The Confession Book: David Ignatius

Noah Charney interviews great writers about the writing life.

/ by Noah Charney

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1950. My Dad, who had been a junior professor at the Harvard Business School after serving in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy, had just started a management consulting company with two friends. He had NO money, and likes to tell a story about pawning his best tweed coat to buy a leg of lamb for dinner, around the time I was born. I lived in Cambridge for my first five years, then Los Angeles, then Boston and, finally, Washington, DC.


Your father, Paul Robert Ignatius, was a major figure in 20th century American history (Secretary of the Navy and president of The Washington Post). What was your relationship with him like? Do you have a vivid memory that first comes to mind when you think of him in your youth?

My Dad, at 93, is a brilliant man with the best values and is, in many ways, my hero in life. A strong-willed father and son are bound to get into fights, and we had plenty of them when I was an adolescent. He was a senior Pentagon official. I was an idealistic kid who began working in inner-city anti-poverty programs in DC during the summer when I was 14. I became increasingly opposed to the war in Vietnam, and I remember in 1965 or so putting a poster in my father’s bedroom that said, “Honor Peace: Stop the Bombing.” That was way over the line, but he forgave me and we have been very close since my mid-20s. My early memories are of him telling stories at dinner that made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes.


You’ve worked for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and you were executive editor of The International Herald Tribune, among your many accomplishments. What are your thoughts on the future of newspapers, and how they have adapted to the digital age?

I always used to say that the proliferation of information in the digital would help newspapers, because it would increase the value of the reporting and editing that produced a concise, trusted package of what people really needed to know. Now, I’m not so sure. Many readers are wary of our editing/packaging role and want to do the curating of information themselves. What worries me even more is that many people seem to want media sources that tell them that what they think about the world is right—their set of heroes and villains is correct—rather than challenging them. Fox serves that validating role for conservatives, as MSNBC does for liberals. I call them “embedded media” because they are embedded with a point of view, rather than being independent. I understand the congeniality factor—watching Fox or MSNBC is like being part of a club—but it scares me. I think good newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have resisted this trend, but not entirely.


How does your experience in diplomatic reporting (you won an award for it in 1985) effect the way you write fiction on the subject of reporting and investigation?

I still have a passion, after 40 years in the news business, for finding out what’s happening in the world of intelligence and foreign policy and then publishing it. That curiosity finds its way into my fiction. A novel offers a much broader canvas than a 750-word column (of the sort I write twice a week) and lets me explore the factual issues in a more nuanced and thorough way that I can in the short-form opinion piece. You don’t have to ocme up with a scorecard at the end of a novel saying who won and lost: You can present the ambiguity and moral complexity of a story in a way that is very hard in opinion journalism.


How has your opinion of the CIA shifted from your days as a journalist in the 1980s to today? Where there specific incidents that particularly affected your opinion, or has it remained largely consistent?

If you read the arc of my eight spy novels, I think you will see a story of an agency that has encountered ever-greater difficulty in its basic mission of recruiting and running agents. My latest novel, “The Director,” presents a very critical picture of what the combination of secrecy and bureaucracy has done to the agency. It hasn’t helped that the CIA has been given a “Murder Inc.” role by several administrations, which ordered up interrogation programs and counter-terrorism drone programs that inevitably had a corrosive effect on the agency. The CIA had the wind at its back, in the period in the early 1970s that I described in my first novel, Agents of Innocence.” Today it’s fair to say that the CIA is pushing against strong headwinds, at home and abroad, and that this shows in its performance. I’d like to see a smaller, more creative and self-confident CIA return to the basic mission of recruiting and running agents and stealing secrets. Right now, we have an agency that has been second-guessed so often (usually, as with interrogation policy, for doing what it was ordered to do by politicians) that it is risk averse, to a fault.


Where and what did you study?

I studied political and social theory as an undergraduate at Harvard, where I graduated magna cum laude in 1973. I won a fellowship from Harvard to study in England after graduation, and I took a diploma in economics from King’s College at Cambridge University.


Where do you live and why?

I live in Washington because it’s the best place to write my columns about foreign policy. I travel an ungodly amount, sometimes to crazy places. I continue to live in DC because I think writing a column (and being a novelist on the side) is maybe the best job in the world.


Describe your morning routine.

