Friends & Fiction
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Episode · 1 year 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 new york times, bestselling authors, endless stories, novelists, mary Kay andrews, Kristen Harmel, Christie Woodson harvey and paddy Callaghan Henry R four longtime friends with more than 70 published books between them together. They host friends and fiction with author interviews and fascinating insider talk about publishing and writing to highlight and support independent bookstores. They discussed the books, they have written the books they're reading now and the art of storytelling. If you love books and you're curious about the writing world, you're in the right place. Hi everybody, welcome to a very special sunday bonus edition of Friends and fiction. We have so much to look forward 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 is friends in fiction for new york times, bestselling authors, endless stories to support independent bookstores. Tonight you'll meet Karen Cleveland who in addition to being a new york times best selling author is also a former CIA analyst and the mom of three of the coolest kids on the planet. We'll talk to her tonight about what it was like to work for the CIA, how she went from that to a writing career, the challenges and benefits of writing about a covert agency having once been on the inside and how she now balances writing with motherhood and life will also be getting an inside look at her brand new book you can run and as you know, we always encourage you to support independent booksellers when and where you can and tonight our independent bookseller is a favorite of all of ours. Heart Road books in charlotte north Carolina where you can find yes, we all love parks. You can find Karen's three books and books by the four of us and our past guests. Um and a portion of each sale goes to Park Road books. I love it. All right now that zero portion of the books comes to us. Yes, now it's time to tell you a little bit about Karen Cleveland. Garin is a former CIA analyst who began her career working on working in Russia and later moved into CIA's. The CIA is Counterterrorism center where she focused primarily on Pakistan and Syria. Well at the CIA she wrote briefs for the U. S. President and other senior policymakers worked closely with an FBI...

...joint Terrorism task force and earned more than a dozen exceptional performance awards. Amazing. It sounds like you're describing a character, you know, movie and the character playing Karen Cleveland intelligent. Anyway, parents First novel Need To Know was the new york times usa today an international best seller. The novel has been published in More than 30 international markets and film rights were sold to universal pictures with Charlie's Tharon attached to produce and 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 is another great cover came out just last month. She earned her bachelor's degree at the university of florida uh oh also has master's degrees from trinity college Dublin where she studied as a Fulbright scholar and Harvard University. They here they turn out some pretty good students heard that I heard that like auburn but after spending many it's going to get tough during football season again, you know it's heading that way, You know that okay after spending many years in the Washington D. C. area, she now lives in North Carolina with her husband and three Children. But of course the most important thing to know about Karen at least tonight is that she's my little sister. So O R. That is Karen with the reddish hair on the right and that is me on the left probably about 25 years ago or so in the mid nineties. I by the way is our little brother Dave in the middle with these little glasses and everything right I think. Yeah. And there we are. Oh my goodness, I Karen with the curly red hair and our dog doctor spots and Dave again. And then there's me with pretty much exactly the same bangs I had when we started Friends and fiction. So that you guys are the Banks. I really miss that. I did not really miss the Banks but you know I watched the evolution during the early part of Friends and fiction and they just got a little bit more crooked because I wasn't going to the banks are we could do like a flip book. I'm like yes. Yeah. The evolution of the banks. But anyhow sean wait I'm sorry Doctor Spot. That was the dog's name. Domino spots. I actually think that before we ask Karen to tell us about you can run we should ask her how dr spots got his name because that name equally important. So sean can you've been carrying on? Hi welcome. Hi Karen. We are so excited that you're here and I'm so excited you get to meet all my...

