Gef: It seems Russia can't help but be fertile ground for spy thrillers. Was there something particular that drew you to Russia for a novel? Since I'm someone with what amounts to a pedestrian understanding of Russia, I wonder if it's the mystique and/or bizarre nature of Vladimir Putin, or the outed spies from a couple years back, or something else.
Jason: All of the above. Russia was always the main adversary, and they’re still competitors on the world stage. Their intelligence services are among the best. They ran (are running?) illegals inside the U.S. (and Canada?) Russia still also supports rogue states like Iran and Syria. The most interesting aspect of course is President Putin who is essentially re-creating the old Soviet Union. This time, instead of the Soviet politburo and worldwide Communism, it’s corrupt oligarchs, the politics of gas and oil, repression of critics. It’s a fascinating, ongoing drama.
Gef: While technology has certainly advanced over the decades, would that be the biggest change with regards to intelligence gathering and espionage? Is there anything particular that might be regarded as a generational shift in how intelligence gathering is done?
Jason: Some of the obvious, big changes in intelligence work are instant global communications, the internet, cyber threats, and smaller stuff like face recognition software and identity tracing. Intelligence targets have also evolved from the Cold War: Now it’s global terrorism, financial intelligence, radical Islam, proliferation, and regional conflicts. They pose collection challenges, and require a different kind of intelligence officer with modern skills, good language, and deep knowledge of the issues.
Gef: It's always the case that people in a particular field will quickly spot the flaws in film depicting their line of work, whether soldiers, doctors, lawyers, or even some guy that runs a sleazy motel. Since you have three decades and change as an intelligence officer, any films that stick out in your mind for their misrepresentations--or even something they got spot on?
Jason: Hollywood usually focuses on the flashy, entertaining aspects of the spy game. Real life espionage is not that exciting. Movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Salt are pretty ridiculous, but others like Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) and The Kremlin Letter (1970) are very authentic. The movie Argo was pretty realistic too.
Gef: Dominika Egorova, the protagonist, of Red Sparrow is a "trained seductress." That's a helluva way to make a living. I hear a phrase like that and my mind drifts to a James Bond flick. How prevalent would you say is the art--or science--of seduction?
Jason: During the Cold War the KGB used sexual entrapment as a standard technique, provided they could manipulate the target into a honey trap. Western intelligence services usually avoided coercion in a recruitment because it is generally thought that a blackmailed source will be resentful and prone to fabrication and/or revenge.
Gef: I imagine the research process must have been old hat for you by the time you sat down to write Red Sparrow. Assuming I'm right, was there a part of the writing process you found daunting as you wrote this novel? What was the biggest lesson learned walking away from it?
Jason: I found that I had to be pretty disciplined, writing every day, getting into a habit. Then I encountered the usual challenges of character development, pace, dialogue, and suspense. I’ve always appreciated good writing and engaging novels, but it’s an elusive goal.