“The one charm of marriage,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.”
In author Chris Pavone’s debut novel, The Expats, there are more than a few secrets in the mix as an ex-CIA agent moves abroad with her family. Is it a fresh chance to embrace a new circle of friends and reinvent her identity…or a grim reminder that no amount of time or distance can keep the past from catching up and demanding dark debts be paid in full?
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Your journey as a writer has taken an intriguing path. Tell us how your academic background in government and the skill sets required to be a cookbook editor for Clarkson Potter prepared you for the challenge of cooking up an espionage thriller novel.
A: The main useful thing I learned at Cornell was how to read critically. And that’s also what being an editor is, fundamentally, in any genre—whether for cookbooks or all the other types of books I edited. And I think that’s a large part of what being an author is too: critically reading your own work, deciding what should be deleted, what should be added, what should be better.
Q: Given your expertise as an editor, did you trust your judgment to edit the book yourself or was this task handed over to someone else?
A: I did indeed edit the hell out of myself, over and over and over. But I’m also convinced that every single book benefits from as much editing by other people as an author can stomach. I was lucky enough to find skilled people who were willing to help me with the manuscript, and I was reasonable enough to listen to what they had to say. Which is why editing and revising The Expats took twice as long as the original writing.
Q: The overarching theme of your book is that of reinvention. What do you see as the correlation between redefining oneself within the “ordinary” context of marriage and the “extraordinary” nature of literally being a stranger in a strange land?
A: I wanted The Expats to be a book that could be enjoyed on a few levels, so I tried to construct parallel tensions for the protagonist: her reinvention from a career to parenting, from being a dishonest person to a truthful one; the challenges of moving to the strange land of a foreign country, as well as to the even stranger land of home with little children. I hope that the book works as both an extraordinary story—about spies and arms dealers, stolen millions and long-play cons—and as a very ordinary story about the evolving relationship between two credible, relatable people.
Q: A few years ago you moved to Luxembourg for your wife’s job. In The Expats, your heroine Kate Moore does the same thing. Coincidence or…?
A: At forty years old, I left behind my home and my career and became a stay-at-home parent, abroad. The demands of moving to a new country, in a new language, were not unexpected. But I was surprisingly devastated by the loss of the self-definition I’d spent two decades constructing: I was a New York City book editor. But now I wasn’t, not anymore. I was suddenly a parent, plus a housekeeper and a cook and a cleaner and a travel agent. I collected neither paycheck nor praise, and I didn’t get much satisfaction out of most of what I did every day. And I didn’t know what I’d ever do again! I found myself surrounded by people—expat wives—who were more or less in the same position. Which is just an exaggerated form of the predicament of any woman who decides, for whatever reasons, to be at home with children. Who are you, then? And who will you become, after the children leave? That conundrum is what got me writing The Expats. That’s what I wanted the book to be about, and that’s why the protagonist is a woman.
Q: During that time when your wife was the family breadwinner, you took on the role of househusband and looking after a pair of lively four-year-old boys. Looking back, which was harder: to be the stay-at-home parent or to keep track of the multiple moving parts in a highly complex novel?
A: Definitely more difficult to be a stay-at-home parent to little kids. Now we’re back in New York City, which is much easier for me, and our twins are nine—reasonable, responsible little people, the best friends I’ve ever had, my most enjoyable company. When I’m an old man, I’m sure that I’ll look back on this experience as the most worthwhile thing I ever did. But a half-decade ago, in the cold lonely damp of northern Europe, it didn’t look that way.
Q: So who’s doing the cooking, cleaning and laundry now that you’re settled back in New York?
A: Besides the Luxembourg adventure and college, I’ve lived in New York City my whole life. One of the things I really love about this city is that there’s always someone willing to cook delicious food and deliver it to your home within twenty minutes, for very little money, at any time; I really love ordering in. So now I cook when I want to, because I enjoy cooking, and not because I have to. I also do a lot less cleaning and laundry.
