Tea Tonic and Toxin: Mystery and Thriller Podcast and Book Club

Phantom Orbit by David Ignatius

PHANTOM ORBIT by DAVID IGNATIUS - Tea, Tonic & Toxin Podcast and Book Club
Phantom Orbit by David Ignatius - Interview with Tea, Tonic & Toxin
Tea, Tonic, and Toxin
Phantom Orbit by David Ignatius

Phantom Orbit by David Ignatius

David Ignatius is known for his uncanny ability, in novel after novel, to predict the next great national security headline. He does it again in his newest thriller, Phantom Orbit.

In Phantom Orbit, David Ignatius presents a story both searing and topical, with stakes as far-reaching as outer space. It follows Ivan Volkov, a Russian student in Beijing, who discovers an unsolved puzzle in the writings of the seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler. He takes the puzzle to a senior scientist in the Chinese space program and declares his intention to solve it. Volkov returns to Moscow and continues his secret work. The puzzle holds untold consequences for space warfare.

The years pass, and they are not kind to Volkov. After the loss of his son, a prosecutor who’d been too tough on corruption, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Volkov makes the fraught decision to contact the CIA. He writes: Satellites are your enemies, especially your own. … Hidden codes can make time stop and turn north into south. … If you are smart, you will find me.

With this timely novel, David Ignatius addresses our moment of renewed interest in space exploration amid geopolitical tumult. Phantom Orbit brims with the author’s vital insights and casts Volkov as the man who, at the risk of his life, may be able to stop the Doomsday clock.

For more information, visit www.davidignatius.com

Twitter: https://x.com/IgnatiusPost

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/davidignatiusbooks

TRANSCRIPT: Phantom Orbit, a New Thriller by David Ignatius

Sarah Harrison  00:24
Welcome to Tea Tonic & Toxin, a book club and podcast for anyone who wants to explore the best mysteries and thrillers ever written. I’m your host, Sarah Harrison.

Carolyn Daughters  00:35
And I’m your host Carolyn Daughters. Pour yourself a cup of tea, a gin and tonic …

Sarah Harrison  00:40
… but not a toxin … 

Carolyn Daughters  00:42
And join us on a journey through 19th and 20th century mysteries and thrillers, every one of them a game changer. 

Carolyn Daughters  00:47
Sarah, we have a great episode today. Before we get too deep, I’d love to introduce today’s sponsor. Our sponsor is Grace Sigma, a boutique process engineering consultancy run by our own Sarah Harrison. Grace Sigma works nationally in such industries as finance, telecom and government. Grace Sigma uses lean methods to assist in data dashboarding, storytelling training, process visualization, and project management. Whether you’re a small business looking to scale or a large company whose processes have become tangled Grace Sigma can help. You can learn more at gracesigma.com.

Sarah Harrison  01:37
I am very excited about our guest today. I think we could talk to him for two days, Carolyn, but we have to keep it to like 60 minutes.

Carolyn Daughters  01:46
If we want him to participate, it will have to be 60 minutes and not two days.

Sarah Harrison  01:53
All right. I am happy today to introduce David Ignatius. He is known for his uncanny ability in novel after novel to predict the next great national security headline. In Phantom Orbit, which was released on May 7, he presents a story both searing and topical, with stakes as far reaching as outer space. It follows Ivan Volkov, a Russian student in Beijing who discovers an unsolved puzzle in the writings of the 17th century astronomer, Johann Kepler. He takes the puzzle to a senior scientist in the Chinese space program and declares his intention to solve it. Volkov returns to Moscow and continues his secret work. The puzzle holds untold consequences for space warfare.

The years pass, and they are not kind to Volkov after the loss of his son, a prosecutor who had been too tough on corruption, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Volkov makes the fraught decision to contact the CIA. He writes, “Satellites so your enemies, especially your own. Hidden codes can make time stop and turn north into south. If you’re smart, you will find me.” With this timely novel. David Ignatius addresses our moment of renewed interest in space exploration amid geopolitical tumult. Phantom Orbit brims with the author’s vital insights and casts Volkov is the man who at the risk of his life may be able to stop the doomsday clock. Publishers Weekly calls it “Engrossing. This contemporary cloak and dagger intrigue at its finest.” Kirkus Reviews says “it’s a space yarn filled with tension and excitement.” David Ignatius is a prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post and has been covering the Middle East in the CIA for nearly four decades. He has written several New York Times bestsellers. He lives in Washington, DC. Welcome, David. Well, so excited to have you.

David Ignatius  03:53
Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Carolyn Daughters  03:55
We were hoping we could start off by having you read a little bit of the prologue.

David Ignatius  04:00
Yes. I’d love to do that. Thank you for the wonderful introduction. It’s the first time I’ve actually read from Phantom Orbit since it was published.

Sarah Harrison  04:11
Which was just a few days ago.

David Ignatius  04:13
But this is the prologue that is in real time. It opens Phantom Orbit. And then, as we’ll discuss, the book, steps back in time. But I’ll begin the book as the reader does. Ivan Volkov studied the message on his computer screen in the powdery last light that Moscow afternoon. It was an invitation to commit suicide wrapped in vanilla icing. “People from nearly every country share information with the Central Intelligence Agency, and new individuals contact us daily. If you have information that might help our foreign intelligence collection mission, there are many ways to reach us.” Volkov had read those words a half dozen times over the past week on his many different computers. His head was on fire. He was tall, handsome once, an angular, weathered face from the steps. He loved his country, but even more, he despised whether it become.

