Here’s why aspiring novelists should hate David McCloskey, but in a good way
David McCloskey was no spy.
A spy, he explained while beating 80s rock on Greenville Ave., is someone who reveals secrets about their own country. The person who hires and “runs” the spy is called a case manager.
McCloskey wasn’t that either.
“I was an analyst,” he said with an easy smile that reminded of Jack Ryan, Tom Clancy’s most famous analyst turned hero. McCloskey insisted he wasn’t like that either. The real world of espionage, which he inhabited for six years under the Bush and Obama administrations, involves a lot less fireworks and a lot more paperwork than Clancy’s novels, he said.
I met McCloskey at a cafe he has turned into a personal writing studio since quitting his consulting job two months ago. His first novel, a spy thriller titled Damascus station, falls October 5, published by WW Norton & Company. McCloskey said he has no idea how he will sell, but he already has several thousand words in a follow-up. He’s going to try a full-time writing job.
It’s something every writers dreamed of, including me. So, leaving journalistic neutrality aside and feeling more than a hint of envy, I wished him all the luck in the world.
Then I started asking him about spy stuff.
McCloskey was assigned to Middle Eastern Intelligence at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. He communicated with field agents in places like Syria and Iraq, sometimes visiting them and meeting with foreign partners. And he synthesized the information into reports for government officials, including regular contributions to the president’s daily brief. Damascus station relies heavily on this experience.
It tells the story of an officer in charge by the name of Samuel Joseph who recruits an office worker in the Syrian presidential palace named Mariam Haddad, then quickly falls in love with her. That, McCloskey confirmed, is a big no-no from the CIA. But it does reveal something about his approach to the genre. One of the first notes I took in the margin of my ex officio copy of Damascus station was: “He’s a romantic.” Editors Weekly called him “sentimental”.
McCloskey’s hero isn’t a James Bond tuxedo rake. Nor is he an oppressed lifer like George Smiley, so badly damaged by secrecy and PTSD that he can’t connect on a human level. He’s a middle-class, beer-drinking Midwestern scholar who finds a way, against all odds, to gather intelligence about her assets without sacrificing her to a murderous spy hunter.
“Because I was going to end up spending so much time with these people, I wanted to love them, or at least identify with them in a meaningful way. I wanted to have fun writing scenes with them,” McCloskey told About his characters. “A lot of stuff like this can be hard to read because it’s so dark. Not just with violence, but a kind of worldview that can seem hopeless. As a writer I I’m interested in stories that have a redemptive nature and that show positive changes in people.
It all sounded like marketing to me, like McCloskey practiced his lines for an interview with Terry Gross because, let’s face it, every writer has done it too. But then McCloskey offered this real follow-up: “And I live with a strong, independent, capable and creative woman. I am influenced by it.
Full Disclosure: This influence, political consultant Abby McCloskey, frequently contributes to The morning news from Dallas.
McCloskey is a self-taught writer. He has no master’s degree in fine arts, no evening classes at a community college to perfect his storytelling, no stack of hopeless refusal letters. And yet he has a book contract. This makes him the most hated creature in the world of future novelists. But if he didn’t take lessons, he did rehearsals. He admitted that the first draft of Damascus station was bad. “Atrocious” was the word he used. He wrote 100,000 words in the three months between leaving the CIA and starting a consulting job in Dallas.
“I always wanted to try to write,” he said. “I hadn’t thought of publishing it. I was doing it because I thought it was fun.
Completely admirable. Totally contemptible.
Years after that first attempt, McCloskey said he dusted off that first draft and realized how bad it was, but decided to improve it as well. He consulted his wife as well as other CIA guys and advisers. The result is 432 pages of a complex story that seems half borrowed from a CIA training manual (techniques for dead falls and “surveillance detection paths” which can take up to 12 hours), and half borrowed from Hollywood (Italian villas and black-tie diplomatic evenings).
The old category could have got him in trouble. One of the book’s blurbs, from sniper and Navy SEAL author, Jack Carr, says: “I’m shocked that the CIA Publications Review Board has cleared David McCloskey Damascus station see the light of day. McCloskey admitted that the censors deleted part of the story.
“They send it back with a black highlighter through the stuff you can’t use.” Like real cold war stuff, ”he said.
While in Langley, McCloskey was sifting through Syrian intelligence at the exact moment that country was slipping into civil war. He acknowledged that some of his characters are based on actual diet leaders. He even uses the name Assad.
About real-life analyst work, he said it was about speaking the truth to power.
“For an agency masked by deception and secrets, the interest of the place is to tell the truth. It’s on the wall: ‘And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ “
But truth-telling intelligence reports that ignore national political messages have not always been appreciated, he said.
“Some members of the Obama administration saw it as inevitable that Assad was going to fall. They were like, “Just tell us how long it will take.” We were a little sarcastic in our assessments. It pissed people off.
And of real Syria, McCloskey said he was “deeply sad” for the people there. President Bashar al-Assad is alive and controls around 70% of the country, but “no one has won” the war, McCloskey said. “The concept of any kind of unified or singular entity is gone.”
McCloskey’s second book will distract attention from the Middle East. This is Russia.
“I wanted to show that I could do something different,” he said.
It will feature all new characters, along with two female protagonists, which brought our conversation back to the author’s romantic sensibility. He said he ignored the traditional advice that men write men and women write women.
“By writing commercial thrillers, you can kind of get a pass. I’m not trying to write something of high literature, ”he said. “And I’m not trying to speak for Syrian women. … Seems like this opens the way for writers to explore a lot of different things.
For example, at 35, Lakewood resident David McCloskey is a father of three, a retired CIA analyst and full-time writer with a first novel from a New York publishing house, which “explores new ideas ”from the back cabin of a trendy cafe in East Dallas.
I hate it.
To know more about Damascus station, join the author for a discussion hosted by the World Affairs Council of Dallas Fort Worth, October 6 at Interabang Books.