Local author J.A. Walsh didn’t always want to pen an espionage thriller. He originally had something else he wanted to push.
“I’ve got a big doorstop of a book sitting in the drawer of my desk,” Walsh confides. “It may never see the light of day.”
Fortunately for lovers of gritty, intricately plotted and character-driven narratives, the 40-year-old former intelligence officer, who holds degrees in Russian, English literature and environmental law, shelved his 160,000-word literary opus and followed his agent’s sage advice.
“She said, ‘You’re a spy, go write a spy novel,’” Walsh remembers.
The result, Purpose of Evasion, can be considered a next generation political thriller. Steeped in the character-centered classics of the genre by John le Carré and Graham Greene, the novel also draws on an insider’s insight into the legal questions, ethical quandaries and nut-and-bolts spycraft that informs our nation’s intel community.
From an unconventional hero, a gay Muslim-American intelligence officer named Sami Lakhani, to a chillingly plausible storyline charting a white supremacist’s plot to infiltrate our government, Purpose of Evasion promises to be a thrilling adventure that may also serve as a thought provoking wake-up call to readers.
The Davidson-based author kicks off his summer book tour on June 15 at Main Street Books in his hometown with a Q&A and book signing. But first, our interrogation records can be found below.
Queen City Nerve: You served in intelligence and counterterrorism from 2001 to 2006. Did 9/11 prompt you to follow that path?
J.A. Walsh: It changed my life in every way. It absolutely put me on my path. I was a so-called “September 12th enlistment,” though it wasn’t quite September 12 when I volunteered. A lot of people remember “Shock and Awe,” the initial campaign in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. That started with primarily air strikes and evolved into tanks and heavy infantry going into Iraq. That’s where the intelligence operations that I was involved in began.
In the early days of the war, units [like] the 82nd Airborne and the Big Red One were doing the things that needed to be done in terms of winning and holding territory, [but] infantry units aren’t meant to gather Intel. I was primarily involved in creating a structure for what were called MITs: mobile interrogation teams/mobile intelligence teams. Those teams were cross-functional, multi-disciplinary teams of intelligence officers [with] linguistics capabilities, cultural awareness, etc. We were directed by command to go into places and try to gather [intelligence].
The teams later became part of the controversial legal questions around the way that the war was conducted — questions about the handling and interrogation of detainees, where these detainees were held and extraordinary rendition.
You may remember leading up to the surge in 2006, the government was focused on containing the threat within the field of battle — within Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In fact, it’s part of the subject in my book. You may also remember that it was part of the justification for the war. It was, “These guys are no longer containable. They are attacking our embassies in the Middle East and Africa. These guys are coming to our homeland now. You know what; if we create a battlefield over there it will be an attractor. All these bad guys who are training to carry out attacks will go to that place.”
In one sense that was proven to be accurate, at least the focus shifted to those battlefields. At the beginning of my career that was very much what we focused on. The back end was focused on the realization that domestic attacks were not only possible, but in some cases imminent. What does it mean to not only have an attack on the homeland, but what does it mean if that attack is carried out by a U.S. citizen with all rights that the Constitution guarantees? I was trained as an attorney, and I am very focused on legal questions surrounding terrorism and homeland attacks.
Are you a fan of spy fiction, and are there any works and authors that have inspired you?
I really love the progenitors of this genre, John le Carré and Graham Greene. I think Daniel Silva [is an] heir to that tradition. Daniel Silva and Graham Greene [look at] the experience of being involved in this unique world of intelligence, [and how it] impacts so many of the core aspects of people’s lives — their security, their civil liberties, and all these big issues.
Reading those books inspired me to take my experience from 2001 to 2006 as an intelligence officer, and my experience as an attorney and a civil libertarian from then until now, to look at the world leading up to and after the most recent election, and synthesize an interesting story that pulls in all those threads.
Why did you make Sami Lakhani, the novel’s hero, a Muslim-American intelligence officer?
