Sexy Movies, Sexy Men, and Sexy Writing: Three Days of the Condor, Robert Redford, and James Grady

Robert Redford (left) is always a spectacular way to start a blog, with the also spectacular James Grady on the right.

Today we’re priviledged to have with us legendary James Grady, author of Six Days of the Condor which became the iconic Robert Redford movie, Three Days of the Condor.  James has won literary prizes around the globe, including France’s Grand Prix Du Roman Noir in 2001, Italy’s Raymond Chandler Award in 2003, and Japan’s Baka-Misu Literary Award in 2008.

James doesn’t merely talk, he lights up the room, exudes a charge that amplifies and builds, reaching into the dark corners of the audience, until everyone is astonished by his fingertip information and unique perspective.  No matter your political opinions, he has the ability to dredge up facts, turn your mind around, and get people motivated. 

James Grady and Diana Belchase

It is that same energy that pervades his books.  He takes the most implausible of facts – for instance, crazies in a secret CIA asylum, let loose on society (Mad Dogs), and not only suspends disbelief, but transports the reader to a roller coaster of an adventure that doesn’t let go until the very last word. 

James wil be giving one lucky reader who leaves a comment a copy of his book, Mad Dogs, so make sure you hit that comment button or you won’t be in the running!

Please help me welcome, James Grady.

Diana:  You hit the best seller list the first time out of the gate with Six Days of the Condor .  How did success impact on you as a young writer?  If you had to do it all over again and could choose, would you want success at such an early stage or would it have been better a little later on?  Did you understand what an incredible, lotto-winning miracle, that kind of success was at that time?

James:  Condor swept me up like the tornado in The Wizard Of Oz.  Living in a  Montana shack, I knew how incredibly lucky I was.  My major fear was that I would blow or betray my luck.  Condor gave me a chance to do what I always wanted – write and publish fiction – plus I didn’t want to be some kind of footnote burn-out jerk.  After Condor, I worked as a U.S. Senate aide and a muckraking reporter making far less than my fiction work because I wanted to use my life to do more, learn more.  I lived like a blue jeaned grad student, worked as hard and as fast as I could, 12 hour days.  I think success so early let me grow into being the kind of writer who – I hope – has earned it.  Of course, now I’d love another tornado like that one!

Sydney Pollack, James Grady, and the late producer, Stanley Schneider in a rare photo, discussing the script on the set of 3 Days of the Condor.

Diana:  As a journalist who has focused on the intelligence community for much of your life, how do you feel about the average spy novel?  What kinds of things drive you nutty when you read them?

James:  Most modern spy novels are better than most modern spy movies that are often actually “cop” or “superhero” cinemas.  I’m not a fan of “grand conspiracy” spy novels. What makes spy novels hard to write is that at their heart, they are novels about politics and personal integrity.  We’re lucky to have a bunch of “spy novelists” out there who get that, but what drives me nutty is the spy novel where nothing “real” or moral feels at stake or where the characters seem to be in a video game.

Diana:  Condor was a quiet novel — by that I mean it was about an man battling the system with little more than his brain, and winning.  Many books and films these days have more things that go boom than intelligent thought.  Even Mad Dogs, while very smart, is much more action packed — which is also a direct result of the characters.  Do you think the quiet novel is a lost art?  How do you balance the need for intelligent writing and the market’s need for action?

James:  Great question!  I think publishers “push” authors to make their books BIG and BOOMING in the mistaken belief that that’s what readers want.  Readers want great stories, believable characters and novels that say something, mean something, matter.  Yes, we want thrills, but we want them to make us feel something more than the drive to turn pages.  It’s like the difference between a guttural SHOUT and a great kiss:  readers love, remember and seek out a great kiss.  And such stories pay:  Graham Greene wrote dozens of “quiet” novels that are still selling today.

Diana:  Who is your favorite author?  Who are you reading right now?  Do you find you read more in or out of your genre when selecting fiction?

