Special Guest Phyllis Duncan (@unspywriter) Talks Her New Spy Novella, The Yellow Scarf

Phyllis DuncanI’m blessed to be surrounded by writers of all kinds here in the Shenandoah Valley, not just romance writers. One such writer, and friend, is Phyllis Duncan, who pens tales of espionage (with, yes, the occasional strain of romance thrown in, but it’s definitely not her focus). To celebrate the release of her new novella, The Yellow Scarf, I pelted a bunch of questions at her, which she graciously answered.

So grab that cup of tea and hang with us for a few minutes as you learn more about Phyllis and her works!

What draws you to writing about spies over, say, romance or fantasy? 

american & russian documentsI read a lot of Fleming, Trevanian, and LeCarre in high school and college, not to mention was a big fan of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the Mission: Impossible television shows, and I’ve always found the genre fascinating. Also, ethical dilemmas intrigue me. Spies manipulate the truth, people, and governments toward an end, and to them that end is desired so, to them, the means are justified. We in the west always thought we were on the right side of the Cold War, but Soviet spies felt that way, too. Wondering how people dealt with those questionable ethical practices is fodder for me. Also, most of the time they are average, everyday people with families and mortgages, and I like exploring how they balance that. I’ve always wanted to write science fiction but don’t have the technical chops for it. My former co-workers thought I’d retire and write cozy mysteries about aviation, but so far aviation only has a peripheral mention in my work. I’d still love to write a totally cool sci-fi novel.

These two characters have appeared in several of your short story collections and novellas. Any plans for a full-length novel? 

Oh, I have, let’s see, about eight novels involving Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin, in various stages of their careers, in different stages of production (i.e., first drafts, revisions, etc.), and all unpublished. For now.

What are your favorite things about these particular characters? 

yellowscarfAlexei is all the positive (and some of the negative) aspects of my father and my ex–resourceful, loving, encouraging, flawed, and good looking. Mai is all the things I could never be at work, because I had to be nice (just kidding)–strong, brilliant, takes no sh*t, quick on the uptake, and understands the concept of sometimes doing bad things for the greater good. Together, they’re a formidable team; yet, they have both made mistakes, which they had to learn from them. As a married couple, they juggle their work responsibilities with family life, a family they have to lie to about what they really do, while protecting them from people who’d want to use their family to get back at them. Intense. The newest novella, The Yellow Scarf, for example, deals with their return to a country where Mai was taken captive the year before and suffered a tremendous personal loss. Alexei knows they can’t pick and choose their missions, but he’s concerned about the effect the return will have on his wife, not so much his partner. He also knows Mai will focus on the current mission and nothing else, because that’s who she is.

Tell us some of your research methods. What have you had to look up, and how do you go about finding info on spy activities? Any concern NSA is watching your search history? 

Saiga MK-03 (AK-47 type), magazineSince most of what Mai and Alexei work on is within my lifetime (from the Cold War to the present), I rely on my memory and my love of history. I research each novel as if it were a nonfiction work, i.e., read books and articles pertinent to the subject matter, and the Internet certainly makes that easier to do. I’ve purchased books by former CIA operatives and other covert operatives from rival intelligence agencies (including the KGB) and studied them for tradecraft and technology, but because this is fiction, I made up my own agency with its own protocols, so I can fudge a bit on tradecraft. Yes, particularly after 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, I’m concerned my Internet searches could be misinterpreted. I’ve had to look up how to make an ammonium nitrate/fuel oil (ANFO) bomb, what kind of noise suppressor is appropriate for AK-47s, and torture techniques, among others. I sometimes post in Facebook something to the effect, “I write fiction; I’m not plotting anything.” I hope that works!

Do you know spies in real life? (I had to ask that one!)

Yes. (I had to answer it that way.)

I hear spy novels aren’t the only thing you write: can you tell us about other works you’ve completed? 

In the past I was an aviation reporter and editor and author of many government white papers on aviation safety and aviation history articles–my first love. And I gave that all up to write fiction. 😉 I have written a great deal of literary fiction, in particular short stories and flash fiction, which have appeared in literary journals, online and in print. I dabble (emphasis on dabble) with poetry (I’m thinking next year I might need to write a haiku a day.) and have written feature articles on various topics for my local newspaper. I have a literary novel which explores how events in the past affect lives in the present. I call it my “baby in the wall” novel because finding the bones of a long-dead child in the wall of a house starts the main character on a search, which reveals things she wants to ignore but can’t. It’s called Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season, which is a line, appropriately, from Edgar Allen Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado.”

What’s next for you?

Since I just finished a National Novel Writing Month manuscript, I foresee editing, revising, and rewriting in my future. I developed a minor character in last year’s NaNoWriMo novel, a transgender former U.S. Navy SEAL (loosely based on an actual person), and several people have asked if I’m going to tell her story. So, who knows? Being inclusive in my fiction is very important to me, as is “doing it right,” so if I took on her story, I’d have to do a lot more research. This is an area where I would want my fiction to reflect reality.

What’s one piece of advice you would give new writers?

