The book is written as a love letter from Marie, the secret agent, to her twin boys. On the surface, it is the story of her life but in truth it is also a myth, the bedtime tale children beg their parents to recite — the story of where they came from and why. Folktale, in fact, is the dominant theme underlying the powerful twists and turns in this novel, a riveting way of highlighting Marie’s incredible life that forces the reader to reconsider loyalty, feminism, politics, racism, and, above all, love. The violence and suspense woven into American Spy builds slowly and will take you by surprise, but this deliberate pace is what will hold you so tight you won’t want to put this book down. I was thrilled when Lauren agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff.
RACHEL BARENBAUM: Lauren, one of the most impressive parts of this book was the sheer number of themes and questions you force your reader to address. One in particular haunted me: what is the love between sisters? This love propelled Marie, your protagonist. She was equal parts enamored and repelled by her sister, Helene. Similarly, Helene was as devoted to her sister as she was jealous of her.
LAUREN WILKINSON: Yes. Exactly.
Can you tell us how you thought about their love for one another? Why this contrast?
Marie has a blind spot when it comes to her sister. She prides herself on being perceptive and smart and has faith in her perception of the world. She depends on these perceptions, but her sister creates a vulnerability — her vulnerability. Marie’s emotions for Helene cloud her mind. And this is what I wanted — to build characters who exist in that space of conflict, in that cloud.
As for Helene, yes, she really loves Marie but she also resents her. She never got to be a kid. And that’s tough. But her sister is her vulnerability, too. Their devotion to each other creates difficult feelings, and this is the heart of it. The reason that I wrote this as part family drama and part spy thriller was because I wanted my spy to be motivated by a complex emotional life. I had to include her family because those are the people who mess you up.
Yes, they are. So, as you dug into this complex emotional life, what surprised you the most about these sisters?
In a couple of early drafts, Helene was the younger sister. But I switched their birth order, and that small little flutter of a butterfly’s wing had huge repercussions. It really changed the characters in ways I didn’t expect.
In an initial draft, Marie was afraid to get out into the world because she was too much like me. I was trying to make myself a spy on paper, and any time she needed to go down the proverbial dark alley I didn’t let her do it. I was scared. She was scared. But when Marie was the older sister, I made her a leader and gave her courage to go out into the world. When I switched the birth order, I was able to hold onto those characteristics for Marie but still create the dynamic I wanted between sisters. Marie was still able to go out into the world and have courage, be brave.
That switch really surprised me and helped me understand who Marie was; it enabled me to make her someone who looked up to her elder sister but also keep the characteristics that made her a great spy.
Sticking to the sisters, the sentence that stuck out to me more than any other came when Marie was writing to her sons. She tells them, “Throughout my life, the most consistent way I’ve revealed who I really am is through the men I’ve chosen to love.”
Yeah, I don’t think so. [Laughs.]
I’m so glad you said that because I was going to tell you I didn’t believe it. It shocked me that she’d think that. Clearly the most consistent way Marie revealed herself was through her love for her sister.
The thing I was playing with most with Marie was her self-perception. Especially toward the end of the book, Marie starts to reveal that her perception of herself is infected by her blind spots. She thinks she has a keen eye and is not aware that there are many things she can’t see. That’s one of the reasons she couldn’t see Ross coming. She’s overconfident about her perceptions.
I love that.
Me too. The biggest things that define Marie are her relationships to women and particularly the ones who are absent. It’s not the men. Definitely not the men. The absences that these women have created are defining and profound for her. They drive her personality, much more than any of her relationships with men.
Sticking to this theme of revealing oneself, I want to ask about another powerful passage that stuck with me after I put the book down. At Marie’s graduation, her father says to her, “You don’t owe them anything. You give them what you want to give them. But it’s easier if they think you’re one of them. It’s easier to work from the inside. That’s what I try to do. I’ve been a spy in this country for as long as I can remember.” What were you thinking about when you wrote that? Was it a big moment for you?
Yes, that was a big moment. A lot of that moment, that scene, was inspired by the epigraph of the book Invisible Man. The main character in Invisible Man is always trying to figure out what his grandfather meant about being a spy in the enemy’s country. At some level, my book is also trying to figure out what the narrator’s grandfather meant by that.