...friends both on screen and those who are watching tonight and Karen in a moment. I'm going to ask you to give us the elevator pitch for you can run. But before that do you remember how dr spots got his name? I do I do I love this story. It's so great to be here with 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 three I think I think it was me but I think somebody was saying dots or just trying to figure out if he had dots or spots and our parents thought we were saying dr spots. That's that's my recollection it was you yes, it was you because I was pushing for the name. Mid white which I thought was so brilliant because he was black and white and it was combination of like midnight and white. 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 the family picture you showed, I distinctly remember those family pictures because right before we left the house to get them taken, I decided it would be a good idea to cut my own things and yeah, a little bit short. Yes, yes, I did that. You were adorable. I love it. All right, Karen, before this turns into a total trip down memory lane, which would be great. But which people would be like going turn off. Can you tell us a little bit about you can run your most 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 the CIA 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, looking into the CIA is hottest new recruit. She gets a call. The voice on the other end of the lion says, we have your son, her son has been taken and in order to get him back, she has to do something. She never thought she'd do. Um, she has to go ahead and approve this source without looking into him and then stay quiet about it. So she makes her decision. Um and you know, like any decision, there are consequences. And as much as she wants to run from them in the future, she can't hide from them, especially when an ambitious young journalist comes to getting around. Wow, well, I mean, this just sounds so great and it's so fast. You worked for the CIA. So can you tell us a little bit about how you got into it and what your job entailed? You know, as much as you can tell us? I guess it was a really interesting career and as far as sort of 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 knew that I wanted a career in government, but I think that was sort of when my focus shifted to national security. And...

...then a couple of years later, a friend of mine very sadly was killed in Iraq. And just those two things together made me feel like I wanted to do something to help my country. I wanted to do something to help protect my country from people who wish to do us harm. And eventually I joined the CIA, I started out on Russia after a couple of years moved to the Counterterrorism Center. Um I worked mostly in Pakistan a little bit on Syria and really was just sort of supporting the Ct mission, um Disrupting terrorist groups trying to prevent another 9-11 trying to keep people safe. Wow, that is absolutely fascinating. Um and I know a lot of things that you probably you did are probably classified, but without getting too specific, can you tell us about what it was like to feel like you were contributing to national security and at times that the President himself was reading your briefs, it was a great feeling, you know, I think everybody who 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 the President's Daily brief and that the President and the cabinet were reading it and discussing it and hopefully sort of using it to help inform their policy decisions. So, knowing that random people read your books probably is nothing compared to knowing that I was reading. I think that would be reading 678 times. So that kind of work is so fascinating. Like I said, when we were describing your background, it almost sounds like a character in a book, Right? You sound like a made up character, but then you switched from that to actually writing about made up character. So how did you transition from that kind of work to writing novels? What even made you want to switch tracks like that? I think the short answer is my son before I had my oldest son, I never considered switching careers. I loved my CIA career and you know, after he was born, I just got to the point where I felt like I needed a change and I think there are so many careers out there that offers some degree of flexibility and some ability to work from home intelligence isn't one of them. Just because of the nature of the job, all of your work has to be done in a skiff as secure compartmented information facility. In my case, Langley And you know, hours are often dictated by what's going on in the world. And I just didn't feel like I was able to give 100% to my son and 100% to the job. And so I started really becoming interested in the idea of a career with some flexibility and I've always liked writing and you know, writing to me seems like sort of that ultimate flexible schedule, work from home kind of job. And in a sense, I had sort of been writing professionally for years...