Get up at 7:00, shower, shave, etc.; eat a mix of three kinds of cereal (all appallingly healthy), with some fruit; go to work. If it’s a columnist morning, I go to my office at the Washington Post. If it’s a novelist morning, I work in my study at home. I don’t often combine the two kinds of writing in one day, except when I am in the pell-mell final weeks of crashing to finish a book.


What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

Maybe because I studied and worked in England, I have some peculiar and no doubt annoying Anglicisms. I say, “jolly good” sometimes. I occasionally say, “quite right,” or “indeed” in what I’m sure sounds like a pompous, donnish voice. When I was at Cambridge the floors were so cold that I got in the habit of putting on my shoes and socks before my trousers. I still do that. I eat the crusts of bread but not the inside; I put ice cubes in my wine. And those are just the milder eccentricities….


Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers, and tell us why you like them.

Graham Greene, “The Heart of the Matter,” of “The Quiet American,” or just about anything he wrote. Greene is the master of writing about very emotional matters in a restrained way. When I am starting a new book, I will always take one of his from my bookshelf and try to understand how he does it.

Anthony Troloppe’s “Palliser” novels, really all one delicious book. These are the best political novels I have ever read. Readers who are not acquainted with Phineas Finn, Lady Glencora and Madame Max Goesler have a sublime treat.

Karl Marlantes’s novel “Matterhorn.” I have read many fine Vietnam novels, but this is the best. Unforgettable descriptions of combat.


Having your book turned into a major Hollywood film is the dream of most authors. Your Body of Lies was adapted for film. What was it like to see the film for the first time, and how did having your book filmed change your writing career?

Watching the film the first time in the Warner Brothers screening room was an out-of-body experience, frankly. It’s thrilling but somewhat disorienting to see your words and characters reimagined by an artist like Ridley Scott. I guess authors are supposed to complain about the process, but in this case I can’t. I hope the movie experience didn’t change my career significantly. I have enough anxieties and insecurities to surmount even this wonderful encounter with good fortune.


Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

I have increasingly tried to outline my books, to get the characters and plot twists right. But “The Director” was a lesson in how all this pre-figuring can be of limited use. For many months, the book was stubborn and wouldn’t lie down flat--through a first and second draft. It was only in the third draft (different in almost every respect from what I had outlined) that the book began to make sense to me.


What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

I want to be intrigued by the set up. But most of all, I want to have confidence that the author can write, and knows what he or she is doing in terms of plot and character—and that the effort I put into reading the book will be repaid by pleasure.


Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I get seriously caffeinated—usually coffee and a diet Coke, both—before I sit down at they screen. Sometimes I will have a scrawl of notes from something I dreamed, or thought of in the shower, and I’ll look at those for whatever insight I can decipher. Last thing, I will consult my research notes or go online to get a sense of what a place looks and feels like. Then, that delicious blanks screen….


Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?

I look out over my garden, which changes through the year, and to a street I can see through the trees. Once I start a book, I usually do not clean up my study until I’m done. I scare my cleaning lady.


Describe your evening routine.

I’ll get some exercise, tennis is the summer, gym in the winter. Then come home and have a glass of wine with my wife and watch some good bad TV.


What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

My best friend Garrett Epps could make me laugh reading the phone book.


What is guaranteed to make you cry?

I am a total sucker for sentimental scenes in movies. One of my daughters asked me once, “Daddy, do you cry during every movie?”


Do you have any superstitions?

None, unless you call religion a superstition.


If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

My grandfather, Hovsep Bohos Ignatius. He died when I was 20, but he had an inkling I might become a writer, I’d like to show him the books and columns I’ve written since he passed away.


What is your favorite snack?

Sourdough pretzels. Not even close.


What phrase do you over-use?



What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

“Agents of Innocence” a fictional account of a man who may have been the CIA’s greatest operative ever in the Middle East, was rejected by every major publisher in America, often with elaborately condescending letters. Finally, Lina Healey, a wonderful editor at Norton, agreed to buy the book (which they weren’t sure they wanted) if I also agreed to write a work of nonfiction (which they did want). “Agents of Innocence is still in print, and Norton is still my publisher. I never did write the nonfiction book.


Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

Not yet.


What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

At least a chapter. But honestly, once you get rolling, you are lost in your imagination and don’t think in that goal-setting, front-brain way.


Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

In a Chicago suburb once, I drew five people to an event. Three of them turned out to be homeless people looking to get out of the cold.


What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Get out of the way and let your pre-conscious speak. 

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.