U.Va. Staffer's New Spy Novel Captures Post-Cold War Era

May 7, 2012 — From China's alliance with the U.S. during the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mark Saunders' novel, "Ministers of Fire," follows the mid-life career of fictional CIA station chief Lucius Burling and his involvement with the fate of a Chinese dissident.

Saunders will read from his new novel May 18 at 5:30 p.m. at the New Dominion Bookshop on the Downtown Mall. He also will be interviewed on NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday" by the host, Rachel Martin, on May 20.

An assistant director at the University of Virginia Press, Saunders began the novel when he attended the U.Va. English department's Creative Writing Program from 1995 to '97, as a Henry Hoyns Fellow in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He wasn't sure at that time where the story would lead, but the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks "snapped the book into focus," he said, as he knew it was not an isolated incident.

Saunders' novel begins in 1979 with the protagonist, Burling, in Kabul at the start of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, often called "the last proxy battle of the Cold War."

The world as we knew it changed then, Saunders said. Burling, however, still believes in American ideals from his Cold War beginnings and must try to figure out if and how he can adapt quickly enough to changing circumstances.

"The spy novel in 2012 is subject to questions of whether it can adapt to the post-Cold War era. I wanted to capture the geopolitical situation and amplify certain themes to create larger meaning," Saunders said.

The novel shifts to China in 2002 as Burling and other characters play their roles in helping or chasing a Chinese dissident physicist who may or may not be planning to share nuclear secrets if he ever gets out of China. The story includes flashbacks to events from 20 years earlier. Relationships of love, friendship and work are interwoven in unexpected ways over time.

Saunders' experiences as the son of a career foreign service official (his father worked for the CIA and State Department, and worked to get the American hostages out of Iran) served him well in writing the book, in addition to his own travels and research, he said.

Saunders followed a family connection in China, visiting a church his missionary ancestors built, which informed one of the plot lines. Despite the Communist revolution, religions – Eastern and Western – still abound there.

"When I traveled to China, I met people who inspired characters and scenes," he said. His descriptions are rich with sensual detail of sights, sounds and smells.

Saunders said his creative writing professors gave him helpful advice in the beginning stages. Deborah Eisenberg, who was on the Creative Writing faculty, challenged him to hone his literary craft, paying attention to word choices and the flow of sentences, for example.

The Sewanee Review published a Saunders story in 2000 that he incorporated into the novel, and the piece won the literary journal's Andrew Nelson Lytle fiction prize.

While Saunders was in the Creative Writing Program to earn a master's in fine arts degree, author and English professor John Casey was on leave, but more recently, when Casey read a draft of the manuscript, Saunders said he suggested a change in the structure of the novel that made everything fall into place.

"I enjoyed it enormously," Casey wrote for the book jacket. "'Ministers of Fire' belongs on the bookshelf with John Le Carré and Eric Ambler. It is a spy-and-action story, but also a very smart appreciation of the minds and emotions of intelligence agents. There is the shrewdness of their spy craft and also the wear and tear on their psyches."

National Book Award-winning novelist Robert Stone, who came to U.Va. as a Rea Visiting Writer while Saunders was a student, also provided an endorsement for the book, which reads in part: "Beautifully written. … Saunders' novel has psychological depth, action, and suspense."

Publishers Weekly gave the novel a starred review and published an interview with Saunders.

— by Anne Bromley