Author Mitch Swenson likes to flirt with danger -- and beautiful Russian undercover agents. The subhead on his website www.mitchswenson.com reads: can usually be found in contested areas. He's reported from some of the world's trickiest hot spots such as South Sudan and Cairo. But perhaps Swenson's riskiest adventure was a romance he had with Katya, a young and mysterious Russian woman he met in a New York nightclub. She disappeared suddenly after the arrest in 2010 of ten Russian Americans (including Anna Chapman) who were charged with spying for the Kremlin. Swenson had suspicions about the Russian woman before she vanished and he set out on a quest to discover more about her in a journey that took him to Russia. He's a writer so he did what all writers do when life throws a curve ball: he wrote about his failed romance and his efforts to find Katya. His new e-book single The Tracking of a Russian Spy, recalls his relationship with Katya and his efforts to discover more about her. Thin Reads reached out to Swenson to learn more about his story in this email interview, part of the Thin Reads author interview initiative. While the e-book single may never become a Kindle Single best-seller, it's a compelling story about a possibly dangerous affair and its surprising consequences.
Thin Reads: Your e-book single is about Katya, who apparently worked as a spy. Yet we know very little about you from the story or your website. Tell us a bit about yourself. How do you support yourself? Where did you go to college? Were you a boy scout? Where were you raised? How old are you? Or are you a cipher like Katya in your story?
It's funny that you use that word "cipher" because I have a cipher built into my tattoos. It's Cartesian, top to bottom on my person. If you crack the code it unlocks the secrets to my body. Unfortunately no one has solved it yet... In terms of history? I assure you I am a real person. I'm 26 and from New York. In college I was studying journalism at the American University in Cairo when the revolution kicked off. I saw the protesters take Tahrir Square for the first time. It was magic. There was this overriding sense of hope that connected everyone. Tahrir was my foray into reportage. Afterward I began reporting from the Middle East and East Africa. Nearly three years later, I've worked in a lot of places. Last month I snuck into Syria with two other journalists. That was wild. Boy Scouts know how to sew, right? I need to learn to sew because I tend to have a lot of things rip. So I guess I wish I was in the boy scouts when I was younger.
Thin Reads: Describe your relationship with Katya in New York? Did you go to restaurants and movies? How often would you see her? Where would you meet? Did your friends meet her? From what we know in the story, it seems like the relationship was almost completely physical.
Katya had a cold distance to her that was attractive and alluring. Usually when we met it was late at night and at my apartment. Sometimes she would show up at 2 A.M. or later without warning. We had a bit of a spontaneous nocturnal habit. She never wanted to meet in public. Once she used the term "civil surveillance," which was off-putting. That isn't a phrase non-native English speakers commonly say.
Thin Reads: When did it dawn on you that Katya might be working in some type of undercover work in the U.S.? When that thought entered your mind, were you sickened by it....or did it excite you in some way?
When Katya disappeared after the Anna Chapman spy ring was taken down, I knew something was up. There were some initial warning signs that I should have paid attention to more but I think I was suspending my disbelief. I had no idea that the identity politics in play were as severe as they turned out to be.
Thin Reads: After your New York apartment was burglarized resulting in the loss of computers, hard drives and recording devices, you suspected that Katya was behind it. Yet you continued your relationship with her. A sane person has to ask....why?
Well I knew she was in Moscow at the time and not New York. That was an important fact. Even though she had someone pull off the heist in New York, I didn't think she wanted to hurt me. I thought she just wanted to cover her tracks. In hindsight perhaps maintaining contact with Katya wasn't the most cautious of decisions.
Thin Reads: You traveled to Russia to find Katya in 2012. And you hired a private counter-intelligence service to assist you. That sounds extremely costly and time-consuming. Did you pay out of your pocket? Were you working at the time?
I did have to pay for that out of pocket. It was about $1,000. I found it necessary because Russia was still a complete mystery to me. I wanted any information that would give me an advantage. I didn't really know what I was walking into.
Thin Reads: Do you still have feelings for Katya? If a text message popped up on your phone tonight from her telling you to meet her in a bar in Williamsburg, would you go?
Williamsburg is not really her style. In her own words, she "hates hipsters and freaks." If we were to talk in the future that information would surely remain between the two of us.
Read more interviews with authors like Mitch Swenson at Thin Reads.