James:  I can never narrow it down to one favorite author, though I think Bruce Springsteen is The Great American Author of my hit high school 49 – 37 years ago generation.  As for authors who create words to be readRay Bradbury, John Burdett, James Cain, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Sally Denton, Emily Dickinson, Conan Doyle, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Dashiell Hammett, Elizabeth Hand, Steve Hunter, Craig Johnson, John Le Carre, Harper Lee, Dennis Lehane, John Dos Passos, Maile Meloy (who’s probably the Great American Author of her younger than moi generation), Bobbie Ann MasonDavid Mitchell, George Pelecanos, S. J. Rozan, John Steinbeck, Rex Stout, Jess Walter, Robert Ward, E.B. White, Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  I could drop 47 other names in that alphabetic row.  Right now I’m reading Nathan Englander and Joe Lansdale.  I make it a point not to read the kind of book I’m writing, and while I love what critics call “thrillers” or “crime novels,” I’ve been happily seduced by everything from chick lit to fantasy.  There are just so many great authors out there, and so little time.

Diana:  Mad Dogs takes place in a secret CIA insane asylum, which sounds perfectly reasonable and practical on the page as you describe it.  Is there really such a place in real life?  What other kinds of black sites exist that the public knows little about?

James:  spent years as an investigative reporter chasing whispers that the CIA had a secret insane asylum.  I never found it, so I let the notion flower as fiction.  There are black sites for SIGINT (signals intelligence that targets communications), as well as training sites and way off the books operations not on any federal register.

Diana:  Will they have to kill you if you tell us?  Or now that you’ve told us? How do you balance the fine line between being interesting and not divulging something you may know but that might cause problems for the intelligence community?  Is there such a line?  Do you think Americans should know everything in freedom of the press, or should journalists restrict themselves and under what circumstances?

James:  I’m cautious about what I divulge.  I have a problem with wholesale or frivolous dumping of secrets.  That’s one reason the people who work in our shadows trust me.  There is a line – sometimes fine, sometimes fuzzy, sometimes undeniable – between the rights our Constitution gives writers for freedom of the press and doing damage for no good to our country.  We need to know the why’s and what’s of our government .  We may not need to know the how’s.  There are two questions every writer must ask her or himself when they cover government or even personal secrets:  Who does reporting this hurt?  Who does reporting this help?  When the FBI is trying to stop the Mafia from heroin smuggling, election rigging and prostituting children while the CIA is using the Mafia to assassinate a foreign leader like Castro (happened!), we have both a right and a need to know.  We need to know what our public servants are doing for our democracy to work.

Diana:  Your new book is on Arab Spring.  Can you tell us a little about it and when it will be out?

James:  While I’m calling it an “Arab Spring” novel, 2/3 of the story takes place in Washington, D.C., with the rest in a blended imaginary “Arab” country.  But the story is actually about our new streets of politics everywhere and how a man and a woman risk everything to fight for their personal as well as political integrity. I think of it as a blend of Condor and Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana.  Sarcasm, suspense, glimpses behind the scenes in D.C. and spy worlds, and a love story unlike any I’ve ever written.  The working title I had is too close to another author’s thriller that just came out – something I bet many people can relate to — so I’m “opening my heart” to whatever title will come from my manuscript.  I’m about halfway done, have shown it to no one, so there’s no pub date yet.  When I get one, I promise to let you know.

Diana:  You have a pretty spectacular family.  Tell us about them.  James can’t stop gushing about them, another one of his endearing traits.

James:  I am in awe of my family.  My wife Bonnie Goldstein, now a blogger for The Washington Post’s “She The People,” has been an internet journalist, a national ABC TV producer, a U.S. Senate Aide, a Private Eye, a coat check girl, a model, and a never went to college hippie who managed a tough bar in Mexico.  My daughter Rachel Grady is an Academy Award nominated documentary director/producer who tackles issues like struggling kids, poverty, our crashing American dream, women’s rights.  My son Nathan Gradyhas published two articles in national venues and is defining himself on the way to being 24.  Rachel’s not yet two years old son Desmond

James as a kid

says “Yeah!” all the time and never stops laughing.   So far, they still let me come to family dinners.

