Vivian is standing in the doorway, watching her twins, when she hears Matt’s footsteps. She recognises the smell of his soap, it’s her husband. In the last two days, things have changed, and suddenly, Matt seems like a stranger to her. Just two days ago, at work as a CIA counter-intelligence analyst, she found Russian sleeper cells in the US. In the encrypted files of Yury, possibly a Russian handler, she sees a face she knows, with whom she lives and is raising four children — her husband Matt. This starts her search to uncover the truth, in Karen Cleveland’s debut novel Need To Know (Penguin Random House; Rs 599).
A former CIA analyst, Cleveland met her husband around the same time when she started working for the CIA. “It actually crossed my mind, very briefly, that he might not be who he said he was. Luckily I was wrong, but the idea for the book stuck,” she says, in an email interview from London, just before her book tour.
Wanting to give a glimpse into her life in the CIA, she created the character of Vivian. “Like me, she’s an ordinary person with a family she loves dearly. But she discovers a life-changing secret about her husband; luckily that’s not based on anything in my life,” she says, “I think I would have made some different decisions, but it’s hard to know exactly how you’d react in such terrible circumstances.”
Cleveland was on extended maternity leave for her second child when she began writing the book. “Since I was writing it at home with an infant and a three-year-old, it was really just about writing whenever I could — when my older son was at preschool and my younger son was napping, or after they’d both gone to bed at night, or on the weekends,” says the Virginia-based author.