By Kerry Boyd Anderson
Female characters have long been featured in spy novels, but rarely were such characters written by a woman with first-hand experience working in intelligence. Brittany Butler offers her distinctive take on spy adventures in her debut novel, “The Syndicate Spy.”
Butler worked for the CIA for nine years, specializing in operations with a focus on counterterrorism in the Middle East and Central Asia. Often tasked with managing intelligence operatives, she faced particular challenges as a woman – including the need to prove her abilities while work- ing against stereotypes – in addition to the usual challenges and dangers of the job.
Butler brings those in-the-field experiences to her main character, Juliet Arroway. The novel is set in a future in which oil reserves have been depleted and countries compete over alternative energy sources. Arroway is a spy tasked with finding energy terrorists. The book immediately begins with a lot of action and continues to provide the thrills that fans of spy novels expect.
Butler imbues Arroway with complexity and humanity and includes a romantic angle in her story.
“With a lot of the spies we read or watch on TV, the women are really one dimensional. I included romance and feeling in this novel because that’s human,” Butler said. “We’re romantic, sexual beings. To take that out completely dehumanizes people. In reality, especially in war zones, the human connection is very important to get through really hard times. People might use humor, sex, or alcohol to get through the hard stuff. I’m not sure that a lot of people who write spy fiction and didn’t work in espionage know that.”
In an unusual twist, Arroway’s fellow spy and friend is a Saudi princess, named Mariam al-Saud. Butler has interacted with women from the Middle East and central Asia and is “passionate about the women’s rights movements in the Middle East.” Her primary goal with the book is to entertain readers, but she also hopes to highlight the capabilities and resilience of women from the region, as well the challenges they face.
With both of her main female characters, Butler presents a nuanced view of their roles and relationships, while still including heroic scenes.
“This is a real female spy story. This isn’t pushing a female into a James Bond role,” Butler said. Arroway grapples with managing her desire for a regular life and relationships with a demanding but compelling job. Butler also struggled with balancing her family’s needs and her devotion to her work at the CIA.
“That’s a story that often isn’t told. Intelligence officers often have to make difficult decisions that affect their personal lives,” she said.
Butler eventually left the CIA to focus on her young children while also joining efforts to support Afghan women.
She has worked with Women for Afghan Women, which provides services to women and children in Afghanistan, including for survivors of domestic abuse. Since the 2021 Taliban takeover, the organization has continued to support women in Afghanistan as well as assisting with Afghan refugees arriving in the United States.
With the influx of refugees, Butler also volunteered with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which is one the main organizations providing resettlement services to refugees. Butler is deeply familiar with the sacrifices that many of the United States’ Afghan allies made.
“We have a duty to honor those alliances and partnerships,” Butler emphasized.
She was happy to be able to help Afghan refugees find housing and jobs as they arrived in the United States. Butler especially enjoyed working with Afghan mothers as they settled in a new place. More recently, Butler has become involved with efforts to support women artisans in Kandahar through involvement with the IBU Movement, a global marketplace representing more than 40 countries around the world.
Butler has always enjoyed writing and leaving the CIA allowed her more opportunity to pursue that interest. While working with Women for Afghan Women, she felt inspired by the women in the organization, and one of them particularly encouraged her to write a book.
“My first goal in this book is to entertain. If you come away with some knowledge of the Middle East that you didn’t have before, that’s cool. It’s valuable to learn about what those women are going through and maybe how we can empower them,” Butler said.
She wrote some of “The Syndicate Spy” at Misha’s Coffee in Old Town and expressed gratitude for the shop’s role in her writing experience. Butler lived in Alexandria for 15 years, and her children were born here. The family recently moved to Charleston, South Carolina, but Butler frequently visits Alexandria, including for a recent event at Hooray for Books! that featured her novel. She hopes to write some of her next book at Misha’s.
“I’ve loved diving into writing. It’s been therapeutic,” Butler said.
She does most of her writing in the mornings, often in a coffee shop, and continues at night. Her process includes sketching out a general outline and a solid understanding of her characters, then she allows the creative process to flow.
As a first-time novelist, she found the editorial process to be relatively smooth, but the marketing process was a bigger challenge. She noted that debut authors often must do much of their own promotion, and first-time authors should not expect immediate success.
“It requires a certain level of patience,” she noted.
Writing may require patience, but reading Butler’s novel does not. The action starts immediately, appealing to readers who love a good thrill. The book also quickly feels different from many spy novels, clearly reflecting a woman’s voice and experience.
It’s about time.