who was a member of the Communist Party. Decades later, she’s married to the leader of the free world. How do you go from one ideological extreme to the other? I was not interested in writing about her, but she was the jumping-off point for what interested me: questions of ideology and loyalties.”
From there, Pitoniak developed a fictional character, Laura Caine, a Russian, with a father in the KGB working undercover in Paris during the Cold War, who marries the contentious American president Henry Caine.
At the center of Our American Friend are two women: the first lady and Sofie Morse, a journalist fed up with Washington politics who is pulled back in when she gets called to the White House for a private meeting. Morse, though conflicted, takes on the assignment to tell the first lady’s story, and the women become friends as Caine reveals her life before the White House. The action moves from New York to Paris to D.C. and Moscow, spanning 1970s to the present.
“There’s so much about this book that it’s a blessing and a curse,” says Carina Guiterman, Pitoniak’s editor at S&S. “There’s so much to pitch: it’s feminist, it’s a spy thriller, there’s global intrigue, an historical romance. But what I love most about it is that it’s the story of the silent people behind the powerful.”
Guiterman and Pitoniak go back to Pitoniak’s first book, 2017’s The Futures, which Pitoniak wrote when she was a senior editor at Random House. “I bought the book when I was an editorial assistant at Little, Brown,” Guiterman says. “Lee [Boudreaux] got the book at her imprint and thought it would work for a younger editor. It was one of the first books I acquired.”
Guiterman also worked on Pitoniak’s second novel, 2019’s Necessary People, while she was at Little, Brown, but she moved to S&S that same year.
“When I first read Our American Friend, I wanted it immediately,” she recalls. “It’s so transporting, an engrossing read. Everyone’s been reading so much news, and here’s this fictional adventure. I have big hopes for it; it’s a new direction for Anna, and being together from the start, it’s wonderful to see her at the top of her game.”
Allison Hunter at Janklow & Nesbit Associates has also been with Pitoniak since that first novel. “I knew Anna as an editor at Random House,” Hunter says. “We had an agent-editor relationship, and I was flattered and excited when she chose to show me The Futures, because, of course, she knew everyone.”
Hunter received the manuscript for Our American Friend in December 2019. She was in Los Angeles printing it out, expecting to read it on the plane back to New York. Instead, she says, “I started reading as it was coming off the printer and I couldn’t stop. I felt this book was different. A real breakout. I think it’s a beautifully rendered story and that the female friendship at the center is incredibly special.”
Realizing the potential of the book, Hunter sent it out widely in January 2020, though she gave Guiterman a first look. There was an auction, and Guiterman won North American rights on January 31 in what Hunter calls a significant six-figure deal. “Carina gave us a great offer, and, at the end of the day, there was the long-standing relationship.”
Pitoniak says that early on in thinking about the book, “it wasn’t just Laura’s story but Sofie’s, as a proxy for the reader to wrestle with the questions of ideology and loyalty. Should Sofie take on the writing of Laura’s biography? The character of Sofie provides a chance to explore the questions of to whom do we owe empathy and what story is worth telling and giving our attention to, even if we disagree with the politics.”
Pitoniak began writing in fall 2018. “I keep the story close when I’m writing,” she says. “I feel if I talk about it, the characters become less real. My first draft is usually messy, full of digressions, almost an outline. I did a lot of research. I read widely around the Cold War era, espionage, also books about first ladies. I was gathering wool. It was really fun. I nerded out with it. I was always interested in Russia and this was my chance to indulge that interest.”
By fall 2019, Pitoniak had drafts but says there were holes to plug. So she went with her husband to Moscow and St. Petersburg. “Our tour guide was a historian,” she tells me, “and we talked about Moscow in the ’80s. I found a building where a family like Laura’s might have lived, her father being KGB. It was a building Brezhnev had lived in. I sat in the courtyard just imagining, and it was a magical moment.”
Then Pitoniak had the opportunity to visit the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., where she spent an afternoon and met with the in-house historian and the in-house psychologist to discuss the Cold War and what it would be like recruiting in Paris in the 1980s. “It was so valuable,” she says. “I was able to plug the holes.”
She adds, “I’m a fan of John le Carré and Graham Greene, and I always wished there would be more stories like theirs, but centered on women.”
Brava, Anna. If you want something done, as the saying goes, do it yourself.