Washington Post’s David Ignatius

Washington Post columnist and best-selling author describes the plot of his latest text, Bloodmoney, and explains why the novel is painted in colors that are true to life.

David Ignatius has had a wide-ranging career in the news business, serving at various times as a reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and columnist covering the Middle East and the CIA. He currently writes a foreign affairs column for The Washington Post and contributes to the paper's PostPartisan blog. The Harvard grad is also a best-selling novelist, whose titles include Body of Lies, which was adapted into a film, The Increment and, his latest, Bloodmoney. Ignatius previously spent time as a WSJ reporter and an editor at The Washington Monthly.


Tavis: David Ignatius is an award-winning columnist at “The Washington Post” and a best-selling novelist whose many previous spy novels include “Body of Lies.” His latest is called “Blood Money” and he joins us tonight from Washington. David, good to have you back on the program, sir.

David Ignatius: Great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: There is a fine line, they say, between fact and fiction, but of all the novels you’ve written, which all seemed to be rather timely, it’s almost hard in some instances to know where the line is in this particular novel, “Blood Money,” between fact and fiction because so much of what you write is literally happening at this moment. I assume you’ve picked up on that.

Ignatius: Well, I was astonished when I watched the Raymond Davis case unfold. Your viewers will remember that Raymond Davis was a CIA contractor who was arrested in Lahore in January and imprisoned for shooting and killing two Pakistanis who were trailing him. It turned out that he was part of an undercover CIA operation that’s so much like the one that I’m describing in my novel.

He ended up getting released two months later through payment of blood money, which is the title of the novel and one of the themes. By that time, the book was already printed, I was handing out copies to my mom and dad and other relatives, and here it was coming down in real life.

The truth is, as you know, people like us look at what’s happening in the world and then we project it forward. We think, if I know A and B, then I’ve got to know that C and D are coming, and that’s kind of the way it’s been with my fiction. I do spend time with CIA officers and with officers from the ISI, the Pakistani Intelligence Service, the services of other countries.

I think, based on what I’m seeing right now in real life, where the story has to go, and with my last few books it’s actually ended up in that space, which is weird for me as a writer, but hey, it’s fun for readers.

Tavis: I want to come back in a moment, David, to your prescience, or your prophetic writing, as it were, given what’s happening between the U.S. and Pakistan even as we speak, but I’ll let you top-line what the story is and then we’ll come back to some real-life stuff.

Ignatius: This is a story that’s set largely in Pakistan. It’s the story of a CIA operation under very deep cover, far from Langley, far from the embassies that traditionally provide cover.

They’ve created a whole new business. It’s an entertainment business out your way, based in Studio City, California, to hide our covert operatives when they’re abroad. It funds itself through a hedge fund in London in a way that I hope readers will find believable. It’s doing really crazy things off the book in Pakistan and it gets found out, and one of its operatives in the opening pages gets killed.

The story of the book is really what went wrong with that operation, who knows about it, who’s killing these agents from this undercover organization, and then in a larger sense, what’s going on with the United States and Pakistan.

This is a – if ever there was a web of deceit and distrust, it’s the U.S.-Pakistani spy relationship, and I try to get to the bottom of that and describe characters that I hope are true to life. By the end of the book there’s sort of a way through this thicket. In the end it’s about how we go about resolving conflicts and breaking the logjam. That’s where the blood money theme comes in.

But I hope it’s, as I say in my acknowledgements, that it’s painted in colors that are true to life.

Tavis: To your point of a moment ago, David, why in the world that we live today, with stories that unfold every day that surprise us and just take our breath away, would you think that readers might have a difficult time believing that an operation like this would exist and that it would, in fact, this clandestine operation, would be funded through a hedge fund in London?

Is that really so hard to believe in today’s world, do you think? I think the readers can handle that.

Ignatius: It shouldn’t be. The CIA, in real life, we know is looking for new kinds of cover. It’s looking for new platforms, as they like to say, and it’s trying to use the revolution in communications technology, the ability to use all sorts of corporate entities in ways that are hard to detect to get our spies in the laces where they need to be.

