Friends & Fiction
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Episode · 2 months ago

Friends & Fiction Sunday Bonus Episode: Karen Cleveland

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Meet former CIA analyst and bestselling thriller writer Karen Cleveland—who also happens to be F&F's own Kristin Harmel's sister. Karen joins us to talk about her new book YOU CAN RUN. We learn all about how her former career in the CIA informed her writing, the push/pull of conflicting obligations to country and career versus family, and how she came to make such a major career shift. We also get a few glimpses into growing up in the Harmel household and how their family dog got his name. https://karen-cleveland.com/ 

Welcome to Friends and fiction for newyork times, bestselling authors, endless stories, novelists, mary Kayandrews, Kristen Harmel, Christie Woodson harvey and paddy CallaghanHenry R four longtime friends with more than 70 published books between themtogether. They host friends and fiction with author interviews and fascinatinginsider talk about publishing and writing to highlight and supportindependent bookstores. They discussed the books, they have written the booksthey're reading now and the art of storytelling. If you love books andyou're curious about the writing world, you're in the right place. Hi everybody, welcome to a very specialsunday bonus edition of Friends and fiction. We have so much to lookforward tonight to tonight. I'm Christine Harmel, I'm Christie Woodson,harvey, I'm paddy Callaghan Henry and I'm mary Kay Andrews and this isfriends in fiction for new york times, bestselling authors, endless stories tosupport independent bookstores. Tonight you'll meet Karen Cleveland who inaddition to being a new york times best selling author is also a former CIAanalyst and the mom of three of the coolest kids on the planet. We'll talkto her tonight about what it was like to work for the CIA, how she went fromthat to a writing career, the challenges and benefits of writingabout a covert agency having once been on the inside and how she now balanceswriting with motherhood and life will also be getting an inside look at herbrand new book you can run and as you know, we always encourage you tosupport independent booksellers when and where you can and tonight ourindependent bookseller is a favorite of all of ours. Heart Road books incharlotte north Carolina where you can find yes, we all love parks. You canfind Karen's three books and books by the four of us and our past guests. Umand a portion of each sale goes to Park Road books. I love it. All right now that zeroportion of the books comes to us. Yes, now it's time to tell you a little bitabout Karen Cleveland. Garin is a former CIA analyst who began her careerworking on working in Russia and later moved into CIA's. The CIA isCounterterrorism center where she focused primarily on Pakistan and Syria.Well at the CIA she wrote briefs for the U. S. President and other seniorpolicymakers worked closely with an FBI...

...joint Terrorism task force and earnedmore than a dozen exceptional performance awards. Amazing. It soundslike you're describing a character, you know, movie and the character playingKaren Cleveland intelligent. Anyway, parents First novel Need To Know wasthe new york times usa today an international best seller. The novelhas been published in More than 30 international markets and film rightswere sold to universal pictures with Charlie's Tharon attached to produceand star not too shabby. And since then, Karen has released three more novels,2019's keep you close and you can run which came out just like there it isanother great cover came out just last month. She earned her bachelor's degreeat the university of florida uh oh also has master's degrees from trinitycollege Dublin where she studied as a Fulbright scholar and HarvardUniversity. They here they turn out some pretty good students heard that Iheard that like auburn but after spending many it's going to get toughduring football season again, you know it's heading that way, You know thatokay after spending many years in the Washington D. C. area, she now lives inNorth Carolina with her husband and three Children. But of course the mostimportant thing to know about Karen at least tonight is that she's my littlesister. So O R. That is Karen with the reddish hair on the right and that isme on the left probably about 25 years ago or so in the mid nineties. I by theway is our little brother Dave in the middle with these little glasses andeverything right I think. Yeah. And there we are. Oh my goodness, I Karenwith the curly red hair and our dog doctor spots and Dave again. And thenthere's me with pretty much exactly the same bangs I had when we startedFriends and fiction. So that you guys are the Banks. I really miss that. Idid not really miss the Banks but you know I watched the evolution during theearly part of Friends and fiction and they just got a little bit more crookedbecause I wasn't going to the banks are we could do like a flip book. I'm likeyes. Yeah. The evolution of the banks. But anyhow sean wait I'm sorry DoctorSpot. That was the dog's name. Domino spots. I actually think that before weask Karen to tell us about you can run we should ask her how dr spots got hisname because that name equally important. So sean can you've beencarrying on? Hi welcome. Hi Karen. We are so excited that you're here and I'mso excited you get to meet all my...