...because so much of the work of a CIA analyst is writing. So it felt like something that I wanted to try doing and you know, I'm very fortunate that it worked out, I bet kristen inspired you if you have this big discovered who was out there publishing these books and how did you, how did you wind up deciding whether to lean into the CIA past or knowing that there might be some things you couldn't even talk about. Is it a tough line to walk? Does the CIA have to read them? Tell us a little bit about that? Because you didn't just decide to write books, you decided to write books about what you did? Yeah, I mean, I think I sort of took that old adage of write what, you know, to heart and um, I felt like I know the intelligence world because I was in that world and you know, so I think it was it felt sort of natural to write about somebody in the CIA. But that being said, I think I tend to gravitate sort of domestic suspense and psychological 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 going to see a lot of descriptive, detailed descriptions of military hardware or weapons or anything like that. It's you're going to see more about secrets and lies and competing loyalties because that's really what sort of more interesting to me about the intelligence world. And um, as far as the review process, all of my books, do you have to be reviewed by a sea aboard lifelong obligation. Anyone who has worked at the CIA has to do it and just send everything to this this board and they review it and the purpose is just to 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 another hoop to jump through for sure. But I think it also serves a valuable purpose because, you know, I I joined the CIA to help my country. So the last thing I would want to do is hurt it by accidentally disclosing anything classified. So I think it does serve an important purpose. And they have they ever asked you to take anything out that was in there or, you know, I think you sort of have a good sense when you've worked there of what you can and can't say. Um so I think that that I haven't dealt with any serious issues really. I think it would be much more complicated if I were writing nonfiction. Um but you know, fortunately it there has not been any sort of major, major issues. How long does that process take, like from the time you submit it to them, how long does it take them to get back to you? I think that can really vary too. For me, it's been pretty quick and I'm not sure if I can even put kind of an estimate on how long, because I think it has varied 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 to them throughout the process of writing a book. And so, you know, when they see the full manuscript for the first time, obviously that will take longer. But they're pretty quick about turning things around and down the line. I think it's interesting Karen, that in all three of your novels, you explore the conflict between your protagonist obligations to the country and their obligations to their own families and the idea that sometimes you can't do what's right for both. And obviously from 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, for example, 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 an impossible choice, right? The safety of your child versus your obligation to your country. When you worked at the CIA, did you ever ask yourself those kinds of questions? What if? Which I think was so we're fiction always starts. Yeah, absolutely. Um the idea for you can run actually, I came up with when I was working at the CIA, it was when it was a baby and I had just dropped him at daycare and I was heading into Langley and I had some paperwork do that day, sort of reinvestigation type paperwork, updating my finances, my personal contacts, security looks into those things 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, the thought kind of striking me that that was sort of a waste of time because there was no amount of money, no amount of persuasion or blackmail or anything that would make me betray my country. But if my son were in danger, that might be a different story. And that was a scary thought to me. Um, so that's sort of what I returned two years later with. You can run and tried to put the main character in that scary situation. Well, you certainly did a good job of it. Why do you think you your why are you motivated to explore this question again and again in in new ways and have your views? Um, loyalty does it has that changed as you craft these characters and as you evolve into thinking about your fiction career and putting your characters in impossible situations. You know, I think I keep coming back to it just because it is such a difficult question and I think it's something that a lot of us can really relate to as well. You know, most of us have not had to choose between our country and our family, fortunately, but most of us have had to choose to prioritize something that's important in our lives over something else that's important in our lives, whether it's careers or family, young kids or aging parents or pets, you know, our friends hobbies and passions like I think that we've all...

...sort of been in that position where something has to come first and something has to come second. And so I think it's sort of easy for a lot of people to empathize with these characters and the difficult choices they're making because we've all had to make difficult choices. Yeah. Karen, of course, need to know was a big success and it allowed you among other things to leave your CIA job and to be home with your kids who also happened to be my two nephews and one of them. Um can you talk about what this shift in your own life has been like and whether you think it has impacted your writing in any way, you know, it's it's been great and I feel very fortunate to be able to be doing something I enjoy professionally and also being there for bedtimes and baseball and school pickups and being involved with the schools and with community organizations and things that would be more difficult if I were still in um, my CIA career. So, you know, I think for me it's been um, and you know, for my family, I think it's been a positive change. Do you think that if you if that if that success hadn't enabled you to do this, you still would have left the CIA and found something else? I mean with this idea of wanting to be there for your family in a different way or do you think that you would have tried to do something like scale back your hours at the CIA? Do you think you would have found a different way to do it or would the end result has been the same? I think the end result would have been the same. I I actually did try sort of shifting to a 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 would have happened anyway. Yeah. Well that's good. So you kind of are on the road you were supposed to be on, which is, which is a good thing. You just found a really cool way to get there. Um, So can you talk a little bit about kind of the challenges of writing now with three kids? I mean, you don't have to go into that office job that, you know, that takes you away from them and keeps you confined to a particular area of the country and all of that. Um, but you know, you do still have these deadlines and I know you have three kids with busy lives in school and like you said, baseball and ballet and different obligations. Um, you know the busy, the busy life we all have with young kids. Right. Um how do you find time to uh to squeeze your writing in around that? Um And do you think it has shaped the way you craft your novels? Um you know with the kids back in school now and with my youngest in preschool, there are sort of windows throughout the week where all three kids are in school or the older ones are 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 games and little league knows that five...

