Interview With Best-Selling Spy Novelist Alex Berenson


Alex Berenson  is a reporter for THE NEW YORK TIMES and the author of a series of popular spy novels featuring the character of John Wells.  The first of those books, THE FAITHFUL SPY, was published in 2006 by Random House and won the prestigious Edgar Award for best first novel by an American author.  THE FAITHFUL SPY went on to be #1 on the NEW YORK TIMES paperback bestseller list.  In my opinion, THE FAITHFUL SPY is one the best spy novels ever, and easily ranks up there with John Le Carre's THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and Robert Littell's THE COMPANY.

In 2008, Berenson published the second novel in the series, THE GHOST WAR, to continued critical acclaim.  His third novel, THE SILENT MAN, came out in 2009. 

In between writing bestselling novels, Berenson continues to wear his journalist hat and has covered everything from the drug industry, to Hurricane Katrina, to Bernie Madoff.  He was also brought on as a creative consultant for the current season of the hit TV show 24. 

With the anticipation of his upcoming fourth novel, THE MIDNIGHT HOUSE, to be released in stores Feb. 9th, I had to the opportunity to sit down with Alex Berenson and ask him a few questions.


GeekWeek:  Do you remember that moment when you first decided to pursue the life of the writer?

Berenson:  Honestly, no – maybe because it's something that I have enjoyed doing, and needed to do, for as long as I can remember.  The act of writing – whether telling fictional stories or non-fiction in the form of journalism -- helps me make sense of the world.

GeekWeek:  Why did you decide to make the transition from investigative reporter to novelist?  And was it an easy transition?

Berenson:  I never quite decided to make the transition, and I think I will continue to be a part-time journalist for the rest of my life.  But over the last three years, the Wells novels have taken more and more of my time – and provided more and more of my income.

And although the process of writing a novel isn't easy, the finished product is a lot more permanent than even the best newspaper article.  I get emails all the time from readers who have just discovered The Faithful Spy, which was published four years ago.  That almost never happens in journalism.  Now, after four books, I feel I've created a whole world around John Wells.

Again, though, I think I will always love investigative reporting – discovering problems that a powerful company or person or government agency would rather have hidden, and revealing those issues to the world.

GeekWeek:  What inspired you to write THE FAITHFUL SPY? 

Berenson:  I went to Iraq for about five months in 2003 and 2004 as a reporter for The New York Times, and after I came back I felt that I wanted to capture some of my experiences and the people I'd met in a novel.  I wrote the first couple of chapters and an outline, and my agent said, "Hey, I think I can sell this."  And she did!

GeekWeek:  What I love the most about THE FAITHFUL SPY is how conflicted and tortured the character of John Wells is.  Was Wells based on anyone or a composite of people?

Berenson:  Wells is a soldier as much as a spy, and his toughness and relaxed but strong attitude come from some of the soldiers that I met over there.  I sometimes get emails about the books from soldiers or veterans who say they recognize themselves in Wells.  I'm always very happy to receive those, because they make me feel that I've captured something genuine in him.

GeekWeek:  In your research of writing spy novels, what surprised you the most?

Berenson:  Just how dysfunctional the CIA really is.  If you read histories of the agency, there's always some golden history that ended about 15 years before.  But the truth is the agency has always been bureaucratic and overwhelmed by its responsibilities.  It's lurched from one fiasco to the next, from the Bay of Pigs to Iran-Contra to Aldrich Ames to the failure to predict the rise of Islamic terrorism.  It seems to be in perpetual crisis.

Different analysts offer different explanations for the agency's failures.  For one, intelligence is inherently politicized.  Look at the way the Bush administration tried to link Saddam Hussein with 9/11.  For another, the United States just isn't that good at spying.  The British and the Israelis, who are a lot more cynical than we are, seem to do a much better job.

I think those points are true.  But I would add there's a deeper philosophical issue.  What we want of the CIA is almost impossible;  On some level, we think it ought to be able to predict – and then change – the future.  Are we surprised that it fails so often?

GeekWeek:  You’ve had some experiences working in Hollywood.   THE FAITHFUL SPY was once optioned by New Regency with Keanu Reeves attached.    How did Reeves get involved?

