Culture Shock Treatment for Writers
My mother once accused me of insisting on doing everything -- absolutely everything! -- in the most contrary way possible. My father called it assbackwardness. I didn’t tell them, but it was a deliberate strategic choice. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and I figured that doing things the logical way, the recommended way, the tried-and-true way would not lead to anything interesting to write about. Furthermore, I was well aware that my own timidity might lead me to cloister myself away in a room somewhere if I didn’t fight it. So I resolved to shake things up in my life every once in a while.
The first shakeup involved getting away from home. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. My father was a turkey farmer, and my mother was a school teacher in the same elementary school that I attended. It was an old red-brick building with a belfry on the top. About half the students at the time were Mennonite. The girls wore long pigtails, long, shirtwaist dresses in printed cotton, and black shoes and stockings. The boys wore printed cotton shirts, suspenders, and hats. They brought their lunch to school in tin boxes and ate openface sandwiches topped with various homemade luncheon meats. In fall, slaughtered hogs hung upside down from tripods in farmhouse yards all over the county.
After highschool, I spent one year at the local university before transferring to the University of Virginia, land of Fair Isle sweaters and hard-drinking parties, and then on to the University of California, Berkeley, where I attended rallies and let myself get dragged out of the ROTC building by police, just to see what that was like.
After Berkeley, I found a job at the Central Intelligence Agency. That might seem like another deliberate effort to jump from one cultural extreme to another, but in truth I just needed the job. The economy was in recession and my degree in Slavic Languages and Literatures did not look attractive to many potential employers. The Agency, however, was in need of Russian speakers. The initial polygraph exam took over five hours, as we covered my years in Berkeley.
I never meant to stay at the Agency as long as I did: twenty-one years. But I met my husband there, and then there were kids to put through college and mortgages to pay. After I married, my husband and I bought a weekend place in the Shenandoah Valley about three miles from my father’s farm. There, we soon got into cat rescue, because of the sheer number of strays that arrived at our farmhouse. So we bought a van and ferried cats back and forth, placing barn cats through the Agency bulletin board. Cats who grew up drinking out of manure-sullied puddles ended up in affluent Northern Virginia homes, where they drank bottled water and went to kitty dermatologists and cardiologists and holistic veterinarians. Some went abroad with their families, ending up in places as varied as Poland, Estonia, Columbia, India, and Austria. Meanwhile, I stayed put.
I wrote when I could, working on that first unpublished novel for years and years and years ... My only way of shaking things up was to switch jobs within the Agency, which I did on a regular basis. My jobs included: foreign documents officer; analyst; speechwriter to James Woolsey, John Deutsch, and briefly George Tenet; editor of a monthly publication; and, finally, counterterrorism analyst.
I took a job in the Counterterrorist Center in 2003. The whole office was on edge, because there were indications of a major terrorist attack in the offing. That attack came a year later and hit like an earthquake that permanently altered the landscape of our careers and lives. I spent three more years there, before resigning from the Agency in August of 2004, depressed, stressed out, and disillusioned by our Government’s response to 9/11. My weekend home in the Valley became my permanent home and I became a full-time writer. I wrote about cats, the Valley, religion, and -- after my stomach finally calmed down -- terrorism and the Agency. Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s bought my novel, INTELLIGENCE, in September. So, at the age of fifty, I finally achieved what I had wanted all along: to be a novelist. And I did it in the most ass-backward way imaginable.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What is life but the angle of vision?” Changing my angle of vision -- whether viewing the Agency from my desk overlooking a soybean field or viewing the Shenandoah Valley from Sproul Plaza in Berkeley -- has enabled me to see things I wouldn’t have seen, describe things I wouldn’t have noticed, understand what truly makes a thing unique, and avoid the easy stereotype. Culture shock treatment can be painful, particularly for an introvert, but for me it was a necessary ingredient of my writing life.
Susan Hasler held many positions during her time at the CIA, including linguist, intelligence analyst, and speechwriter to three directors of central intelligence. She was serving in the CIA Counterterrorist Center on September 11, 2001, and has drawn on that experience to write a novel, Intelligence, which will be published by St. Martin's Press. Her story "Our Familiar Alien" will appear in issue #43.