Now in the library of the Lebodov Physical Institute on a virtual private network that Vladimir Vladimirovich himself could not break. He prepared to compose his text. He read the instructions once more, “If you feel it is safe, think about including these details in your message: your full name, biographic details, how to contact you.” These Americans were spoiled, really. They didn’t know pain. They were Adam fallen. But they still ruled the ordered world even more now. After Russia invaded Ukraine, it was humiliated, hobbled, scorned by the decent world, but it still had its secrets. And it sought to eliminate anyone who might imagine sharing them. The Czechists had created an organization to kill betrayers that endured, now under a different name. It was the thing that Russia was still truly good at. Volkov typed, “I am anonymous. I live on a street with no entrance or exit. Here is my information. You are blind to the danger from above. Satellites are your enemies, especially your own. You have 16 ground monitors and 11 antennas to run your global navigation system. Do you trust it? That is only the beginning. Hidden codes can seem to make time stop and turn north into south. They will freeze your world and everything in it. Warning messages may be tricks. Beware.” Volkov paused. No one should sign his own death warrant. But then he thought, this is not a choice after what they did to Bucha and Mariupol and to my own son. These are monsters who’ve allied with monsters. Truly, they will turn the world upside down if they’re not stopped. He read the instructions one last time. “The CIA cannot guarantee a response to every message. We reply first messages are of most interest to us and to those with more detail. If we respond to your message, we will do so using a secure method. We go to great lengths to keep these channels secure. But any communication sent using the internet involves some risk. You can reduce the risk by using the Tor browser, a virtual private network, and/or a device not registered to you.” Volkov shook his head. He took off his reading glasses. On his lips was the trace of a rueful smile. These Americans thought they’d repeal the laws of gravity. They were the winners. They were so strong that they’d become weak. They didn’t see what was in front of their eyes. Volkov turned back to the keyboard and typed, “A war has already begun in space. You think you understand, but you do not. The worst has already happened. Only a few people know what I know. If you’re smart, you will find me. Then he pushed the button marked “send.” Volkov closed his eyes. He was falling, but he was motionless. His body was heavy as lead and light is there. It was not enough when he done. But it was the beginning.

Carolyn Daughters  08:56
Thank you. Phantom Orbit is your 12th book. And I’m interested to know how you made the decision to start with this prologue in present day. And then you’re going to go back into the 1990s. And you’re going to move through time. This is a very gripping prologue. You had me from the first page. I had trouble putting Phantom Orbit down, frankly. Tell me how you made these decisions about where you start the book and how you progress through time.

David Ignatius  09:34
So Carolyn, that question of how to structure narrative is obviously the most challenging one for writer. It takes a while. I wanted to tell a story that had a long arc. The more I thought about it, I wanted it to begin in this horrific present of the Ukraine war. But I wanted to move back into times so we see the roots of the characters, their motivation. And see the roots of satellite warfare. It’s a thriller. You need to engage people with beginning. So I want to open with this prologue in real time, with Volkov sending a message as emphatically as he can, hoping that people will respond. And they don’t. If we continued in the prologue, we would realize that there’s no answer.

And that’s one of the mysteries that persists in different ways in Phantom Orbit. Why aren’t people responding to Volkov? What’s going on? But it opens it opens with that. A simple answer is, if you’re writing books like this, you want to grab people and shake them right in the beginning and say, Oh, what the heck’s going on here? And then hopefully they’re hooked. And then they’ll stay with you. Because this is a book that’s character driven as much as plot, and you need a reason to care about the Volkov. When he was a young man, it’s a very different place. It’s so different from the way the book opened. So I thought, if I can really send a jolt of electricity in the, in the very beginning, maybe I can keep readers with me.

Carolyn Daughters  11:20
And he does feel very different in present day than 30 years earlier when we first meet him in the 1990s. You can see this evolution of character. And really, I would argue the three main characters in Phantom Orbit, Edith Ryan, Volkov, and Cao Lin. And you see this progression of who they who they were and who they become. So there’s additional challenges as a writer for telling a story that spans decades. Can you talk a little bit about the origin of these three characters?

David Ignatius  12:02
I will. I just want to say a note, because this is a conversation about writing for people who enjoy mysteries. One thing that I think I’ve learned as a writer is that readers will accept different slices of time, often quite widely separated. And sometimes in unusual order. We started in the immediate present, and then it’s 1995. They’ll accept those slices if each slice has its own integrity, and if they trust the narrator’s voice. If the narrator knows where the story’s going. You don’t. There is something in a book that I think is readable and that the reader follows. It involves this act of trust and submission to the narrator’s voice. So the three characters who drive Phantom Orbit are Ivan Volkov, the Russian who we meet in the in the prologue, who is, as you suggest, a man who over the arc of this book becomes more and more alienated from his country, his time. He’s a wounded man. He symbolizes the way in which his generation of Russians was really crushed by the collapse of Soviet Russia. And the money-focused corrupt authoritarian, the broken Russia that we that we see now.

Phantom Orbit in part is an attempt to tell that story. I say in the acknowledgments, that there’s a way in which this book is a love letter to the Russia that once was and may be again. To me, Volkov captures every aspect of that. The principal Chinese character who we meet right at the beginning after this prologue is Professor Cao Lin. He is nominally a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but he is actually a much more complex figure with intelligence connections. He draws Volkov into plans that we only gradually begin to understand the complexity of what he’s what he’s up to. Suffice it to say that what I wanted to explain to readers was China’s now our principal adversary in space, the Chinese have been incredibly inventive. But in 1995, when this book opens, they had nothing. They had one little satellite, a piece of junk goes orbiting the Earth playing “The East Is Red.” And that was pretty much all I could do. But they were smart enough to understand that satellites would be dominant, that satellites would be crucial in warfare, crucial to every aspect of commerce. So right from the beginning, the Chinese in the person of Cao Lin, were thinking, “how can we get inside the American supply chain? How can we penetrate their systems? How can we make the little things that will go into the big system?” So that’s how we opened with Cao Lin. The third character in some ways was the most interesting for me to write. An American woman named Edith Ryan, who comes to Beijing. She’s a graduate student with Ivan Volkov. The two of them immediately are attracted to each other and form romantic friendship. She has come to Beijing on her way to being a CIA officer, we realize. She’s in a pre-case officer mode. And without going into a lot of detail, right in the beginning, she is burdened by a sense that she has let her emotional life and her professional life become improperly, wrongly intertwined. And she carries that burden with her through Phantom Orbit. It leads to all kinds of complications. So each of these characters through the book, and you’re right, they all they all change, they all evolve, I hope, for the reader. But each of them is carrying a particular emotional burden. And each of them is on a journey. In the prologue, there’s a epigram/quotation. I just want to read it, because it explains, I think, what each of these characters is struggling with through the book. it’s from Dostoevsky, from his Writer’s Diary. “Neither a person nor a nation can endure without some higher idea.” And that, in a way, is what defines each character. Each of them is in some way alienated from that higher idea for a time and then finds it. And that’s where the books going.