Berenson:  Reeves's manager read the book and liked it.  Unfortunately, the development process got screwed up even more thoroughly than is usual in Hollywood, and the option expired without even the first draft of a script.  Too bad:  I was watching Speed a couple of weeks back, and seeing it reminded me that Keanu would have made an excellent John Wells.

GeekWeek:  To me you will always have eternal cool points for being a creative consultant on 24, one of my favorite shows of all time.   How did you become a consultant on this season’s 24?  And what was that experience like?

Berenson:  Howard Gordon, the 24 showrunner, is a fan of the books, and he asked me to come on as a consultant.  I have to say that I really enjoyed the experience;  everyone in the room was a veteran screenwriter and I learned a lot.  I was left with a deep appreciation for the difficulties they face in putting the show together.  After eight years of nonstop action, they have exhausted almost every conceivable plot twist, and so they wind up spending a lot of time just looking for new stories.  Yet at the end of the day – pun intended – I think they were successful in coming up with an exciting season.

I don't think I'll be a full-time writer on 24.  But with any luck, I'll get to work with Howard and some of the other 24 writers on other shows!

GeekWeek:  I’ve had the pleasure of reading one of your spec scripts, which I have to say is one of the best I’ve read in recent years.   I often hear from fiction writers how difficult of a transition it is to go from writing prose to scripts.   How was that experience for you? 

Berenson:  I've been writing scripts for a few years, sometimes with my brother and sometimes alone.  Scripts definitely require a different set of writing muscles;  if you can't write good dialogue, you can't write a good screenplay.  A lot of the dialogue in novels could never work in.

GeekWeek:  Be honest – what’s easier, writing a novel or writing a screenplay?

Berenson:  For me, writing a novel is far harder than writing a screenplay.  I have to be fully invested in my characters in my novels in a way that I don't in my screenplays.  And it's just a lot more writing, several hours a day for several months.

But I sometimes think that great screenplays may be harder – and rarer – than great novels.  A novel can work on a lot of different levels;  it can have great dialogue, beautiful imagery, fascinating characters, a fast-moving and surprising plot.  But a great screenplay has to do all those things at once, in 120 pages, and generally without resorting to interior monologue or time-shifting, which are crutches that novelists have.

Just look at the numbers.  Hundreds of excellent novels are published each year;  how many really excellent screenplays are there a year?  A dozen?  Two dozen? 

GeekWeek:  Your new book THE MIDNIGHT HOUSE comes out Feb 9th, and is the fourth book in the John Wells franchise.   The more you write this character, does it get easier or more difficult to explore who he is and the world around him?

Berenson:  It's easier for me to understand Wells, but harder for me to give him credible new adventures.  I have the 24 problem, though not quite as badly, because I can go anywhere in the world and I'm not constrained by the real-time conceit.

GeekWeek:  How many more John Wells books will there be?  

Berenson:  I can promise at least two – I'm contractually obligated for that many.  After that, we'll see.  I don't want him to become hackneyed or cliched;  he's real to me and I'd like to keep him that way.

GeekWeek:  As a reporter for the New York Times you extensively covered the Bernie Madoff scandal.   Did you ever feel a sense of sympathy for this guy, or was he evil to the core?

Berenson:  I'm not qualified to judge good and evil.  But Madoff was an unrepentant thief who would have stolen until the day he died if he hadn't been caught.  I didn't feel any sympathy.

GeekWeek:  You used to be a business reporter for Jim Cramer’s site,   Have you ever met Cramer?  And is he as crazy in person as he seems on TV?

Berenson:  Yes, and yes.

GeekWeek:  And finally, what advice do you have for aspiring writers – both novelist and screenwriters? 

Berenson:  Make sure you have a plot before you start writing, especially for your first couple of novels or screenplays.  Otherwise it's just too easy to write yourself into completely ridiculous corners.

THE MIDNIGHT HOUSE will be available Feb. 9th, 2010 through Random House.


Mike Le is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles.  He is also the creator of the Hollywood webcomic DON'T FORGET TO VALIDATE YOUR PARKING.

You can also follow Mike Le on Twitter:  @DFTVYP

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