Zibby speaks to repeat MDHTTRB guest Anna Pitoniak about THE HELSINKI AFFAIR, an intricate and unputdownable female-centric spy thriller about an ambitious, young CIA officer who is given a Russian conspiracy to untangle, only to discover that her father, an ex-CIA officer, is mysteriously linked to it, forcing her to choose between him and her country. Anna describes the challenges and joys of writing in the spy thriller genre with a strong female protagonist. She also talks about character development, her favorite writing spot (hint: it’s a library on the Upper East Side), and her next book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Anna. Thanks so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Helsinki Affair.

Anna Pitoniak: Thank you for having me back, Zibby. I’m so happy to be here.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what your latest novel is about?

Anna: Sure. The Helsinki Affair is a female-centric spy thriller in the tradition of great writers like John le Carré. This is a story about an ambitious young CIA officer named Amanda Cole who is given the opportunity of a lifetime when she’s presented with this Russian conspiracy. Yet she discovers that her father, who was a CIA officer before her, has some mysterious link to this Russian conspiracy she’s trying to untangle. Amanda winds up having to, ultimately, choose between loyalty to her father and her family or loyalty to her country and the CIA as she pursues the truth about this.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. You do such a good job of describing her father, who was in the field and doing all this stuff and then was sort of relegated to desk work. You had some expression, which I won’t remember, something about how he had just succumbed to mediocrity or something, the failure that he viewed the rest of his career as having become.

Anna: As a result of this terrible event that happens in the past in the Cold War, which gets revealed over the course of the book, he winds up just falling back on this notion of himself as a failure and sort of just gets comfortable with it in a way that I think can be quite damaging to one’s ability to keep moving through life.

Zibby: At least he has his three-times-a-week tennis game going. I appreciated that.

Anna: He’s got his routine. He clings very tightly to these things that keep him grounded and sane despite these ghosts that continue to haunt him from the past.

Zibby: It was sort of a little sad, though. All his friends are retiring. The way you wrote him, he’s like, well, I do love to garden, or something. He’s like, I don’t have grandchildren. Now what? What am I going to do? I loved how you also wrote about the difference between a job and a calling.

Anna: Yes, it was very important to me that I capture this poignancy and this tenderness in the character of Charlie Cole. As readers come to discover quite quickly, he’s a very flawed person. He’s made a lot of mistakes, but in my mind, that never made him a hundred percent a villain. I think that people are never one hundred percent villains or heroes. There’s always a little bit of a mixture. Charlie has this great sadness to him because he realizes that he made mistakes in the past. He doesn’t really know how to move forward with them, but he does the best he can to sort of retain his dignity in the present day. I think that’s such an interesting thing because part of the way he maintains his dignity is through his routines and his friendships and those little touchstones in life, but it also prevents him sometimes from really being honest and open and vulnerable with the people he loves the most, namely, his daughter, Amanda Cole, who is the person he ought to be able to trust the most in the world.

Zibby: Amanda is so funny also. Her relationship with Georgia, you have this whole section where they’re debating Talbots versus J.Crew. I’m wondering, which one do you prefer?

Anna: I know, I know, it’s so funny. There must be something in my subconscious. I apologize to the good people of Talbots because I didn’t mean to single out Talbots. I’m more of a J.Crew person, admittedly, than a Talbots person. I think I just associate it in my mind with those early years getting started in my own career of when you have to buy your first grown-up clothes for work. You go get a skirt suit or a very appropriate shift dress, that kind of thing. That sort of corporate attire I just associate with Talbots. I probably had a couple laughs at the expense of that for Amanda, who doesn’t — she admits this about herself — doesn’t have much of a sense of style. She’s not a fashion plate. She’s too busy with work to pay attention to that. I loved writing her best friend Georgia, who never pulls her punches and feels no compunction about telling Amanda exactly what she thinks of the way she dresses.

Zibby: We all need a friend like that. Someone has to say something.

Anna: You need a friend to tell you, girl, you got to step it up a little bit. Even the CIA officers in the world need friends like that to help nudge them in that direction.

