Hoo’s Spying Now: Law Grad’s Life of Espionage Inspires Her Debut Spy Novel

June 23, 2023 By Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu

It was getting close to graduation in 2003 and Ilana Berry’s University of Virginia Law School classmates were mapping out lucrative lives.

“All my friends were getting wined and dined,” Berry said. But no law partners schmoozed Berry – because she had committed to spying for the CIA.

Soon, she’d be hunkered in a flimsy trailer as mortars pelted the Baghdad “Green Zone” compound day and night. The burning smell she couldn’t quite place during her first harrowing days in Baghdad turned out to be the smolder of Iraqi rocket engines minced on impact.

“It was worse than I thought it would be,” said Berry, who was 28 and single when she agreed to a yearlong intelligence-gathering assignment during the Iraq War. “It was more dangerous than I thought it would be. I don’t know if I would have volunteered had I known just how bad it would be and how few precautions we had when I was over there.

“There were times I would go to bed just hoping I would wake up in the morning.”

Berry’s six years undercover as a CIA operative – including experiences she chronicled in a memoir still too personal and painful to publish – form the frames of her debut spy thriller, “The Peacock and the Sparrow,” written under the name I.S. Berry. But before she could pursue her long-envisioned career as a writer, Berry had to, in spy parlance, “come in from the cold.”

Berry in a helicopter

Berry spent six years undercover, including a harrowing tour in Baghdad gathering intelligence during the Iraq War. (Contributed photo)

“It means you’re done spying,” she said. “It was when I had my cover lifted. And that’s pretty final. It’s like you know you’re not going back.”

But that doesn’t mean the CIA has released its grip on the former agent. Nearly everything she writes – fact or fiction – requires agency approval.

Those restrictions also meant she couldn’t send draft chapters to literary agents or publishers. She had to finish “The Peacock and the Sparrow” and get it cleared by the government before anyone could peek at a page.

“So I sort of wrote this in a vacuum for five-plus years,” she said. “I couldn’t show it to anyone until it was complete – not even my husband.”

That also meant she had no idea if the story was any good.

“It was such a lonely process. It was such a leap of faith,” Berry said. “There were times where I thought this could be the absolute worst book on the planet.”

Fortunately, publisher Simon & Schuster didn’t think so and released “The Peacock and the Sparrow” last month.

The title comes from an Arabian parable. A sparrow becomes anxious when he sees a man laying traps. The peacock tells the sparrow not to worry, but the sparrow takes extra precautions to avoid capture. One day the sparrow witnesses two birds quarreling, drops his guard and swoops in to intervene. The man ensnares all three. Berry’s character, an aging, road-weary spy named Shane Collins, rambles along something akin to the sparrow’s path.

Berry’s own career path was at times as fraught as the sparrow’s. She had already applied to the CIA when terrorists struck New York and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks steeled her resolve.

CIA spy training then was still largely based on Cold War techniques. Go to a cocktail party, make some connections, develop those relationships. But there were no soirees in Baghdad. Berry spent most of her time assessing the stories of Iraqis hoping to trade sketchy information for money.

Signed book by Ilana Berry
At the Keswick art and book show, Berry signs a copy of her book for a fellow UVA Law graduate. (Photo by Mike Mather, UVA Communications)

“Most of it was just worthless,” she said. “We struggled because there were very few sources that were really valuable.”

She did find one source who led her to a suspected terrorist. At the time, “that was such a huge coup, because we just weren’t getting information like that.”

But the suspect never confessed. Even after Berry left the CIA, the man still claimed innocence. Now, many years on, Berry and some of her colleagues wonder if they got the right guy after all. She’s never learned the suspect’s fate.

And that’s the line she walked: Catch a bomber, you save lives. Imprison an innocent man, you ruin lives.

“It was that hard. You still carry that 100%,” she said. “I think if there is one experience that informed my book, that’s it. My protagonist makes decisions that affect the course of the Arab Spring, and they are not necessarily the right ones. But you don’t know. When you’re in the thick of it, you just don’t know. It’s the murk of espionage.”

When Berry decided it was time to “come in from the cold,” she struggled to adjust in the civilian world.

“It was rough,” she said. She developed fears she didn’t have before, “like loud noises, being in crowds, being in traffic jams. I would have panic attacks all the time.

“You feel a little lost. You lose track of days.”

Berry is convinced she suffered at least some level of post-traumatic stress disorder, but at the time the government’s definition was narrow and specific. She wasn’t offered counseling. After a year, “I kind of pulled out of it.”

She married a government employee and had a son. Together the family moved to Bahrain for her husband’s job working with the U.S. Fifth Fleet. At the same time, Bahrain, like many of its neighbors, faced a citizen uprising that came to be known as the Arab Spring.

Berry discussing her book while on tour

Berry is embarking on a summer promotional tour for “The Peacock and the Sparrow.” The tour includes a July stop at the International Spy Museum in Washington. (Photo by Mike Mather, University Communications)

“I remember I would take (my son) sightseeing and a riot would erupt,” Berry said. “The government would use tear gas and we would have to run.”

Arab Spring struck her as the story setting she needed.

“I’d always wanted to be a writer. I just hadn’t found the right story,” she said. “I’d been a spy, I’d been a lawyer, I had my son, and I’m like, now is the time. I’m not getting younger; it’s not going to get any easier. So I just took the leap.”

Although “The Peacock and the Sparrow” attracted a top-shelf publisher, the journey for debut novelists still requires hustle. Berry herself purchased a few boxes of the books to bring to fairs where she chats up prospective readers and sells signed copies.

UVA Today caught up with the former spy at last week’s Merrie Mill Farm & Vineyard’s art show and book festival in Keswick. Her pop-up canopy was in a row of writers selling children’s books, across from an artist who sketched livestock in charcoal, and a few booths down from a glassblower offering live demonstrations. By lunchtime she had sold a few copies, but “business did pick up later in the afternoon,” she reported.

Her publisher told her the event wouldn’t be a bonanza of book sales, but part of its draw was the opportunity to return to where she got her law degree.

“It was wonderful just to be back in Charlottesville for the weekend,” she said.

Although she only briefly practiced law, she credits her UVA education with keeping her ethical and accountable in a profession where right and wrong is sometimes not so clear.

The Lab Our Nation Turns To For Saving Lives On The Road, to be great and good in all we do
The Lab Our Nation Turns To For Saving Lives On The Road, to be great and good in all we do

“I feel like law school made me an honest professional in a world where it is easy to ignore the rules,” she said. “You’re in the world of intelligence, where everything’s in the shadows and everything is secret. … It was easy for people to cut corners and break rules. I think it kept me on the moral high ground.”

This summer, she’ll embark on a promotional tour that includes a July 8 book signing at the International Spy Museum in Washington. She doesn’t expect people to line up for an autographed copy, not yet at least. In the meantime, she’ll make connections with one person at a time, one transaction at a time.

Just like when she was a spy.

Media Contact

Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications