An Interview with Francesca Salerno

Where are you from?

I was born in the ancient Italian town of Viterbo, about 50 miles north of Rome in the Lazio region of central Italy. It is a charming place, at one time the residence of the popes, still to this day surrounded by medieval walls and lovely vineyards. I lived there until I was in my teens. Then my family moved to Rome. We had an apartment that my father acquired fifty years ago — a lovely home I still own — on the Via Cola di Rienzo.

Tell us your latest news?

I am thrilled that my new book, The Pakistan Conspiracy, is meeting with such a fine critical and sales reception both in the United States and in Europe. It is for sale on all the European Amazon web sites — France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and in fact this week it is on a special sale in the UK. This good news has spurred me to
continue with the sequel. I am about 20,000 words into it. I could happily spend the next few years writing stories about Kate Langley and espionage in a world battling Al Qaeda.

When and why did you begin writing?

I have been writing since childhood. I was perhaps the last generation on the planet to be born before the digital age, so I had a black fountain pen as a child, paper
notebooks, and I practiced my cursive handwriting very carefully in school. In fact, I recall a brief period in a Belgian school where we used dip pens – we had an ink
bottle held in a slot drilled into our desks and we used a cheap pen with a steel nib on the end that one dipped into the ink to get a supply for a few lines. I still
sometimes prefer to write with a pen in a notebook, though of course everything eventually gets transferred to a Word file. Why do I write? I think in many ways
nothing really exists for me until I put it into words. Before being put into words, my thoughts and experiences have an inchoate, dreamlike quality that is most
unsatisfying to me. To write something down is in a sense to make it real, and of course also to understand it better.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I think I have always considered myself a writer, but I remember the special thrill I experienced when I saw for the first time my byline in print in a school newspaper
in college. Quite a thrill. To write is of course key, but there is a special pleasure in seeing your work published. It should not matter in the end, though. In the end,
there are just the words and you have little control over who reads them. There are many things I have written in my journals that I expect no one to read, indeed I would be mortified if anyone did!

What inspired you to write The Pakistan Conspiracy, A Novel of Espionage?

The events in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011 provided the impetus I needed to get the germ of the story planted deeply in my subconscious. I had published two serious non-fiction books and my writing life was well integrated with my career, but I had always wanted to try fiction. In August 2011, a few months after the capture and death of Osama Bin Laden, a plot began taking shape like a large menacing storm cloud in my mind about how Al Qaeda might respond to this disaster (from their perspective), and I made the time to allow myself to write the tale. I wrote from August until the following February. The book is 90,000 words, so I was writing at a fairly good clip, 3500 words of completed text a week. In fact, I was producing something like 5000 words a week, which was reduced with editing.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I have been writing non-fiction for a lifetime now, so it comes almost without effort, except when I am doing dialogue, which I continually find to be a challenge. And yet I got lots of practice and can write dialogue now. John Gardner once said that dialogue is not speech, it is the written imitation of speech. That is so important! If you want to see the difference, record two people having coffee together. When you listen to the tape, you’ll be utterly stunned at the number of pauses and ummmmmms and awwwwwhs and other static that you would never want to appear in a book. So the real trick to understanding how to write dialogue is that it has much less to do with real speech than it does with communicating clearly, but in a way that gives the compelling illusion of people talking.

How did you come up with the title?

I have no idea. It’s not a very clever title, but it captured for me the notion that this was a spy story. Far more important than The Pakistan Conspiracy was the second
part – a Novel of Espionage. I wanted potential readers to know at a glance that they were getting fiction, not a thesis or treatise about subversion in Pakistan!

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

Every novel of espionage has to be based on some real or realistic hypothesis. The true message of The Pakistan Conspiracy, if there is one, is just how vulnerable the
intermodal shipping industry is to abuse by terrorists. We spend far too much time monitoring aircraft and nowhere near enough time monitoring ships. If I were a
terrorist, I would look at intermodal shipping containers as my vehicle of choice for delivery of terror.

How much of the book is realistic?

I think the book is as realistic as I could make it. Several readers who are experts in counterterrorism and have had long careers in intelligence agencies, here and in
other countries, pointed out to me afterwards that I had performed a useful service in exposing a giant hole in what we used to call the Global War On Terror (GWOT). The intermodal container industry has made us vulnerable. We spend far too much time monitoring airplanes and far too little time monitoring ocean shipping. That’s where Al Qaeda will strike next, I am convinced.

Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

The book is entirely fictional, but I drew upon my extensive experience throughout the world. I have written a travel book about North Africa. I also have a keenly
analytical mind and have worked on projects that involved political risk analysis in the private sector. This kind of commercial risk assessment is very similar to the
sort of work intelligence officers do for governments, though it does not have implications for national security. And I think it is true too that even the most
imaginative fiction is to some extent autobiographical, and I’m sure there are many elements of my own personality in all of the characters of the book, especially in
the character of my protagonist, Kate Langley.

What books have most influenced your life most?