Zibby: I feel like my ten-year-old daughter has taken over all of my fashion issues. If I’m wearing something and she doesn’t think it matches or looks good, she’ll just be like, “No, no, no, you got to go change. Let me come up and help you.”

Anna: Oh, my god, the unbridled honesty of a tween or an adolescent, it’s tough. I don’t envy you that.

Zibby: I will say, even, I think it was — was it last year or the year before? My mother did send me a care package from Talbots with a skirt suit with matching blazer, which I did end up wearing to a sales conference, so there you go.

Anna: Maybe I need to change my tune.

Zibby: No, no. I was like, oh, Talbots has cute stuff. They had a blazer that she sent me. Every so often, I have to dress corporate. I guess it’s still a good go-to place. Talk a little bit more about your fascination with CIA and Langley and spying and all of it. How did you get into this? I know this is a big area for you.

Anna: It is. This is a genre that I really got into in my twenties when I worked in publishing shortly after I had graduated from college. It’s interesting. I think that a lot of people read a lot of books for college for their courses, whatever classes they might be taking in college. They don’t necessarily have the time or the bandwidth to develop their own taste and preferences. This is what’s so nice about emerging into the real world and having time to read for fun again. You realize what it is you really love to read, whether it’s romance or mystery, thriller, sci-fi, whatever it might be. I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that I really loved spy fiction. I used to work as an editor at Random House. One of the authors I worked with there was Alan Furst, who’s a terrific writer of spy fiction. I had the chance to work on one of his books. As I was reading the manuscript, I thought, wow, I love this. I want to read a hundred more books like this. I read all of his back catalog. I then went down the rabbit hole. I started reading John le Carré and Graham Greene, Daniel Silva, these other great masters of the genre.

I think what I loved so much about spy fiction, what I still love about it, is that when it’s done right, it combines this incredible depiction of just these very human situations we all find ourselves in, whether it’s feeling caught between competing loyalties, whether it’s withholding the truth about something from a person you love and trust, whether it’s asking yourself the question of, what do I really believe in? What do I really care about? It’s all elevated to this place where the stakes are incredibly high. It’s not just a question of, oh, if I say this thing, it might hurt my friend’s feelings. It’s like, no, there might be geopolitical consequences to this. It might be that America gains an advantage over her enemy or war breaks out or there’s some kind of conflict here. I love the idea of really getting the chance to put human beings in these — put characters, really — in these situations of great pressure, see how they react, see what happens, but have it carry enormous consequences. I think that just makes for a really riveting and exciting story. We always talk about this as writers. What are the stakes? The stakes are always very high in spy fiction. I discovered that that’s what I loved so much about the genre.

Even as I was reading all of these books and discovering these authors, I couldn’t help but notice that most of the writers in this international spy thriller space tend to be men. Most of the characters at the center of the books tend to be men as well. I always thought to myself, I want a book like this, a book like a John le Carré or an Alan Furst, but where the women are completely in charge, where they’re not the love interest, where they’re not the secondary character, but where they’re really the main thing. When I was at Random House, I always said to literary agents, to people I was meeting with, this is the kind of book I want to acquire. Please send me more writers like this. I never found quite the perfect book to scratch that itch. I was still looking for it. Eventually, I decided to just give it a shot myself. I’m four books into this writing career now. I think just now, I’m really starting to find that groove that I want to stay in.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Talk about your other books.

