One of Overt Action’s contributing writers, Alex Finley, just published a new novel, Victor in the Rubble: A Satire of the CIA and the War on Terror. It’s about chasing bad guys while working within CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (recently renamed the “Counterterrorism Mission Center”). We recently caught up with Alex and asked her about the challenges she had to face while putting this novel together.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Why did you write this book?
Victor in the Rubble started as a catharsis. It was my way of dealing with the trauma that was forced on the Intelligence Community in the wake of 9/11, Iraq, and the 2004 intelligence reform.
One day, I was at the office when something blew up in Yemen (it is a sign of the times that I no longer recall what, exactly, blew up) and a manager in the office I was in approached a case officer at his desk. On a nearby TV screen, we could see the fire in Yemen burning, people carrying out the dead. The manager asked the case officer—at that point a 12-year veteran of the Agency’s Counterterrorism Center—why he hadn’t yet filled out a survey on Agency employee satisfaction.
I thought the case officer’s head was going to explode. He managed to keep his cool just long enough to say to the manager (loud enough for the entire office to hear), “The terrorists aren’t filling out any [expletive] forms.” Then he walked out.
And I thought: What if terrorists did have to fill out forms? That would be hilarious.
When I left the Agency, I pulled together the bureaucratic ridiculousness I had experienced myself, combined it with some pretty great anecdotes from friends and colleagues, and decided to transpose that bureaucratic system on the terrorists. Indeed, what if terrorists had to fill out forms and go through the same bureaucratic rigmarole our Intelligence Community must go through? And just like that, I had a novel.
What kind of problems did you run into when putting this together?
Mark Twain once said that truth is stranger than fiction. That proved a real challenge for me, making true stories believable, even when they were completely absurd. There were several instances when the editor I was working with commented that a certain episode in the book was so absurd it didn’t seem possible and should be cut. I wanted to scream, “But that part actually happened!”
But of course I couldn’t tell her that.
But I think that’s part of the fun of a book like this: trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not. Using satire allowed me to pluck out the absurd parts of real events and use them in a wholly fictional way. I won’t confirm or deny any of it. But to keep the Publications Review Board on my side, I will note: this is a work of fiction!
Is this really a book about terrorism or one about the inequities of working within a bureaucracy? It seems both the protagonist and the antagonist face very similar challenges.
The main theme is definitely the difficulties of working within a bureaucracy, but the story also allowed me to make fun of terrorists.
Both Victor Caro, a counterterrorism officer, and his nemesis, the terrorist Omar al-Suqqit, work very hard to achieve their respective goals, but in the end, they find they both have a common enemy: red tape.
One of my biggest frustrations with the Agency was the notion that something was a “systemic failure.” This allows blame to be placed everywhere and nowhere at once. Good leaders and good managers understand the system is in place to make sure things work, not to stop things from working at all. In the end, the system is made up of individuals who make decisions (even if that decision is not to decide at all). And I think that theme comes through in Victor in the Rubble.
But I also take shots at terrorists. I am fascinated by the duplicity of terrorist leaders, which I think shows in the book. I think there is something funny about the incongruity of people hating the United States and yet loving what the United States has to offer. This is particularly funny for an ideology that looks to spread purity. We’ve all read about the debauchery of the 9/11 hijackers before they launched an operation in the name of religious purity. That hypocrisy fascinates me.
I am also fascinated by terrorists’ use of our own technology in the name of destroying us. I remember when I first read about Abu Mansur al-Amriki, a terrorist with al-Shabab in Somalia who was early to the online propaganda game. He uploaded videos to YouTube, released a rap song, and was active on Twitter, which he used to release a PDF of his 127-page autobiography and to answer questions from a reporter.
I have trouble logging on to a hotel’s free wifi service, but this guy in Somalia, a country emerging from decades of civil war and which doesn’t exactly have a reliable electricity grid, managed to get good enough reception to recount to the world that his second grade teacher used to love him but he still wants all kuffar to die.
Today, we face terrorists who want to establish a pre-Medieval caliphate, but they spread their message with tweets, record their crimes with GoPro cameras, and use their Facebook status to pledge allegiance to the Caliphate.
The main terrorist in my book, Omar al-Suqqit, eschews his wealthy family partly because of his father’s involvement in an industry that fuels U.S. meddling in his country. Yet he falls in love with IKEA and plots Death to America from the comfort of his EKTORP sofa while Tivo-ing “Dancing with the Stars.”
What aspects of the book hit closest to home for you as a former Agency officer? What incidents are similar to any real life experiences?
Like I said, writing Victor in the Rubble was a catharsis, so all of it was rather personal. While I can’t elaborate on what’s real, I will say this: everything in this book came from somewhere. I don’t think there is anything in it I completely made up out of the blue. Of course, I changed things and twisted things and turned them into other things, but none of it came from nothing.
Also, I loved my time in West Africa, so making that the setting and capturing the feelings (and odors!) of the region was important to me.
Are any of these individuals in your book based on real life people, or are they composite sketches? Is anyone your boss? We don’t want you to violate the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, however.
The book’s protagonist, Victor Caro, is a counterterrorism officer. He is something of a conglomeration, influenced by my own experiences and those of other officers I met along the way, many of whom had their own bureaucratic frustrations to share. I won’t say what other characters, if any, in the book are inspired by real people.
You’ve joined a group of folks with an intelligence background who have written fiction — Jason Matthews, author of Red Sparrow, recently springs to mind, but others like John le Carre, Ian Fleming, and Graham Greene all drew upon their professional background. Do you think there are any threads that run through their novels and yours?
Excuse me a moment while I relish the fact that you are mentioning me next to such big names in spy fiction.
OK, now that I soaked that up for a minute, I think we all let our experiences inform our writing. But I think the older generation of writers makes it a bit sexier. No one ever has to fill out a form or deal with accounting. Jason, on the other hand, does a great job of weaving together an espionage thriller that also captures some of the absurdity of Beltway Bureaucracy.
Victor in the Rubble is much more satire. But my guess is all these writers would recognize the world I create in the book.
How was your experience with the Publication Review Board?
For this particular project, I had no issues whatsoever with PRB. Although I often wished they could respond faster, but that was sometimes out of their control. At one point, I sent in a rewrite that I wanted to get back to an editor, and I got it to the PRB about two days before the government shut down, so I was stuck waiting until Congress got their act together and passed a budget before anyone could even look at my rewrite. Thanks, Obama.
What’s your next project?
I have started a sequel to Victor in the Rubble, which takes place in South America. While bureaucratic absurdity remains a constant theme, the sequel looks more at the ridiculousness of living a double life and many of the fun adventures such a unique job allows for.
I am also working on a non-fiction humorous guide to geopolitics in the 21st century, which delves into some of the most critical questions in geopolitics today, like which dictator has the best hair and why Africa is always referred to as a country. The book breaks down the complex and often academic analyses common in foreign policy, so that geopolitics is accessible to people who are too lazy to read The Economist but want to seem thoughtful about the world at dinner parties.
You can purchase Victor in the Rubble here.