By Adam Vitcavage
Where Robert Lundrum or John le Carré were interested in building intricate novels that fully inhabited the spy genre, Rosalie Knecht is dedicated to stories that happen to be about a spy. Her second novel, Who Is Vera Kelly?, manages to avoid all of the genre’s tropes, but still manages to incorporate the intensity of a James Bond adventure.
Vera Kelly, and who exactly she is, drives the story. She happens to be a young, queer, intelligent woman drawn into the spy world. Knetch’s ability to tap into a character’s mind and place them in a historical setting feels natural. The narrative unfolds easily through short bursts of scenes that alternate between time and location. Following Vera through these important times of her life allows us to learn so much about the character and the world she inhabits.
The book is a mixture of suspense, historical fiction, and a queer coming-of-age that never feels overwhelming. I corresponded with the author recently to figure out how Vera Kelly came to be and what’s next for her.
Adam Vitcavage: In this book, you managed to write a spy novel that avoids the usual tropes. What drew your interest to this type of book?
Rosalie Knecht: I was interested in secrets at first, which led me to the idea of spies. How do we relate to other people and keep some things hidden? How do we make ourselves vulnerable to others without compromising our survival?
AV: Vera is such a unique character. I was able to picture her clearly while reading. How did she develop throughout the process of writing?
RK: Honestly, I started with some bits from my mom's biography—a disaffected teenage delinquent who has lost her father, growing up in an affluent suburb with a professional mother at a time when that was unusual. So that's where Vera started, and then she grew all these traits and features that have nothing to do with my mom. (Out of respect for my mom I should also clarify that I ended up making Vera's birth date more than a decade before my mom's, and she has never been involved in covert ops of any kind.)
AV: One aspect that drew me to the book in the first place was a blurb (in Kirkus, I believe) regarding Vera’s queerness. Why was it important that Vera be queer?
RK: I came up against a motivation problem fairly early on—what would make a person make this extreme choice to do covert work? And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense for her to be gay. The path to middle-class stability for a woman of her class at that time was to get married to a man with a good job. She's not going to do that, and she's estranged from her family, so she's on her own and feels that acutely. So she would be attracted to this rare opportunity to make substantial money, at a time when the alternative was secretarial and other low-paid work, and because of her history of losses and her discomfort with intimacy, she doesn't mind the solitude, or at least she thinks she won't. Of course, the CIA was not a great place to be gay—there were purges in the 1950s. But she chances it.
AV: Both male and female spies use sexuality as part of their skill set in a lot of pop culture. However, I always feel it’s portrayed differently. Did you think about that aspect of spy culture while writing the book? As in, is this book a response to that type of portrayal?
RK: Yeah! I was kind of annoyed with the general sexpot thing—which yes, as you say, does go for men and women. James Bond is of course hypersexualized, and I'm thinking of the movie that just came out, “Red Sparrow,” which...I mean, I didn't see it so should maybe reserve judgment, but I think the tagline was…okay, I looked it up. It was "Seduce. Deceive. Repeat." It was a response to that, but not just to that. I wanted the book to avoid both the hypersexualization and the inhuman hypercompetence of James Bond. I wanted to think about what the experiences of an actual real person, doing the often very boring work of long-term surveillance, would be like. In the same way that “The Wire” is a very different view of police work than “Law & Order.”
AV: Structurally, Who Is Vera Kelly? bounces between two time periods. Whenever a novel tackles two or more time periods I always have to ask how a writer settled on alternating them instead of just writing chronologically. The answers are always unique to the individual. So, why did this way work for you and for Vera?
RK: I tried it both ways. I started with the 1957 scenes as flashbacks embedded in the 1966 storyline, then pulled them out and made the whole thing chronological, then gave it to my editor, who immediately chopped up the 1957 section into tiny bits and sprinkled it through the 1966 story because it got started too slowly when it was all in chronological order. I think that's often the reason. It's a way to give backstory without making the reader wait through the main character's second grade piano recital before they get to the "present."
AV: One thing I loved about reading this was how fast it read. Did you intentionally set out to write such short bursts of chapters?
RK: I have a hard time writing long scenes! I think I'm getting better at it, but for a long time I tended to write one scene per sitting, and usually I do 500-1,000 words at a time, so that's how long my scenes were. It just felt like a natural shape.
AV: You also chose to tell this in first person. Why make that decision for Vera to tell us who she is?
RK: It was kind of an experiment. I had also been told in my previous novel that my main character's thoughts were sometimes opaque. I wanted to try what it would feel like to just be sitting right there, with the character's thoughts. (I was still told that her thoughts were sometimes opaque.)
AV: Now that Vera has been introduced to the world, what do you want to work on next?
RK: This is possibly insane but I think it's gonna be a Vera trilogy.