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How the war in Ukraine impacted David McCloskey's Russia spy thriller

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The setting of the new novel "Moscow X" is present-day Russia. The plot - classic spy versus spy, with a CIA officer scheming to recruit a Russian intelligence officer and vice versa. And the backdrop to all of this, Russia's war in Ukraine, is grinding on, and Putin's inner circle of tycoons and FSB agents are fighting amongst themselves, a dynamic that U.S. intelligence would very much like to exploit. Well, that sort of intrigue is something the book's author knows a thing or two about, having worked himself as a CIA analyst posted at field stations across the Middle East. David McCloskey, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DAVID MCCLOSKEY: Mary Louise, thank you so much for having me, thrilled to be here.

KELLY: Introduce us to a couple of your main characters. I want to start with Sia Fox and Anna Agapova. Who are they? First Sia.

MCCLOSKEY: So Sia Fox is a CIA officer, but she's a bit of an interesting one. She is an officer under nonofficial cover.

KELLY: A NOC.

MCCLOSKEY: A NOC - precisely. So unlike most CIA case officers, who would be moonlighting as diplomats and working out of embassies, Sia Fox is a lawyer who works for a fairly shady London-based law firm that hides the wealth and assets of the super rich. But she is also a CIA officer reporting on all of those clients to CIA.

KELLY: Yes.

MCCLOSKEY: Anna Agapova is a Russian version of Sia in many respects. She is a banker who works out of an office in Saint Petersburg for the most part, but she is also an officer of the Russian foreign intelligence service, the SVR, and she is also an intelligence officer. And over the course of the book, Sia and Anna come sort of face-to-face with each other's cover identities first and only gradually, over the course of their sort of dance, get to know each other's true selves.

KELLY: Yeah. Dance is exactly the right way to put it because part of the tension of the book is you know they're trying to recruit each other. You have no idea who's telling the truth at any given point or quite how they're about to double-cross or save each other. I saw that Russia invaded Ukraine right as you were finishing your first draft. Did that force you - did that invite you - to rewrite anything?

MCCLOSKEY: It - an invitation would be a kind way...

KELLY: (Laughter) Full-on panic?

MCCLOSKEY: ...Of phrasing that. I think - yeah. I really did have to, from a setting standpoint, from a character standpoint - and, frankly, a few plotlines that existed in earlier drafts had to just be entirely cut out of the novel. I couldn't write a book that was attempting to deal credibly with Putin and his system and present-day Russia and not account for the realities of the war.

KELLY: Well, I wondered if it in any way made it harder to write sympathetic Russian characters. Anna, for example - totally flawed character, and yet I found myself rooting for her at points in this story. And I wondered, did it become tougher to write her at a time when - you know, I'm rooting for a Russian at a time when most of the world has been rooting against Russia?

MCCLOSKEY: Yeah. She is probably the most sympathetic Russian character in the book or the one who's - you know, to your point, you're going to be rooting for as you read. She's not keen to overthrow or to even play some small role in deposing Putin and the men around him. She's sort of trying to eke out a victory for herself. You know, there's a line that she has in the novel where she says, I'm stealing from a thief, and I'm going to get away with it. And I had to come to terms that this is who these characters were. She's not a clear hero, but we are rooting for her, I think. Or I started to root for her in the end.

KELLY: Well, and I'll note, you also wrote some pretty unsympathetic Russian characters - and not just Russians. There are others who I was unequivocally rooting against. We'll put...

MCCLOSKEY: Yes.

KELLY: ...Anna's husband at the top of that list.

MCCLOSKEY: Yes, indeed.

KELLY: Yeah. I interviewed Jason Matthews a few years ago, the late Jason Matthews, also a CIA veteran, also wrote espionage novels set in Russia. People listening may be familiar with his "Red Sparrow" trilogy. I bring him up because he told me that every morning, he woke up and thanked Vladimir Putin for being the - and I'm quoting - "endless, bottomless cup of content." Do you feel the same?

MCCLOSKEY: I do share that view.

KELLY: Putin shows up in your novel. I will share that much.

MCCLOSKEY: Putin is in the novel. He's a character and - as he was, in very colorful and often explicit fashion, in Jason Matthews' novels. I found that just researching and understanding the truth about the behavior of the Russian intelligence services and elites, that it really was stranger than any fiction I could come up with and more interesting and more colorful and more debauched and insane. And so just going to this well of Putin and the - largely men around him and then, you know, sort of dipping in there to get plotlines or characters or different details, I would absolutely share Jason's view that while he is terrible for Russia and Ukraine, he is, you know, somewhat helpful when it comes to the crafting of spy novel plots and characters.

KELLY: (Laughter) There we go. Well, speaking of debauched and potentially insane, there is one more character who I have to ask about - Artemis Proctor, who - I'm giving nothing away. This all happens in the first eight pages of your book. She has stabbed a Russian intelligence officer with a shattered vodka bottle, then concussed him with a bottle of horse milk and stolen his pants. How much fun was she to write?

MCCLOSKEY: Well, when you say it that way, Mary Louise - I find Artemis Proctor to be a thoroughly deranged and enchanting character to write. And actually, in the very early drafts of this book, she was not - she was nowhere to be found.

KELLY: Oh, really?

MCCLOSKEY: Yeah. She - I had intended for this book to be entirely separate from my prior book, "Damascus Station." And she plays a somewhat more minor role in that book as the chief of station in Damascus. And I reached a lull in the writing of this one and got to a point where I felt like it was lacking some energy. And so one day, I decided to just inject her into the book to see what happened. And that scene that you describe, that really - that kicks off the novel, you know, I had just started with her meeting a Russian in Tajikistan, and, you know, within a few pages, all hell had broken loose. And that's exactly the kind of character, you know, as a writer, that you hope to meet and to harness some of that energy because she has such a force to her.

KELLY: So I have to ask, is she based on anyone?

MCCLOSKEY: Well, you know what? I think I might be in serious physical danger if I were to reveal any names...

KELLY: (Laughter) Watch out for the horse milk, yes.

MCCLOSKEY: ...Of who she might be based off of. Yeah, exactly. She is - she began as a composite of a few case officers that I knew and then took on a life of her own. And I think the identity of those case officers will remain a state secret, in my head, at least, until the day I die to protect myself and my family (laughter).

KELLY: Probably very wise of you. David McCloskey - he is a former CIA analyst and author of the new spy thriller "Moscow X." David McCloskey, thank you.

MCCLOSKEY: Thank you so much for having me. This has been fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK WATERHOUSE SONG, "PLACE NAMES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elena Burnett
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.