Carolyn Daughters  17:22
Ultimately, they’re all striving to attain that higher idea or to make progress toward it.

David Ignatius  17:29
Or even just to understand it, to have clarity about what’s going on around them. So again, I don’t mean to make this like a Dostoevsky “wannabe” novel. It’s a thriller, and they’re caught in something that’s very complicated. They’re trying to figure out what the heck is going on. So we take people on that journey. But since you asked about the characters, I wanted to give your listeners a little sense of how I, as an author, thought about putting them together, cutting my slices of time, and then assembling.

Sarah Harrison  18:09
Oh, that’s terrific. I wanted to ask you about another long story arc with another gripping beginning, and that was your writing career and your publicist’s email. When she sent an email to us about speaking with you, it was, here’s David Ignatius, you can ask him anything about Israel, Russia, Ukraine, the CIA, basically every hot button topic out there. And I was like, “anything?” So you’ve been doing this for 40 years. I want to go back and ask you, how did you get started in journalism? How did that move into the foreign affairs segment? And what was the transition into writing novels?

David Ignatius  19:02
I’ll explain how I got into journalism, which led to my writing novels like Phantom Orbit. It was an unlikely path. And then how that led me into fiction. I had am almost impossibly wonderful education. I was an undergraduate at Harvard. I studied social science. I got a fellowship study at Cambridge. I studied economics at Cambridge. My dream was actually to be an economist, but I wasn’t very good at it. I came back. The only thing I was any good at was journalism. I’d already done some writing for The Washington Post even when I was in England. So I applied for journalism jobs and initially was turned down by everybody better. Finally, The Wall Street Journal offered me a job in Pittsburgh, covering the United Steel Workers Union, the biggest industry in America country at that time. Now, if there was a more unlikely person on the planet to cover this big industrial union than yours truly coming out of Harvard and Cambridge, I’d like to find that person. But I loved it. And I was good at it. I found a way to get out of my skin and talk to people who were very different from me and get them to tell me things that move the financial markets. I remember, in Pittsburgh I kept meeting people on stories from the local papers. And one of them said to me, he was really mad at me, and he said, “You used to work for American Metal Market, didn’t you?” I was like, what is it trade paper?

I fell in love with journalism in that first job. I met my wife, Eve, who was a computer scientist who was working for one of the first computer companies. So it was a decisive moment in my life. And then a few years later, The Wall Street Journal asked me to go to the Middle East and cover the Middle East. And I wandered into what’s still probably the highest impact story I ever wrote about how the CIA had recruited Yasser Arafat’s chief of intelligence as an American asset and then run him for 10 years until he was assassinated by Israel, which regarded him, quite rightly, as a terrorist. And so I wrote that story on the front page of the Journal. It rocked the Middle East as a big secret. And then, a couple months later, the case officer, the CIA officer who had run that case, came to Beirut and happened to be in the American Embassy on the day that a car bomb exploded in front of the embassy, ripped the building apart and killed every member of the CIA station and this visitor who run run their operation. I had been in the embassy about a half-hour before the bomb went off, going back to my hotel room. I ran down the hill, saw the wreckage of the embassy. In the aftermath, the Arabs who had been working with CIA on this operation, just looking for somebody to talk to, some way to grieve. Because I had been reporting the story for two years, I had knocked on every door in town. Some of them sought me out and began to tell me things that journalists don’t hear. These insights inform my books, including Phantom Orbit.

So I thought, well, what can you do with this? It was all still pretty alive. It was a pretty hot time in the Middle East back then. So I thought, well, the thing to do is to write a novel. It took me a while. Every publisher in America turned me down initially. But Norton, still my publisher, finally bought it. And the book came out in 1987, called Agents of Innocence. And everybody flipped out when it came out, because it was all true story and was it still pretty sensitive stuff. But then everybody really liked it. The PLO liked it because it showed how they cooperated with the U.S. The Israelis liked it because it showed they were serious about going after this guy. The CIA ended up liking it because it showed just how good a good case officer an operation could be. So the CIA ended up handing it out to people and training for a generation. I mean, I’m not kidding. I’ve met dozens and dozens of people who say to me, Well, when I was at The Farm, they gave me your book to read. It’s not because it was a great novel, it’s because it was all true. So that’s how I got started on the two parts of my life. I got started in journalism because I just loved this act of, as I said, getting out of my skin, talking to people. And then I was an accidental novelist. I found this story so compelling, so overwhelming, that there was no other way to tell it really than fiction.

Sarah Harrison  24:21
That reminds me of the intro that we read at the beginning where it says you have an uncanny ability to predict the next great security headline, and I was wondering, in this novel, in Phantom Orbit, where did the factual end and the fictional prediction begin?

David Ignatius  24:44
Before I start work in earnest on any book, recently, I’ve tried to think, okay, what are people really going to be interested in two years from now — when I finish the book, when it’s finally out. My last few books have been about the technical side of intelligence because I think that’s the truth, where it where it is now, the days of George Smiley and the traditional spy plot are overwhelmed by other things. So I wrote a book about cybersecurity hacking, which came out at the time of the Edward Snowden affair. I wrote a book about quantum computing and the race between China and the United States to master this technology, which is a huge, real-life spy dilemma.