...friends both on screen and those whoare watching tonight and Karen in a moment. I'm going to ask you to give usthe elevator pitch for you can run. But before that do you remember how drspots got his name? I do I do I love this story. It's so great to be herewith you all. Yeah. Dr spots. I think we got a spot when we were young kids.I think it was before Dave was even born. Yeah I was six and you were threeI think I think it was me but I think somebody was saying dots or just tryingto figure out if he had dots or spots and our parents thought we were sayingdr spots. That's that's my recollection it was you yes, it was you because Iwas pushing for the name. Mid white which I thought was so brilliantbecause he was black and white and it was combination of like midnight andwhite. Yeah, your name was better dots or spots. Yeah. So their doctor you.Yes. I also think it's funny you were talking about banks because in thefamily picture you showed, I distinctly remember those family pictures becauseright before we left the house to get them taken, I decided it would be agood idea to cut my own things and yeah, a little bit short. Yes, yes, I didthat. You were adorable. I love it. All right, Karen, before this turns into atotal trip down memory lane, which would be great. But which people wouldbe like going turn off. Can you tell us a little bit about you can run yourmost recent novel. Yeah, absolutely. So you can run is about a woman named Jill.She's a CIA analyst and she's also a mom to a baby boy and her job at theCIA is vetting perspective new agency sources basically making sure they are,who they say they are. And one day just as she is about to get to work, lookinginto the CIA is hottest new recruit. She gets a call. The voice on the otherend of the lion says, we have your son, her son has been taken and in order toget him back, she has to do something. She never thought she'd do. Um, she hasto go ahead and approve this source without looking into him and then stayquiet about it. So she makes her decision. Um and you know, like anydecision, there are consequences. And as much as she wants to run from themin the future, she can't hide from them, especially when an ambitious youngjournalist comes to getting around. Wow, well, I mean, this just sounds so greatand it's so fast. You worked for the CIA. So can you tell us a little bitabout how you got into it and what your job entailed? You know, as much as youcan tell us? I guess it was a really interesting career and as far as sortof how I got into it, I think there were two main things that led me there.The first was september 11th, I was a freshman in college on 9 11 and I knewthat I wanted a career in government, but I think that was sort of when myfocus shifted to national security. And...

...then a couple of years later, a friendof mine very sadly was killed in Iraq. And just those two things together mademe feel like I wanted to do something to help my country. I wanted to dosomething to help protect my country from people who wish to do us harm. Andeventually I joined the CIA, I started out on Russia after a couple of yearsmoved to the Counterterrorism Center. Um I worked mostly in Pakistan a littlebit on Syria and really was just sort of supporting the Ct mission, umDisrupting terrorist groups trying to prevent another 9-11 trying to keeppeople safe. Wow, that is absolutely fascinating. Um and I know a lot ofthings that you probably you did are probably classified, but withoutgetting too specific, can you tell us about what it was like to feel like youwere contributing to national security and at times that the President himselfwas reading your briefs, it was a great feeling, you know, I think everybodywho works at the CIA just wants to feel like they're having impact. And for me,you know, that was impact. Knowing that something I had written ended up in thePresident's Daily brief and that the President and the cabinet were readingit and discussing it and hopefully sort of using it to help inform their policydecisions. So, knowing that random people read your books probably isnothing compared to knowing that I was reading. I think that would be reading678 times. So that kind of work is so fascinating. Like I said, when we weredescribing your background, it almost sounds like a character in a book,Right? You sound like a made up character, but then you switched fromthat to actually writing about made up character. So how did you transitionfrom that kind of work to writing novels? What even made you want toswitch tracks like that? I think the short answer is my son before I had myoldest son, I never considered switching careers. I loved my CIAcareer and you know, after he was born, I just got to the point where I feltlike I needed a change and I think there are so many careers out therethat offers some degree of flexibility and some ability to work from homeintelligence isn't one of them. Just because of the nature of the job, allof your work has to be done in a skiff as secure compartmented informationfacility. In my case, Langley And you know, hours are often dictated bywhat's going on in the world. And I just didn't feel like I was able togive 100% to my son and 100% to the job. And so I started really becominginterested in the idea of a career with some flexibility and I've always likedwriting and you know, writing to me seems like sort of that ultimateflexible schedule, work from home kind of job. And in a sense, I had sort ofbeen writing professionally for years...

