I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree H.N. Wake to talk with me about her book, A Spy Came Home. H.N. spent 20 years overseas working in Africa, Asia and Europe, mostly with the US government. She is married and lives on the East Coast with her husband and their dog. She follows politics and international relations passionately, loves to travel, can spend hours in her garden, and will dive at any chance to scuba.
To date, she has written two screenplays in addition to A Spy Came Home and Ghosts in Macau: A Mac Ambrose Short story. She is in the throes of writing her second Mac Ambrose novel. You can find her at here where she blogs, on Twitter: @hnwake and on Facebook: HNWake
Hello, H.N.! Thank you for chatting with me today! How did you get into writing screenplays? Did that lead you into wanting to write books?
Thanks for having me, Stephanie! This is fun!
When I moved home, I spent some time in Los Angeles surrounded by professional ‘creative’ types. As a group, they had an amazingly unique world perspective that was really free-flowing–always talking about their stories, their characters, and their latest scripts. One night over some wine, one of my friends explained the traditional structure of a movie. Suddenly the thought of constructing a story wasn’t so intimidating. I had a few narratives thumping around in my head from my life overseas and I thought ‘that seems like a great way to release them.’
The next day I downloaded Scrivener (highly recommended) and started banging away. Naiveté with a splash of bravado, I guess. Six months later I had my first draft of a script and sent it to my friend. She called me early the next morning, said she’d stayed up into the night to finish it, and told me ‘you have a real voice.’ I had no idea what that meant. None. It just sounded awesome. I was elated. I took my poor dog on a three-hour walk around the neighborhood in a trance, repeating, “I have a real voice.” It was one of the most powerfully uplifting moments I’ve ever had; I think I may have even cried behind my sunglasses. That sounds horrendously corny.
I submitted that first script in a contest and it did fairly well—don’t get me wrong, it didn’t make it to the quarterfinals—but I was hooked! And my second script was much better.
Then I realized I had to pursue them somehow or they’d languish on my computer. I approached a few LA friends about getting an agent but it felt very salesy–taking meetings, making pitches–and what I honestly wanted to say was, “here it is, I’d be balls-out ecstatic if you liked it.” It felt very unnatural to sell myself or the scripts. When I heard about self-publishing I realized that route fit me way better because the story is out in front. So I started working on A Spy Came Home.
How did you discover indieBRAG?
When I finally hit publish on that first novel, I took a break from writing and did a lot of internet snooping. There is a ton of helpful information for self-publishing. A ton. indieBRAG was one of the first I stumbled across and I was just really, very impressed. Now I’m thrilled I found them!
I am so delighted you found indieBRAG as well! The title of your book (A Spy Came Home) is an eye catcher. Please tell me a little about your book.
The protagonist, Mac Ambrose, is a gritty, gutsy, solitary character who’s been a very successful CIA operative for her entire career. She is asked by her closest friends to come back home and take down the gun lobby so new legislation can pass the Senate. Initially, she’s lured back by her friends’ request and the intimidating thought of rekindling a romance she broke off years earlier when she first went deep cover. We see her roll out a complex web of traps, all the while eluding a dogged ATF agent who is hot on her heels, shoring up the nerves of her co-conspirators, and conducting surveillance on her lost love. It has lifelike corruption, cagey sabotage, compelling mystery, tense pursuit, and some romance. Huffington Post called it ‘taut’. I mean, what a superb adjective – love!
Does your interest in politics and international relations inspire you to write your story? And how do you feel that it helped you?
The mood of A Spy Came Home is based on my experience returning back to the US after 20 years. It can be an isolating period: you don’t have a lot of common reference points for conversations with your friends. At the same time, you observe the US through a lens that has evolved, has matured. Everything seems different, a lot of it seems new.
One of the many things that shook me when I returned was the pervasiveness of gun violence. It’s extraordinary. This just doesn’t exist overseas. Given my tendency to dig into politics, I read a lot about it. What struck me was the duplicitous nature and inordinate power of gun-rights lobbying groups (aka hired thugs for the gun industry), despite the fact that a very significant majority of Americans aren’t fanatical about guns. It seemed natural to write something–even fictional–with a theme that elicited such a strong emotion in me.
