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This blog was featured on 03/07/2019
Lauren Wilkinson on Writing a Black Spy Novel
Written by
She Writes
March 2019
Written by
She Writes
March 2019

There is a common pessimistic phrase thrown about the writing world that states "every story has been told." As we're seeing more diverse books enter the marketplace though, this idea is being put to the test. Lauren Wilkinson's novel American Spy is a truly fresh take on the espionage thriller. 

The 80s-set novel follows a black, female FBI agent as she battles to take down an African president in a story that has been called "a trenchant commentary on race and gender in America, disguised as a spy thriller." (You Are One of Elliott Holt, author of Them)

Drawing Inspiration

In an interview with EW, Wilkinson talks about how Beyoncé inspired her novel.

“I listened to Beyoncé’s self-titled album a lot while I was writing this,” Wilkinson says. Its ethos reflects Marie’s arc. “The promise of black respectability is: If you just do that work, it’ll bring you [what] you want. The narrative of that album, as in the narrative of my book, is someone who’s accepted that idea for a really long time realizing that it’s not true — and reconciling that.”

Writing Characters You Don't See 

When she was talking with Publishers Weekly, Wilkinson explained why she chose to write about a black, female spy. 

"I started out with wanting to write a black female spy, because I wanted to create a character I didn’t see growing up but wished I had. As I continued to work on the novel, the spy genre started to feel like a natural metaphor for what W.E.B. Du Bois calls the “double consciousness.” Spies must constantly be vigilant about how they’re perceived and must also be aware of the ways in which this perception is in conflict with their own self-perception."

Next-Level Research

In an interview with The Believer, the interviewer talks about how smoothly Wilkinson transports her readers. This, however, was not something she pulled off on the first try. 

THE BELIEVER: One of the aspects of your novel that I thought was so impressive is the transitions it makes in time and space. They feel so effortless. How was it like to blend all those locations together? I know when we were setting up the interview, you mentioned that your mother helped you conceptualize New York in the 1980s. Maybe that’s a good place to start, though there’s also Burkina Faso, of course, and Martinique as well.

LAUREN WILKINSON: That was actually by far the hardest part for me—getting the timeline right. I wrote this book several times, maybe a half-dozen. Because Sankara is such a beloved figure in Burkina Faso, it was also really important for me to go there and then to physically be in Martinique to write about it. The first time I wrote the novel, it was totally linear, but then she doesn’t spy until a third of the way into the book. So I just kept doing it over and over again. I love to hear it looks effortless, because it took me an incredible amount of effort.

Balancing Truth and Fiction

In American Spy, Wilkinson centered a lot of her book's premise around the life of Thomas Sankara. When she spoke with Electric Literature, they talked about balancing reality with fiction. 

AV: One thing I wanted to talk about was balancing a historical figure with their truth and your fiction.

LW: I tried to be as truthful as possible. Some of my early feedback was from a writer who wrote a biography of Sankara in French. He read my original story and I found out he didn’t care for it. Which makes sense. He’s a historian who felt Sankara wouldn’t have done things [I had him do]. I felt, yeah, I know. He wouldn’t have but you can’t make a character perfect and there needs to be conflict.

I felt like I couldn’t worry about my interpretation of someone who people think so highly of. I felt it was important to bring this story to America. A lot of people haven’t heard of him, and I felt they should.

Photo Credit: Niqui Carter

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