Anna: My other books have all jumped around a little bit. What’s interesting, looking back, I can see how my first three novels all blurred genres or spanned different genres or didn’t fit as neatly into a category the way that The Helsinki Affair fits into spy fiction. My first novel, The Futures, is a coming-of-age story which meets a financial thriller taking place in New York City in 2008 right around the time of the great financial crisis. It’s really a story about being young in New York, about being in love, about falling out of love, about trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, those very small questions. My second novel is called Necessary People. That’s more psychological suspense, a kind of frenemy thriller about two very ambitious young women who are best friends but then become workplace rivals when they both go work in TV news. It’s a very dark book. It’s a fast book. It’s a real suspense book. Then my third book, my most recent book before this, Our American Friend, was kind of my onramp into this genre. Our America Friend, I always like to say was maybe fifty percent spy thriller, and then it was fifty percent historical fiction, a little bit of political thriller thrown in there too for good measure, a story about a first lady of the United States who was born in Russia who has this dark secret in her past that comes out in present day. I found with Our American Friend that I really loved writing the scenes that were more spy centric, those parts of the book that really felt like a spy thriller. I thought, I just want to do more of this. This is what I want to lean into for my next book. That was maybe the nudge from the universe or from the creative muses that I needed to know that, okay, maybe it’s time to tackle this spy thriller thing.

Zibby: It’s so cool. I love it. Sometimes you just need to chip away at it like a sculpture. I feel like you’re just getting closer and closer.

Anna: Exactly. I think some writers, they know exactly what genre they want to pursue from the get-go. I think that’s amazing. In many ways, I envy that. For me, I had to sort of take my time and edge up to it from different directions. I think it’s useful because I have also strengthened in certain ways as a writer along the way.

Zibby: Do you know the author Lea Carpenter?

Anna: I know her name. I don’t know her personally.

Zibby: I want to introduce you because she also has just written a spy-type thriller with a woman protagonist. I’m having an event for her. I feel like you two should be in conversation, if you have any interest.

Anna: I would love that. I do have to say, I think that there were probably so many other female writers out there who have been feeling the same way as me. The tide is maybe starting to turn. I’ve noticed just in the last few years more and more of these types of spy thrillers with women at the center are starting to crop up. I know that I.S. Berry’s novel, The Peacock and the Sparrow, is a thriller that’s gotten a lot of great acclaim. Alma Katsu is another writer whose name has been mentioned to me many times. I love this. It’s like we’re all finally storming the barricades.

Zibby: I feel like it’s the post-Homeland women, people who were obsessed with Homeland. I could not stop watching that show. That was one of my favorite shows of all time. It just renewed my interest. I’m like, could I do that job? No, thanks, but I don’t know. You’re just drawn to it.

Anna: It’s so riveting. They do such a good job in Homeland of making Carrie Mathison this very real, very flawed person, also is a sister and a mother and a daughter and has all these dimensions to her that wind up intruding in her life as a spy, but she is, first and foremost, this really strong, badass woman. I just love that. I can’t get enough of it.

Zibby: I feel like we write, maybe, who we want to be. Maybe you are a spy, and I just don’t even know.

Anna: People ask me, tongue in cheek, sometimes, are you really working for the CIA? God, I wish. I wish they would let me work for them. That would be great research, wouldn’t it? I’m just imagining my way into it and all of that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What are you working on now?

Anna: I am actually working on the follow-up to The Helsinki Affair. For the first time, the characters in this book, especially Amanda Cole and her mentor/colleague Kath Frost, who’s that — she a very strong and strong-willed older woman. Amanda and Kath, I had so much fun writing them. I had so much fun writing the dynamic between the two of them. By the time I got to the end of The Helsinki Affair, I thought, I have more that I want to say with these characters, which is new. I’ve never finished a book before and thought, oh, I want to keep going with these characters. It’s always felt like an ending. At the end of Helsinki, I thought, no, there’s more to do here. I’m writing the next book, which will be — my plan is to write it as a book that can be read on its own. It’s not like you have to read it in order. It’s not contingent on that, but it will continue the same characters and some of the same threads as The Helsinki Affair. That’s been a really fun undertaking.

Zibby: Love it. I know there’s debate in the publishing world about, do you continue on with your characters or not? Do you gain more market share? I know there’s all these things. Personally as a reader, I love when I fall in love with a character and I get to continue on with them. It’s the best feeling.

