Many thrillers strive for a ripped-from-the-headlines tone, but Burned, which opens with a bombing by a secret extremist group, takes authenticity to a new level. The reason is its co-author, Valerie Plame, who worked as a CIA officer before she was herself “burned.” In 2003, a newspaper column about Iraq’s development of nuclear weapons revealed Plame’s identity, spurring a scandal, hearings and arrests. Not the least of Plame’s troubles was that her career in the CIA was over.
Plame wrote about the harrowing experience in her nonfiction book, Fair Game: My Life As a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House. Several years later, Plame, paired with author Sarah Lovett, penned a thriller called Blowback, about the dangerous missions of a blonde CIA officer named Vanessa Pierson. With the recent release of the sequel, Burned, Plame talks frankly about her new career—and whether she misses her old one.
Had you always wanted to write a novel when you signed the deal for Blowback?
Up to that point, I’d only written a memoir and a lot of intelligence reports, so it was a very different genre. My publisher suggested it to me and I thought, “Okay,” because I despise how female CIA officers are portrayed in popular culture. They are highly sexualized, either arm candy or the villainess. It ticks me off, and I thought, “Well if I’m going to do this, I want a heroine who I would want to read about!” Mine is smarter than average, but still faces some of the real issues that women do in a somewhat odd career.
Is Vanessa Pierson, your main character, really you?
She has aspects of me. But she’s younger, and better at languages.
You write about the sort of education and field training a CIA officer would receive. That’s interesting.
I know what type of person the CIA looks for in their operations officers, so I worked with that. I wanted her to be relatable. She’s not some superhero.
When recruiting out of college, what does the CIA look for?
They look for someone who takes initiative, and yet does not disregard authority; someone with common sense who has intuition. You must demonstrate some competency in languages, have traveled and have a desire to serve your country. You must be a really good problem solver. You’re constantly trying to figure out, “Okay, how do we get to this point or how do we recruit that person?” It’s problem solving, it just happens to be in the realm of national security.
And we’re talking big problems.
There’s nuclear threat and terrorism, and yes, those are big problems.
Your expertise was counter-nuclear proliferation. When you see the news, do you want to get back into intelligence work personally?
Of course! I really miss my job. It gave me a great sense of satisfaction.
What do you think of Homeland? Its star is a female CIA analyst.
I saw the first season. Claire Danes is fabulous, but it was unrealistic. Bipolar? I mean, come on.