My previous novel before Phantom Orbit was called The Paladin, and it was about AI and deep fakes. the ability to use generative AI systems to create fake realities and how that was the bedeviling intelligence. And so I was thinking, what’s the next thing that’s coming? And it seemed pretty obvious, the more I thought about it. I must say, everything I do in my fiction is informed by my reporting. I was writing columns about the creation of Space Force, I was getting to know the general who runs the Space Force, I was meeting people throughout this world. I thought, Man, this is where the world of intelligence and warfare are going. And it turned out that that was right. I mean, Ukraine is the first space war. People don’t realize that. I’d be happy to explain what I mean by that. But it turned out to be another lucky guess. And I think it is pretty timely now. It has turned out after the revelations by Congressman Mike Turner that there is this terrible Russian threat in outer space that people are taking much more seriously.

Carolyn Daughters  26:52
Can you talk about Ukraine being the first space war, as you say in Phantom Orbit? What do you mean by that?

David Ignatius  26:58
I’ve been to Ukraine four times since the war began. And on each trip, it’s become more obvious to me that Ukraine depends absolutely to survive in this war on space technology that’s supplied by the United States, and more by United States commercial companies that are operating in space. Most particularly, Elon Musk’s Starlink. Starlink, has 5,000 satellites spinning the globe in low-earth orbit, providing broadband internet coverage for just about everywhere on Earth. And they’re providing that broadband coverage for Ukraine. And without the Starlink connections, Ukrainian commanders on the front lines simply couldn’t connect with headquarters. So they depend on satellites in that way. As I got into Phantom Orbit, I began writing stories about other aspects of technology that people were not aware of, I don’t think, until I wrote about them. In December, I wrote a story that just described what it was like for me in Kiev looking with a Ukrainian military officer at a computer screen in which he could dial in coverage from commercial satellites overhead of a particular area in Ukraine. In this case, it was the Kherson area. So we can see how many orbits will there be of Maxar electro-optical satellites that can take images,  spy photographs from space, the kind that only used to be available to intelligence agencies. There are half a dozen other companies that provide that imagery. So if you’re buying three satellite feeds, but you’re about to do so important in Kherson, you can quickly buy two other feeds or three other feeds. You can also buy satellites that do thermal imaging. So you can see through clouds, you’ll see explosions, you can identify was that explosion  an artillery piece, was a rocket, you get the signatures. You can buy synthetic aperture radar, which sees three-dimensional imaging. again through clouds. These things used to be crown jewels for intelligence services, but anybody can buy them now. There are second satellites that capture electronic voice transmissions.

So I watched and describe for readers how all these satellite assets were keeping Ukrainians alive against this much larger Russian army. The Russians began to say around that time, “we know what you’re doing to us. And these commercial companies are legitimate targets for us.” They haven’t done anything about them, but this recent flap that began with Congressman Mike Turner saying that there was an enormously important national security threat from Russia, and he was demanding a briefing. What was that threat? The Russians knowing they don’t have an answer to Elon Musk’s 5,000 satellites, let alone Amazon is about to launch 2,000 low-earth orbit satellites and lots of other companies are doing the same thing. And the Russians and Chinese don’t have anything remotely like this. So the Russians decided, well, what can we do about it? We can exploit a nuclear weapon in low-earth orbit and just blow all these satellites out of the sky, creating a debris field that would last for a generation. It would make low-earth orbit a no-go zone for everybody. It’s a pretty horrifying threat. It’s demonic. But it illustrates they have no alternative. And so that’s a long-winded way of trying to explain to you why I think Ukraine is the first space war. So far, it’s been very much an advantage for them as our friend. But it’s opened the door to a world that I think is much more dangerous than people have realized. You’ll see in the novel, I played this out pretty carefully in real time, as people think about what to do in this cat and mouse game with satellites over Ukraine.

Carolyn Daughters  31:27
I hadn’t thought until I read Phantom Orbit, really, about how essential GPS is to navigation, to business, to really a lot of aspects of our lives. And I also had not thought about satellite vulnerabilities. My question isn’t so much about that, though. I learned a lot in reading this book and started thinking a lot about various things I hadn’t thought about before. But have you written fiction, you’ve got 12 books now, where you put something into print, and then somebody came back and said, “This is hitting a little too close to home.” Because your knowledge base plus prescience and you’re looking a couple of years ahead, and somebody picked up your book and said “this is ringing a little bit too true.” Has that ever happened?

David Ignatius  32:18
Yes, actually. I wrote a book called The Increment in the late 2000s, about an Iranian side, it’s a little bit like the structure of this book, who is in their nuclear program. He decides he wants to share information with the United States. And the CIA has a term for these people who contact the agency. They’re called virtual walk-ins. Once upon a time, people would walk into an embassy and say I wanted to defect or I want to share information. That’s too dangerous now. So the CIA on its website, I was reading the quote at the outset, those are literally verbatim quotations from what’s on the CIA website. I didn’t make them up. So, in this earlier novel, the Iranian contacts the CIA with a very particular piece of information about the nuclear program. The CIA devises an extraordinary way to use his information to cripple part of the Iranian nuclear program. So I was just guessing. I knew what the problem was. The problem was the Iranian nuclear program. I made a guess about what a virtual walk-in defector might tell the United States that would be valuable. I thought that the most interesting puzzle here is the neutron trigger that brings fissionable material together in a bomb. It’s a complicated piece of technology. I thought that would be interesting, somebody might share that. And then I thought about the electronic means to interfere with the nuclear program.

