Valerie Plame Reduxe

For the second time this year, I interviewed Valerie Plame. The occasion Saturday was the recent release of Burned, the second novel she co-wrote with Santa Fe author Sarah Lovett. In February, we talked about Blowback, their first collaboration.

Here’s the back story on Valerie: she was a CIA operative outed by the Bush administration after her husband Joe Wilson, a former diplomat, wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times, What I Didn’t Find in Africa, that is, nuclear materials bound for Iraq. She let the world know about it in her non-fiction book, Fair Game, My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House — well, except for the parts blacked out by the CIA. (By the way, the CIA gets to read her fiction before it is published.)

Now Valerie, who lives with her family in Santa Fe, uses her insider knowledge for spy thrillers. Her main character is Vanessa Pierson, “a younger, smarter version” of Valerie, she says. Her nemesis is Bhoot. She has a love interest in David Khoury, a colleague.

Jay Moore, of Moby Dickens Bookshop in Taos, asked me to do the honors. (The first in February was for SOMOS, the lit society of Taos.) Naturally, I agreed.

A friend savvy about politics wrote me: Valerie’s a smarty. I hoped to come up with smart enough questions for her to answer. I read the Burned, took notes, and decided to focus on the novel’s creation before delving into politics. I didn’t plan to rehash the Bush administration’s shenanigans, which took place over ten years ago.

We agreed to open up questions to the audience afterward, certainly a brave move, but Valerie has been in much tougher situations I am certain.

It was SRO upstairs in the bookshop. My quick assessment was this was mostly an older, politically interested crowd, and likely leaning toward the left.

As I asked my questions, Valerie was friendly, gracious, and yes, smart. I see why she was fit for espionage. She makes people feel comfortable.

At my prompting, she talked about Christian extremists in the U.S. military (prompted by a character in Burned), dealing with hostage situations (just that morning an American journalist was killed during a failed rescue attempt), the mid-term elections, the Obama administration, national security, and so on. Her character, Vanessa, seems to have to prove herself frequently. Was that Valerie’s experience in the CIA? Yes.

It was a pleasant and informative conversation on a Saturday afternoon. Later, she signed my copy with this inscription: “To Joan thank you for making it fun & easy!”

So what did I think about Burned? As I told Valerie, I like it better than the first, which of course, was an introduction to Vanessa and those around her. Burned is more complex and action-packed. It starts with a bomb ignited outside the Louvre in Paris and ends, well, you’ll have to read it yourself.



Out in the Open with Valerie Plame

Valerie Plame became a household name in 2003 when the Bush administration outed her as a CIA operative. Of course, the exposure was politically motivated. Her husband Joe Wilson, a former diplomat, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa.” Namely, he didn’t find nuclear materials heading to Iraq. You can read about it in her memoir, Fair Game, My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, except for the 10 percent redacted by the CIA.

Now, Valerie has ventured into writing fiction — a spy thriller — in

collaboration with Sarah Lovett. (Both live in Santa Fe.) The first book, Blowback, came out this fall, and that’s why she was in Taos, Feb. 7, and I got to interview her at an event for SOMOS, the local literary group.

That night Valerie spoke about her experiences and read a little from the first chapter. Then, I joined her on stage to ask questions. 

We talked about her career as an operative, the White House’s betrayal, Edward Snowden, of course, and the writing process used for the new series of thriller novels. The next, Burned, is coming out this fall. 

And from time to time, Joe, who was standing on the side, offered a comment at Valerie’s invitation. Even their young daughter asked a question about 9/11 when we opened it up to the audience. (Not surprisingly, it was a full house.)

Afterward, people have asked my impressions of Valerie and Joe. (I got to meet them beforehand at dinner and at a reception afterward.) I will say they are extremely likable, certainly a useful character trait from her days as an operative and his as a diplomat.

Valerie and Joe are smart and engaged in what is happening politically. But like the rest of us, they talk about their kids — their son was in a basketball tournament at Taos Middle School that afternoon — and are interested in what others have to say. They have a good sense of humor and certainly don’t lack opinions. 

What about Valerie’s novel, Blowback? She told me it was not poetry or literature. (I said thank goodness, on the poetry part.) The book moves fast with short chapters and gunfire. Valerie says it is a realistic portrayal of that life. She says she aimed to move past the stereotypes of female CIA operatives with Vanessa Pierson, who she said in a NY Times interview is a younger, smarter version of herself. (One of my questions: How is Vanessa smarter?) 

By the way, just like Fair Game, the CIA got to read Blowback first. However, Valerie says this time the CIA only changed one line. 


Doing Time with Katherine Ann Power

Out of the blue, SOMOS, the lit group in Taos, asked me to do a Q&A with Katherine Ann Power on stage. I knew Katherine’s story. I bet most of you do, too.

On Sept. 24, 1970, Katherine, a student at Brandeis, was driving the switch car while three men, all ex-cons, and her friend, Susan Saxe, robbed a bank in Brighton, Mass. The money was supposed to go to the Black Panthers for guns — to end the war in Vietnam. One of the men murdered Officer Walter Schroeder, who left behind nine children. An accessory to the crime, Katherine was a fugitive for 23 years until she surrendered. She served six years in prison after pleading guilty to armed robbery and manslaughter. 
Katherine Ann Power, left, and me post-interview


The Oct. 25 event in Taos was Katherine’s first since her probation ended last month. 
I did my research. Rebecca Lenzini, who owns Knighthawk Press in Taos, lent me magazines from 1994. (Knighthawk was co-sponsor of the event held at the Taos Community Auditorium. The press has also reprinted her book Doing Time, Papers from Framingham Prison.)
I met Katherine the day before for lunch and a talk. I didn’t notice her until she greeted me outside the restaurant. Katherine could have been any one of the number of tourists or locals who pass that spot in Taos. This woman had achieved anonymity, I decided. 
Katherine told me she would be open to any probing question.
Naturally, journalists don’t give their questions ahead of time. Plus that night we were asking the audience to submit their own on cards. During intermission, I chose those questions that, as we say in the news biz, would advance the interview. There were also duplicates and a couple that could be answered via other questions.
The first half of the event, Katherine read from Doing Time, plus her memoir-in-process, Surrender.
Then, for about 40 minutes or so, I asked and she answered questions. Katherine talked about the botched robbery, her feelings about the Vietnam War and “practical peace,” about being a fugitive, her surrender, being in prison, and what she has done since. The audience wanted to know about the other people involved in the fatal bank robbery, plus her family and friends in Oregon, where she lived most of her fugitive years. She talked about Walter Schroeder and how her actions hurt his family. One question: During your prison time, did you ever doubt your decision to turn yourself in? Her answer was a firm no.
I liked this one from the audience: What has happened to the rage we felt then?
The interview was filmed and once edited will be available on SOMOS’ website. I’ll let you know when that happens.