How American Spy updates the espionage thriller with blazing originality
The ’80s-set American Spy — about an FBI agent tasked with bringing down an African president — brilliantly updates the espionage thriller. Author Lauren Wilkinson reveals the artistic works that inspired her to create something utterly new.
John Le Carré
Wilkinson found Le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold — particularly its plot, in which Liz romances lowlife Leamas — crucial in developing her spy, Marie. (It’s also one of her favorite books “ever.”) “I was invested in [Marie’s] emotional life because of the questions that I was left with [from Cold],” she explains. “In that interest of female characters’ psychology, [I came] up with a complicated backstory”: Marie falling for the revolutionary figure she’s supposed to be sabotaging.
Wilkinson says her goal as a writer is to craft a scene that impacts the reader, just as the scene of Anjelica Huston peeling off her face in 1990’s The Witches hit her as a kid. “It’s burned onto my brain,” she says, laughing. “I was 6 when I watched it!” If there’s one scene in Spy she hopes achieves this, it’s when Marie hears her target, Thomas Sankara, speak before a large crowd — a visceral depiction of “someone powerful holding an audience rapt.”
Wilkinson binged this German series while working on American Spy and calls it a great example of a political thriller that draws you in. She chuckles at the premise, of a young man suddenly sent to West Germany to work undercover, for the sheer in-over-his-head factor. (“He doesn’t want to go!”) Marie’s spycraft isn’t quite so fish-out-of-water, but Wilkinson derives similar narrative propulsion from her protagonist’s inner conflict.
Give some credit to this Charlize Theron vehicle for American Spy ’s funky Cold War vibe. “I love the way Atomic Blonde looks [because] it’s not dark,” Wilkinson says of the 1989-set film. “I really like the outfits they put Charlize Theron in…. I’d think, ‘How well-dressed is Marie when she’s home?’ I tried to put her in some of them in my own head.” [Laughs] The film demonstrated for her how to tell a Cold War story that felt stylish and unique, imbuing Spy with that aesthetic freedom.
“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.”
Which leads us to the most galvanizing aspect of American Spy: its racial complexity, and the portrait of a spy working for a country that still regards her as an enemy. Wilkinson says black literature helped her work through Marie’s identity negotiation and indicated how the espionage construct was a natural metaphor for the experience of “double consciousness.” She cites Ralph Ellison’s seminal Invisible Man: “The way those characters navigate the world in which they exist — I took that.”
American Spy is now available for purchase.