Anyway, there’s a long way of saying that. This novel came out before STUXnet was disclosed, and it turned out that our government had been doing more or less what I talked about and that their worries were prompted by precisely the MacGuffin, I think, the neutron trigger. And people came up to me, I remember the foreign minister of a foreign country came up to me and asked, “How are you cleared for this? How do you know?” And I said, I didn’t know because I was guessing. And so, these were informed guesses. The problem sets for intelligence agencies are pretty obvious. And I have been writing about these subjects broadly for a long time, so my guess is maybe a bit better than most people’s but not all. I think anybody who’s thoughtful and thinks about problems of space warfare, problems of deep fakes and how to detect them and how to manipulate them, all these subjects I’ve written about. And I wrote about it in Phantom Orbit. Oddly enough, the technology that really is at the center of the intelligence business now, I don’t think people have gotten their minds around it adequately as they should.

Sarah Harrison  35:40
It also sounds like foreign ministers read your books. Are you pretty popular in the intelligence community?

David Ignatius  35:49
I don’t know if I have many other readers, but I am read in that world. As you both know, I mean, there are different kinds of thrillers. If I could write one that had a James Bond, rock ’em sock ’em, martini drinking guy with an automatic weapon I would. But I write the books that interest me. They do seem to have a readership in this intelligence world. I’d love for Phantom Orbit to have as wide a readership as possible, I think the characters will grab people. My fiction writing is driven by my journalism and the things that I’ve learned about as a journalist, but really want to unpack. I want to think about them, I want to let them be as complicated as they are in real life. And that’s what fuels my, my fiction.

Sarah Harrison  36:49
Speaking of your characters and the timeline, you have these really nice quotes between different passages. One that popped out to me was one by Alexei Navalny, who was recently killed, I believe in February 2024. Two things: Had you already included that quote, by Navalny, it wasn’t an after the fact? And the character of Dmitry, was he meant to be an Navalny-type character?

David Ignatius  37:24
I’ve been fascinated by Alexei Navalny. I love watching his videos. There’s a way in which his wry, sardonic, Russian sense of humor conveyed in those videos. The scorn with which he would describe Putin’s palaces and his mistresses and his bank accounts stolen from this or that. Sometimes you just laugh out loud. I had enormous respect for him. I never met Navalny, but I thought he was just a remarkable person. And his character very much infuses my character Dmitry, the son of Ivan Volkov, who’s a courageous fighter against corruption in a country that doesn’t have too many people like that. And so I had chosen the Navalny quote, and, in truth, the acknowledgments in Phantom Orbit speak of Navalny and my debt to him and his writing and his courage. They speak of him in the present tense, and they express the hope that he may someday be free. And he died at a time when the book had already been printed, and I went to my publisher and asked, should we stop the presses? And they said, No, next edition.

But he was an extraordinary person. I think he is the stuff of fiction, somebody should write a great biography, certainly, but a novel, too, that captures him. I was in Munich on the morning that he died. I was literally on live television when the little thing in my ear from MSNBC said, “David, hold on, hold on, we’re getting something. It’s unconfirmed. We’re getting a report that Alexei Navalny is dead. ” Twenty seconds later, “It’s confirmed. David, go ahead.” Talk about Navalny. So for 10 minutes, I was talking on live television. And then I went downstairs from where I’d been doing his broadcasting, and there was Navalny’s wife, now widow, who addressed the convention that I was attending. She had just learned of her husband’s death. It was an extraordinary moment. Alexei Navalny. What a great man.

Carolyn Daughters  40:10
Let’s talk a little bit about Edith Ryan. Her character is really interesting. In Phantom Orbit, when we meet her in the mid-90s, she is young. She’s not quite a case officer yet. She’s a spotter or pre-CIA or something like this. She is tracking Volkov and also trying to make introductions between Volkov and her handlers. She, at times feels like and probably does cross a couple lines, personal and professional. So she’s navigating that as a young person who’s new to the CIA and trying to figure out how her role will work or how she will work at the CIA. Later, we see instances of sexual harassment or discrimination against her. So we’re seeing a complex story of, really, I mean, from one level, it seems extremely difficult to have a job at the CIA. All other things aside. But her story seemed like an important one to you, the evolution of her story and the experiences she had. Can you talk a little bit about Edith Ryan and the idea behind that character?

David Ignatius  41:42
It was challenging for a man to try to write about women in a way that is accurate and sensitive to their experience. So she carries, as I said, at the outset, this burden of shame having felt that she did something wrong. Others then use that against her, and then somebody uses it against her in a quite monstrous way. And she puts up with it. And so trying to get that, understand why, how that could happen, what that would feel like. And then what the rebellion against that would be. And then how she would in her way try, I don’t want to go into all the details. But it’s one of my favorite parts of Phantom Orbit. There’s a scene where she’s with a nattily dressed, smart aleck CIA lawyer, and she just smokes him. And I love that. I have to say, most things in my fiction are based on real background. The problem of sexual harassment in the CIA has been chronic as long as I’ve been covering it, and that’s more than 40 years. I have heard stories. Obviously, the CIA is super aggressive, macho. These people out there risking their lives. It doesn’t have to be a James Bond story for it to be the kind of environment in which really, really nasty things could happen. And they have happened.

Carolyn Daughters  43:34
And perhaps a little too much free rein.

David Ignatius  43:38
For a long time, I think this was a boys club. And women had roles. They were often reports officers, so called, they were junior case officers. Occasionally they’d be allowed to be spotters. CIA operatives have three phases. Spotting — who here knows something that might be vulnerable? And it’s often thought that women were good at that. Well, women have great intuition and see men who might be potential targets, and then development, and then you get to know the person. What are they really know? You begin to reel them in and then pitch them and then there’s recruitment. It was thought that women might be good at A going at B but never good at C. And that’s changed.