Q: How much research was involved insofar as the weaponry, gadgetry, expatriate mindsets, cyber theft, and covert operations to make the plot of The Expats ring true?
A: My computer skills are limited to typing in a word-processing program, and even with that I don’t know how to use 99 percent of the functions. So I needed to read up on cybercrime; I also read a few CIA memoirs. But in the end almost none of that research-driven material made it into the book; a sentence here and there, a few stray paragraphs. I wanted The Expats to be about characters, not stuff; I wanted it to be based on my experiences, not the lives of others that I’d gleaned from their books. If The Expats rings true, I think it’s because the characters and their motivations are credible and relatable, not because I researched firearms.
Q: Were you thinking cinematically as you penned the plot and, if so, which actors were you envisioning in the key roles?
A: Yes, I wanted readers to be able to see—and sometimes feel, smell, taste, hear—the scenes. I was very focused on writing a sensuous book, and I had a clear vision for every section. And yes, I do know what a lot of the characters look like. But those faces don’t correspond to real people, actors or not. They’re just faces in my imagination.
Q: The novel utilizes multiple flashbacks within flashbacks. What was your methodology for managing these jumps and intercuts between past and present?
A: While writing I always have two documents open: the manuscript itself, and the outline. I was constantly revising the outline—moving scenes and plot revelations—but I was never ignoring it. The same is true for my next book, The Accident, which also doesn’t have a plot that anyone would call simple.
Q: The Expats was an international bestseller, and won the Edgar Award for best first novel, and is being translated into nearly twenty languages and developed for film. There must be pressure to continue Kate Moore’s story with a sequel, or as a series. Why or why not do you think this would work?
A: I can imagine a lot more of Kate’s story, and I fully intend to write about her again in the future. But I know myself, and my finite capacity to enjoy (or endure) the same experience repeatedly, so I’m wary of getting handcuffed into a job that I’ll find unsatisfying. So although Kate Moore makes a cameo appearance in The Accident, she’s a very minor character. The cast—and the locales—are almost entirely new. (Though there is a very minor character in The Expats who became a major character in The Accident.)
Q: How did you go about finding a publisher?
A: First I found an agent, which I did by asking someone I’ve known for two decades if he’d be willing to take a look at my manuscript. He was. We worked on the manuscript for a few months before we agreed it was ready, then he submitted it to publishers. Within a few days we had a preemptive offer from Crown, which is part of the Random House conglomerate, where I’d worked for ten years. This is not a typical path for a first-time novelist, and certainly not the most direct. If anyone wants to try this method, be forewarned that you have to start the process twenty years before you write your first book.
Q: Now that you’re on the other side of the publishing desk, so to speak, what’s your best advice to others who are just starting out on their writing careers?
A: Fully commit. I think any career related to the written word—in magazines or newspapers, as a teacher or editor or agent—will not only make you a better writer, but will also produce direct and meaningful connections to the publishing world, and sooner or later can put you in the path of a book contract. Unfortunately, none of these fields pays well. You can have a career that affords you a fancy car, or one that generates a book contract, but probably not both.
Q: Where is your favorite place to write and your best time to be creative?
A: I write in two places: one is a private members’ club, which has a busy hubbub about it, and a swimming pool on the roof, and wait staff refilling a bottomless cup of coffee, and restaurants, and sometimes famous people, and a whiff of glamour. It’s a good place to get inspired, but not a great place to concentrate on nitty-gritty writing. The other is a no-nonsense writers’ room, small cubbies and white-noise machines, no distractions. Sometimes I need one of these environments, sometimes the other. But at either place, I arrive every morning at nine, after dropping the kids at school, and I work until I get hungry.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: In the 2002 edition of The New American Bartender’s Guide, there’s a drink called the Chris Pavone Martini, invented by (and, obviously, named for) me.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: The Accident goes on sale in March 2014, a few months from now. I finished working on that book over the summer, and then I started writing my third, but I’m not talking about it yet.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?
A: I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. I think I’ve answered every single email I’ve received from readers, because I love to.