David E. Hoffman

David Hoffman

Author of The Billion Dollar Spy

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON September 25, 2015

Discussion

David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
Espionage is the art of illusion, but what I am about to tell you is absolutely true. I am David E. Hoffman, author of The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal. You might think this sounds like a spy novel. But from the first page to the last, it is all true. This is my third book about Russia and the end of the Cold War. So, ask me anything!
Mike Coutermarsh
Mike Coutermarsh@mscccc · Code @ GitHub
@thedeadhandbook What's the greatest lie that was ever told? 😃
Grrrrl
Grrrrl@polly_withers · PhD Researcher
@thedeadhandbook Hey again David, also interested to hear more about your third book - how much is fact and how much is fiction? Thanks! Polly
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@polly_withers The Billion Dollar Spy is fact. It is based on 944 pages of declassified, formerly secret documents which the CIA made available. It is based on interviews, too. I hope that's what makes it more interesting. The spy fiction bookshelf is enormous. This is not Ian Fleming. It is real life--and in real life, espionage wasn't all car chases and assassinations.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@polly_withers I wrote the book to show what it was like to be out there on the front lines of an espionage operation, what it was really like. There are dull moments, long waits, huge surges of anxiety.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@polly_withers Some readers have wondered why the book isn't more like James Bond. And my answer is, because life isn't that way.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@polly_withers shocking, i know
Grrrrl
Grrrrl@polly_withers · PhD Researcher
@thedeadhandbook Hey David, what made you make the transition from journalism into literature? Thanks! Polly.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
It wasn't a genre that I was attracted to so much as one story. The story in The Billion Dollar Spy is what pulled me in. I wanted to know, why did this guy do what he did? How did it happen?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
And it took a while to get the answers to those questions--years.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@polly_withers And thanks for calling it literature, Polly!
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
Well, always a desire to tell stories more deeply -- but I confess, not a clean break. I was writing books while writing news articles, too!
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
Hi David! Thanks for joining us today 🙌What first attracted you to the spy and espionage genre? To what do you attribute your many successes in this field?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
I will offer another admission --
Alex Carter
Alex Carter@alexcartaz · Operations @ 60dB. Ex-PH Podcasts 😻
Hi @thedeadhandbook, what has most surprised you about being an author?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@alexcartaz There is a rush, a real deep thrill, when you reach readers who like the work, get the story, or even argue with you. It is like nothing else. But to get to that point, you may spend a few years all alone, wondering if what you are doing is crazy.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@thedeadhandbook @alexcartaz And it might be crazy, and it might be that you discover the story only at the end.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
Who are your favourite authors?
Jacqueline von Tesmar
Jacqueline von Tesmar@jacqvon · Community at Product Hunt ⚡️
Hey David, What are you most proud of in your life as a journalist, and now as an author?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@jacqvon I was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for The Dead Hand -- bursting with pride!
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@jacqvon But there are also a thousand quiet moments to be happy about, when a good story is told, or makes a difference.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@thedeadhandbook @jacqvon I think people sometimes misunderstand what journalism is about -- you really are a bit of a detective. And that means trying to puzzle out complex stuff. You never are certain. It feels good when you get it right!
Andrew Ettinger
Andrew Ettinger@andrewett · 👟 @wearAtoms // ex @Twitter @ProductHunt
@thedeadhandbook Have you always wanted to be a writer? If not, when did you know you would have a career in writing?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@andrewmettinger I know the exact moment
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@andrewmettinger It was during college --
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@andrewmettinger I went to the student newspaper to see if they needed a photographer, since I was interested in that
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@andrewmettinger But so much interesting stuff was happening (in the world, and at the university) that I started writing
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@andrewmettinger I took some photos too, but the writing took over!
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
What is your writing process? Can you talk us through how you go from idea, to a published novel? It seams like such a daunting process, for someone wanting to start out, what advice would you give?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@ems_hodge It is just very, very important to have a sense of what that idea is. Not a bunch of loose buttons in a drawer, but a sense of a coat of many colors. (Sometimes the big idea is hiding in the drawer.) You have to force yourself to think about that. If there's a good answer, that's a good sign.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@ems_hodge My books are all nonfiction. They all grew out of my reporting in journalism. I would write a story and it would be in the newspaper and then I would think, hmm -- is there more? And more? And after years, and boxes full of stuff, hard drives full of stuff, and my head full of stuff -- maybe a book. It is accumulating a lot of bits and pieces in hopes that you can create one big interesting story.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@ems_hodge I confess some people have it all in their head right away. Not me.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