Diana:  The love story in Condor was very poignant.  Why couldn’t your hero and heroine have their happily ever after?  Do you think you might have written it differently today?

James:  Another good question.  I struggled with this.  Didn’t think it was believable for amateur Condor to score a complete “win” against the professionals hunting him, plus I wanted to make the readers feel the real costs of that world.  So he had to lose the girl.

I try to create a story that feels authentic to smart and deserving readers.  And actually, when I got a handle on my sorrow and anger after 9/11, I wrote a novella “re-imagining” how I’d “do” Condor in these times – “condor.net” (click here to read!) — with the roles of women changed and deepened.

Diana:  See I didn’t even know that!  James is always ahead of the curve.  Thanks so much for stopping by today, James, please visit us again soon.

James will be giving a copy of his book Mad Dogsto one lucky commenter below.  So don’t forget to hit the comment button and leave one.  Mad Dogs is a book you don’t want to miss.  Come back on Thursday to see if you’ve won!

About Diana Belchase

I am an author, who won the Golden Heart for my suspense novel Spy in the Mirror and was a Golden Heart finalist, once again, for my second novel, Spy in the Harem. I am also a triple Daphne Du Maurier Award for Mystery and Suspense Finalist for three other books. Please follow me at my website: DianaBelchase.com, or friend/follow me on facebook and twitter. I blog on KissandThrill.com. See you there!

Posted on April 10, 2012, in Diana Belchase and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 82 Comments.

  1. James, thanks so much for being here! All of us at Kiss and Thrill are honored that you took the time to blog with us.

    Three Days of the Condor is among my all time favorite movies, but I must admit I’d never read your book. When I learned you were going to guest, I downloaded Six Days of the Condor, and finished it in one sitting because I really just did not want to put it down. I’m not a huge fan of big political thrillers, but I am a huge fan of great storytelling. So this tale of one man’s battle against overwhelming odds and the lovely love story along the way really worked for me.

    I very much look forward to reading Mad Dogs. Thanks again for being here!

    And Diana…well done, you!

  2. James, thank you so much for being with us today. Your love and pride in your family is such a joy to read about. And I loved your take on the ‘quiet novel’ (great questions Diana!)

  3. James, I’m so glad you’re with us today. As a child of the cold war, I’ve always loved your books as well as Graham Greene and John Le Carre. I can’t wait to read Mad Dogs! Yet when I encourage my kids to read spy novels written in the 70s and 80s they honestly don’t understand how the world worked without cell phones and iPads and Google. Do you think all this new technology makes writing these types of stories harder?

  4. Great question, but the answer may not be what you expect. All the brand new technology we now use can make writing any story of quality difficult because it allows authors to get by with technological tricks & wonders rather than revealing moves by the characters. But your kids’ puzzlement is understandable. When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were lecturing about Watergate at Yale, the students there were puzzled why the reporters couldn’t just Google “Nixon’s secret fund” and get answers for their stories.

  5. That is so incredibly funny. Can the top college students in our country really be so out of sync with how news is uncovered and reported? It seems that we need to concentrate on more than math and science scores in this country!

  6. Wow! What an intriguing post. James, a question: what has been the most surprising thing that you’ve experienced as an investigative reporter, in a general sense — i.e., how easy it is (or how difficult) it is to find out the information you need, how slimy (or how basically good) people are, etc.?

    FABULOUS post, and so thought provoking. Thank you!

    • Getting the information you need takes some magic mix of imagination, hard work and luck. I find that people basically just “are.” I’ve known a few people who seem slimy to their core, others for whom that’s a sheen they develop to work through the world to their ambitions. What surprises me is how the ordinary things we all feel — love, fear, jealousy, envy, outrage — can be at the core of great events — again, the Trojan wars over love for Helen.

