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A Chat with Spy Novelist S. Lee Manning

Updated: May 20, 2023

After being declared all but dead in the 1990s by venerated spy novelist John le Carré, the sub-genre seems to be enjoying a literary renaissance. Perhaps the rebirth has to do with Russia returning as a potent player in the espionage game, or China emerging as a resourceful one. Maybe cyber technology and AI have inspired writers to explore a natural new arena for espionage. Whatever the reason, spies have become cool again! To learn more about this trend and the special challenges of writing spy thrillers, I chatted via email with S. Lee Manning, author of the award-winning Kolya Petrov spy novel series.

S. Lee Manning spent two years as managing editor of Law Enforcement Communications before realizing that lawyers make a lot more money. A subsequent career as an attorney spanned from a first tier New York law firm, to working for the State of New Jersey, to solo practice. In 2001, Manning agreed to chair New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NJADP), writing articles on the risk of wrongful execution and arguing against the death penalty on radio and television in the years leading up to its abolition. She also published literary short stories, winning the Cincinnati Mercantile Library short story contest.

What was the genesis of your first spy novel, Trojan Horse? Genesis of my first spy novel: first and foremost - the character of Kolya Petrov. I wanted to create a complex character who was not the typical hero of a spy novel. Kolya, as a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States, is breaking stereotypes. Jews in America (as opposed to Israeli Jews) tend to be portrayed as intellectuals, nerdy, neurotic - not as heroes risking their lives in dangerous situations. Russians have even worse images (especially now) as criminals and gangsters. The idea behind Trojan Horse was that of an intelligence organization betraying one of its own agents in a good cause - which raises the question of the ends justifying the means. Is it right to sacrifice one or two people in the greater good? I liked the moral questions raised by the situation.

What attracted you to the spy/espionage genre?I've always liked the spy genre. The stakes are big - it's not catching a killer - it's stopping something terrible from happening to a lot of people. But with those larger stakes sometimes comes moral ambiguity - (see my answer above) - which I find intriguing. What is the ethical and moral thing to do, even in pursuit of a greater good. Finally, I always felt some identification with spies. The idea of someone having to conceal who they really are, what they're really doing - even to family - while quietly gathering important information was always appealing. Maybe because as a writer (and an introvert), I felt that I did a lot of that through my life.

What are the special challenges of writing spy stories as opposed to other crime genres? Spy stories tend to have more complex plots. My books are on the larger side because of that. One challenge is not to get too complex - which I did with the first draft of my second novel - Nerve Attack. If the plot so complex that the reader has trouble following it, you're going to lose them. So the plot has to be just complex enough but not TOO complex. The other challenge is to offer three dimensional characters. I've heard people critique spy novels for not delving deeply into character. I don't think that's true of my novels, but it is a challenge to have the right balance of character and plot. Do changing world politics impact your storytelling? Somewhat. I do base much of my books on real events. For example, Bloody Soil is based on real events that happened with neo-Nazi groups in Germany trying to take over the country. But the political figures, from the Russian president to the German chancellor to the US president, are all fictional. (There is one exception to that rule: when Kolya and his former best friend land in Burlington, Vermont, Dmitri asks, "Do you think we'll see Bernie Sanders?" Bernie doesn't appear though.)

Do you think women spy writers, especially ones with male protagonists, are treated differently in the publishing world than male writers? Yes. A couple quick examples. When I was first shopping Trojan Horse, an editor at a big five told me that men didn't read spy thrillers by women. I should change my novel to romantic suspense and make Kolya into a woman. I didn't. I also had a male reviewer react dubiously to my request for a review, saying that women can't write good spy novels. Who are your favorite spy novelists?

John le Carré, Francine Mathews (although she doesn't write them anymore). Gayle Lynds, Daniel Silva, Mick Herron, David Ignatius.

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