...baseball games basically is your entire weekend. So I didn't really write last weekend. I sat on ball fields and cheered on my kids. But yeah, so I think there are periods of time where I'm not as productive as maybe I should be, but I think there are other periods where um you know, I'm more productive. So I think it also evens out in the end and 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 you talk a little bit about some of the actual Spycraft in your novels? So for example, and you can run you open with a request that comes into a cable tracking system called fortress and the request for encryption of a new source called Falcon. You have lots of technical how things work, details like this in your books. Are these systems and processes real or are you making them up? Um you know I think it's sort of a combination of the two. The CIA is obviously very tight lipped about a lot of things. I am often asked how many people work at the CIA and that's not something I can even answer because that number is classified interesting means of like particular programs are classified. So those sorts of details have been changed. But I think the books do you give you sort of a general sense of the nature of the job and what it's like to work there interesting that they that you're not even allowed to Say how many people work there is just so fascinating because I'm sitting here wanting to ask you 9000 things about I'm not even going to bother because she can't even tell many people work. There is a really good secret keeper. 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 my friends everything. I like you guys, I tell anyone. Yeah guys I went in and they took my eyeball picture. I'm like this is the reason we do not work. Uh we're not Yeah, but really I want you to talk to us about the character of Alex. She's a journalist with the Washington post and she's gunning for a Pulitzer, just like we are. And can you talk a little bit about getting inside the head of a very ambitious Washington journalist? Because you were Langley. I mean, you probably know these these archetypes. Yeah, I think she's an interesting character and when I was writing the book, the working title was actually um clandestine Source, because I just thought it was so interesting that um intelligence officers and journalists both rely used so much on human sources, clandestine sources,...

...anonymous sources. And that's not really all they have in common either. Um, you know, both professions are really out there trying to find the truth. And both professions can be dangerous at times. Uh, both can be either very popular or very unpopular, depending on sort of public opinion. There's there's so many similarities between the two, but there's also that conflict between them, because a lot of times the CIA needs to keep something secret and journalists obviously want to share it with the public. So there's sort of that tension there. And um, I thought it would be interesting to have a character from either side and they have this tension because they have some competing interests, but they also sort 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 do have uh yes, I I talked to a couple of couple of people and sort of ransom things by them. But yeah, I think it's uh um yeah, so a little bit. Okay. Um you know we love to Karen we love to ask our guests for a writing tip. Do you have one that you could share with us today? I think my tip would be just to write the sort of book that you would want to read even if it doesn't necessarily fit into any one box. Um you know I need to know is sort of part spy thriller, part domestic suspense, part psychological thriller. It had a CIA protagonist but she's a woman and she's a mom and she is imperfect and make some bad decisions like we all do. Um but you know it found an audience and there were people who were willing to take a chance on it and throw their support behind it. And for me personally it was a more interesting book to write in. A more fun book to write. I think then if I had tried to kind of write just a more traditional spy thriller. Mm All right, well that was awesome. That was so interesting too. I mean some of this, I knew some of it I didn't it was interesting to obviously we've talked behind the scenes for years but I think some of these questions I've never asked you directly. So that was uh it was interesting to find out about. Exactly. All right, so Karen, we have one more important question for you. So don't go anywhere. So first we want to remind all of you out there to check out our friends and fiction writer's block podcasts and the episode that premiered on friday Ron, talked to hank Phillippi Ryan about writing thrillers and a new original episode drops each and every friday wherever you get your podcasts. And you can also listen to our Wednesday night shows and podcasts form. And if you're not hanging out with us yet in the Friends and Fiction official Book Club and you're only hanging out here, you are moving out. The group is separate from us and is run by our friends, lisa Harrison and...