I mean, we had a woman CIA director, Gina Haspel, tough as they come. The head of operations until recently was a woman who was helpful to me in thinking about aspects of Phantom Orbit. She has served in stations all over the world. So the CIA in in many ways, is learning to use the diversity of its workforce much more creatively. There are places that CIA officers of color can go that other officers couldn’t. And finally, they’ve gotten smart enough to see that and really and use it cleverly. But Edith Ryan — I’m glad that you didn’t think that she was a false character, not a believable character. There’s a way in which for me, she drives Phantom Orbit. And I hope readers will find her of interest. I think men like to read spy novels more than women do. I hope in this case, Edith Ryan will pull some women readers in.

Sarah Harrison  45:49
Well, I feel like there were levels that I identified with Edith on. I have a bachelor’s in physics and astronomy. I’m also a space geek myself, and I have navigated that world. In physics, women still make up 20-25% or less of the workforce. Well, and then I went into coal. So in coal, I might be the only woman in a room, the only woman in a company who’s not answering the phone. And so I really identified a lot with how she tried to navigate that world. And the aspect she brought into it, I thought, he’s talked to some people. He knows about after this encounter, you’ll go in the bathroom, and like cry for a little while, or something like that. But one of the things you interjected in there, that I really liked, was her relationship with Robert Gallant. Where after she’s been through all she’s been through, she reaches a point that I think many women probably generally, but maybe, especially in STEM fields, reach. Which is, you have a bad interaction with someone, and you ask yourself, is this because I’m a woman? Or do they just not like me as a person?

Carolyn Daughters  47:12
Are they just a terrible person?

Sarah Harrison  47:14
Am I doing something wrong? Do they suck? Talk about how you incorporated this gray area in this bit of confusion into our storyline.

David Ignatius  47:28
There is a man in Phantom Orbit who treats her with a particular kind of contempt that I think any woman would say, “That sexist bastard.” I mean, she really thinks he just an arrogant guy who’s dismissive of her because she’s a woman, because he’s at the National Reconnaissance Office, which is even more secret than the CIA. It turns out, and we won’t go into the details, but it turns out that Gallant is a lot more complicated than she realizes. And indeed, the whole story that she is struggling to understand is a lot more complicated than she realizes. But her reaction to him is entirely understandable. I mean, I think in real life that can happen. Women, I bet, sometimes say, “I know what’s going on here.” And that may be true in part, but it’s a story of male manipulation and dominance. But sometimes, there may be a dimension that they’re not seeing and not understanding. But that’s certainly true here.

Carolyn Daughters  48:46
At the beginning of the story, it’s, I believe, a young woman who sees Volkov’s message, and she’s the one where it keeps her up at night a little bit, and she’s the one who pushes to have somebody higher up review it. And it’s easy to write her off by her superiors for one reason or another. They say, well, she’s too young. She’s too inexperienced. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But so too, if you go the other direction, Edith is writing Gallant off and saying, “This is who this man is.” There’s no “there” there. There’s no substance. He’s vindictive, or he’s all of these different things. In both instances, there’s more complexity to the human beings than simply this this black and white story.

David Ignatius  49:38
I think the intelligence world is especially interesting in terms of these gender issues, understanding across gender boundaries. I’ll give you real-life story that your listeners may know. But it’s really appalling. The New York Times has reported that there was an analyst, and I believe it’s the Israeli Signals Intelligence Agency, Unit 8200 in the IDF, who saw in their intelligence collection that Hamas was planning the monstrous operation that they actually launched on October 7. And pretty much every detail of what they were going to do — the weapons that we’re going to use, their plan to attack the kibbutzes along the border, the military bases — she basically saw it. And a male superior, as the story has been written by The New York Times — I have not confirmed this, but I believe the reporters had good sources — her male superior said , “No, it’s not true. Hamas has embarked on a different course. They’re now making money. And they ignored it. So you think about just the nightmarish consequences for Israel, for the Palestinians who were drawn into this war by Hamas. And this woman saw it, and nobody would listen to her. And when the war is over, and there’s a chance to go back and look at the story of what was missed, this is going to be I think, the most shocking part. And Phantom Orbit does have this interesting dimension, as I understand it, of a powerful man not listening to a less powerful woman.

Sarah Harrison  51:58
That’s really interesting. And it brings me to a question I had around Edith’s motivation and potentially this woman, too. When I’ve encountered situations, and I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall here, I’ll often pivot. I’ll do something tangential. I don’t appreciate the way it’s impacting my career, but I try and just flow with a path to less resistance. That’s not Edith’s move. She keeps trying. She wants to be in the CIA. Why does she want to be in the CIA so bad?

David Ignatius  52:37
She’s a tough woman. She just has that life force. First of all, she’s embarrassed to the point of feeling almost humiliated by the mistakes she made. And she wants to make that right, as a person would. And then as she moves through her story, and she becomes a victim in a way, I’ll leave readers to discover, when she finally can address it emotionally, it creates a deep anger, but also a determination. The interesting thing about her to me is that there’s that trite phrase, “don’t get mad, get even.” She wants she wants to get even. She wants to be a good intelligence officer. She wants to make a difference in the agency. She wants what happened to her never to happen to another woman. And how can she do that? She wants to use her gifts. She gets becomes more and more interested in science and technology and wants to use those gifts in a part of the agency that traditionally has been ignored, that just hasn’t had enough brainpower. I think that she’s a tough cookie. She’s from a town that my mother was born in. So she’s got good roots.

Carolyn Daughters  54:16
The easiest thing would be for her to not speak up at all. And then when she does speak up, she has an option. She can take door A or door B. The next easiest thing to do is to take door A. Throughout she shows exceptional courage in the choices she makes. In reading it, I asked myself several times, what would I have done in her position? So we’re talking female readers as well. We have two female readers, Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters, who are 100% on board with Phantom Orbit and enjoyed it. I myself started my career working at the Pentagon. And I was a 22-year-old blonde. And I had a friend who was a 24-year-old blonde, people assumed we were the same person. They actually interchanged our names. It didn’t occur to anybody that there could be two of us. It was a very male-dominated space. And Edith, throughout her career, she makes mistakes, she screws up at times. But she doesn’t run, and she often takes the high road. And I marveled at it at times and thought, I would hope, if in a similar situation, I would have the courage to do what she does. I don’t know that I would, but I would hope that I would.

