Covert Operatives and CIA Intrigue

Young author Pema Donyo '17

Young author Pema Donyo '17

It might have been a case of freshman shyness, or not wanting to jinx any chance her first novel could go to print, but Pema Donyo ’17 worked quietly–– dare we say covertly?–– on the publishing galleys of her debut novel (The Innocent Assassins, Astraea Press) over the course of her freshman year at Claremont McKenna. Two weeks ago, her book was listed by the e-publisher on multiple e-book outlets, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Donyo grew up just a city east of Claremont, in Upland, and wrote her novel during a summer visit to Italy before her freshman year at CMC. It follows the derring-do of Jane Lu, a covert operative assassin forced to spy for the CIA. Inspired by the familial, as well as her stay in Europe, it’s not surprising that Italy and Southern California became central locations for her storytelling. “Since I've lived in Upland nearly all my life, I included lots of settings from Southern California, like the Getty Center and Griffith Observatory,” Donyo told us. “The headquarters for the main characters in my novel are based in a Southern California suburb as well.”

Remarkably, she would continue her writing while acclimating to her first year of college, without saying a word about it. “I received the publishing contract in August, so all the editing happened during my freshman year,” she says. “The hardest part was keeping it a secret from most of my friends,” said Donyo, who wrote in her dorm room. "I didn't want anyone to know I was working on the novel until it was published.”

We caught up with the new author between coffee refuels, to pry about writing fiction, her upcoming novel (expected out next month, no joke!), being published so young, and not being a top-secret CIA operative herself.

*** CMC: The fantastical adventure/thriller story is so radically alien to your own life experience; how did you come up with the idea? Donyo: Conflicting viewpoints have always intrigued me. One side can believe they're just as morally righteous or justified as the other. I thought, "What's a controversial topic people can be on either side of?” Contract assassination fit the mold.

Beyond that, I enjoy creating a world of my own that doesn't necessarily parallel the world I live in. It’s the best part of being a fiction writer. Our imaginations don’t have to be confined to what we experience every day. We never expect teenagers or children to be trained assassins, so I wrote about the world of Covert Operatives. In my novel, the organization is the largest international contract assassination corporation. (It also happens to have its headquarters in Southern California.) Covert Operatives, or CO, employs only assassins under the age of eighteen in order to prevent suspicion from authorities.

The "under eighteen" bit was inspired by my own age. When I wrote the novel, I was about to turn 18. When you think of assassins, do you think of teenagers? Not particularly.

CMC: Was it hard sustaining such a plot and characters when you basically (we’re assuming here) had to concoct them from the wellspring of your own imagination? Donyo: The plot itself was more difficult than character development. There are tons of twists and turns in The Innocent Assassins (TIA)–– loads of game-changing plot points, classic of the romantic-suspense genre. A huge part of the book is the romance between Jane Lu and Adrian King.

However, the character development was a little easier. I can understand the place she's coming from since I'm around her age. When there's a guy you like, you feel a certain way. When someone threatens you, you respond a certain way. I have an issue with how unrealistic some New Adult and Young Adult novels portray teen personalities. A lot of them fall short in conveying what it’s like to feel those intense emotions or naive dismissals. I wanted to change that by representing the age from someone currently living it.

I used to ask myself why people are so drawn to writing about romance, especially considering so much of it is exaggerated and unrealistic. But that's the point. I wrote an article in defense of the "Happily Ever After" ending. Romance makes such a compelling genre to write about because of all the potential for conflict. When emotions are involved, nothing is rational and anything can happen. What emotions can everyone relate to? Attraction, rejection, desire for happiness. Romance is able to appeal to anyone's emotions, because everyone can relate to the key aspects of the genre.