Brenda Gartner and they are now more than 9000 members strong. I know, and they're so active over there. I do the book club last monday live and they are just so active and they just read and they have questions and they're simply amazing. Um, and don't forget that we also have a friends and fiction merch store through Oxford exchange where you can buy t shirts tumblers and some new special products. I'm dying to tell you guys about the new special product, but I could never work for the CIA because I want you so bad. It's terrible terrible. I'd be kicked out the first week. You can link to that through our website and I want to remind everybody mark your calendars, preferably in red and green maybe with a little santa hat Wednesday at seven p.m. Join us right back here as we welcome number one best selling novelist Debbie McCumber and celebrate the launch of my brand new novel. The santa suit will be out. Okay. I'm excited. Then the following Wednesday at seven p.m. Eastern, we will be joined by Newbery Award winner Kwame alexander. We also want to remind you that you can always watch us live on 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 writing tips from the show. Just search for Friends and fiction on Youtube and click subscribe. All right, Karen, are you ready? There is the question. It's not about the CIA, all of our guests. We're going to be like that, that water dripping torture until you tell us something about, you know, we really should have asked her while we had her here for like some embarrassing christian stories. I just been stuff. You guys, I've been perfect always. So obviously those don't exist. Obviously we're trying to do. You ever try to like I had a little sister in life. Everything to do with her was to pin her down and like drool in her face. I get that or tell me I did that. I don't remember doing that. You know, you guys once, once I told Karen that that uh what was I was an alien from outer space and you weren't really my sister and she used to really scary voice and she said like this, yes. Oh my I was very scared. Did you believe her? Karen believe I did. Yeah, I think the CIA and had Kristin deported. It was very I you know why I lived in France for a while 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 up with the big sister who is also a writer, our very own and beloved christian tiny christians, anyone's big sister. I know Ali pocket kristen here's the question, what were the values around reading and writing in the Harmel childhood home and I want us here like how might feel different for the two of you. But Karen, how what was it for you? I think books were just always a big part of our lives and you know, we were readers. I don't think we didn't watch as much tv as other kids our age, I don't think and you know, we didn't play video games as much as other kids our age. Um we actually would, we would rent a video game system for a week every summer christian do you remember that? No, I don't remember remember renting a video game. So maybe that was Blockbuster video. They used to play video games but they would also rent the whole system. So since we didn't have a video game system we would our mom would bring us to Blockbuster and we would read 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 the emphasis is really on that and so I think reading and writing really you know go hand in hands and so Yeah I guess that. Yeah sure. It's funny though. I always thought Karen was going to be an artist when she was so good art and drawing when she was remember that you did um Disney characters on our mailbox? Yeah, she painted our mailbox and like all of the Disney characters. So she always had that artistic streak in her, that creative artistic streak which is which is cool. Yeah, but she's right, we definitely grew up in a household where um we're devices were not really a thing and tv was pretty carefully monitored right soon as we didn't really watch anything. Yeah well anyhow, well Karen it was so nice of you to join us tonight. It was so great to see you and get to introduce you to you know my friends. Thanks to our audience. Yeah, we're so glad. Yeah, Well, thank you 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 family stories 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 that we 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. Have that like peaches and cream thing going? Yeah, yeah, she's a little bit more of a redhead. But anyhow, that was so fun. I'm so glad you guys got to meet Karen and we got a chance to talk about her book And to all of you out there, you are such an amazing book loving community. And we thank you for joining us for our sunday night bonus. We will see Wednesday. We are so excited as we celebrate the lunch santa suit which will be out on Tuesday. So go buy it now and there will be hat here and hats aren't necessarily like what you think they are? I'm just sad. Okay. All right. We'll leave it at that by the santa suit patty is not allowed to do any sound effects. Meg is pointing out and uh yeah. All right. Everybody out there. Second chances. I just give it one more shot. Just give me one. All right. We're going to get you 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'll see right back here on tonight at seven p.m. Eastern. Good night, everyone. Yeah, thank you for tuning in. You can join us every week on Facebook or YouTube where our live show airs on Wednesday nights at seven p.m. eastern time. Also subscribe to our podcast and follow us on instagram. We're so glad you're here.

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