James Lawler ’73
An intelligence career inspires a novel.
In James Lawler’s debut novel, a CIA officer struggles to convince the agency that a double agent is undermining a nuclear weapons agreement between the U.S. and Iran. In the gritty, dangerous world of covert nuclear intelligence, millions of lives are on the line — and it’s a world Lawler knows well as a retired senior CIA operations officer. We asked Lawler how his intelligence career informs his novels, “Living Lies” and “In the Twinkling of an Eye” (BookBaby, 2022), as well as his forthcoming book, “The Traitor’s Tale.”
How has your experience as an intelligence officer shaped your writing?
They say to write what you know, and espionage is what I know about. I spent the last two-thirds of my 25 years in the CIA battling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — not just nuclear weapons, but also biological and, to a lesser extent, chemical weapons. That’s a big focus for my first two novels — that and the sacred commitment that the CIA makes to its human assets. When we recruit somebody, we promise to protect them from harm. When I recruited spies, I was basically asking them to commit treason — to betray their country. In both of my first two novels, the CIA officer who recruits someone goes to hell and back to get them out of trouble. We owe them that. They’re putting their lives on the line for us.
How does being a novelist compare to being a CIA officer?
It’s a lot less pressure, but I work better under pressure. If there’s no pressure, you can keep putting it off. Deadlines in the CIA mean: You’ll be dead if you don’t meet this.
Tell us about your forthcoming novel, “The Traitor’s Tale.”
It’s loosely based on something that really happened about 20 years ago. A CIA officer was accused of espionage — of being a mole for the Russians. It turned out the real mole was an FBI agent who knew a lot of the same people. The CIA officer was ultimately exonerated, but it ruined this guy’s life, and a few years later he had a heart attack and died. For the novel, I came up with a character who is accused of being a traitor and almost everyone treats him like a leper. Eventually he’s exonerated, but he’s so bitter that he vows, “Well, now I am going to do it.” Now they’ve created a monster. — Jennifer Latson