Anna: I heard an interesting statistic from, I think it was a writer friend of mine who cited this to me, who said that sometimes it takes a couple books in a series for characters to really — or really, for the series to take off, for people to feel really deeply invested in the characters. It may not be that the first book out of the gate is the one that captures everyone’s imagination. If you keep building and building over time, people get really attached and invested in these characters. I love that idea. I think that it’s so true. If you as a writer find characters who you want to keep spending time with, chances are, if that’s really an authentic feeling that’s coming out of you, there are going to be other people out there who also connect with those characters, who also want to keep spending time with them. For me, I realized that as I turned in the final draft of The Helsinki Affair last year and started thinking about the next thing, it was not even a question for me that I would continue with these women. The idea of trying to start a whole new novel from scratch, everything I made an attempt at just felt very flat and lifeless because I knew that the book I wanted to write and needed to write was more in this world.

Zibby: This is actually personally very helpful because I’m trying to work on my next novel, which I have to hand in as a proposal soon. I really wanted to continue with my character Pippa from my last book. I’ve written six thousand words of another one. I met with my editor, who was like, “There are pros and cons, but I don’t know.” I think she was not as excited about that. I just want to keep following her along. What happens a couple years later? What happens to the kids? I don’t know. Now I feel like maybe I should just do it. I could always change it later.

Anna: I’m always telling writers that they need to do what they need to do. This is probably not the advice that a more strategically minded agent or editor might give you. I do think that you can tell when you are writing something from that place of genuine, authentic drive versus writing something because you feel like, okay, well, that wasn’t a good idea, so let me set it aside and do something else. Then it really shows up on the page, whether or not your heart is in it. I know that for me, I’m finding it a unique and somewhat surprising challenge to keep writing Amanda and Kath in this next book in a way that allows them, still, to have room to breathe and grow and evolve. It’s an interesting thing when you’ve spent an entire novel with a character or characters. You think you know them. You think you sort of have them under your control. Then you set them loose in a new storyline, and it’s like, oh, no, there are still things about Amanda Cole and Kath Frost that I don’t fully understand yet. I’m having to approach this next book with a good degree of humility to let them still take their twists and turns and surprise me along the way.

Zibby: How do you know, though, how much backstory to include?

Anna: That is really tricky. I think that it’s going to be something that takes many drafts and a lot of trial and error to get right. At this point, I’m probably including more backstory than I need. I can feel myself, almost, as I’m writing a paragraph, and this happened and that happened, blah, blah, blah, and this whole thing about Amanda’s father — I’m looking at these words on the page. I’m like, this is definitely more than I need. For now, I just need to put it all down so that later I can go back and prune it out and cut. I will probably rely somewhat on my agents and my editor to tell me when it’s too much and I’m going overboard. I have to put it all down in order to later know what to cut from it.

Zibby: This has been fantastic book coaching. Thank you. I’m not even kidding.

Anna: Oh, my god, .

Zibby: No, it’s really helpful.

Anna: I, rather foolishly, thought it was going to be sort of easier to continue with characters who I already knew. It’s a whole new challenge. I’ve never encountered this before in my writing career, but I embrace a new challenge.

Zibby: Did I make up that there’s some sort of film something with one of your books?

Anna: There is an option. They’re doing some development on my second novel, Necessary People. This has been a long road, which I’m sure you know all about and probably a lot of your listeners and I know other writers in your orbit know about, which is that Hollywood moves on its own schedule. Often, which has been the case for Necessary People, a production company will option the rights and then renew the option and renew the option. Various players will come in and out of the equation. Then of course, this past year, we’ve had the strike in Hollywood, which really caused everything to slow down. As of now, they have written a pilot. There’s a writer who’s working on the next episode. They have a couple actors attached. I’m cautiously optimistic that something could happen. You never know. I certainly don’t count on anything. It’s been really interesting and really fun to see. I would say especially the experience of reading the pilot and realizing that someone else, this other writer, had taken these characters who I created in Necessary People and run with them and pushed them in her own way and injected her own creativity into the story was really cool and just a very flattering idea that I wrote a story that someone else was interested in enough that they wanted to try and do something else with it, push it into a different medium. It’s pretty cool. We’ll see. You don’t count on anything in this job.

