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James Bruno about ... Tribe

Tribe by James Bruno
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Read the Book Review of Tribe by James Bruno
James Bruno interviewed Dec 2011 by Sarah Rudd

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Thanks for agreeing to this interview. As a former journalist yourself I’m feeling the pressure to deliver the goods (you’ll have to let me know how I do!). OK. Tribe, your third espionage novel, explores the ongoing saga of Afghanistan and the ruthlessness that arises out of marrying politics and business, but is it a good spy story or a bit of geopolitical debate that gets your juices going?

It’s both. One reviewer said, “If it were a movie, it would most likely be found in the drama/thriller category, rather than the action section. There's action all right, but it is not straight through with a high body count as with some in the thriller genre. It's more of a political intrigue novel, and one that reveals some of the underhanded, backroom, sleazy, and too often, politics and dealings that go on in our government and government organizations.” As for espionage, let me just say that, during the government security review I am required to submit to, the CIA and FBI compelled redactions and changes. They felt I’d gotten too close to the bone in my descriptions of spy tradecraft.

Harry Brennan, your protagonist, is somewhat of a thorn in the CIA’s paw. Whilst, I’m all for pistol slingers in the spy business; in reality, would someone like Harry really be tolerated – or do you think it is his friendship with the astute and savvy Vince that is the only reason he hasn’t been kicked to the curb?

Bureaucracies are notorious for not tolerating the free agent or independent-minded actor. It’s hard to say if a guy like Harry, who is far from being a Hollywood-style swashbuckling rebel, would be tolerated by the CIA higher-ups. Usually, when a case officer fundamentally disagrees with policies and management, s/he opts for retirement or resignation as promotion prospects dry up. One interesting real life case is that of an ex-CIA officer who goes by the pseudonym, “Ishmael Jones.” A deep cover officer tasked with collecting intel on weapons of mass destruction, he quit the CIA in order to work toward reforming it. Unlike me, a diplomat, Jones failed to clear his book with his agency and is now engaged in a lawsuit with the CIA.

Harry puzzled us at times. In general, his speech and behaviour bordered on Neanderthal, or at the very least, governed by testosterone! Then, he’d go and surprise us with a casually throw in obscure literary reference, correct a senior officer mid-hyperbolic speech or flash a level of thoughtful eloquence that belies the former perception. Is this down to editorial oversight, a one-man mission to make us believe that the male of the species is capable of complexity or a bit of your own personality leaching through the narrative?

It is often said that most fiction is semi-autobiographical. Harry is an educated man of working class origins. He’s what sociologists term a “straddler” –- i.e., he straddles two worlds: the high-flying stratum of smarty-pants government players and the wrong-side-of-the-tracks Irish-Catholic factory-worker world he grew up in. I try to develop this in his backstory. My own family were poor farmers; one of my grandmothers was illiterate. I grew up in blue collar environs. I worked for years as a construction laborer. But I got myself an Ivy League education and into the prestigious U.S. Foreign Service. Harry and I have a lot in common.

In Tribe, you offer an insight into the convolutions of managing ‘assets’. In reality how easy/difficult is it to “turn” someone and what works best: money or a more… physical incentive?

I base my depictions of spy tradecraft on two things: information I’ve gleaned from intelligence officers I’ve known over many years, and meticulous research. Money is the principal “turning” factor. Spies get the vast bulk of their stolen secrets by paying people under the table.

You’re quite critical, to put it mildly, of the CIA and it would appear that there is plenty to reproach: an over-abundance of bureaucracy, small-minded administrators wielding too much power and too much dissembling. This could be largely shrugged off as ‘par-for-the-course’ for a huge and diverse organisation – but how much of this is the real CIA? The cynic in me says it’s all part ploy to down play their efficiency and part fictional plot to make the CIA sound more interesting than it actually is.

Actually, there is no ulterior motive on my part. Having worked in the belly of the beast (i.e., government) for two-and-a-half decades, I know intimately how that sector functions and doesn’t function. And the CIA’s bureaucracy can be no less stultifying, incompetent and petty as that of my old employer, the State Dept. This cover-your-ass, steal-the-thunder, low-Peter Principle, backstabbing side of government is rarely shown in popular fiction. John LeCarre is good at putting it front and center:
"What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives." -- Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

We’re going to get more personal now – nothing off limits – remember? I am, however, going to steer clear of the crassly obvious question about whether or not you’ve popped anyone (aka killed). What do you think made you a good candidate for the diplomatic services?

What gave me the edge: First, a top-tier university education. Second, a life-long talent at collecting all sorts of trivia in my mind – this gives me an edge on standardized tests. Third, in the oral exam, my examiners noted that they liked my doggedness in defending my views, even though they may not have agreed with those views. Fourth, . . . uh . . . Jesus came down in a vision and told me to go for it.

Ha Ha. I actually quite like the sass - it's much more you.
(Editor note: no offence meant to those of a religious bent


Other than that, there’s no alchemy to it. Call it talent. Call it karmic. I think the testers also took to my own back story: rural yokel makes good – a great contrast with the vast majority of my peers, who overwhelmingly come from suburban upper middle class, professional parents background (my dad didn’t complete high school). My best friend in the Foreign Service was one of seven kids on a Wisconsin dairy farm – another outlyer. We both have manure on our boots.

Tell us one thing about you that no-one else knows… it doesn’t necessarily have to be something terrible or saintly – just truthful!

I do all of my own plumbing and I love romantic comedies.

You’re given the option of being a desk jockey in a cushy big office with a nice view, or a soldier on the ground in some godforsaken place with ill-fitting boots, no clean socks and only one clip left of ammo – which would you choose?

At my current age, I’ll take the former. As a young man, I sought out the latter – and suffered the consequences: seized and detained twice at gunpoint, shot at in the air, trekked through minefields, etc.

I have to ask because my curiosity demands it. Diplomatic immunity: is it all it’s cracked up to be, or a load of hyped up tosh?

There’s nothing magical about it. It simply means that a foreign government may not penalize you in your status as a diplomat. It’s not a license to break other nations’ laws. The U.S. State Department is strict in tolerating no misbehavior on the part of its diplomats posted abroad, right down to paying traffic tickets on time.

One final question before you go… did you ever kill anyone? No, not that one… OK. Hypothetically, say I have a ‘friend’ who wants to get into the spy game – what would he/she need to do in order to get recruited? Do you just write in with your résumé, fill in an online application form, undertake a degree in a relevant subject or speak multiple languages?

Yes, I’ve killed many – in my novels.

To apply for intelligence agency jobs in the U.K. and U.S., the procedures are quite straightforward and bureaucratic. You simply go to the respective home pages (https://www.sis.gov.uk/ and https://www.cia.gov/ ) and follow the instructions on how to apply for work. Same goes for the U.K. Foreign Office and the U.S. Department of State for those interested in a diplomatic career.

That's um... very factual of you! Well, that's it - you made it to the end in one piece. Thanks.

Read our full review of Tribe by James Bruno

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