...because so much of the work of a CIAanalyst is writing. So it felt like something that I wanted to try doingand you know, I'm very fortunate that it worked out, I bet kristen inspiredyou if you have this big discovered who was out there publishing these booksand how did you, how did you wind up deciding whether to lean into the CIApast or knowing that there might be some things you couldn't even talkabout. Is it a tough line to walk? Does the CIA have to read them? Tell us alittle bit about that? Because you didn't just decide to write books, youdecided to write books about what you did? Yeah, I mean, I think I sort oftook that old adage of write what, you know, to heart and um, I felt like Iknow the intelligence world because I was in that world and you know, so Ithink it was it felt sort of natural to write about somebody in the CIA. Butthat being said, I think I tend to gravitate sort of domestic suspense andpsychological thriller. So I think there's a lot of that in the books too.And um, you know, it's not really your typical spy thriller, you're not goingto see a lot of descriptive, detailed descriptions of military hardware orweapons or anything like that. It's you're going to see more about secretsand lies and competing loyalties because that's really what sort of moreinteresting to me about the intelligence world. And um, as far asthe review process, all of my books, do you have to be reviewed by a sea aboardlifelong obligation. Anyone who has worked at the CIA has to do it and justsend everything to this this board and they review it and the purpose is justto make sure that there's nothing classified in the material and you know,it's for me, I have found the process to be relatively smooth. It's anotherhoop to jump through for sure. But I think it also serves a valuable purposebecause, you know, I I joined the CIA to help my country. So the last thing Iwould want to do is hurt it by accidentally disclosing anythingclassified. So I think it does serve an important purpose. And they have theyever asked you to take anything out that was in there or, you know, I thinkyou sort of have a good sense when you've worked there of what you can andcan't say. Um so I think that that I haven't dealt with any serious issuesreally. I think it would be much more complicated if I were writingnonfiction. Um but you know, fortunately it there has not been anysort of major, major issues. How long does that process take, like from thetime you submit it to them, how long does it take them to get back to you? Ithink that can really vary too. For me, it's been pretty quick and I'm not sureif I can even put kind of an estimate on how long, because I think it hasvaried a lot and um you know, they need to see changes to manuscripts as well.So it's not like sort of a one time...

...process. It's sort of going back tothem throughout the process of writing a book. And so, you know, when they seethe full manuscript for the first time, obviously that will take longer. Butthey're pretty quick about turning things around and down the line. I think it's interesting Karen, that inall three of your novels, you explore the conflict between your protagonistobligations to the country and their obligations to their own families andthe idea that sometimes you can't do what's right for both. And obviouslyfrom what you just told us, you felt a little bit of that conflict yourself,which maybe was the motivation for switching careers. And you can run, forexample, you give us Jill bailey whose son oh, and is kidnapped as you said.And all the kidnapper wants is for Jill to approve a source, but that's animpossible choice, right? The safety of your child versus your obligation toyour country. When you worked at the CIA, did you ever ask yourself thosekinds of questions? What if? Which I think was so we're fiction alwaysstarts. Yeah, absolutely. Um the idea for you can run actually, I came upwith when I was working at the CIA, it was when it was a baby and I had justdropped him at daycare and I was heading into Langley and I had somepaperwork do that day, sort of reinvestigation type paperwork,updating my finances, my personal contacts, security looks into thosethings periodically, just to make sure that employees aren't being compromised.And I just remember, you know, as I was walking in from the parking lot, thethought kind of striking me that that was sort of a waste of time becausethere was no amount of money, no amount of persuasion or blackmail or anythingthat would make me betray my country. But if my son were in danger, thatmight be a different story. And that was a scary thought to me. Um, sothat's sort of what I returned two years later with. You can run and triedto put the main character in that scary situation. Well, you certainly did agood job of it. Why do you think you your why are you motivated to explorethis question again and again in in new ways and have your views? Um, loyaltydoes it has that changed as you craft these characters and as you evolve intothinking about your fiction career and putting your characters in impossiblesituations. You know, I think I keep coming back toit just because it is such a difficult question and I think it's somethingthat a lot of us can really relate to as well. You know, most of us have nothad to choose between our country and our family, fortunately, but most of ushave had to choose to prioritize something that's important in our livesover something else that's important in our lives, whether it's careers orfamily, young kids or aging parents or pets, you know, our friends hobbies andpassions like I think that we've all...

