"Aping" Her Betters

In 1996 my first novel was published, I knew international thrillers had been the domain of male authors for decades. But it didn't occur to me I wasn't supposed to write them. But it occurred to others. One prominent magazine claimed I was "aping" my male betters.
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Ignorance is bliss, or so we're told. Personally, I find ignorance is also destiny. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to write international thrillers. No one told me. Who would've thought? I loved them. My girlfriends and guy friends loved them. Everywhere I looked, from beaches to board rooms, from sweaty locker rooms to jam-packed economy class flight decks, adults and 'tweens of all sexual persuasions, skin colors, ages, religions, accents, and percentages of body fat devoured books by Ludlum and Le Carre, Forsyth and Follett.

Let me back up here. A few years before I wrote thrillers, I hadn't realized I wasn't supposed to cover what those of us in the trade called hard news. I was a kid reporter for the Arizona Republic, a fine old rag with a reputedly progressive outlook about gender equality. As far as I was concerned, that was a license to write, and the globe was my beat.

Thus, when riots erupted in downtown Phoenix, I asked then begged (when I want something, I don't mind a little public humiliation) to go out to cover the mean streets. But as my male pals rushed off to fulfill the public's need to know, the city editor explained the work was too dangerous for a girl, and he assigned me to obituaries.

Writing obits is considered an artform by some. I told myself that. I really tried to like it. I worked to convince myself it was enough to know I was doing a service. Plus, if I just threw in some multisyllabic words, extended my sentences until each was a paragraph long, and used "darkling" a few times, I'd be the Faulkner of Phoenix.

Right. All I could think of was Dante's Inferno. I was in hell.

For those in the know, obit desk is the classic punishment in a city room. I could see no escape. Then a new reporter arrived, general assignment like me, hungry to learn. Fueled by desperation, I took him to lunch -- hot tacos washed down by a multitude of icy margaritas, emphasis on the margaritas. We talked about the future and his dream of becoming a first-rate reporter. Of course, to achieve that, he really needed to experience all the city room had to offer. Unfortunately, he couldn't take over obits.

Too bad. I had that juicy assignment.

He couldn't believe I liked it. But at that moment, writing obituaries became to me the most fascinating, most rewarding, most career-enhancing job ever. I was reluctant to switch with him. Still, I let him talk me into it.

Sometimes you get what you want not because it's right or fair or even smart, but because you just don't know any better. The city editor threw up his hands then threw in the towel. As it turned out, the forces of society's progress had become evident even to a knuckle-dragger like him. My goal had been escape, but my reward was far greater: After a lecture and several deep-belly growls of disapproval, he sent me out to cover the tail end of the riots. I returned tired, happy, and with news stories. Both of us had done our jobs -- at last.

Thus in 1996 when my first novel, Masquerade, was published, I knew international thrillers -- or spy novels, if you prefer -- had been the domain of male authors for decades. Still, women were such big fans that they not only accounted for a significant percentage of sales, they also introduced them to their boyfriends, husbands, and sons. Since I loved spy thrillers, that's what I wanted to write. As I said, ignorance is destiny. It didn't occur to me I wasn't supposed to.

But it occurred to others. When Masquerade was published, one prominent magazine claimed I was "aping" my male betters. I would've preferred "chimpanzeeing" since they apparently have a higher facility for language. A couple of men who reviewed for large publications were more graphic -- telling me in person that they'd never review my books because I was in effect cutting off the private parts of male authors.

I had a brief vision of winged penises sailing through the air, making a sexy, whooshing sound. I explained that I suspected guys' "private parts" were fastened on a lot better than that, but the boys were drinking -- martinis, it was happy hour -- and explained I was being typically illogical.

Then there was the time a publisher tried to get me to turn my next book while it was still in manuscript into a romance. I had to fly to New York to explain that since I was co-authoring novels with Robert Ludlum, fans of them probably would want to try my novels, but when they didn't find what they expected with the new one, they'd be unlikely to bother to buy another, hence hurting the publisher's bottom line.

At the same time, my dust jackets were less than helpful. One cover sported a woman in a black body suit, aiming a very lethal-looking pistol -- and wearing spike heels so high they probably made their first appearance in a comic book. Another showed a couple running ... well, more like trotting (gotta catch the doggie before he lands in the neighbor's doo-doo) and holding hands as if they'd just discovered love. And those were the two best covers.

You may have noticed that the dust jackets of spy thrillers written by men have little in common with the ones I just described.

To say I was being marginalized is an understatement. My sales plummeted. I have no idea why I didn't quit. Stubbornness perhaps. Or maybe it was simply that I am so besotted by the work, by the joy of words and ideas, by high adventure and low politics, by secrecy and smart skullduggery, by the imperative to try to make some sort of sense of our confounding universe ... that as long as I can crawl to a computer or a quill pen, I will write.

And, too, if I'd given up, I would've missed a lot of fun.

Finally, senior editor Keith Kahla of St. Martin's found my work, liked it a lot, and took me on. A brilliant editor and publisher, he's helped to repackage my books in such a way that they speak to large numbers of readers. Another change was in the times --- because of 9/11, readers' desire for international political fiction was at last reignited. Then in 2004 I co-founded and was elected co-president (with David Morrell) of International Thriller Writers, Inc., which has become a force in the industry (who could've predicted that would happen?) .

Recently, the Military Writers Society of America awarded my new book, The Last Spymaster, its Novel of the Year prize. Do they care that I'm female? Obviously not.

Then the erudite Peter Cannon of Publishers Weekly compiled a list of 15 top spy novels: Right after number seven -- Ken Follett's classic The Eye of the Needle -- appeared my debut novel, Masquerade. What a wonderful honor. BookNotes claims, "Lynds has joined the deified ranks of spy thriller authors like Robert Ludlum and John le Carre." With Ludlum, I created the Covert-One series, and one of the novels I wrote for it, The Hades Factor, was a CBS miniseries in April 2006. Today I'm not only listed in Who's Who in America, but Who's Who in the World.

Staying the course is hard, especially when it seems as if everything is going wrong. Our only solace as writers is in the work itself, and perhaps also in a penchant for blissful ignorance that allows us to gamble, to risk, to keep going where others would tote up the odds and stop. But these are the sweetest victories of all, and with a soupcon of luck, our destiny.