> Skip to content

Q&A  •  29 January 2018


Five Minutes with Karen Cleveland

The author of espionage-thriller Need to Know on her real-life inspiration for the novel.

What brought you to the CIA?

I wanted a job where I could contribute to national security policy. I was a freshman in college on 9/11, and I lost a friend in Iraq two years later; both of those events helped shape my interest in national security – I wanted to help make our country a safer place. I worked for a little while on Capitol Hill, and after talking with people who worked at the CIA, I felt like that was a place where I could really have some impact. I worked there for 8 years – first focusing on Russia, then on counterterrorism. It was a very rewarding job.


What brought you to writing? And have you always wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always loved reading and writing, but I didn’t always want to be a writer. I studied political science and public policy in school, and I was happy with a career in government. It wasn’t until about four years ago – around the time my older son was born – that I thought about trying to write a novel. I really liked the writing aspects of my job at the CIA, and I thought that a writing career would be satisfying and also give me more flexibility in my schedule and more time at home with my son. I knew how difficult the business can be, and I knew the odds were that it wouldn’t work out, but I wanted to try. It became sort of my dream career, first because it seemed like something with some real flexibility, and then because I realized how much I enjoyed it!


How did the novel come to be? Where did the idea for Need To Know come from?

I took a year-long leave of absence from the CIA after my younger son was born. I was really lucky to have that time – and distance from the Agency – to give this new career a shot. I wrote the novel during my kids’ naptimes and after they’d gone to sleep at night. The idea for Need To Know had been in the back of my mind for years. I started dating my husband right around the time I started working for the CIA, and as a new Agency officer, you hear a lot of warnings about the potential for foreign intelligence services to try to get close to you. My future husband seemed almost too good to be true, and I remember the thought crossing my mind – what if he is too good to be true? What if he’s not who he says he is? Luckily he’s just a great guy, but the idea stuck in my mind.


As well as being very exciting, the book deals with the realities of being a working parent. Is that something you wanted to convey – the sacrifices that parents have to make?

There are a lot of compromises and it’s difficult. I’m a mom to two young kids – I have a 4 year old and a 1 year old – and when my older son was born I was working in the counter-terrorism centre. I actually briefed the director of the CIA the day before I went into labour, and went back to work 3 months after my son was born, which is unfortunately what we do in the US. And it was tough. There’s a juggling act, there are compromises. I wrote Need to Know when on maternity leave with my youngest son, so the idea was still fresh in my mind. 


The novel deals to some extent with Russian sleeper agents burying their way into the upper echelons of power. Did you realise, when you started writing the novel, how topical the book would be when it was published?

I wrote the book, and then around the time I was finishing it up Russia was all over the news. I feel as though I owe Putin and Trump a thank you… which is an interesting feeling. 


Need To Know Karen Cleveland

You know him. You love him. You trust him. Until today . . . For fans of GONE GIRL and THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR, NEED TO KNOW is the most relentless psychological thriller you will read all year.

Buy now
Buy now

Looking for more q&a?

See all q&a