Lara Prescott is at a liminal moment.
She is sitting in the Houndstooth Coffee on East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard like a regular person (which she more or less is), but she is very in between states, on the cusp of Something Maybe Big.
A few weeks ago, she was a 37-year-old MFA graduate about to publish her first novel. She was a little older than a lot of her cohort at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.
She already had a whole other career behind her — for most of the 21st century, she was a digital strategist for various left-leaning political campaigns before becoming sick of the "money over everything else" dynamic of even the most progressive candidates.
Prescott was an unknown quantity in the literary world. Now, she is the proud publisher of a New York Times bestseller called “The Secrets We Kept,” a savvy mix of historical novel and page-turner. The book is getting raves. She did a morning show in Canada. Reese Witherspoon made it a book club selection. It has been optioned for the screen (which is the film industry version of swiping right on a dating app and not much else, but still, it’s something).
“The Secrets We Kept” explores the beginning of the Cold War, in the U.S. and in the Soviet Union. It follows Olga Ivinskaya, author Boris Pasternak’s mistress, muse and, as Prescott puts it as we talk, “his business manager.” Olga inspires the character of Lara in Pasternak's “Doctor Zhivago” and aids its smuggling to the West. She ends up doing time in a Gulag and is shunned by Pasternak’s family for her trouble.
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Prescott's book also follows the women of the newly minted CIA, most of whom are stuck in the typing pool after serving as agents during World War II. When a first-generation Russian American named Irina gets a job there, it turns out she is just mousy enough to become a low-key agent under the tutelage of the much flashier, much Bond-ier bombshell Sally Forrester, a top-flight spy with secrets of her own, secrets people on her own side are more than willing to exploit.
But "The Secrets We Kept" is also a novel about women consigned to the margins while also doing jobs that might have seemed unimaginable to their friends and neighbors.
“I'm super interested in how women are depicted in history and forgotten by history,” Prescott says. “Olga was Pasternak’s mistress, but she was also essentially his business manager. (Cold War-era CIA director) Allen Dulles thought as early as 1953 that the CIA was underutilizing women, which was progressive at the time.”
A brilliant mix of sentence-to-sentence lit-craft with the pacing of a stone-cold page-turner, “The Secrets We Kept” is a novel about the power of literature, about a historical moment when the Western intelligence services believed a novel could change the course of the Cold War.
It has first-person plural and third-person omniscient narration. It switches points of view and moves through time smoothly and without fuss.
It’s the sort of novel you cast in your head. (Cate Blanchett circa 2000 is absolutely Sally; how do we feel about Bryce Dallas Howard circa now?) It has little in-jokes about the early days at the CIA. (One character is called Teddy Helms, recalling CIA founding father Richard Helms; nobody is named after CIA spymaster James Jesus Angleton, sadly, though I was holding out for, I don’t know, a Jim Judas.) It might very well be a total smash.
So, yeah, liminal.
Prescott, 37, hails from Greensburg, Penn., which is right outside of Pittsburgh. Getting into the idea of activism and public service, she ended up at American University in Washington, D.C., for undergrad, did time in AmeriCorps and ended up joining a political campaign doing all sorts of digital work — ghost tweeting, ad writing, that sort of thing. She eventually joined David Axelrod’s political consulting shop, AKPD Message & Media.
After a few years, Prescott became disillusioned with the whole enterprise.
“I became really jaded,” Prescott says. “You’re working for the good guys, but just seeing the amount of money involved in politics, how much money it takes to get elected, really left a bad taste in my mouth. You have candidates who wanted to talk about what they were passionate about and have to spend all this time fundraising or lose because they didn't fundraise enough.”
Prescott’s husband, food activist and cookbook author Matthew Prescott, asked her a crucial question: What do you really want to do? “And I said, ‘I want to write books.’ And he said, ‘You’re going to quit your job and try.'"
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After some struggle, she got into the Michener Center in 2014, where Deb Olin Unferth and Elizabeth McCracken were her advisers.
“Both of them were pivotal readers for me,” Prescott says. By her third year in the program, she had the fourth draft of "The Secrets We Kept" done.
“It is the rare polyphonic novel that adds up to more than the sum of its parts,” McCracken says. “It is incredibly hard to do, but her book is genuinely symphonic. All of these voices work together. She just understands when to sustain in a voice and when it’s gonna be stronger (for the book as a whole) to switch.”
McCracken, author of books like this year's "Bowlaway," knows from good writing, but did she think it was going to be no-kidding actually popular?
“I did, and I rarely think that,” McCracken says. “There is a lot of wonderful writing that I know is good but I don’t automatically think will be a big commercial success, but Lara’s book I thought was the type that would attract a wide variety of people reading and pressing on other people.“
Having a substantive plot doesn’t hurt. “I don’t think plot is a dirty word,” Prescott says, “and that can be a little controversial in the MFA world."
“But part of it is your instructors, too,” she continues. “Elizabeth does not impart her own sensibilities of what she would write onto your work, which is what you need.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge was when to hew to real history, when to adapt and when to make something up out of whole cloth.
“When I was dealing with real people, I tried to stick to the script as much as possible,” Prescott says. “If there was a source, if a moment existed, especially with Pasternak and that aspect, I tried to use record, but I wasn’t (beholden to it). On the CIA side, all of those people are amalgamations of other spies that had existed, but in a lot of the files that were released by the CIA, names have been redacted.
“It’s definitely not nonfiction.”