...sort of been in that position wheresomething has to come first and something has to come second. And so Ithink it's sort of easy for a lot of people to empathize with thesecharacters and the difficult choices they're making because we've all had tomake difficult choices. Yeah. Karen, of course, need to know was a big successand it allowed you among other things to leave your CIA job and to be homewith your kids who also happened to be my two nephews and one of them. Um canyou talk about what this shift in your own life has been like and whether youthink it has impacted your writing in any way, you know, it's it's been great and Ifeel very fortunate to be able to be doing something I enjoy professionallyand also being there for bedtimes and baseball and school pickups and beinginvolved with the schools and with community organizations and things thatwould be more difficult if I were still in um, my CIA career. So, you know, Ithink for me it's been um, and you know, for my family, I think it's been apositive change. Do you think that if you if that if that success hadn'tenabled you to do this, you still would have left the CIA and found somethingelse? I mean with this idea of wanting to be there for your family in adifferent way or do you think that you would have tried to do something likescale back your hours at the CIA? Do you think you would have found adifferent way to do it or would the end result has been the same? I think theend result would have been the same. I I actually did try sort of shifting toa different account at one point and uh, like a lower profile account sort of,and I wasn't just happy because that, that wasn't what I wanted to be moving.Um, and I still didn't really feel like I had enough time. So I think it wouldhave happened anyway. Yeah. Well that's good. So you kind of are on the roadyou were supposed to be on, which is, which is a good thing. You just found areally cool way to get there. Um, So can you talk a little bit about kind ofthe challenges of writing now with three kids? I mean, you don't have togo into that office job that, you know, that takes you away from them and keepsyou confined to a particular area of the country and all of that. Um, butyou know, you do still have these deadlines and I know you have threekids with busy lives in school and like you said, baseball and ballet anddifferent obligations. Um, you know the busy, the busy life we all have withyoung kids. Right. Um how do you find time to uh to squeeze your writing inaround that? Um And do you think it has shaped the way you craft your novels? Um you know with the kids back inschool now and with my youngest in preschool, there are sort of windowsthroughout the week where all three kids are in school or the older onesare in school and the younger one snapping. And um I work on weekends,you know that that being said um last weekend my boys had five baseball gamesand little league knows that five...

...baseball games basically is your entireweekend. So I didn't really write last weekend. I sat on ball fields andcheered on my kids. But yeah, so I think there are periods of time whereI'm not as productive as maybe I should be, but I think there are other periodswhere um you know, I'm more productive. So I think it also evens out in the endand I think I'm just embracing that, that flexibility and enjoying it. Yeah,it's so hard to do but juggling all of it. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So hard. Can youtalk a little bit about some of the actual Spycraft in your novels? So forexample, and you can run you open with a request that comes into a cabletracking system called fortress and the request for encryption of a new sourcecalled Falcon. You have lots of technical how things work, details likethis in your books. Are these systems and processes real or are you makingthem up? Um you know I think it's sort of a combination of the two. The CIA isobviously very tight lipped about a lot of things. I am often asked how manypeople work at the CIA and that's not something I can even answer becausethat number is classified interesting means of like particular programs areclassified. So those sorts of details have been changed. But I think thebooks do you give you sort of a general sense of the nature of the job and whatit's like to work there interesting that they that you're not even allowedto Say how many people work there is just so fascinating because I'm sittinghere wanting to ask you 9000 things about I'm not even going to botherbecause she can't even tell many people work. There is a really good secretkeeper. Your hard is there a picture on it, is it with your eye or your finger?Like all these questions. I was terrible at that. I want to tell myfriends everything. I like you guys, I tell anyone. Yeah guys I went in andthey took my eyeball picture. I'm like this is the reason we do not work. Uhwe're not Yeah, but really I want you to talk to us about the character ofAlex. She's a journalist with the Washington post and she's gunning for aPulitzer, just like we are. And can you talk a little bit about getting insidethe head of a very ambitious Washington journalist? Because you were Langley. Imean, you probably know these these archetypes. Yeah, I think she's aninteresting character and when I was writing the book, the working title wasactually um clandestine Source, because I just thought it was so interestingthat um intelligence officers and journalists both rely used so much onhuman sources, clandestine sources,...

