The American spymaster at the center of Bob Shacochis‘ The Woman Who Lost Her Soul may suffer from imperial hubris, but he’s got nothing on today’s FBI.
Zola: The Woman Who Lost Her Soul reads like five intermingling murder-mystery/spy novels put together, and is over 700 pages long. How did you plot out such a huge undertaking? How much of the story did you discover on the day-to-day, as you wrote it?
Bob Shacochis: When I was a foreign correspondent in Haiti working for Harper’s magazine during the US invasion of the island, I met a freelance photojournalist—young, blond, infuriating—who told me she had lost her soul and wanted me to take her to meet a vodou priest. I knew this woman for only a day or two, I don’t remember her name, and I never saw her again after taking her to meet the priest. But what happened that day I spent with her haunted me for the next five years, when I tried to finally translate the experience into a short story. The short story never worked out, though, because her character was a flat line. I couldn’t make her three-dimensional: she was the same at the end of the story as she was at the beginning.
Then, some time in 2001, I was contacted by an ex-FBI agent (who became Conrad Dolan in the novel) and enticed into helping him with a murder case he was investigating in Haiti. When I saw a photograph of the victim—an attractive blond woman who had been murdered by her husband on the road between St. Marc and Port-au-Prince—fireworks went off in my imagination and I told myself, “now I know how to write this story of the woman who had told me five years earlier she had lost her soul.” It wasn’t going to be a short story after all: it was going to be a novel, a novel that started out as a murder mystery and then plowed on for 500 more pages trying to explore and explain how this woman might have lost her soul, and how she might have possibly recovered it. The first step off the cliff into that exploration plunged me into Croatia at the end of World War II, where we meet her father as a little boy struggling to survive the horrors of the war. Then, as readers know, the book lands in Istanbul, where the woman who lost her soul is celebrating her seventeenth birthday.
There was never any formula to follow all these transitions and juxtapositions. I never outlined the book—in fact, I’ve never outlined anything I’ve ever written, because I don’t want anything to impede the process of discovery, which is the only part of writing I actually enjoy. And yes, the day-by-dayness of discovery was vital to the development of the characters, who began to assert their own free will on the plot.
Zola: Several American agencies—the CIA, DOJ, FBI, State Department, and more—are vying for dominance throughout the book. In your experience, which of these agencies has had the most pull since the end of the Cold War, and why?
BS: As you probably know, this question has been relentlessly and passionately debated—both within the government and from the outside looking in—since 9/11. When the Soviet Union self-imploded in 1991, pundits and political philosophers began to talk about the end of history, the end of ideology. Across the spectrum of American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, we began to notice a change in the atmospherics that resulted in a change of vision, which then rather quickly became myopic. The corps of field agents in the CIA was downsized, the pursuit of human intelligence assets relaxed, terrorist acts by Islamic fundamentalists were regarded as manageable and not ever treated as an existential threat. Paradoxically, it seems, the FBI under Louis Freeh was aggressively expanding its global presence, tracking terrorists around the world, investigating atrocities like the embassy bombings in Africa, and keeping fairly close watch domestically on some of the folks who would end up flying the planes on 9/11.
Unfortunately, there were so many turf-wars within both agencies, so many protocols that hindered effective intra- and inter-agency communication—not to mention computer networks that were primitive or incomplete or just impossible to use—that within the CIA and the FBI it became all too common for the left hand to not know what the right hand was doing. Bureaucratic dysfunction, lax policy, intellectual laziness, imperial hubris, a lack of urgency—these all contributed to an intelligence and enforcement community that wasn’t working properly.
Since 9/11, both the CIA and the FBI have buffed up to the point where they both resemble steroid-addicted body-builders, just itching to kick your ass if you look at them cross-eyed, while the DOJ seems to have developed the authoritarian mindset of a police state. Eric Holder—WTF!
Zola: You also depict U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War as the active pursuit of a hot war with Islam—a final showdown. Do you think that part of your fiction’s playing out today?
BS: Short of the appearance of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, I doubt that there will ever be a final showdown between Islam and the West—nor should there ever be—but the fact remains there are Christian extremists and Muslim extremists who wake up every morning praying for just such an event. The hot war between East and West today is a modern, weirder, and potentially more catastrophic version of what’s been happening since the Crusades. How this will ever be resolved is anybody’s guess. And on the stage of American foreign policy all the players seem to have switched hats. Everybody’s confused and exhausted except the truly dangerous fundamentalists on both sides of the theological divide.
Zola: Steve Chambers is an American spymaster for whom the two most important things in life would appear to be his daughter and his country—and yet his plans for both end horribly. Is this a product of design, hubris, or incompetence?
BS: The answer to Steven Chambers’ behavior is all of the above, with hubris being the first among transgressive equals on the list. Powerful people have an inherent reaction to boundaries: they refuse to see boundaries. This sensibility makes perfect sense as they strive to become powerful. Without ambition, without tenacity, without a certain measure of ruthlessness, without the ability to outlast their competition, they’re not going anywhere. One of the by-products of achievement also serves as one of the pathologies of power—arrogance, hubris, imperial hubris. Suddenly you’re the person who knows better, the person who must be listened to, the person who must be obeyed. Attach that type of self-delusion to an amoral value system and a theocratic view of the universe and you end up with a monster. No matter how well-intentioned that monster might appear, he (or she) will bring suffering and misery into the world.
Zola: Some of the most compelling parts of the book deal with how our secret, black-op warriors operate. How did you get so many details on the M.O. of such a secretive bunch?
BS: As a kid growing up in the Washington, DC area, I was a type of military brat. My father worked for the Navy for 30 years, our family had access to PXs, and you could often find me after school at one of the local military bases, jumping around on a trampoline or learning how to shoot a .22 rifle. Which is to say I’ve always regarded the military as a familiar environment, human and not alien.
But I never saw an American soldier overseas, deployed into a conflict, dressed in full combat kit until Harper’s magazine sent me to Haiti in 1994 to cover the American invasion. One day in the northern mountains I found myself in the awkward position of having to surrender to an A-team of Army Special Forces—Green Berets—as they were attacking a Haitian army barrack. I was inside interviewing the besieged Haitian soldiers when the Green Berets popped up outside and those of us inside came within two seconds of being blown away. Not only did I surrender hands in the air to the Green Berets that day, I asked them if I could hang out with the team, which seemed the safer plan of action, because I surely never wanted to see their guns pointed at me again. I ended up following that A-team and a few others around Haiti for the next 18 months, at which time the occupation ended, and then I followed the teams back to Ft. Bragg and met their families, and became friends with some of the guys and have stayed in touch with them all these years.
All things military in the book were vetted by one of my best friends, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Special Forces named Tony Schwalm, although I should say that if any mistakes remain in the book, they’re mine, absolutely not his. Tony had his own first book published last year, entitled The Guerilla Factory. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get a deeper look into our Special Forces community, and to appreciate how damn literate and articulate these people are.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.