There are so many that it is hard to begin. First, I remember at one time being completely absorbed by all the novels of Dumas, pere et fils. Those were wondrous
stories, and I was amazed at how beautifully he depicted Rome, which is a place I knew well even as a child. As an adult, I become very fond of John Gregory
Dunne, an American writer, and his wife, Joan Didion. I have been influenced by John Gardner, a novelist and writing teacher, and also Tom Wolfe, whose Bonfire
of the Vanities is perhaps one of the best books ever written about New York City. Having said that, I would have to add that True Confessions, by John Gregory
Dunne, is perhaps the best novel I’ve read about Los Angeles. I still reread it. I think David Ignatius is a very good journalist, and a good novelist. There are still
many books I want to read – I have started War and Peace many times, but I have yet to read it through.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

Certainly John Gardner has taught me a great deal and his books on writing are probably better, in my mind, than his novels. I think recently I have been very
influence by David Ignatius, who writes the sort of post-cold-war espionage thrillers that I most like. I cannot fail to mention Frederick Forsythe, who really
created the modern genre. I should say also that I dislike Ian Flemming, who writes what I think are cartoonish stories, though they made great cinema.

What book are you reading now?

I am reading Edward Lucas’s The Snowden Operation, Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster, which is a Kindle Single. I’m also reading on Kindle the
Lion and the Journalist by Chip Bishop, about Teddy Roosevelt’s friendship with Joseph Bucklin Bishop, a supportive newspaperman of his day. In hardcover, I’m
reading. I am also reading in hardcover The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s very long treatment of the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William
Howard Taft. I just finished Robert Gates’s memoirs as defense secretary. I am reading a number of Winston Churchill’s early books. I just finished My African
Journey, which I loved.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

I’m especially fond of David Ignatius, whom I think has taken the place of the now very elderly Frederick Forsythe and John Le Carre as the finest writer of post coldwar spy fiction.

Do you see writing as a career?

Writing has been my career since I was in college. I may have done this and that on the side to make some money, but my central occupation in life has always been
that of writer.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

Not at all. One of the things I truly love about Kindle is that you can upload corrections and new text at any time. A dear friend pointed out to me that I had put SAIS, the School of International and Advanced Study, in Georgetown when in fact it is near Dupont Circle in Washington. I easily changed that. A former ambassador to Pakistan pointed out to me that Mosler safes are used in the American Embassy in Islamabad, not the old combination lock file cabinets. I made that change. And I have found at least a dozen typos. All fixed. Kindle helps you get to a text — over time — that is as perfect as you can make it. I still think with horror of some of the typos in my printed work that can never be changed. Once they are off the printing press, they are there for all time.

Can you share a little of your current work with us?

Certainly. I am writing the sequel to The Pakistan Conspiracy. It is set in Lagos, Nigeria, and the tentative title I am using is The Con Man of Lagos, thought there is another part of me that wants to simply call it The Nigeria Conspiracy, which would set a possible theme of various exotic locales for the future adventures of
Kate Langley.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their
work?

I have had a number of favorite authors over the years. Two of my favorites, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, were husband and wife! In terms of The Pakistan Conspiracy, I think my greatest inspiration was David Ignatius, a distinguished columnist and foreign policy analyst at The Washington Post who also writes
postcold-war espionage fiction set in the Middle East. I think he is in the same league as Frederick Forsythe and John Le Carre. One writer in this genre that I do not much care for is Ian Flemming. His books may have made great movies, but the novels themselves are pretty thin.

Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?

I have spent 11 years of my life in Africa and grew up as the child of diplomats who rarely lived anywhere more than two or three years. This sort of vagabond life
is not very helpful in putting down roots, which is why as an adult I have put so much value in having homes that I could call my own. But of course I travel a lot
and many of the places in The Pakistan Conspiracy are places that I have often visited. One exception is Peshawar, and I was deeply gratified to hear from a
reader who had lived in Peshawar for many years that she thought I had captured the ambience of the place perfectly. But to answer your question, yes, I travel a
great deal and I spend far too much time on airplanes.

Who designed the covers?

A brilliant young graphic artist, Natlie Kryza, who lives in Northern Virginia and who is currently attending Virginia Tech as an undergraduate, designed the cover. I
came up with a general idea and a rough draft, but her interpretation was far better than mine, and I am deeply indebted to Natalie for her fine work.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

By the time I came to write The Pakistan Conspiracy, I understood from past failures how much discipline was required to write a book. I recall that while I was
deep into the writing, every two weeks I would go to a restaurant called La Madeline to have breakfast while a kindly house cleaner was cleaning our house
and didn’t want me inside messing things up. At those breakfasts, I would tally up how much I had written in the intervening two weeks. It worked out to something
like 7000 to 8000 words every fortnight, or about 28 to 32 typewritten pages of completed draft every two weeks. Writing even a piece of escapist fiction like The
Pakistan Conspiracy is like running a marathon. You just have to find within yourself the discipline to keep going even when you are winded.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

What I learned most of all is that if you deal with the anxieties and difficulties of each hour of writing, the longer term picture will take care of itself. I truly do
believe that the most important thing a writer must do is ‘apply backside to chair.’ Thinking or daydreaming is great, but it comes to nothing unless you get words on
paper or on the screen. Also, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, 90,000 words is a lot of material and it took me six months of intense effort to get it done.
I can whip out 1,000-word essay in an hour or two, but a book takes a long, long time!

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Actually, I tend to listen more to the advice that other writers have for me. I consider myself a newbie at fiction writing, and frankly I’m pretty modest about
my skills and accomplishments. I think of myself as someone who wants to be a better writer, but who isn’t there yet. I tend not to give advice.

You can follow Francesca on Twitter at:
@FrancesSalerno1

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