Novelist crafts a thriller from CIA experience
By David Martindale
Published: Saturday, June 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
After more than three decades of conducting secret CIA missions overseas, it stands to reason that Jason Matthews would have some stories to tell.
Instead of producing his memoirs, however, he decided to write espionage fiction — and what a fine job he has done.
“Red Sparrow,” his debut novel, is a winning combination of imaginative plotting, insider detail and, of all things, a recipe after every chapter.
Matthews explains his storytelling formula this way: “It's the three S's: spying, sex and sauces.”
“Red Sparrow” introduces Nathaniel Nash, a young CIA officer handling a high-ranking Russian mole. When the Russians sic an alluring “sparrow” (a female operative trained as an espionage courtesan) on Nate, the two spies fall in and out of bed — and love.
The globetrotting thriller (Moscow, Helsinki, Athens, Rome and Washington, D.C.) has already landed a seven-figure movie deal with 20th Century Fox. Matthews is working on a follow-up novel.
Question: What compelled you to switch from real espionage to writing spy fiction?
Answer: I retired after 33 years in the agency, most of which was spent in overseas locations with my wife, also a 34-year veteran of CIA, and two daughters. With our worldwide experience, I thought it would be fun to write a spy novel with real tradecraft and terminology and gadgets and locales.
Q: How does the world of Nate Nash differ from the work you were in as an officer in the CIA's former Operations Directorate (now known as the National Clandestine Service)?
A: The real world of intelligence work is a lot of waiting, analysis, research, so I had to insert some excitement into the fictional plot. All of the characters in “Red Sparrow” are fictional — and, truthfully, none of it is really autobiographical.
That said, everyone in CIA at one time had a mentor like Gable. Or saw a genius like Benford at work. Or suffered the excesses of an ambitious supervisor like Uncle Vanya. And I met Russians in my career, but no one like Dominika Egorova.
Q: Which matters more: making every last detail ring true or simply writing a good story? Does firsthand knowledge trump a vivid imagination? Or vice versa?
A: Story comes first, in my view. Of course, details that are authentic, that are evocative, make any plot stronger. As a reader, I can appreciate, for example, medical dialogue that is authentic, even if I don't have experience in that life. And I think that equal parts of experience and imagination fuel the same fire: Having met outlandish characters in my career enabled me to concoct the fictional ones.
Q: When the Berlin Wall went down and the Cold War ended, people theorized that spy fiction would go the way of the dodo bird. It didn't happen, because governments still keep secrets and want to know secrets. Would the genre be as popular in a world of peace, love and understanding?
A: It's been said that espionage is the second oldest profession. Why? Because there always have been delicious, seemingly attainable secrets. And there will always be human nature, base motivations, vulnerabilities, inescapable greed, overarching fear. Espionage boils down to undetectably stealing secrets.
The history of spying is full of episodes of Unassailable Good battling Pure Evil. Compelling stuff. In a utopian world of complete peace, love and understanding, maybe readers would still thirst for a good story of midnight meetings, desperate surveillance, mole hunts and sleeping on satin sheets.
Q: Why does the book have a recipe after every chapter?
A: I like to cook, and our family certainly enjoyed the various cuisines of the countries we lived in. I've always admired novels that took time to describe food — e.g., William F. Buckley's Blackford Oakes books — and I thought that a serious spy novel with recipes at the end of each chapter would be different and provocative. The recipes are elliptical and abbreviated. They're more like clues than formal recipes.
Q: What's next for Nate?
A: More treachery, more moles, more drama.
David Martindale is a staff writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Author Colum McCann to be guest at art and lecture series
- ‘Bootlegger’ is compelling addition to Cussler series
- Literary wonders fill woman’s world
- McMahon’s ‘Winter People’ is a chilling supernatural mystery
- Leonard doesn’t fear his father’s shadow