We’re not chasing Soviet diplomats anymore. We can’t go to embassy cocktail parties and hope to recruit the agents that are going to make a difference. We’re chasing adversaries that hide in the mountains, that would shoot us if they saw us, not to have a vodka with us at the cocktail reception.

So the world has changed, the CIA is having to change, and again, the challenge for someone like me as a spy novelist is to write realistically about where they’re actually going.

Sometimes James Bond movies drive me crazy. They’re fun to watch, but they don’t have anything to do at all with what intelligence officers really do.

Tavis: Given that you write in the real world – your day job is writing at “The Washington Post,” as we well know – how do you keep from putting too much truth, too much reality, too much what’s in the news every day, in your novel? How do you resist that?

Ignatius: Well, you have to invent the story, reinvent real life in your own imagination as a writer, for it to have any power for readers. That’s something that I’ve discovered as I’ve worked on my books. Otherwise, you end up writing a 100,000-word newspaper story and calling it a novel, which just isn’t going to be interesting for people. It’s that reinvention that makes it interesting.

To your question that I think you’re implicitly asking – how do you avoid putting too many secrets in, how do you end up avoiding tipping the hand, I don’t know enough that that’s really a big concern, but my boss, Ben Bradley, used to speak about the wiring diagram details of intelligence operations and he always said to us that “Washington Post” readers don’t need to know how the wiring diagram goes to understand the important facts of the story.

I think that’s a true and valid point as much for novelists as it is for newspaper writers.

Tavis: So to the real stuff then, in the time that I have left here, what do you make now, beyond the novel “Blood Money,” of the real-life relationship or lack thereof that we have with Pakistan at the moment?

Ignatius: What I try to say in this book, Tavis, and feel as a journalist writing every day, is that this is like a bad marriage. There’s so much mistrust, the partners have such deep resentments against each other, and yet the reality is that they need each other.

If this marriage broke up, if the United States and Pakistan really said sayonara, baby, each would be in greater difficulty. Our national security interests really require us to figure out a way to be better partners.

I think that that’s going to require each side to do things that are uncomfortable. I personally – one thing I’ve written about a lot in this book is our use of Predator drones. I think we need to think about whether we’re overusing that weapon, whether that weapon’s become almost addictive.

It’s so easy to take people out from 10,000 feet. I think the Pakistanis need to think more about really working with us to go after the enemy that’s going to take them down as much as us. The Taliban are killing ISI, Pakistani intelligence officers, every day. So they need to get more serious from their end.

I think if people look at it from that very sort of tough-minded standpoint, like a couple in therapy, to continue my analogy, I hope they’ll do better with it.

Tavis: Yeah. Well, from –

Ignatius: Can I say one other thing?

Tavis: Sure, sure, sure.

Ignatius: Talking to you, Tavis, I can’t help but think about the time we spent together in China, walking down the Bund in Shanghai, and it’s such a pleasure to be with you. You’re one of my favorite television journalists, and somebody who I just wish that you were here in Washington; we’re going to take a walk after the show and talk about stuff.

Tavis: (Laughs) That’s great of you to say. As you may know, I just returned from China and since David sets me up so beautifully here, starting Monday, July the 11th, for five nights on this program we’re going to bring you a program called “Postcards from China.”

So I spent about two weeks in China putting together a five-night special that will air on this program starting Monday, July 11th through Friday, July 15th, about China – the economy, education, the future, the environment. Everything about China you could ever want to know, you’ll see here for a full week starting Monday, July the 11th.

So David, first of all, thank you for the book, “Blood Money.” It’s the new novel from David Ignatius, award-winning columnist for “The Washington Post,” and thank you secondly for the nice segue to promote my China special, Monday, July 11th. (Laughter)

Ignatius: Well, Tavis, I will be watching, I can guarantee you that.

Tavis: David, thank you very much. I appreciate you.

Ignatius: Okay, bye-bye.

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Last modified: June 14, 2011 at 10:24 pm