Gayle Lynds When I was young, there were times when I surprised myself by doing something smart. In fact, it was because of one of those wonderful aberrations that I was inspired to write international espionage novels. It all started when I was hired by a private think tank that did studies for the U.S. military as well as other organizations. The job was as a lowly copy editor, the first rung on what I hoped would lead to God-knew-what. I had just graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in journalism. My problem was, the only college classes I found riveting were in fiction writing, at the Iowa Writers Workshop
But novelists didn’t earn livings.
Novelists starved in garrets.
I’d heard they led rich sexual lives.
No, no – I needed to earn a living.
So with a brand-new wedding ring and my journalism creds, I went off to the California think tank with the goal of eventually writing abstracts and reports and of working with scientists who studied how to green deserts, create model villages down to portable generators, and – remember this was defense and intelligence work, too – kill enemies in large numbers.
But first I had to wait for an intense government background check – tracking down my high school algebra teacher was a pain, I heard later. Until then, I wore a badge with only my name – no security classification. I felt like a file folder with a blank tab. I needed my tab to be blue or orange or maybe red (even though it was still the Cold War, and red = Communist), with my name and clearance typed in boldface. With that, I could get access to a file drawer and some meaningful work.
As I waited, I was restricted to unclassified public information and certain areas in the building. If I wanted to go into the print shop, I had to grab a fellow employee to tap his or her secret code onto the keypad that unlocked the door. Then the employee had to hang out, watching over me. If I needed to go upstairs to a lab, same routine. This of course was an irritant, because they had real jobs to do. Still, no one in that dozen-story building showed any interest in sharing his or her code to get rid of me, and I had enough common sense (it happened sometimes) not to ask.
Weeks later I was finally awarded Top Secret clearance. With it came much more interesting work that delved into problems around the world, but I also had more rules: If I left my office, even if it was for just three minutes to get a cup of coffee, I had to lock all my classified documents back in my safe. If I was working on a need-to-know project, I couldn’t mention it at the gabfests around the water cooler, even obliquely. On the wall in the Security Office hung a poster – I’m not kidding – from World War II: “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” In our case, it signified the Ship of Government Research. The poster was a source of amusement because it was so darn old – but at the same time it was a point of pride that we classified employees had a history of working quietly and often successfully behind the scenes for our nation. I was 21 years old and finally beginning to grow up.
I was lucky to have experienced all of this, because it ignited my fascination with geopolitics, history, culture, and clandestine agencies. (Did I mention the shadowy characters I’d occasionally meet?) When my first baby was born, I left the job (even though I’d been promoted from copy editor to full editor – wahoo!), but never the pride I had in my work and fellow employees.
These days the old Cold War is long behind us, while a new one periodically heats up. I’ve been publishing spy thrillers for some twenty years now. I credit my three years at the think tank for giving me the subject matter I needed to get me off the literary fence and into writing fiction. I still stay in touch with the covert world. In fact, a few years ago I had the honor of taking a group of fellow authors for a tour of Langley.
Security clearances play a key role in my new international spy thriller, The Assassins, due out June 30th. It’s no surprise, but then as former Defense secretary and CIA chief Robert Gates once said, “When a spy smells flowers, he looks around for a coffin.
Gayle Lynds is the best-selling, award-winning author of ten international espionage novels, including The Book of Spies and The Last Spymaster. Library Journal calls her “the reigning queen of espionage fiction.” A member of the Association for Former Intelligence Officers, she is cofounder (with David Morrell) of International Thriller Writers. Visit her at http://www.GayleLynds.com