  7. James, thank you for taking the time to chat. I enjoyed your comments. Condor was a great movie and as a Le Carre fan, seeing Tinker become a movie was wonderful.
    I appreciate your comments about the knowledge you gain through contacts and whether or not you’ll use the information. As fiction writers, it is fun to skate along the edges, but “do no damage” is important to me. I was a military brat and found a world perspective at a young age. Sure makes for solid “What ifs?”
    Good luck with Mad Dogs. I’ll be sure and look for it.
    Jean

    • The “do no damage” rule is key. When I was an investigative reporter, I had to walk that line every day, and it was good experience for writing fiction about real world matters. It’s astonishing how easy it is to do harm and how hard it is to correct it.

  8. larissahoffman

    Fascinating interview. Thanks so much for sharing.

  9. James, I was wondering, how much of Condor was really you at that age?

    • Right to the bone, huh? I was so young when I wrote CONDOR — 23. As a reaction to the emerging “superhero” spies of the 1970’s, I made Condor unable to do anything I couldn’t have done, indeed, made him (I thought) a bit less capable so I wouldn’t be cheating the reader with an unbelievable character. Since I knew so little about life, I concentrated on writing believable and meaningful action.

      • I like the idea of not cheating the reader. I took a different approach. My main character can do all the things I cannot do. She loves heights, and roller coasters, and fast cars — me, I’d rather stay at home with a good book and dream about doing those kinds of things.

  10. Exceptional post. I agree that there are things we need to know, but I’m also one of those people who tend to think the news media reveals too much that our enemies can use against us. How do we, where do we and who draws the line? I, too, thought Three Days of the Condor was a great movie and confess to not reading the book. But it’s not too late! Thanks for such an interesting interview.

    • I think the line is: what good comes from revealing this information and what harm will it cause and to whom? Sometimes the most important stories create the hardest questions in this issue.

  11. Masha Levinson

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I was wondering about your writing process and what you’ve done (if anything) to improve?
    Thank you

    • I’ve found that every project creates its own process — some books demand outlines, others insist on flowing without me knowing where they’re going.

  12. James, I loved how you described the heart of a great spy novel: politics and personal integrity. And what a treat for all of us to get to spend time with you today! Have you ever had world events derail a story before it was published?

    • In a weird way, yes. In the 1990’s, I wrote a novel centered by the Watergate scandals that played the story out like a classic crime & cops novel in D.C. There was a lot of clamor for it in the industry. The week we took it out….the Clinton era sex scandals broke, and suddenly “every” Presidential scandal novel “had to be” about sex. I ended up publishing the book under a pen name and much smaller than I’d hoped. Now, I’m hoping someday to bring it out again under my name and with a different title.

  13. James, we are so delighted to have you blogging with us today. Great questions, Diana, and fascinating answers, James!

    MAD DOGS, with a secret CIA insane asylum sounds compelling–and I must add what a great title.

  14. Wow, Great interview, Diana & James! James, I especially loved your defense of the “quiet novel”: “Readers want great stories, believable characters and novels that say something, mean something, matter.” That’s what really keeps readers turning pages: the conviction that something real is at stake for characters we care about. Thanks for this great post. Very inspiring!

  15. James, you were just a baby when you wrote Condor. How is that possible? Loved the movie and will have to check it out in book form now. “Politics and personal integrity.” Yeah, a great line. Grandkids are the best for sure. Good luck with the new book. These were super questions, Diana.

    • Isn’t it amazing how many writers hit that great novel at such a young age. It’s like Crichton with Andromeda Strain — he was a first year med student. At that age, you know it’s talent — because life, experience, and practice hasn’t come into play yet. Boy, is James talented!

  16. James and Diana, great interview.

    Loved this line…difference between a guttural SHOUT and a great kiss: readers love, remember and seek out a great kiss.

    Thanks!

  17. Fabulous interview, Diana and James. I loved what James said about the quiet novel. A human’s most powerful muscle is his or her brain. Exercising it by reading a smart novel (without cheap tricks) is the big “thrill” in a thriller.