David Ignatius  55:56
Well, that’s a nice thing to say about the character. I should say two things. My wife is a computer scientist, as I mentioned. She has a doctorate in computer science. We’ve been married now 44 years. And she does defense research. I won’t say more than that. As an editor, I managed a lot of war correspondents. I was foreign editor of The Post, I ran that part of our coverage. I was editor of The International Herald Tribune. So I would say without qualification, that the best war correspondents I have managed as an editor were women. Why? They’re courageous. But most people that cover conflicts are courageous. I think it’s that women, this may sound like funny way to put it, but women aren’t drama queens. Women in these difficult situations, get it done. It’s not a larger-than-life theater. It’s a job. And they just don’t have time to dramatize it. So, I can give you the specifics.

Anybody who reads the newspapers knows. Look right now who’s covering the war in Ukraine for The Washington Post, The New York Times, take a look. And you’ll see a lot of women. These are dangerous jobs. I mean, warfare has gotten so lethal. Readers don’t realize what our correspondents do to get to the front in Ukraine and how dangerous it is. It’s just these women because they’re not because they’re not self-promoted, they’re not drama queens, they don’t talk about it because it would be unprofessional to tell people what’s involved. So they don’t. But I’m glad you asked about this. And I’m being completely honest, the best in our business in this very difficult area are women.

Sarah Harrison  58:33
That’s really interesting. I know. Like I said, we could talk for two days, we’re running up on time already. But before we do wrap up, Carolyn and I had a movie night last night, because we were looking up some of your work and we saw Body of Lies was turned into a movie in 2008. Directed by Ridley Scott, one of my favorite directors, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. As I was watching it, I actually wrote down a bunch of themes that I saw were similar between Body of Lies and Phantom Orbit. But I do want to ask you as well, like, how was that for you, getting a book picked up and made into this major motion picture? Tell us about that process a little bit.

David Ignatius  59:23
In a word, awesome. It was incredible. People often ask, well, did they change your book? Of course they did. I mean, the movie has to be reimagined by the director and the screenwriter. And it will be different and this is. Ridley Scott, as a director, is just such an artist. Watching him compose each frame. He does all these things you’re not aware of. Watching his movies, he likes to spray the streets, you’ll see them wet, just see them with a granularity. He likes to pump specks of dust into the air, because it gives the air a kind of feel that just makes granier and grainer. You’ll see this dust as sharper, more defined. Watching Leonardo DiCaprio … I mean, he came over to my house when he was taking the job. I have three daughters, and my daughters flipped out. They said, “Daddy, how could you let him come the house and we weren’t there.”

Sarah Harrison  1:00:42
Oh, they weren’t there? Oh no.

David Ignatius  1:00:46
So Leonardo DiCaprio walks in the house. And he says he says let me show you how my character walks. And I said, okay. You don’t really describe in a novel how he walks. He extended his left foot and then his right foot. So he showed me, and it’s leaning back, splay-footed, and he said, “what do you think?” And I said, “Well, I don’t think he walked that way.” He’s a case officer in the Middle East, and in Middle East you don’t walk on the back of your feet. You walk on the balls of your feet. Not just CIA officers. Everybody. People just walk differently. He said, “Yes. Oh, so like, Okay, let me try.” So I had this incredible acting seminar with Leonardo DiCaprio as I was getting started.

So the whole experience was fantastic. I love that movie. It came out at a very difficult time. It literally came out the weekend after Lehman Brothers collapsed. So the whole world didn’t really want to go see this super-heavy-duty movie about terrorism in the Middle East. But it fortunately has a long tail, and people still watch it. The person who steals that movie is the character who plays the chief of Jordanian intelligence. A British actor, Mark Strong, who plays a character called Hani Salaam. And he’s just so good. If people want to have a movie experience, watch Body of Lies and check out Mark Strong’s portrayal. I’ve had a series of Arab intelligence chiefs be incredibly nice to me. And it’s obvious they want a movie made about them so they can be as cool as Hani Salaam is in Body of Lies.

Sarah Harrison  1:02:58
That’s awesome. Do you have more movies getting picked up? How about Phantom Orbit?

David Ignatius  1:03:03
Well, it’s really not in my control. One of my books is in development with Netflix. And I love the people who were working on it. Hollywood, the volume of things that they’re developing to what actually ends up on the screen is incredible.  think the kinds of books I read are too expensive to make us feature films. I mean, I think we all are discovering long-form television is the way to do storytelling on a screen now. So I hope people listen to this, and they’ll say, oh, gosh, let’s make Phantom Orbit into a great TV series.

Sarah Harrison  1:03:45
Let’s do it. Do you have time for a few more questions about a couple of the themes that came up between them?

David Ignatius  1:03:51

Sarah Harrison  1:03:51
So without giving too much away, in both Phantom Orbit and in Body of Lies, there is a theme of informants that come to the CIA, who are looking to get asylum for secrets. They’re basically pumped and then hung out to dry. That was surprising to me. But it happened in both situations. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about that.

David Ignatius  1:04:16
This is a cynical business. And we tend to forget it when we glamorize the spy world and our fiction and movies. It’s a business lying. It’s a business about systematically breaking the laws of other countries. If it was legal, the State Department could do it. You need the CIA to do it because it’s illegal. And it’s of necessity, I think, pretty cynical about people. You use them. And then usually, you let them go. And sometimes the consequences for them are just shattering. That’s a part about the spy business. It makes me glad I’m a journalist, not an intelligence officer. Even for me in journalism, I know what happens when I write a story about somebody. I know what the consequences can be, because I’ve seen it so many times. I’ve known this for 50 years now. I sometimes feel I need to tell people before a story, a column comes out. This is what’s going to happen. Just make sure you understand. The agency tries to protect people, it does try to keep faith with people. But there are people who are used in a glancing way. That not so much.

