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For her spy novel, Lauren Wilkinson knew she needed an exciting first chapter

Our June 2020 pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Lauren Wilkinson’s “American Spy.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

Lauren Wilkinson’s “American Spy” is a contemporary take on a classic spy novel, but it originally started as a graduate school assignment: She was prompted to write a short story about the suburbs, and chose Connecticut as the setting.

The assignment would eventually turn into a full-fledged novel spanning from New England to Martinique to Burkina Faso, with a Black female intelligence officer named Marie Mitchell as its protagonist. Inspired by Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead,” Wilkinson chose to write the book as a letter from Marie to her sons. “I wrote it this way in order to make that book’s tone as intimate as I could,” Wilkinson told the NewsHour.

“When I’m interested in a book, I give the first few pages a read to see if they hook me,” Wilkinson said, adding that if they don’t, she generally doesn’t keep reading. “So, it was always my intent to give the book an exciting opening, in order to appeal to readers like me.”

Wilkinson did so by opening the book with an intrusion into Marie’s home, well after her mission to Burkina Faso is over.

The author shares more of her takeaways from the novel in an annotated excerpt, below.

From “American Spy”

CONNECTICUT, 1992

I unlocked the safe beneath my desk, grabbed my old service automatic, and crept toward my bedroom doorway, stealthy until I was brought to grief by a Lego Duplo that stung the sole of my foot. I hobbled the rest of the way to the door and crouched behind it.

A few moments passed, just enough time for me to feel ridiculous. I told myself that what I’d heard was the house settling. That was always what it wound up being.

The room was still and dark; the only light was from the moon. Poochini, our German shepherd mix, was closed in your bedroom with you. He let out a single, cautious bark. I heard the whoosh of tires on asphalt—a car passing on the Boston Post Road, which was hidden just behind the tangle of woods at the back of our small house. Then it was quiet again.

That night I’d been up late working on a translation at the desk in my room, so it was after two when I’d finally shut off the light and climbed into bed. I hadn’t been able to sleep. As I was staring at the ceiling, I’d thought I’d heard a floorboard creak in the hall. Instinctively, I’d climbed out of bed and gone for my gun.

Your room was across from my own. I pictured you both asleep, and told myself I was being irrational. I told myself we were safe.

Then a man appeared in my bedroom, and my heart picked up speed as I watched him approach my bed.

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