‘An Ordinary Spy’ Goes Hollywood

me3_tmp.jpgFormer CIA agent-turned novelist, Joseph Weisberg recently had his exciting, unusual spy novel optioned by Paul Haggis and Michael Nozik with Hwy61 Films, based at Paramount.

The LAT calls An Ordinary Spy “a modern spy novel that doesn’t tell the reader who the characters are, where the story takes place or even the kind of food they eat.”

“All of these details are heavily redacted, marked by extensive blacked-out sections of type in the book, which switches back and forth in time. … The author didn’t delete all these facts as a writer’s trick. As a former CIA officer, Weisberg would have been required to submit his novel to the agency, and he solved this literary dilemma by creatively censoring his own material.”

FBLA talks with Weisberg, a John le Carre fan, about the CIA and Hollywood and everything in between. Here is the part of the interview that we’re allowed to show you:

1. When did you work for the CIA? 1990-1994.

2. Why would you have had to submit a novel to the CIA for approval? Or is this work more fact than fiction? When you join the CIA, you’re required to sign a secrecy agreement. Among other things, this agreement obligates you to submit anything you write about intelligence matters to the CIA for review. The CIA then determines if what you’ve written contains any classified information, and if it does, you have to take it out.

Fiction and non-fiction both have to be submitted. Non-fiction is held to a tougher standard, meaning they’ll let you write some things in a novel that you cannot write in a memoir or an editorial. But a fair number of things can’t be written about in any form.

What constitutes classified material is in itself a complicated question, and I think the best answer is, nobody really knows. Classified does not mean secret. In fact, most of what the CIA had me take out of my book was information that is widely known. It’s classified not because it’s secret, but because they don’t want the information confirmed by an ex-Agency employee.

3. Did you envision this book as a movie when you were writing it? No. My own sense of storytelling comes almost entirely from reading, so I don’t tend to think about movies when I write. The redactions (most of which I did myself, before the CIA saw it) also seemed to tie the story exclusively to the page.

4. We’re always curious about how writers feel about other people interpreting their work. Are you nervous at about turning your novel over to someone else? The idea does make me nervous. But I’ve had fairly long discussions with Michael Nozik, one of the producers, and Stephen Nathan, who’s writing the screenplay, and their sense of the book, and ideas for the movie, sound fantastic to me. So I’m not only not nervous anymore, I’m excited (almost giddy) to see what they come up with.

5. Sometimes books go through several options before a film is finally made. Is this the first time your novel was optioned?
Dude, you’re bringing me down.

6. How did it find its way to Paul Haggis’s hands? Believe it or not, I don’t know. Nobody ever told me, and I never asked.

7. What are you working on now? A very unusual detective novel.