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.
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!
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 read…Ray 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 Mason, David 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
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!