“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.”
“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.