"Burned: A Vanessa Pierson Novel" by Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett
Blue Rider Press, $26.95,  352 pp.

Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett will discuss and autograph "Burned" at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5 at Collected Works, 303 Galisteo, Santa Fe and 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6 at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW.

By David Steinberg
Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett are ratcheting up the tension and widening their scope in their second spy thriller.
Their tandem debut, last year's bestselling "Blowback," had protagonist Vanessa Pierson in a deadly cat-and-mouse pursuit of a nuclear arms dealer.
Pierson, a covert CIA operative, is back in "Burned," but the intrigue has intensified in what is a more complex, though no less exciting, thriller.
Pierson continues to pursue the shadowy Bhoot. But there are more pieces in play. Pierson is almost killed in a suicide bomber attack outside the Louvre. Pierson suspects Bhoot, but he denies responsibility. A video links True Jihad, a new terrorist group, claims responsibility for executing her asset whom she was to have met at the Louvre. A deadly question    lingers: Does True Jihad have a stolen nuclear device?
Meanwhile, there's a search on for a mole inside the CIA.
In a phone interview, Plame addressed the literary aspects of the new novel. "I wanted it to be more layered, more complicated, but you don't want to get into Russian novel territory with 100 characters. That was part of the thinking as well. Where do you cut what is as important as what you leave in?" she said.
With the larger cast of characters in "Burned," comes more ideas. But that doesn't translate to as much country hopping as occurred in "Blowback."
Another new element is the concept of teamwork.
In "Burned," Pierson is working collaboratively with Team Viper, a group of CIA and French intelligence officials. The two sides have their differences about strategy and at times the personalities don't mesh.
There are fiction writers who like to showcase the spy operating on his own, but Plame said real-life espionage is usually the work of a team. "You're not a lone wolf. To be successful in operations it's a team effort and I hope that comes through," she said.
Yet Vanessa Pierson is very much the central figure in the thrillers.
Plame said she wanted to depict a strong female through her character. "Usually they're just paper dolls or arm candy sort of thing, and I wanted to show a realistic story that was also entertaining," she said.
Realistic in terms of how operatives communicate with each other, without revealing sources or methods of operation.
Tough and smart, Vanessa possesses a feminine side.
"Vanessa doesn't feel she has to be a male to succeed. She enjoys a good pair of high heels. She's got this romance. Her private life is star-crossed," Plame said.
Romance as in involvement with another CIA op. That romance with David Khoury is in itself a complication carried over from "Blowback."
Back to Team Viper. It is based in Paris. But the City of Light is no ordinary backdrop. It is referenced in the novel. (Here's one example: "…He dropped her off at the Hotel Pont Royal, just a few blocks from the intersection of Rue du Bac, Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard Saint-Germain.")
"Some thriller writers are very spare and lean. It's a style thing. When I read, I enjoy hearing about place. All places mentioned in the book are where I have actually lived and    worked," Plame said.
From her own writer's perspective, Lovett said, she sees the need to balance the tension. "We have shopping. We have sex, nice dinners. A challenge is to make the reader have time to breathe. We want to keep the pacing hurtling ahead but the adrenaline isn't exhausted. We want the reader to reflect and breathe," Lovett said in a separate interview.
To maintain the tension, chapters are kept tight. The authors discussed the right moment to cut a scene, to end a chapter.
"Culturally, we are so attuned to movie cuts. In a thriller, there's no allowance or forgiveness for giving information twice to a viewer," Lovett said.
She had written five suspense novels before she teamed up with Plame. Collaboration is no less work than writing solo. Lovett likes being able to bounce ideas off of "smart people." Plame being one.
Plame had authored "Fair Game," her memoir about being a spy and being outed by our own government.
"That was telling my story and what happened. It was as much a catharsis for me as anything else. Fiction writing has been fun but a very steep learning curve for me. I'm fortunate   -to have Sarah Lovett on my side," she said.
The co-authors live in Santa Fe, but they hardly see each other. They collaborate mostly by phone and email.