...anonymous sources. And that's notreally all they have in common either. Um, you know, both professions arereally out there trying to find the truth. And both professions can bedangerous at times. Uh, both can be either very popular or very unpopular,depending on sort of public opinion. There's there's so many similaritiesbetween the two, but there's also that conflict between them, because a lot oftimes the CIA needs to keep something secret and journalists obviously wantto share it with the public. So there's sort of that tension there. And um, Ithought it would be interesting to have a character from either side and theyhave this tension because they have some competing interests, but they alsosort of discover that there are some similarities between the two of them.Are you able to talk to any journalist for research for the book? Um, I dohave uh yes, I I talked to a couple of couple of people and sort of ransomthings by them. But yeah, I think it's uh um yeah, so a little bit. Okay. Um you know we love to Karen welove to ask our guests for a writing tip. Do you have one that you couldshare with us today? I think my tip would be just to writethe sort of book that you would want to read even if it doesn't necessarily fitinto any one box. Um you know I need to know is sort of part spy thriller, partdomestic suspense, part psychological thriller. It had a CIA protagonist butshe's a woman and she's a mom and she is imperfect and make some baddecisions like we all do. Um but you know it found an audience and therewere people who were willing to take a chance on it and throw their supportbehind it. And for me personally it was a more interesting book to write in. Amore fun book to write. I think then if I had tried to kind of write just amore traditional spy thriller. Mm All right, well that was awesome. Thatwas so interesting too. I mean some of this, I knew some of it I didn't it wasinteresting to obviously we've talked behind the scenes for years but I thinksome of these questions I've never asked you directly. So that was uh itwas interesting to find out about. Exactly. All right, so Karen, we haveone more important question for you. So don't go anywhere. So first we want toremind all of you out there to check out our friends and fiction writer'sblock podcasts and the episode that premiered on friday Ron, talked to hankPhillippi Ryan about writing thrillers and a new original episode drops eachand every friday wherever you get your podcasts. And you can also listen toour Wednesday night shows and podcasts form. And if you're not hanging outwith us yet in the Friends and Fiction official Book Club and you're onlyhanging out here, you are moving out. The group is separate from us and isrun by our friends, lisa Harrison and...

Brenda Gartner and they are now morethan 9000 members strong. I know, and they're so active over there. I do thebook club last monday live and they are just so active and they just read andthey have questions and they're simply amazing. Um, and don't forget that wealso have a friends and fiction merch store through Oxford exchange where youcan buy t shirts tumblers and some new special products. I'm dying to tell youguys about the new special product, but I could never work for the CIA becauseI want you so bad. It's terrible terrible. I'd be kicked out the firstweek. You can link to that through our website and I want to remind everybodymark your calendars, preferably in red and green maybe with a little santa hatWednesday at seven p.m. Join us right back here as we welcome number one bestselling novelist Debbie McCumber and celebrate the launch of my brand newnovel. The santa suit will be out. Okay. I'm excited. Then the followingWednesday at seven p.m. Eastern, we will be joined by Newbery Award winnerKwame alexander. We also want to remind you that you can always watch us liveon Youtube each week and also on our Friends and Fiction Youtube channel.You can find almost all of our previous episodes plus special clips and writingtips from the show. Just search for Friends and fiction on Youtube andclick subscribe. All right, Karen, are you ready? There is the question. It'snot about the CIA, all of our guests. We're going to be like that, that waterdripping torture until you tell us something about, you know, we reallyshould have asked her while we had her here for like some embarrassingchristian stories. I just been stuff. You guys, I've been perfect always. Soobviously those don't exist. Obviously we're trying to do. You ever try tolike I had a little sister in life. Everything to do with her was to pinher down and like drool in her face. I get that or tell me I did that. I don'tremember doing that. You know, you guys once, once I told Karen that that uhwhat was I was an alien from outer space and you weren't really my sisterand she used to really scary voice and she said like this, yes. Oh my I wasvery scared. Did you believe her? Karen believe I did. Yeah, I think the CIAand had Kristin deported. It was very I you know why I lived in France for awhile at research, I just wasn't...