  18. Diana, great interview! James, you are an exciting person to read about-glad I had the chance to do that today. Loved your answer about Springsteen 🙂

  19. Great interview Diana, and James, I loved your comments and insights. No matter how many times they remake Day of the Condor, it’s not as good as the original. Likewise, no movie can do the novel, and your expertise, justice.

  20. Great interview! James, you really gave me the confidence to forge ahead with my story about a spy in 1860. I was mulling over his internal conflict and I felt that politics and personal integrity were at the heart of what his government is asking him to do. Gave a shout out when I saw your very words! Thanks.

  21. Great interview, Diana, and fascinating answers, James! You are even fascinating in the comments. I love how you said you made Condor less capable than you were so as not to cheat the reader. It is so easy to lose the basic humanity of a character when you are dealing with larger-than-life characters.

  22. I think that is why both the book and movie resonate so strongly with me. If Condor hadn’t gone out to get coffee, his life would have been over. The sheer terror of it, so much like the Man Who Knew Too Much, very much like Hitchcock in it’s sublime understatement and simplicity of a man at a crossroads. Also, the idea of a man who is trying to be ethical while dealing with evil and in the fight of his life.

  23. I’ve followed Grady’s works and enjoyed the blog on him very much. Quite a nice job! Redford and Dunaway provided their own kisses and thrills in the movie.Perhaps a sequel?

    • Yes, I’d love to see a sequel, too. I know Condor couldn’t have kept out of trouble, and James has other Condor books out there that would make great movies, too.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • Thanks for your support. Redford and Dunaway are so powerful, so wondrously unique a technically pure sequel would be impossible, but my re-imagining “condor.net” comes close.

  24. What a wonderful interview. Mad Dogs sounds amazing, and I can’t wait to read it. The idea of the asylum is terrific.
    As a US citizen, I like to know what’s going on in my country, but I don’t particularly think I NEED to know everything. Sort of like in A Few Good Men when Nicholson says, “You NEED me on that wall…You WANT me on that wall…” We may not always like the means to the end, but should we always know those means? It’s a hard call.
    Great interview! Can’t wait to read the book!

    • I think you’re right, and that’s a great Nicholson line! We need to press, but how much? I am reminded of those balloon bombs that the Japanese sent over the pacific. No one printed or said a word about the damage they inflicted, letting the Japanese believe the balloons hadn’t made it. Today, we could never have managed this and the damage would have been devastating. No, we don’t need to know everything, IMO.

    • You’ve hit on an interesting point: how much do we need to know. That will be a struggle as long as we have our democracy.

  25. Great interview. I particularly loved this line “what drives me nutty is the spy novel where nothing “real” or moral feels at stake or where the characters seem to be in a video game.”

    And I love She the People! I’ve been reading it a lot recently with all the gender politics going on.

    • Yes, Leigh, I find those movies boring, too. Too bad there are so many of them — movies where it’s more important for things to blow up than for the plot to mean anything. That’s what is wonderful about being an author, we can add the meaning to the action.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • Thanks — for me, and for all the writers on “She The People,” I’ll pass it along.

  26. What a great interview… Loved this particular line, which I think can apply to all sorts of fiction.

    “We need to know the why’s and what’s of our government . We may not need to know the how’s.”

    Thanks for coming James! and thanks Diana for the interview 🙂

    • Candice is a fantastic romantic suspense author, too. Her books include, Fantasy Girl, about a cyber-stalker, and the Reluctant Prince, about a woman who is tormented by her ex-husband and saved by a modern day prince.

      Thanks for stopping by Candice!

    • Thanks for your support, coming from a cool writer it means a lot.

  27. Debbie Pakaluk

    I loved the movie, and now that I’ve read this fascinating interview, I want to read your books as well. Thank you for bringing light to the shadowy corners of our world.

  28. I loved your eclectic list of authors you are reading, have read, and probably return to. As writers it’s good to be open to styles and ideas, because we are shaped by many different influences. I think your eclecticism (is that a word?) is why you were successful early, and then successful later, too!

    • You’re right, what a list of authors! A ton of new people on my to be read list.

      Join us again, Cecily!