CMC: Did you have any authors in mind for inspiration when you were writing the novel (John Grisham, etc.)? Donyo: The “secret assassins” idea is definitely inspired by the Bourne series by Robert Ludlum, but reversed, so that a private corporation is responsible instead of the government. Lee Child's Jack Reacher series always appealed to me, but I wanted a female representation of Reacher–– a female, teenage representation. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series is great for merging chick-lit and suspense, but I was going for a darker theme in TIA. My novel definitely still has a Young Adult/New Adult tone to the work though, with all the classic comedic situations of Meg Cabot and the roller-coaster romance of New Adult authors.

CMC: What was the toughest aspect of writing the novel? Donyo: Weapons research! Learning which gun might be used for what, discovering the difference between similar explosives, and finding ways of portraying made-up murder tools. My first draft of the novel didn't include very much weapons research, if at all. That's one aspect I regret about the editing process; trying to make time for everything in college was difficult enough, even without editing my manuscript. I wish I'd done more extensive research about weapons and martial arts tactics.

CMC: Did you write it thinking that it would surely be published? Donyo: Creative writing is incredibly self-indulgent. An author is the equivalent of one sole screenwriter for a TV series or movie. I'm a firm believer in writing what you want to read. After I had the idea, I knew it was the type of book I'd love to read myself. Target audiences are important, but the most important member of that target audience is you (the writer). Imagine you're the only one reading the book or watching the movie: Would you still like what you're reading or seeing? I'm all about visuals. I see every scene happening in my head like a movie or a TV show before it translates to writing on the page. Each chapter of TIA is a different episode in the novel's first season.

I don't necessarily write for the sake of publication; I write to create the story. I never know whether I want to publish something until it's finished. I came up with the introduction to the book as a starting point. “There are three rules to staying an assassin at the corporation of Covert Operatives: (1) your parents must be deceased, (2) your contracts must remain confidential, and (3) you must be under the age of eighteen.” I had that in mind before I even considered whether it could be a story, much less be published. From those lines, I developed a plot.

CMC: Are you planning a sequel to The Innocent Assassins or a second novel for that matter? Donyo: Very likely. Jane and Adrian's story will continue. I want to explore the grey area of choosing sides. Loyalties are never clearly defined, and both characters will find themselves switching their allegiances by the end of the novel.

But my next novel will be One Last Letter, a historical romance set in 1800s Texas. It will be released by the publisher Crimson Romance, and is currently slated for publication on Aug. 18, 2014. Stay tuned for more information!

CMC: Who are your favorite authors? Donyo: Lucy Maud Montgomery. I can’t remember whether it was my friend Lauren who first showed me the Anne of Green Gables series or I showed her, but we both love Montgomery's books. I've read nearly every novel in the Anne series. Montgomery's able to write about ordinary life in a way that's both captivating and romantic. Plus, Anne and Gilbert are the classic literary couple I can only dream of writing. 
Meg Cabot. I love her Mediator and Princess Diaries series. Her books taught me how to infuse humor into my writing and turn even the most serious of situations into comedic entertainment. Also, her books are just fun. They're pure escapism, whether she's writing about a teenage girl who discovers she’s a princess, or a mediator with a ghost-hottie living in her room, her novels are nearly always written in first-person point-of-view. First-person POV (which I also used for my novel) allows the reader to step into the character's perspective and immerses the reader into the story further.

CMC: What was the initial feedback from Astraea Press on why they wanted to publish your novel? Donyo: I queried several different publishers along with Astraea. I heard a lot of the same responses: “We like it, BUT thrillers aren’t in right now. It’s all about paranormals,” or “We like it, BUT the characters are only teenagers. It’s all about adult romance.” The two aspects I loved most about my novel–– New Adult characters and thriller elements–– were definite risks for some publishers. But Astraea Press didn’t see it that way. Stephanie Taylor (from Astraea Press) loved those aspects of my novel just as much as I did. I’m incredibly grateful for her and the entire team of Astraea Press editors and designers for taking a chance on my work.

If anyone would like to learn more about my writing, feel free to follow me on my blog, Goodreads, or Twitter (@PemaDonyo). Anyone is always free to get in touch with me via the contact form on my website.


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