Sarah Harrison  1:05:53
The other thing that really struck me about CIA operations where the massive charades being put. In Body of Lies, they actually blow up a building full of unclaimed bodies. In Phantom Orbit, we see a technical conference being staged. As someone that’s been to research conferences, it made me doubt my own reality.

Carolyn Daughters  1:06:17
Sarah asked me last night, how many of these conferences did I go to that weren’t real conferences?

Sarah Harrison  1:06:22
They were designed for someone else entirely. And I’m here presenting research.

David Ignatius  1:06:27
You may well have. I think that’s a truth about intelligence operations is that they require meticulous planning, so that they’ll seem effortless, they’ll seem real. It takes time. And effort. We see that in Phantom Orbit. In Body of Lies, for instance, there’s a scene which is especially precious for me. It’s a true scene, in which the head of Jordanian intelligence has found someone on the periphery of al Qaeda, who has a chance to get on the inside of al Qaeda, at a time when America’s need for information about al Qaeda was just enormous. And the Jordanians had developed this operation. So they found this guy in an East European city and had an intelligence knocked on his door. What I’m describing is all true. It’s in the book, but it’s all true.

He opens his door, he puts his foot in the door so he can’t close it, and he hands a cellphone through the door, and says, “talk to your mother.” The guy takes a cell phone, and it’s his mother. And his mother says, my darling, I am so happy in my new apartment with this beautiful television and the refrigerator. And this is everything I’ve ever dreamed of. I always knew that you would do wonderful things for me. And now I have everything that I wanted. Then he has the cell phone back to the case officer. And this man has been recruited. The agency has spent months setting this woman up, setting up this moment where he talks to his mother. And now the guy, he has to cooperate. They’ve got his mother. That’s a real story. Multiply that times 1,000, and you get a sense of all the things that are going on in the real world of intelligence gathering. It doesn’t really have very much to do with what we know from James Bond movies. But that’s the kind of thing that they actually do. And when they do it, right, you don’t see it. You don’t you don’t see it coming. You don’t know that it happened. It’s not in a history book. It was just a flash of light across the screens. Obviously.

Carolyn Daughters  1:09:17
They’ve got his mother, but they also have him through his mother because the psychology of it is so interesting is her pleasure her joy at this at not only the life that she now has, but she knows her son has enabled this. And so it would be hard to strip that back and say well, sorry, mom. Your reality changes.

David Ignatius  1:09:44
He would put his mother in immense danger for all he knows. His mother would be killed. I could give you other examples that I know from my reporting, but that’s a particularly powerful one for me because it was done so perfectly. It took so much effort to set it up. And I’m told that person was actually a very, very useful agent.

Sarah Harrison  1:10:14
That was a great scene. I wouldn’t have guessed that that was a real scene. Of all the scenes, that’s really amazing.

David Ignatius  1:10:20
Now come on, Sarah, how could you make that up?

Sarah Harrison  1:10:23
I don’t know. I can’t tell sometimes the difference between fact and fiction and these things.

David Ignatius  1:10:30
That’s the point. That’s what we’re going for.

Carolyn Daughters  1:10:36
Are you working on anything now after Phantom Orbit? What comes next?

David Ignatius  1:10:40
I’m working on a couple of new books. I’ve tried to experiment with the encouragement of The Washington Post to do serialized fiction. Charles Dickens wrote his novels in episodes. He published in installments. Last summer, I wrote a short novel of 25,000 words about spy wars between the United States and China. It’s essentially how China destroyed the CIA’s networks in China. And it was serialized, it was called The Dao of Deception. And I’m going to turn that into a full-length novel. And then I’ve got one coming this summer in The Washington Post about Russian intelligence operations in the U.S. that will, I think, surprise people, again, based on some real things that have happened, but people haven’t paid enough attention to. And I hope I’ll turn that into a full-length book. And then I don’t know. The great thing about my job is that my work as a journalist keeps taking me to places that most people don’t get a chance to see and then I’ll learn things and I’ll think, that would really be fun to experiment with in a novel. So I couldn’t really tell you what couple years will bring.

Carolyn Daughters  1:12:01
I was gonna ask you, what do we need to be thinking about two years into the future?

David Ignatius  1:12:10
If I really knew the answer, I’d give away my next my next good idea. The truism of the day is that threats to the United States are not foreign, but domestic. Many of us sense that. I certainly do. So, two years from now, just thinking about two years from now, I want a world where my main concern is plotting my spy novel, not the demise of my country.

Carolyn Daughters  1:12:44
That makes sense. Well, thank you so much for joining Sarah and me to talk about Phantom Orbit. Tea Tonic, & Toxin, our book club and podcast, we really appreciate your taking this time.

Sarah Harrison  1:12:56
I don’t think I even got to half my questions. I had questions about the Russian character, Russian literature.

Carolyn Daughters  1:13:02
We could easily talk for two days. We’d have to book a whole weekend essentially.

David Ignatius  1:13:07
This was a great conversation. I enjoyed this. I’m promoting my book, but I especially enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for reading Phantom Orbit as carefully you did.

Carolyn Daughters  1:13:16
I enjoyed it very much. It’s a page turner. I heard it described, and thought it was a perfect description, as cerebral thriller. It had my brain racing. I’m still thinking about it. And I just had trouble putting it down.

David Ignatius  1:13:32
Well, couldn’t make the author happier than that. So thank you both very much.

Sarah Harrison  1:13:37
Thank you, David.

Carolyn Daughters  1:13:38
You can learn about all our 2024 book selections and author interviews at teatonicandtoxin.com. You can also comment, weigh in, and follow along with what we’re reading and discussing @teatonicandtoxin on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. And you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Sarah Harrison  47:50
Until next time, stay mysterious.

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