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Bookend: CIA By Day, Spy Novels By Night

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Mark Henshaw is a real-life CIA analyst, and writes fiction about the agency as well.
Janna Henshaw
Mark Henshaw is a real-life CIA analyst, and writes fiction about the agency as well.

In this edition of Bookend, this week, we meet author Mark Henshaw, a real-life former CIA analyst who draws on his experience at the agency to add an extra dose of believability to his espionage thrillers "Red Cell" and the sequel, "Cold Shot," which hit bookshelves in May. Jonathan Wilson met Henshaw at his home in Leesburg, Virginia, to find out how he got started as a writer and how many real-life details the CIA’s ‘publications review board’ lets him leave in his books.

Henshaw's latest novel follows two CIA analysts on the hunt for an Iranian nuclear scientist.

Excerpts from the conversation

How his wife spurred him into writing his first novel

“I had talked about it on and off, and I had dabbled a little bit here and there, but I definitely wasn’t being disciplined about it. I won an exceptional performance award at work one day that came with some money attached, and I came home and told my wife about this, and I said, “So which student loan do you want to throw this money at.” And she looks at me and she goes, “We’re not gonna do that. You’re gonna take that money, you’re gonna go to the Apple store, you’re gonna buy yourself a Macbook and you’re gonna write that novel you’ve always been talking about. But here’s the catch: you have one year to write the book, and if you don’t get it done in one year, I get the laptop. So she kind of kicked my rear end that way. Of course it took me seven years to get it written.”

Getting his spy novel past the agency's review board

“I kind of pushed the boundaries as far as I thought I could get away with, and then submitted it to [the CIA’s Publications Review Board]. And we had some back and forth with them, there were a few things they wanted taken out – a few things they wanted changed with each of the books. But it was interesting – it was never as much as I thought – and a lot of times, the stuff that they wanted pulled out was not the stuff that I would have thought they wanted pulled out, and they left other things in.”

The downside of knowing how the CIA really works

“I can't read most thrillers, or watch most spy shows on TV or movies, because having worked at the agency, all I see is the stuff they're getting wrong. So, I figured if I'm going to do this, I need to be writing sort of myself and people who've been in the business — if I can write a book that makes them happy, I don't really care what anyone else thinks of it.”

Music: "Frost Bit" by Mello Music Group from Odd Seasons / "Get Ready" by Elikeh from Adje!Adje!

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