    • I think you’re right. It’s such a thrill to pick up a novel a friend might not have chosen for you…and fall in love with it. If we only read one thing and reading is one of our primary founts of inspiration, then we limit ourselves in both enjoyment and work perspective.

  29. Great interview Diana.!!.You have that keen insight as to bring various insights and perspectives to a storyline that makes the interview process so rewarding for the viewer..Your intelligence and wit is refreshing to us all………….Keep it up….

  30. What a great interesting interview. I was glad to discover he has a new book coming out.

  31. James just phoned me and said he’ll be back by 8 to answer some more questions, so keep them coming!

  32. Yay, he’s back! scroll up to see answers to your questions, everyone!

  33. James, Hank Phillippi Ryan is trying to send her regards and make a comment but the comment box isn’t cooperating with her. I thought you’d want to know.

    • Hank is not only a way cool fiction writer, she’s a great journalist. Perceptive, sees both deep and precisely. We’re so lucky she’s trying to be with us tonight.

  34. James, I love the way you emphasize focusing on quiet heroism and the character’s emotional journey rather than blatant roller-coaster thrills and chills.

    You also mentioned writing shorter pieces. Did many of your full length novels start out as novellas and if so what inspired the revisions?

    Mad Dog’s premise sounds phenomenal! Thanks for prodding my creative side to think even further out of the box! 🙂

    • Actually I’ve had the reverse happen — a novel become a short story. Usually my better work “decides” its own size fairly accurately and fairly soon in the process. I knew my short story THE CHAMPIONSHIP OF NOWHERE in BEST MYSTERY STORIES 2002 could have been a novel but demanded to be a story. And go for out of the box: that’s where the best stuff hides.

  35. Just in case I don’t get another chance, I want to thank everyone BUT ESPECIALLY DIANA for making this possible. KissAndThrill is so cool in so many ways, and all of you who posted have been thoughtful, kind and supportive. Memories of you, of this night, will linger and help carry me forward. All best, rave on.

  36. James, I wanted to thank you so much for being here with us today. I hope when your new book comes out, that you’ll come back for a repeat performance!

    And thanks to all of our readers who came by and posted comments, and those of you who emailed me that you tried, but were thwarted by the evil cyber-gremlins who make bloggers’ lives difficult. We here at Kiss and Thrill do this for you, and you all make it so worth while.

    Please remember to check back on Thursday to see who won James’s wonderful book, Mad Dogs.

    Hugs to you all,
    Diana Belchase
    http://www.DianaBelchase.com

  37. Fascinating interview! James thanks for giving such thoughtful answers both in the Q&A and in the comments. It’s an honor to have you on our site today!

  38. I’ve been out all day and only got a chance to sit down and read this interview now. What a pleasure! Meaty and thoughtful.

    James, I want to read your backlist now, but especially look forward to your Arab Spring novel, as it’s been such a powerful worldwide movement, and as far as I know, it hasn’t yet been examined in fiction. Your work sounds very grounded in reality, and yet it’s a reality behind a veil for most of us. I loved Three Days of the Condor, and now will happily read Six Days — as well as Mad Dogs and others.

    And Diana, I love your interview style. You cut to the heart of what an author is about. No fluff, just substance. Much appreciated. Thanks for sharing this.

    • I’m so touched that when I checked back in with secret glee to see this great adventure you all let me have, I found more comments. Talia, reality being a veil is a cool idea that I, like you, try to use. And YES, I’m working hard and hoping to be the “first” major Arab Spring novel out of the West. And would love it if you spread the buzz. Thanks.

  39. Wow, I mean, wow! What an excellent interview, James and Diana! So many wonderful questions and insightful answers. See, this is the trouble with being late to the party. James, a heartfelt thanks for sharing your journey, and Diana, thanks for facilitating;)

  40. VERY interesting interview! Very thoughtful answers to go with intriguing questions. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  41. I would love to read Mad Dogs. What a great story it must be. I certainly agree with you about being careful in regard to giving out information. I hope this one will be a movie too.

    Joan K. Maze

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