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Exclusive: Nick McDonell Talks Spy Novels and World Travel

You’ve heard the buzz: three novels by age 25, raised in the warm embrace of old-school New York media, toast of the Harvard crowd, handsome, mannered, well-traveled. What you may not know is that Nick McDonell, author of campus novel-cum-spy thriller An Expensive Education, has the work ethic to back up his admittedly blessed existence. After stints reporting from Iraq, Sudan, and Mongolia for the likes of TIME and Harper’s, McDonell is back in New York planning his next adventure and witnessing the film adaptation of an old one (Twelve, the book he wrote at age 17, is being directed by Joel Schumacher and stars a rapper, a Gossip Guy, and Pretty Woman‘s niece). Our interview after the jump.

The briskly-paced novel opens with Michael Teak, one of three main protagonists, approaching a rebel camp on the Kenya-Somalia border. All hell breaks loose, literally and metaphorically, and the political event he witnesses in the backcountry of Africa reverberates quickly through international circles. An Expensive Education deftly examines how news is spread and controlled, as the brainy (and, of course, beautiful) Harvard professor Susan Lowell – fresh off a Pulitzer for her book covering Hatashil, the rebel leader in question – and her Somali-born student David Ayan rethink their positions in the aftermath of the massacre with dubious causation. (Was it Hatashil? Teak’s superiors at the CIA? The Saudis? Who to trust?) And like any international thriller worth its salt, some live, some die, and most of our burning queries are neatly answered by the 304th page.

Nick took a break from learning Farsi to chat with us about world politics, fermented camel’s milk, and formal wear before his reading at McNally Jackson bookstore.

Flavorwire: I saw your reading tonight listed on the New York Times Urban Eye email, so I expect there will be a good turnout.

Nick McDonell: Cool. No one has mentioned that to me. I better not muck it up.

FW: I’m curious about how you did the research for the book. You obviously travel a lot…

NM: Well, how it works is first they give you a double-oh number and then you get to pick your gun. While you’re there you have to kill five people.

FW: Ha, and then they give you a big folder with a plot inside?

NM: Yes, they give you an assignment to write genre novels for the next ten years. The serious answer is that some of it is drawn from my experiences there [Africa] as a reporter and some of it is not, but I wouldn’t have been able to write the book without spending time in those countries. For example, I put in a particular hotel in Kigali – I never stayed there, but I was at the hotel a couple of times.

FW: What were you reporting on in Africa?

NM: The biggest story I worked on was a profile of Alex de Waal [for Harper's]. He’s an interesting guy who’s a mediator and an activist who works as sort of an interlocutor between the Sudanese government and Western governments, as well as a critic of the International Criminal Court. I was following him around to see how back-door diplomacy operates.

FW: How many languages do you speak?

NM: I really only speak English, but I stumble along in French and am even more stumbly in Swahili. I read a little bit in Latin, and I’m actually trying to learn Farsi. I have my lessons in Veneiro’s pastry shop, so now two or three days a week I tend to have an enormous piece of cake for lunch.

FW: So you’re talking about back-door diplomacy and how it travels back to Harvard. It’s interesting especially as it relates to David, who’s experienced both sides: the propaganda of the old regime versus a modern education. Is there a difference? In modern academia there’s certainly room for propaganda.

NM: I know what you’re saying. Sometimes things are decided in academia in a small, petty way that has larger ramifications.

FW: Like in the book, when Director Harrison gives a press conference and coins the phrase “Hatashil’s massacre,” which is then picked up by the media.

NM: And in a funny way, this novel contributes to that story. I read a review that said this book goes along with the localized delusion that the university is the center of the world, which of course, it is not. Especially in a spy novel that is part campus novel, the idea that you mentioned is an important one.

FW:The press conference is a really notable section of An Expensive Education. Were you referencing any event in particular?

NM: I went to several conferences at that center [at Harvard] – it has that mezzanine structure, it’s a real place. And a couple times I was in there I thought, Shit, this is weird.  Some of the things that people said apparently had some sort of import, somewhere, but it was hard to grasp.

FW: The Willy and Lucas characters in the book are sort of Shakespearean fools.

NM: That’s an extremely kind way to describe those two characters.

FW: Tell me a little about them and how they ended up in the book?

NM: I thought there needed to be some comic relief, a foil. I thought as caricatures they worked. I liked the idea of someone who never takes off his tuxedo – having never worn one myself.

FW: Honestly?

NM: It’s true.

FW: Another section I liked was a very short chapter toward the end, the meditation on death. What’s the difference between writing something so introspective as opposed to straightforward pacing and plot?

NM: It is quite different. And at best those two things happen at the same time. But it is hard to write elegantly when you’re describing someone shooting a rocket launcher. People do it, but it’s hard. I did actually cut a lot of those meditations to service the plot.

FW: So what are you reading right now?

NM: I’m reading a lot about Afghanistan.

FW: Planning a trip?

NM: If I can find the right way to go. I’m reading this great book called the Punishment of Virtue by Sarah Chayes, a Times reporter there. In terms of fiction I’ve been reading Midnight’s Children, because I was in India last month. I’m also reading what I think will be a great book by a friend of mine, Nick Antosca. He’s a great writer, he’s going to be a killer. Already is. And then a lot of [Afghanistan] policy stuff and stuff like that.

FW: Do you tend to read more non-fiction than fiction?

NM: Depends on how boring I want to be.

An Expensive Education by Nick McDonell is available now from Grove/Atlantic ($24.00, 304 pp).

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