Vintage TypewriterIt’s a cliche, but write. Carry a notebook or a recorder with you at all times. Listen in on the conversations around you–and write them down. The key, however, is to write and embrace calling yourself a writer. Write every day, even if it’s a blog post, or a haiku, or a Facebook comment. Oh, and edit what you write or hire an editor, particularly if you’re going indie. Yes, you can have your own voice, and editing will only strengthen it. But none of that can happen unless you put butt in chair and write.


spyflashPhyllis A. “Maggie” Duncan is a retired aviation safety official who writes historical thrillers from her home in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has studied writing at workshops and conferences around the U.S. Her short fiction can be found in numerous literary magazines and anthologies. She is the first vice president of the Virginia Writers Club.

Want to connect with Phyllis? Find her here!

Amazon Author Pagehttp://www.amazon.com/Phyllis-Duncan/e/B007WWETGU/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1431040137&sr=1-1
Author Website: http://phyllisduncan52.wix.com/phyllisaduncanauthor
Facebook Author Page: 
Goodreads: Phyllis Anne Duncan
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/maggieduncan1/
Twitter: @unspywriter
Writing Blog: www.unexpectedpaths.com

nobleCurrent Works:

Short Story Collections:
Blood Vengeance
Fences and Other Stories
Spy Flash
The Better Spy

My Noble Enemy
The Yellow Scarf

Thanks for stopping by, Phyllis! I wish you the best of luck with The Yellow Scarf – and hope you never need to make use of much of what you’ve gleaned from the Internet! 😉

Writer Wednesday: Meet Phyllis Duncan

Phyllis DuncanWoo hoo! It’s Writer Wednesday! Everybody dance! Er, or, not. But I AM excited to have Phyllis Duncan with us today, as she is a fellow member of my beloved Shenandoah Valley Writers, and the first SVW friend I ever met in “real life.” (I still claim online life is somewhat real, but that’s a different discussion.)

Phyllis writes spy tales – and, most recently, a spy love story (hooray!). So settle in and get comfortable (but not too comfortable – you never know who’s lurking around the corner) as Phyllis shares a bit about herself and her TWO brand-new releases, My Noble Enemy and The Better Spy.

 What inspires you to write?

Just about anything in contemporary history (Cold War to the present), even current events, but mostly I write about injustice and the rendering of justice, even though the means may be morally questionable. That’s why I love the espionage genre—the “real” stuff, not what you see in James Bond movies. Spies lie, cheat, deceive, and worse to save lives or achieve what they believe is a preferred outcome—depends on which side you’re on, though. I’ve always enjoyed exploring morally dubious characters.

Name two things people don’t know about you.

I was named the Cutest Baby East of the Mississippi a long, long (long) time ago, but that was before I cut most of my long hair off one day in Sunday School.

I was a certificated flight instructor (still a certificated pilot), and I once got to fly the Goodyear blimp. Totally awesome, by the way.

What’s your favorite romance novel of all time, and why?

I don’t normally write romance, though I refer to my recently published novella as a love story. I also don’t normally read romance, except for J.D. Robb and Janet Evanovich—and now Margaret Locke!—and I use Robb and Evanovich for my escape-reality reading. My all-time favorite romance is, without question, Jane Eyre. My parents sent me to a Christian school for a couple of years which reminded me of Lowood (and I’m not being figurative), so I identified with the young Jane’s tribulations deeply. (Hmm, perhaps the start of my interest in reversing injustice?) That unlikely love story between Jane and Rochester is timeless and gives you hope for a happy-ever-after. A lot of what I write doesn’t have a happy ending, so I always go back to Jane Eyre. I’ve probably re-read it a dozen or more times in my life, and I’m sure there are more re-readings of it to come.

(ML: Aw, shucks. I’m delighted you read A Man of Character, and hosted me for an interview! I’m one spoiled author!)

Here’s the blurb for My Noble Enemy:

nobleenemyEdwin Terrell, Jr., has enjoyed his life as a consultant after leaving the CIA. He lives comfortably, has amassed a decent stock portfolio, and, even though he’s in his sixties, he can look forward to years to come, increasing his net worth. That is, until a diagnosis forces him to face the end of his life sooner rather than later.

He finds himself in The Hague, where his former lover, Mai Fisher, works for the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal. Terrell wants to die on his own terms, and he wants Mai to see to that. The only problem is, years before, Mai’s husband, Alexei Bukharin, had declared her and Terrell’s now-platonic relationship off limits.

Mai, however, will not let her friend die alone, even if it means putting her marriage in jeopardy. Terrell abandons his plans to go to a French hospice and intends to spend his last days with the woman he could never have. Alexei soon realizes the only thing keeping the dying man alive is that Mai won’t let him go. To honor the friendship he and Terrell once had, Alexei has to convince her things need to end, now.

In the midst of a dying relationship, a possible new one gets a start in an unlikely place, and old enemies may or may not resolve their differences.

Wow. Very moving. Pick up your copy now!

And here’s the blurb for The Better Spy, releasing on Kindle July 28th, 2015!

BetterSpyThe defining mission of UN covert operative Mai Fisher’s career came in the mid-1980s when she went undercover in the IRA. It was a mission she barely survived, when a shipment of Semtex she intended to destroy before the IRA would distribute it to various cells exploded too soon. Nine people, including a man she’d come to love, died, and she carried the guilt for the rest of her career. Nearly three decades later, a dying soldier has a secret he wants to tell her, one that will change everything.

Pre-order The Better Spy today!

Want to connect with Phyllis? Find her on Facebook, Twitter, or her Website.

Thank you so much for stopping by, Phyllis. It was joy to have you, and I can’t wait to read my new copy of My Noble Enemy, which is sitting next to me as I type!