Zibby: That sounds fairly far along, though. That’s pretty encouraging. I see why you’re cautiously optimistic. I feel like the fact that any projects ever get produced and made and onto the screen is a complete miracle. With everybody’s schedules and all the actors and competing projects and points of view, I don’t even know.

Anna: It feels like one of those things where often, it either happens really fast or it doesn’t happen at all. That’s not always true, of course. Sometimes things just take time. I’ve been so amazed. In recent years, we’ve seen this mini boom of actresses in Hollywood optioning things, whether it’s Reese Witherspoon or Kerry Washington, whoever it might be, and getting those movies or those TV shows made in a year. It’s amazing what these women are able to pull together. I hope that keeps going. I know it’s a different time in the Hollywood landscape these days. I love that for books.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about the process. When you were sitting there debating and trying to figure out the backstory and all that, paint me a picture of where you’re sitting and what that looks like.

Anna: I am a very routine-driven person. I think a lot of writers are because it’s the only way you manage to get a certain amount of words written each day. I tend to write between the same hours every day. I get a slower start in the morning. I’ll take care of a few things. I’ll get some exercise, whatever, and then clear out emails from my inbox. Then around eleven AM, let’s say, I’m really starting to focus in on my writing for the day. I tend to write between the hours of, roughly, eleven to two thirty. I might take a short break in there somewhere. I’ve found that those are the hours when my mind is sharpest and clearest and I’m most focused. One of the places I really love to write is the New York Society Library at 79th and Madison on the Upper East Side. I discovered the Society Library about five years ago when I left my job at Random House and switched to writing full time and needed a way to get out of the apartment. Otherwise, I’d go crazy. I just think it’s one of the best hidden gems in New York City. It’s such a great place to work. There’s this incredibly literary atmosphere to the place. They have these little desks that are tucked away in the stacks in the library. You can just retreat from the world for a few hours and totally immerse yourself. I love working there. I find that I do some of my best writing there. Often, one or two days a week, I’ll need a change of pace, so I’ll go to a coffee shop in the neighborhood, something like that. If I’m having a day where I’m feeling a little more lethargic, having the energy of other people around me is really helpful.

To get nitty-gritty about it, when I’m sitting down at my computer, I will put my phone and my computer in “do not disturb” mode. I’ll close out my email. I’ll make sure there are no distractions. I really just force myself to be there and be focused on whatever draft it is I’m working on. I don’t set myself a word count goal or a page count goal because I think that that can sometimes be a recipe for feeling frustrated with yourself at the end of the day if you didn’t hit your goal. To me, there are certain parts of the book where you might be able to write two or three pages in an hour. It’s totally effortless. It just flows. There are other parts of the book where you might be laboring over the same paragraph for multiple days in a row because it’s a really important paragraph, because you’re at a hinge point in the story, because you’re trying to articulate something very subtle and delicate between two characters. I never feel bad about spending an entire writing session on one very short little passage. It’d be interesting — I don’t really know what I look like from the outside. I think a lot of my time writing, I’m almost muttering to myself under my breath a little bit as I’m trying out different phrasing or different words. It’s seeing how they sound. Then at other points when I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen next and I’m letting myself marinate on it, I’ll just stare off into space very vacantly. Probably, the other people in the coffee shop are a little alarmed because they’re like, that woman’s just been staring at a wall for ten minutes. We don’t know what’s happening. You kind of have to get comfortable with the fact that your job as a writer requires you to look a little whacky at times.

Zibby: I love it. Congratulations. Fabulous book. You’re a really great writer. I feel like you’re going to have a wall full of these spy thrillers eventually. It’s really exciting. I just love watching your career take off. It’s very fun from the outside.

Anna: Thank you so much, Zibby. I’ve really loved chatting to you today.

Zibby: Me too. Thanks. Take care. Bye, Anna.

Anna: Bye. Have a good Thanksgiving.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.



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