By Mark York
It can be easy to forget, dear reader, that there is more to an author than a name on the cover.
There is a mind to them, and a heart, too — after all, machines have not claimed the writing field quite yet (see the algorithmically produced “Harry Potter and the Portrait of what Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash” for proof). Still, the reader is often left in the dark about the author’s processes; in fact, we hardly get to know them at all. Fortunately, I was given the rare peek beyond the cover, getting the chance to talk with New York Times bestselling author Robert Dugoni.
Having once been a writer on this very same paper (a promising sign, perhaps, for an aspiring writer such as myself), Dugoni has since published an extensive catalogue of fiction, depicting crime scenes, courtrooms, and espionage. His most recent book, “The Eighth Sister,” was the topic of our discussion.
As a spin-off of his “David Sloane” series, this novel follows Charles Jenkins, who is a former U.S. spy struggling to support his growing family. When contacted by his former superior, he leaps back into action, but after a shocking revelation our hero must escape Russia and race back to his home country … one that might have betrayed him.
But perhaps I am not the one who should be describing this book; one of the first things I asked Dugoni to do was to outline “The Eighth Sister” in his own words. Without a lick of hesitation, he called it “a classic espionage thriller, based partly on a true story.”
Fascinated, I asked him to elaborate on this novel’s origins.
“I received several emails from this gentleman,” he said, “saying he admired my writing, and that he had a story I might be interested in. I finally decided to meet him for coffee, and I found that he was a very legitimate businessman, and a former CIA operative. The country in which he operated was not, at present, very sexy, it was not very timely. One of the things I said to him was that I am not interested in telling his story, but I would be interested in writing an espionage story bringing back a character from one of my books. I asked him to help me with the espionage piece, and he said yes. He’s become a friend, helping me with the espionage segments and the trial [at the end of the book].”
This was not the only real figure to have a hand in “The Eighth Sister,” and I can only imagine what it’s like having all these cool stories at your doorstep. Dugoni appears to have the kind of writing life of which Annie Dillard could only dream.
“I met a second gentleman,” Dugoni continued, “who worked not only in Moscow but in the Metrapol Hotel, where a lot of my book is set. He provided a lot of details about the place … he was also able to provide information on the espionage portion of the book.”
In hindsight, this is not so surprising; Dugoni puts in a lot of thought when it comes to the espionage work of these characters, and the reader gets an intimate look into the mind of a spy. For instance, the characters use language to claim authority in negotiations when dealing with foreign agents, and shop in stores to make sure they aren’t followed. It is like a game of cat and mouse, though on an international scale — the cat, in this metaphor, is VERY determined.
“It was very fun,” Dugoni said, “because of what’s happening today between the United States and Russia. All you have to do is pick up a paper and there’s something going on, somebody is being accused of espionage … all these things that are larger than fiction.
“I have a friend of mine who is a big believer that if you decide to plot A, then you have to come up with something different. This forces you as a writer to stretch and go beyond what people would anticipate, and I actually used that quite a bit in this novel. Whenever I got to a point where I thought my characters were going to do A, I would have to find B … I got the chance to think up a lot of ways for a person to avoid surveillance and get out of trouble.”
Though the spy genre does provide a fun canvas, Dugoni stresses that this is not the typical “James Bond” juncture.
“James Bond and Jack Reacher or whoever Matt Damon is playing now — they are not real people. They are almost-invulnerable, larger-than-life caricatures of the perfect spy. The gentleman I met, and most spies, are the opposite. The best spies are the ones you would never think were spies. They go through life unnoticed. They eat at a restaurant everyday for a month and nobody remembers who they are. People who are engaged in espionage, that have families, they have the same problems we have. Remember, Jenkins was not a willing spy, he was not a guy who chose this life, he found himself in a position where he was forced back into this life in a time when he is married, has young kids and has a lot of pressures that married men with children have.
“Fedorov [the villain] is slightly different, and I wanted him to be slightly different. He is not married, he’s divorced, he is not involved in his children’s life because he is trying to work his way up the FSB. There needed to be this contrast between the two characters. I wanted people to realize that Jenkins has a lot to lose. For Fedorov, it is strictly business … This was my way of rounding out the characters, especially Jenkins. He is this ordinary guy thrown in an extreme situation.”
Unfortunately, at this point, it was about time to wrap up our call. Having exchanged parting words, I thought back on the exchange and realized that authors, too, tend to be thought of in a sort of fictional lens — or, at least, that’s what I tend to do. When thinking of the authors of our favorite books, we might imagine a Wonka-esque, whimsical figure, or an elusive millionaire. This chat was a good reminder that real authors, like spies, are not caricatures — in fact, the best authors also blend into life, listen to the world around them and capture what they hear.
These were my conclusions, anyways, though I am well aware that you, reader, did not read on this far for my thoughts. Luckily, Robert Dugoni has revisited his roots, preparing a personal message to the students of Stanford University:
“Pursue your passion. I think that is something Stanford teaches all of it students — I felt it very much while I was there … my passion in life was to become a writer. I won’t call it a dream, because it was more than a dream, it was a passion. It was something I wanted to do. Stanford is a place that fosters students’ passions … I took creative writing classes, I wrote for The Stanford Daily, I did a lot of writing when I was in Stanford. But beyond that, this was a place that teaches its students that nothing is beyond your reach if you are passionate about it. This was something that stuck out to me while I was practicing law — it wasn’t my passion, it wasn’t something I wanted to do. But I felt I was prepared to go forward.”
I must express my sincerest gratitude to Robert Dugoni for agreeing to this interview, and I thank all parties involved for taking the time to arrange this. Now, I must make the time to pursue my own passions — it seems wise, dear reader, for you to do the same.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.