In many of the [spy] books that are out there, the hero is a middle-aged white male heterosexual, almost superhero type. I thought what if I challenge that trope, and the best way to do that would be to draw from my experience. People who are not exposed to the work of intelligence officers on a daily basis may have an [inaccurate] image of the type of person doing our spying.
People who are representing our country as intelligence officers are primarily people with global cultural ties and language skills that are commensurate with the job. Often [they] are new arrivals, or within a couple generations of their families arriving. I thought, we’re going to challenge expectations that people may have about who this character should be and what he should be. The hero is going to be Muslim-American. That was how Sami’s character started to develop for me. Sami is not based on any one officer that I served with. He’s definitely a composite.
Why did you decide that Sami is gay?
I wanted to reflect the diverse community of people who serve in U.S. intelligence, and I wanted to challenge people’s expectations of a “spy hero.” Also when people ask me why Sami is gay, I say, “Why not?” Literature needs more characters representing all communities.
You say white nationalism is America’s greatest domestic threat. Why?
This is a big concern of the book. As a civil libertarian, I’m loathe to limit anyone’s rights to express themselves, but I think we’re seeing the resurfacing of ideology that is ignorant of the historical significance of the movements that are represented by things like Pride Month.
It’s interesting, when I do events I ask people who are old enough to imagine themselves before 9-11. Now imagine that you pick up the newspaper and you see there was a bombing somewhere. Somewhere there is a government building that was attacked and people were killed. Who is your suspect? It doesn’t always happen, but people often say, “Timothy McVeigh.” So the roots of [white nationalist] ideology haven’t gone anywhere. They’ve always been here. We’re seeing the reemergence of nationalist ideology, not just in the United States, but globally. I think most troubling of all is we’re seeing nationalism focused around the myth of there being a sort of proto citizen.
What concerns civil libertarians and law enforcement and intelligence people is that as we look at the world, we’re starting to see these organizations get back to the place that they were in the 1990s, where they were stockpiling weapons, and where they had access to operational plans. Aryan Nation, which is an Idaho-based white nationalist militia group, has gotten back to the strength they represented in the 1990s when the Rand Corporation did a study and called them the only true specific terror threat to the United States.
Let’s take all the expectations and ingrained understanding Americans now have of radical Islamism, and lay out the ideology: There is a state that is not represented as a republic or a political organization, but as a cultural religion organization. There is a certain role that is expected for women. There is a very limited view of what civil rights should be afforded to the LGBT community. It’s pretty easy to get somebody to fill in that list. Then you spin it back around and slide it across the table. This is the same list that the Aryan Nation has on their website. This is the Aryan Nation mission statement. I wanted to take that ingrained understanding that we all developed in the post 9-11 world, and challenge Americans to see that our concepts of freedom and independence and all those ideals that we cherish are being threatened within our borders.
What are your thoughts on the political cover that white nationalists are getting now that they did not previously have?
It’s impossible to ignore or to overstate the danger of permitting high government officials to get away with the dog whistle language that is addressed to this community. There’s no doubt that it’s dangerous.
The ultimate bad actor in my novel is a guy we call Gerald Seymour, and he appears in the first chapter. I cannot tell you of a person yet who’s read the book that hasn’t ask me if that’s Steve Bannon. This concerns me absolutely. In a lot of ways we’re looking at somebody who is represented by the ultra-conservative wing of the party who has absolutely made their way into the inner circle of the president of the United States.
How do we deal with the threat of white nationalism?
The book is a meditation on this question. What happens if that ideology is mobilized in the United States? There’s an organization that believes in very limited rights for women, believes that homosexuality should be punished by death and believes that you should be told precisely what religion you’re going to practice and if you don’t practice that religion you are subject to death.
There’s such an organization. They own millions and millions of acres of property in the United States, and they have the constitutional license to have as much weaponry as they like. They’ve been here all along, they’re organizing and they’re potentially ready to carry out attacks.