First, the last question. My advice is, figure out your big idea.
Mike Coutermarsh
Mike Coutermarsh@mscccc · Code @ GitHub
@thedeadhandbook What was the most surprising event you covered during your whitehouse days?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
Easy -- the Reykjavik summit, October 1986. Reagan and Gorbachev want to rid the world of nuclear weapons. That takes the cake for surprise.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@mscccc The big part of that surprise is, why didn't they do it? It was shocking that they even talked about it. But they didn't do it.
Mike Coutermarsh
Mike Coutermarsh@mscccc · Code @ GitHub
@thedeadhandbook Hi David, can you tell us what an average day for you is like while you're writing a book? :)
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@mscccc No day is average. Part one -- a couple of years -- may be research. Interviews, going out, finding people, putting together the pieces. Then the writing is a kind of agonizing process of creating what you THINK happened from all the stuff you have collected. So you draft. Rewrite. Argue with yourself. Show to friends. Rewrite. Over and over until it seems polished. Usually I do better work in the morning, and always better closer to the coffee pot. When you finally have a draft, you feel great, but still --
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@mscccc -- you are not finished. A good editor will show you all the faults, and you will write it again. I am grateful for the fact that my editor at Doubleday and my friends and my family have all been great critics. Nothing come off the screen even close to ready the first time. you need this kind of help. At least, I do.
Mike Coutermarsh
Mike Coutermarsh@mscccc · Code @ GitHub
@thedeadhandbook I love the cover art for the Billion Dollar Spy. How involved are you in the artwork? Is that something your publisher usually controls? Any advice on what makes a great book cover?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@mscccc Agree with you the cover is pretty cool. But this is the result of good work by a designer at the publisher, not me. I was asked to comment on it when it was finished -- and I made a few suggestions. I think it was bold, and aimed at grabbing people. Which is pretty much what you have to do these days to get anyone's attention. The world is swamped, just swamped, with info.
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@mscccc Another very cool thing in this book's design is the endpapers, which carry duplication of a few of the secret cables. Just so you can get a feel for it.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
What are the key character attributes a person needs to have in order to be a successful journalist, and story teller?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@ems_hodge I will list some! a.) you must be an acute observer, in both the physical world and the less tangible. b.) you must have endless patience, be able to wait until a moment reveals itself, be able to sit for hours and not close your notebook c.) you must be able to think clearly, use logic and just plain skepticism to always be asking, what is really going on here d.) you have to be able to express youself in words that are evocative and compelling. (hard!) and e.) it helps to have a good imagination.
Russ Frushtick
Russ Frushtick@russfrushtick
Whilst a journalist during your Whitehouse days, what is the most surprising event you covered?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@russfrushtick One day the president of the United States was warming up for a radio broadcast. It was just warm-up, and supposed to be off the record. And the president said, "I have just signed an order outlawing the Soviet Union. The bombing begins in five minutes." What would you do--report it? Or write it off to a warm-up joke?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@russfrushtick This actually happened when Reagan was president.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
Andrew Ettinger
Andrew Ettinger@andrewett · 👟 @wearAtoms // ex @Twitter @ProductHunt
@thedeadhandbook Who is the greatest journalist alive today in your opinion and why?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@andrewmettinger The greatest journalist is a pretty big title. There's not just one. But one of the greatest was Anthony Shadid, my friend and perhaps the most penetrating journalist of his generation to cover the Middle East. We are all sorry that he is no longer with us, and suffering for not having his immense skills covering the Arab world. He died a few years ago while covering the war in Syria.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
What would tell your 18 / 25 year old self? Would you do anything differently?
David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman@thedeadhandbook · author, The Billion Dollar Spy
@ems_hodge I was a workaholic, and probably could have done many of the same things while not spending so many hours doing them. I think discipline in work is hard to learn, and I wish I'd learned it earlier. Keeping a focus on things is really, really important. Also, I was careless with notes and observations. They are precious. Discipline means keeping EVERYTHING and keeping it where you can find it later. Oh boy do I wish I had some notes on things I witnessed. I carelessly forgot to save 'em.