In that scene in American Spy, Marie’s father is giving her advice before she delivers a speech. She’s been punched. She has a bruised face. It is a mirror of the opening pages of Invisible Man when the narrator was called to give a speech for the prominent white town’s people, but before they allow him to give the speech he had to engage in a boxing match. It’s an act of violence with other black teenage boys. He thought he’d been invited because of his intellect, because he was smart and a good kid — but he was made to be a part of a spectacle. There’s hurt in that. For me that scene in my novel is parallel to that scene in Invisible Man. What do you do if you’re working for a country, upholding the laws of a country that aren’t designed to necessarily keep you safe — how do you reconcile yourself with that? This scene is my answer. It’s not something I could write well in an essay. It’s something I needed to see — to set in a scene to explain.
Let’s talk more about race in American Spy. You describe Marie’s grandmother as someone who “passed” for white and then show how hard it was for Marie’s father to be a black cop, for Mr. Ali to be a black agent, and for Marie to be a black and female agent. But when Marie lands in her new assignment, she says, “Every day I spent in Burkina Faso was a reminder of how American I was […] In the United States I thought of myself as black before I thought of myself as American. In Ouagadougou, routinely, those designations were reversed.” Can you talk about these contrasts?
Yes, yes. I’ve been to West Africa, Ghana and Burkina, and people were able to recognize I was an American on the street. Maybe because of the way I dressed, or my bearings or my complexion. It was enlightening to be in a context where people saw me as American first because in the United States people see me as black first. At home, no one ever perceives me as that way. Seeing yourself in a different context can change so much about your perception of yourself — in ways you can’t anticipate. I never thought my definitions of myself would change. But I understood these things that are super important to me are about context.
I know exactly what you mean. I’m in the Middle East right now and I can’t walk down the street without everyone knowing I’m American. It’s very unsettling.
Yes, and in America we’re all Americans. It’s an invisible thing. We don’t realize there are things about us that are coded and American until we leave.
Did you add that juxtaposition, those confusing, disorienting feelings in order to push Marie to a new level?
Yes, I wanted her to be disoriented. In a lot of spy stories someone just goes undercover and that’s it. But if you’re in a new culture and you’re undercover, that’s not an intuitive thing. To have cover in the first place, you have to know how your character will be perceived in the new culture, and Marie had no idea. And that’s kind of funny. Marie is supposed to be a spy, undercover, but she’s incredibly conspicuous.
Still diving deep, I have to ask about the overlay of mythology and fables and your use of witches as a categorization for so many women in this book. In Burkina Faso, the cover NGO is even a shelter for women exiled after being accused of witchcraft. Why was this theme so important?
A woman who is a witch is a woman who is too powerful — a woman who scares people. I personally admire witchy women. I love witches, women who are allowed to be powerful. I took a lot of care to say these women are being called witches because someone wants to take something from them — and those women didn’t want to let them do it.
This is universal. Women are accused of witchcraft today, as they were in Salem in early American history. It is something we keep doing to women.
Circe by Madeline Miller also addresses that.
Yes, I was just talking about that book for that reason. Exactly.
Okay, switching gears, I’d love to hear a little bit about the craft of writing this gorgeous novel. Lauren, how did American Spy come together? Did you work with an outline?
I wish I could have done an outline, but it never worked for me. I’d try, but the second I started writing a scene I just went in a different direction.
I wrote this book over and over. There were some really bad drafts and I got feedback like, “This ain’t it.” After eight months of work, it was hard, but I knew immediately my agent was right. Still, it was tough.
To keep going, I look for places of conflict. Marie is a child raised during the Cuban Missile Crisis, on the brink of disaster. She’s terrified of communism, but she falls for a Marxist. That’s the only way I understand how to make a plot. Then I sit down and force myself to write.
Knowing what time of day I write best also helps. I’m always asking for craft tips but it just seems writing is hard. You have to plow through.
I hear that. Given the fact that you worked through so many drafts, I have to ask my favorite question for authors. What was the biggest editorial change you made while editing American Spy? Was it changing the birth order of the sisters?
Maybe, but there were so many changes in all my bad drafts it’s hard to say. Early on, Marie didn’t start spying until the last third of the book. Instead, I sent her on a road trip. It was too much.
Probably the most profound impact or change was resetting, focusing on the story I wanted to tell. I knew the character, but not her story for a while. Also, I bent time, which helped. At first, I didn’t want to do that, but it really made a difference.
Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?
So many. Let’s see, the first that come to mind are books I’m reading as research for my next project, but I don’t want to suggest those … I’d say What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young.
Rachel Barenbaum is the author of the new novel, A Bend in the Stars.