Author Talks: David McCloskey explores the world of espionage

Over a period of about 18 months, David McCloskey, a former McKinsey consultant, debriefed himself on his experiences as an analyst in the CIA at the turn of the Arab Spring. He sat down and recounted the sights, sounds, personalities, and politics of both Langley, Virginia, and the Middle East of the 2010s. The resulting debut novel, Damascus Station (W. W. Norton & Company, October 2021), surprises, entertains, and informs—as the author intended. In this interview—which has been edited for length—with McKinsey executive editor Roberta Fusaro, McCloskey reveals his personal objectives for writing the book, his creative process, and his picks for “spy” media that get it right.

Why did you write this book?

Before I joined McKinsey, I was an analyst at the CIA for a number of years, living and working in the Middle East. In the CIA, an analyst looks at all different kinds of information, most of which is stolen or recorded from people, and puts together assessments for the president and other senior policy makers. Most of the work I did was related to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and counterterrorism issues. Through the course of that work, I ended up having a front-row seat to the uprising in Syria and its devolution into civil war and state fragmentation. After I left the CIA, I wanted to write this book to process a lot of the emotions I had coming out of that experience. The writing we do at the CIA is very analytical but not very helpful for exploring the human state in these dramatic experiences. I really wanted to get Syria right, and I wanted to explore that conflict through the lens of a variety of characters. I also wanted to get the CIA right. You know, there’s a lot of content out there that features spies, and most of it is great fun. But I really wanted to go deeper, open a window into the world of the real CIA, and shed some light on how it works and what its officers think and feel.

What surprised you most in the writing, research, or early reaction to the book?

Like any good consultant, I came to the writing process thinking that it was going to be fairly linear—you know, there’s a series of steps you go through to write one of these things. That was totally wrong. I was surprised by how nonlinear the process was and how you had to write and write to discover the characters and the plot and to really unearth the emotion in the story. I started to think about it as an archaeological dig. You’re standing on this plot of land, and you have to dig deep to figure out what’s there. That process can be maddening because, some days, you dig and you don’t find anything, and you realize you have to go to some other part of the dig site to get what you’re looking for.

How closely does the book mirror real life—yours and the agency’s?

Well, very little of the book is directly autobio­graphical. There’s no character in here that I would consider to be me. All the characters are composites of people I knew at the CIA and even some people I knew at McKinsey—we’ll let them guess who they might be. But I really wanted to accurately portray CIA procedures and processes through how my characters spoke. When you learn something about the political situation in Syria, for example, or when you learn something about CIA tradecraft, it’s not the author dumping that on you from above. You’re looking at it through the lens of one or more of the characters in the book. There’s a part in the novel where Sam, the CIA case officer, is training a newly recruited agent on “surveillance detection routes” or how to move around in a city while learning whether you’re being watched. As the reader, you hopefully get brought into that experience without feeling like you’re being lectured to. The book also contains a lot of CIA minutiae that you would only know if you had been there—all the mistimed clocks on the walls, the hot dog machine.

So there really is a hot dog vending machine at CIA headquarters? How often did you partake?

Yes. I was as surprised to see it during my first months at the agency as I’m sure many readers of Damascus Station will be to encounter it in the book. It is on the ground floor of the CIA’s Original Headquarters Building. I would not say it is the most appetizing machine. It’s essentially a belt-fed contraption with large plastic strips of hot dogs and a little condiment dispenser to the side where you squeeze out the mustard and ketchup. But when you’re working very late nights and the cafeteria’s closed and you didn’t bring enough food, it starts to sound appetizing. I consider it to be a state secret how many hot dogs I ate, but let’s just say that I did partake.

How did you get the CIA on board with your sharing this level of detail?

The CIA has a publication review board, so they read the book manuscript twice and looked through it to make sure that I wasn’t revealing anything that would endanger sources and methods. I was committed to being accurate as well. I thought there was tremendous potential to explore the human dimension of spying and espionage—the time required and the buildup of tension when you’re a case officer developing an asset. I didn’t want this book to be just a continuous series of explosions. In many cases, I propelled the plot forward by injecting real events from the Syrian war, but the idea was to really get inside the characters’ heads and their reactions to those events.

How did your McKinsey experience inform your writing?

When I left the CIA, I spent a few months doing nothing but writing as I waited to join the firm. That’s when I realized I loved it and that I wanted to write a book. But being at the firm made me realize that I had to have a process for writing it. I think there’s a tendency for people to think that fiction is somehow this wild, experimental, unconstrained thing. Some elements of it are, but there’s also deep structure in a book or a story. My experience at the firm helped me realize those things. It also helped me think through, in a very rigorous way, what would I have to do to go from concept or idea to publication. McKinsey gave me that tool kit.

What might an executive reader take away from the book—apart from just enjoying the thrill ride?

This is a work of fiction, and so first and foremost, this is about turning the pages and being entertained. As with any good spy yarn, there are twists and turns and a decent amount of double-crossing that I hope will surprise readers. But I also think that in a world where executive time is very valuable, this book deals very seriously with the CIA and intelligence work and can educate executives interested in how that part of our government functions.

This book deals very seriously with the CIA and intelligence work and can educate executives interested in how that part of our government functions.

Which spy-related books and films get it right, in your opinion?

I’ve got three recommendations. The first is a novel from the 1980s by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Agents of Innocence. To my mind, it really is the best at showing what the CIA is like and what the real work of the CIA is like—and it’s really stood the test of time. Second, I’d recommend The Little Drummer Girl by John Le Carré, which does a phenomenal job of showing the slow burn of a recruitment operation. It also does a wonderful job of getting into the intimacy and the human drama between a case officer and an agent. And third, and most recent, is the TV series, The Americans. It had its crazy aspects, but it was based on a real program to put KGB officers inside the United States. It did an exceptional job with things like watching to see if you’re being surveilled, dead drops—all this kind of vintage, Cold War tradecraft.

Has CIA tradecraft changed substantially over time?

I don’t know how to answer this without giving away too much (laughs). It’s certainly true that CIA tradecraft has changed over time, but I would say a lot remains the same. The basics are timeless. There are new challenges, of course, a primary one being the proliferation of cameras and communi­cations technology. The highly networked world we live in makes it much harder to do things in secret.

You’ve been a CIA analyst, a consultant at McKinsey, and now an author. Which role do you like the best?

Hands down, author. Parts of it are extremely frustrating, and obviously, you don’t know where the money’s coming from over the long run. But I’m basically running my own business. I make my own hours, I make my own decisions, and I get to write books. It’s not bad.

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