...allowed back in. It was tapped. Okay,that's not our question question is it's one we ask our guests every week,but we're especially interested to hear your answer since of course you grew upwith the big sister who is also a writer, our very own and belovedchristian tiny christians, anyone's big sister. I know Ali pocket kristenhere's the question, what were the values around reading and writing inthe Harmel childhood home and I want us here like how might feel different forthe two of you. But Karen, how what was it for you? I think books were justalways a big part of our lives and you know, we were readers. I don't think wedidn't watch as much tv as other kids our age, I don't think and you know, wedidn't play video games as much as other kids our age. Um we actuallywould, we would rent a video game system for a week every summerchristian do you remember that? No, I don't remember remember renting a videogame. So maybe that was Blockbuster video. They used to play video gamesbut they would also rent the whole system. So since we didn't have a videogame system we would our mom would bring us to Blockbuster and we wouldread the Nintendo, we would rent some games, we would play it for a week,we'd return it and that would be it for insulting. Did not remember that at all.That's okay. So you know we we read books that we played outside and um theemphasis is really on that and so I think reading and writing really youknow go hand in hands and so Yeah I guess that. Yeah sure. It's funnythough. I always thought Karen was going to be an artist when she was sogood art and drawing when she was remember that you did um Disneycharacters on our mailbox? Yeah, she painted our mailbox and like all of theDisney characters. So she always had that artistic streak in her, thatcreative artistic streak which is which is cool. Yeah, but she's right, wedefinitely grew up in a household where um we're devices were not really athing and tv was pretty carefully monitored right soon as we didn'treally watch anything. Yeah well anyhow, well Karen it was so nice of you tojoin us tonight. It was so great to see you and get to introduce you to youknow my friends. Thanks to our audience. Yeah, we're so glad. Yeah, Well, thankyou so much for joining us and I can't wait to see you soon in hawaii. Well,before then. All right, well Karen have a great night. Love you. All right.Thank you. Thank you. Well, how fun was that ladies, Huh? Every more familystories in CIA, but she seems like the kind that won't tell me. Can you tell?I know, I know you're gonna like her. Exactly. Know she's unbreakable.Youtube. Do you think do you think we...

...resemble each other? Do you think thatwe um do you think? Uh not at all. I think it's but no. Yes, you totally do.Yes. Yeah. Not in mannerisms or invoice but like voices are similar. Yeah. Havethat like peaches and cream thing going? Yeah, yeah, she's a little bit more ofa redhead. But anyhow, that was so fun. I'm so glad you guys got to meet Karenand we got a chance to talk about her book And to all of you out there, youare such an amazing book loving community. And we thank you for joiningus for our sunday night bonus. We will see Wednesday. We are so excited as wecelebrate the lunch santa suit which will be out on Tuesday. So go buy itnow and there will be hat here and hats aren't necessarily likewhat you think they are? I'm just sad. Okay. All right. We'll leave it at thatby the santa suit patty is not allowed to do any sound effects. Meg ispointing out and uh yeah. All right. Everybody out there. Second chances. Ijust give it one more shot. Just give me one. All right. We're going to getyou some sleigh bells. Yes, Okay, mess those up. You know, I'll find a way,but yeah. Alright, everyone has a wonderful rest of your sunday. We'llsee right back here on tonight at seven p.m. Eastern. Good night, everyone. Yeah, thank you for tuning in. You canjoin us every week on Facebook or YouTube where our live show airs onWednesday nights at seven p.m. eastern time. Also subscribe to our podcast andfollow us on instagram. We're so glad you're here.

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