Rob Armstrong, author
SISTERS OF THE SWORD (an Old Spy thriller)
QUESTION: How did you go from being an award-winning CBS News correspondent to writing spy novels?
ANSWER: It wasn’t the issue of suddenly deciding I wanted to be a novelist. I wrote my first published book in 1997. It was a travel guide for Americans called GOLFING IN IRELAND. Ultimately that went to three editions, which were actually three separate books because of things like new golf course construction, travel and tourism changes and Ireland’s economic and social changes. I wrote a couple of other books about golf courses while I was making the transition from CBS News to teaching journalism in college. From there I wrote two college-level journalism textbooks. I’d written several unpublished novels, but I got serious in 2008, while I was recovering from eye surgery and couldn’t play golf for several months. That produced the first book in the series called THE OLD SPY. After multiple rewrites and edits, it was finally published in 2011.
QUESTION: Tell me about this Old Spy character?
ANSWER The Old Spy is a semi-retired CIA agent named MacKenzie Roberts. He was a history professor at a fictional college in Killarney, Ireland.. His academic career had been his cover in other places before he retired. He quit the spy business after his wife was killed by a Palestinian terrorist bomb in Haifa, Israel, while he was on assignment in London. But he maintained a relationship with the agency by accepting an endowed chair funded by a Washington think tank that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the CIA. In addition he had a longstanding relationship with the Deputy CIA Director for operations, an African-American woman named Melinda Youngblood. He’d been her case officer when she was a field agent. Their deal was she would occasionally call on Mac for special assignments.
QUESTION: Let me guess…the story revolved around one of those special assignments?
ANSWER: Good guess. Mac gets involved in thwarting a plot by the mastermind of the Real IRA – a radical and violent offshoot of the outlawed Provisional Wing of the IRA – and an al Qaeda operative. Those strange bedfellows are plotting a sarin gas attack on targets in London.
QUESTION: An Irish journalist called the book frighteningly realistic. You have Irish experience?
ANSWER: While I was with CBS News I worked a lot in London and covered some of what they euphemistically called “the troubles” in Northern Ireland. Of course, I also wrote that Irish travel guide. So I was very familiar with Irish politics, the sectarian violence, the geography of both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland and Irish culture. My biggest problem has always been the fact that in the espionage genre of literature things have to be plausible and believable for your readers. That’s not the case in real life.
QUESTION: So the main character of the Old Spy was born?
ANSWER: Yes, as were several other recurring characters. I mentioned Melinda. There was also my close combat expert, Lisa Arslanian, her husband and CIA fixer, Mason Zimmerman, and a gorgeous former student who rescued Mac from being kidnapped. My favorite character in the series, the quirky computer genius whose known as Retro, because of her encyclopedic knowledge of ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s rock, doesn’t enter the picture until book two, A SUMMER OF DECEPTION.
QUESTION: You have a lot of strong female characters, but aren’t spy novels generally male-dominated?
ANSWER: I deliberately decided that women were underrepresented in the genre. When I learned that Julia Child, the French Chef, was a spy I did a little research to find out that there were women spies going back to the Revolutionary War and before. I saw no reason not to give some women leading roles. I even took it to another level in the latest book in the series – SISTERS OF THE SWORD – in that the plot involves a deadly network of female jihadists. There really isn’t much that a man can do that a woman can’t.
QUESTION: Do your books have a lot of action?
ANSWER: Certainly not a lot of swashbuckling, like James Bond. But there’s always a fair amount of things going on. Every author wants to keep his or her readers turning the pages. The spy business itself used to be divided into SIGINT, that’s signals intelligence, and HUMINT, which is spies. With the exception of the first book in the series, I tend to deal with a hybrid. SIGINT used to be phone taps, electronic eavesdropping and radio intercepts – both encrypted and open. Now a lot of intelligence gathering involves the cyber world. In the old days a HUMINT source could spend months or years without producing much actionable intelligence. Now the two are amalgamated, sometimes carried out by a single agent or group of agents. That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of both traditional avenues, but my stories have tended to go that third direction. It has a lot to do with my people.
QUESTION: So you spend a lot of time on character development?
ANSWER: You have to. It’s at the heart of everything. I had the late Tom Clancy on my radio show a couple of times and once we were talking about techno-thrillers. I asked him about the submarines as characters in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and he scolded me. He said that fiction is about people – how people interact, what people do, how people move your narrative. He said the machines are ancillary to the people. I spend a good amount of time making sure my characters have distinctive voices. And my wife, who is a wonderful reader, hauls me up short now and then when I have two or more characters engaging in Rob-speak. That means they sound like me and not themselves.
QUESTION: Do you find it different writing fiction as opposed to writing, say, the news or non-fiction?
ANSWER: It’s very different. Non-fiction, and especially journalism, is linear. This event happened, then this event happened, then this third event happened. Very often you don’t know how the story is going to turn out. Writing fiction – at least for me – is almost the reverse. My process is to figure out how the story ends and then deconstruct it. I usually have a pretty good notion how the narrative will start, so it a process of making sure it makes sense from beginning to end.
QUESTION: Do you have an agent?
ANSWER: I had one once while I was based in Washington. I was working on a non-fiction project that didn’t really go anywhere. It was at that time that I wrote an article about Irish golf for the Washington Post and I pitched that idea to my agent as a book. Her reaction was that it would never be published. So we parted ways and I shopped the idea around myself and Pelican Publishing down in Gretna, Louisiana, bought it. In the end I did five books for Pelican. So my days of having an agent were short-lived.
QUESTION: Do you have a favorite author?
ANSWER: Dozens of them. I suppose if you put a gun to my head I’d say Hemingway. But then I’d rattle off a roster of superstars: J.D. Salinger, Dorothy Parker, Twain, Vonnegut. That’s just fiction. In non-fiction there’s Thoreau, David Halberstam, Bob Woodward, Churchill, Peggy Noonan. And the poets: e. e. cummings, Yeats, Frost, Sandburg. And the playwrights: Albee, Athol Fugard, Arthur Miller. The list goes on.
QUESTION: How about in the espionage genre?
ANSWER: Le Carre, especially his Smiley series. Jack Higgins, Daniel Silva, Noel Hynd.
QUESTION: What’s your background?
ANSWER: Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Grew up in Denver. Got my first news job a week out of high school. Worked fulltime during my undergraduate years at the University of Denver. Dropped out of DU Law School in 1974 when I was hired by CBS News, where I spent the next twenty-four-plus years. Parted company with the mothership in 1998 and taught journalism for thirteen years at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. I’m the author of fourteen books – five golf-related books, two college textbooks and seven in the Old Spy series.
QUESTION: Did you have a beat while you were a reporter?
ANSWER: For the last nine, or so, years I covered Congress and national politics. Before that I was a general assignment reporter. I covered four presidential campaigns, nine presidential nominating conventions, several killer hurricanes, the San Francisco-Oakland World Series earthquake, as I mentioned earlier I covered the troubles in Northern Ireland, international summitry, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin at the White House, the Challenger disaster and the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. In all I filed stories from thirty-nine countries and the forty-eight contiguous states.
QUESTION: What’s your next project?
ANSWER: I’m not sure. I have several ideas that are perking around but I don’t know what’s going to emerge yet.