Alex Berenson on How Reporting Informs His Thrillers

Slate's Culture Blog
April 10 2012 3:17 PM

Fact and Fiction in The Shadow Patrol

Chapman air base
U.S. Army Special Forces at Chapman air base in Khost, 80 miles from Kabul, Afghanistan

Photo by Wally Santana-Pool/Getty Images

While reading Alex Berenson’s new thriller, The Shadow Patrol, I was struck by how much fact was present in his world of fiction. After all the discussion of Mike Daisey’s exaggerations and inaccuracies in a work that he presented as fact, I was curious to hear his take on those issues, so I asked him some questions via email.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

Slate: You were a journalist at the New York Times for many years. You spent time in Iraq for the paper in 2003 and 2004, which became the foundation for your novels featuring John Wells, a former CIA agent and special ops soldier. The Shadow Patrol, the sixth in the Wells series, begins with an incident that seems very much like a real event from 2009, when a Pakistani CIA recruit killed seven high-ranking CIA agents at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan. Do you ever feel conflicted about borrowing from real-life tragedies?

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Alex Berenson: Maybe I should, but I don’t. The most distinguishing element of my novels is that I try as hard as I can—within the context of a popular commercial thriller—to make them feel authentic. Drawing on real locations and real events is part of that authenticity. In fact, in the previous Wells novel, The Secret Soldier, which came out in February 2011 and deals with the Saudi royal family, I invented dialogue and scenes for a number of real royals, including King Abdullah. To be certain there would be no question of libel, my American and U.K. publishers insisted on a very specific disclaimer at the beginning of the book, which was referenced in the New York Times review of the book.

Slate: You do a lot of what journalists would call “reporting” as you prepare to write the John Wells novels. For this book, you embedded with a unit in Afghanistan—Slate published an excerpt from “Lost in Kandahar,” a Kindle Single you wrote about the trip—and for earlier books you’ve gone to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Why do all that for a work of fiction?

Berenson: “Lost in Kandahar” aside, the trips, to me, aren’t authentically journalism. I don’t have a translator, and I usually don’t have interviews set up with important people. I do sometimes ask people I know from the Times—Nick Kristof has been a saint—to help connect me with interesting folks on the ground. And of course I want to go out, walk the streets, talk to anyone who’s willing to talk to me. But what I’m really looking for are scenes, locations, the feel of the place. For example, eastern Cairo has a giant cemetery that over the years has become home to many thousands of poor Egyptians. Roads and power lines run through it, and it’s a fascinating juxtaposition of death and life. It became the focus of what I hope were some cool scenes in The Midnight House, which is the fourth in the series.

Slate: There’s a tradition of journalists-turned-thriller-writers, especially from Britain—people like Sandy Gall, Tom Cain, Val McDermid, and Ken Follett. How has your work as a reporter affected your fiction?

Berenson: For the most part, I think being a reporter has been good for my fiction—though it has couple of subtle downsides. The first is that I tend to write very straightforwardly—subject, verb, object, rinse, repeat. I think readers mostly like that, though I’m not sure reviewers appreciate it. Without naming names, I can think of a couple of recent thrillers that got excellent reviews for being “complex”—but in fact were so confusing and jumpy on a sentence-by-sentence basis as to be nearly unreadable. Even so, sometimes I wish I did have a little bit more flair in my language.

Also, most people read fiction as an escape—and I wonder whether my books aren’t a bit too grounded in reality to reach the widest possible audience. That concern may seem strange considering that over the years Wells has done everything from meet King Abdullah to be infected with anthrax, but I’m thinking about the novels that dominate the best-seller lists, like 11/22/63, that fascinating Stephen King book about a man who travels back 50 years to stop the Kennedy assassination. King creates genuinely new worlds, whereas I’m using Wells to comment on this one. But I can’t have it both ways: I want to discuss the American empire and these wars we’re fighting, and not every reader is going to want that.

Slate: At a newspaper like the Times, reporters must strive to remain impartial. You’re not impartial in your fiction; I left The Shadow Patrol thinking you don’t think very highly of the higher levels of the intelligence community. Was that a difficult shift?

Berenson: No—as Jack Shafer, among others, likes to point out, reporters are never truly impartial, though in the American system we do try to hide our opinions, with mixed success. (I think that as a business investigative reporter I had more freedom to express my views than the average political or government reporter—I think my opinions on some of the corporate behavior I saw came through loud and clear.) But having the freedom to write what I want, and to have my characters express all sorts of views (including plenty that I personally don’t agree with), is highly liberating.

And I wouldn’t say that I don’t think much of the intelligence community. The fact that we haven’t faced another major terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11 is a very significant achievement, and one that’s easy to forget—it’s the dog that doesn’t bark. But I do think that we have allowed the intelligence-gatherers to define how much secrecy and surveillance they need without much pushback, and it’s time to demand more honesty from them. To take the most obvious example, I think the fact that the United States regularly assassinates individuals with drones needs to be discussed much more openly. The program is probably valuable; it probably prevents terrorist attacks. But if we’re going to have it, we need to have a public target list, and we need to explain who is on it, and why. And if we can’t do that, we probably shouldn’t be blowing them up.

That’s the kind of issue that I think reporters at the Times and everywhere else have had a hard time shining a light on, and I hope my fiction can help.