Please tell me a little about Mac Ambrose.
She’s solitary, gritty, gutsy, strong, patriotic, and ethical. She has an issue with authority figures and the CIA bureaucracy has chafed her for a long time. She’s super ballsy: she sees something that has to be done and she just does it. She doesn’t hesitate.
But she’s got some cracks: she’s lonely, she has bouts of anxiety, she’s conflicted. A childhood with an emotionally abusive mother hangs like a shadow just over her shoulder, driving her perfectionism, her idealism.
Despite outward appearances, she’s also a lot like everybody else. She wants to be understood, accepted, and ultimately loved. Which is hard when you’re a spy. So she buried that side of her.
What is an example of a conflict she faces and how does she deal with it?
Mac’s CIA handler in Langley is a timid guy named Frank Odom. He sits in a dark basement office, thwarting her at every turn. We get the sense he’s been a thorn in her side for years. At one point in this novel, he blatantly threatens her. She sees him coming and very effectively blackmails him. It’s tremendously gratifying.
Their conflictual relationship runs through this novel and the other Mac Ambrose stories. My beta readers love to hate Frank Odom.
Did you ever get stuck on writing a scene? What did you do about it?
I had written 95% of the book and had filled in most scenes and chapters, but I had one scene toward the end that had a single note on the blank screen: “Mac – anxiety attack.” If/when you read the novel, you’ll know why this scene is important and inevitable (hint: it has to do with her finally approaching the old flame.) Boy, I avoided writing that scene for months. Like a lot of people, I know anxiety intimately. Eventually I sat down and really sunk into the emotion because I wanted to do it justice. The first cut was about two pages long! It ended up only being a paragraph. But if you’ve ever had anxiety, I think you’ll recognize it.
Where can readers buy your book?
Where in your home do you like to write and what is your process?
I wake up very early and get the coffee going: I can’t work without coffee. I let the dog out. Then I retreat to my empty, second floor office (where we just redid the floors by ourselves-–not recommended). I have a big comfy armchair in front of two huge windows where I sit with my laptop. Bliss.
I do a lot of research in the beginning. It gives me confidence. I’ll start sketching the story, throwing down notes on dialogue and scenes, and setting plot ‘beats’. This eventually turns into structuring: I’m definitely a plotter. Finally I’ll start filling in with stream of consciousness.
I learned in my primary career that you can’t edit enough. Ever. I can deconstruct and shine a sentence indefinitely. I spent months editing A Spy Came Home and there are still sentences I don’t like. But eventually you have to let go.
The process is exciting: I feel I learn every day. My second novel is coming together faster, easier.
Who designed your book cover?
Sheepishly: I did.
What are you working on next?
Mac Ambrose got crazy reader response. I knew I liked her when I was writing her—lots of agency, some vulnerability, she’s the real deal—so I knew I wanted to keep going. Mac Ambrose novel two is on the way!
I really like thrillers/suspense myself. And my ideal reader is very clever and trying to outguess me. I suppose that means I’ll keep writing in this genre since I am most comfortable here. (Shout out to my Goodreads ‘A Good Thriller’ group – newcomers welcome!)
It’s also a stupendous time to be a writer who explores topical, current issues via sharp, sassy women. Recently, I read two items that clicked. First, a great blog post noted that there’s a gap in literary awards: few awards go to women writing about grown women.(1) Secondly, a striking number of Millennials consume news, but in a way that is woven into their connection with the world through social media, social action, or entertainment.(2) That sounds like the perfect storm for just my kind of storytelling!
Do you stick with just genre?
So far, yes. But I like taking risks and I love the adrenaline rush of trying something new. So, never say never.
A Message from indieBRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview H.N. Wake who is the author of, A Spy Came Home, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, A Spy Came Home, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.