Scott C. Johnson

Interview by Susan T. Landry

My father loved mysteries and espionage and after I zoomed through the usual kid stuff—the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew—he was eager to help me move up a level. I quickly devoured the long rows of Perry Mason mysteries at the library, and I spent some wonderful after-school hours in the company of Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, but soon I was ready for some darker material. My dad turned me on to Len Deighton’s spy novels and soon after, the brilliant The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I discovered the murkier world of real-life spies Guy Burgess and Kim Philby on my own.

I’ve moved on in my taste in literature, allowing for the occasional late-career Le Carré novel, but I had seen some reviews of the memoir, The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA, and was drawn to the book by the praise the author Scott C. Johnson was receiving for his elegant writing. Here’s a quick sketch:

”I remember my father standing in the yard during the hot summer, gazing up curiously at a tree full of black crows. He wore a beige khaki suit with pockets on the breasts and hips. He had a wide and angular face, with brown eyes and a full mouth. The crows screamed at him, a deafening caw. Their wings were dry. The world smelled of lemon and dust. Behind them the sky shone white, a color that erased distances. My father carried a slingshot and took aim at the birds. He wanted to calm their ruckus. Every now and again he fired, a rock slung through the air., and the tumult of many hundreds of wings stirred, fluttered, and then hammered to flee, their cries lingering as they hauled out over the rooftops.”

SL: First of all, I must say how much I admire your writing. You are deftly lyrical and poetic at times, yet you have the ability to cut to the chase. In fact, we can begin to approach the subject matter of The Wolf and The Watchman with the suggestion that you are uncommonly familiar with how language can be used to both obscure and reveal truth. Before you became a journalist, what—if any—experience did you have with creative writing or story telling? Was that what drew you to journalism—or, perhaps it was your childhood exposure to other countries, other cultures?

SJ: Thank you very much for the kind words, and for the opportunity to do this interview.

In college I became very interested in poetry, first in reading it—I read voraciously, everything from the Greeks to Shelley to Paul Celan and Eugenio Montale—and later in trying to write it.  I had two professors who were very encouraging and who urged me to consider pursuing it more seriously.

Your question reminds me of two encounters from that time.  The first was when one of those professors, in a summary letter he gave to each of his students at the end of the term, offered me a sort of backhanded compliment and told me that my poems were “sometimes too beautiful,” by which he meant that I could be overwrought, and had a tendency to be overly lyrical and baroque, to the point of heavy-handedness. I needed to scale that back, he said. I think this is a common habit with young writers, but it deserves repeating. He praised my “ear,” which was a critical piece of the puzzle for me because it highlighted the importance of the sound of words, as well as the meaning, the context, the tone.  One had to hear one’s way into a poem, an idea I loved, and I think it applies to all writing. The other memorable encounter occurred with an ex-girlfriend. We had both taken a personality test, at the end of which each of us was given a motto. Mine was “All words are lies.”  My girlfriend told me I would do well to remember this. I thought her advice was suspect at the time, but since then I’ve come to see its wisdom, not because all words are lies of course, it’s not as simple as that, but because language does have an incredible power to both reveal and obscure. I’ve thought about it often. The simplest, most unassuming sentences can be the most revelatory, while a knack for lyricism can wind up being frustrating and maddening to a reader who wants to connect with an author and who feels the language is only getting in the way.  And there’s a responsibility in parsing out how to use those tools, and for what purposes.

My first attempts at prose were with short stories and an aborted attempt at a novel. None of these were very good, for the reasons my professors had outlined: I was too focused on writing beautiful, but ultimately probably deceitful, sentences. The words need to be in the service of something bigger. I wasn’t a good enough writer or thinker to know how to do that in fiction yet. Journalism was attractive for many reasons. It made sense for my life, for one. I had grown up in several countries, and spent much of my life trying to understand different cultures and languages, and journalism of the kind I was starting to do (foreign correspondence) was an extension of that world and I understood it.  I enjoyed doing it and found I wasn’t too bad at it either. From a language and writing perspective it offered tremendous gifts. There was a constant rhythm of daily writing and feedback from editors and bosses.  This helped instill a writing work ethic in me, and I learned not to become too attached to any one thing I wrote, for it could almost always be improved on, changed, or simply cut.  Deadlines taught me how to write and think quicker than I might otherwise have been inclined to do.  I learned how to strive for spareness and efficiency, which is an effective way to communicate information, but has the added benefit of creating a kind of musculature wherein more beautiful phrases or sentences stand out. And finally, journalism plunges you into life—the lives of other people, of course, but also your own, because every story is, in its own way, a patterned reflection of one’s own life.  I think it’s impossible to do good journalism without involving yourself in the human drama that each story entails. And for a writer of any kind, this is gold. It makes us more human, more engaged, more fully aware of the variety of the human experience.

SL: At the heart of your memoir is your relationship with your father. My husband and I often talk about how difficult it is in contemporary times, in sophisticated societies, to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. There are no longer any established rites of passage: leaving home, becoming financially independent, having your own partner and/or children. Economic insecurity and poorly defined adult roles in the world seem to make growing up much harder. For many of us, separating from our parents, coming to understand how we are like them, how we are different, is a lifelong process. Would you mind talking a bit about your own maturation and your sense of how it was complicated by the fact that you learned as a teenager that your father was a spy?

SJ: I’ve always been a late bloomer. So my maturation, such as it was, came in fits and starts. But it was always accompanied by a sense of fragmentation.  That’s in part because I was constantly moving around, changing schools, making and losing friends, learning the customs and cultures of a new country or American state. All of that flux fostered in me a sense of adaptability, probably an ability to very quickly see what I needed to do to survive, which is itself a kind of maturity, I suppose.  But that transient life did not provide the structures for the kind of steady progress through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood that I think most people have.

I remember feeling very out of place as a child, adrift, unsure of my place vis à vis other children or adults. I spent a lot of time by myself.  I equated maturity with adapting, being a kind of chameleon.  It allowed me to “pass” in uncertain or unfamiliar situations. But it prevented or perhaps just delayed the true expression of a personality that comes with feeling grounded in a community of people with a common history. And my father’s disclosure that he was a spy made that sense of alienation more acute because suddenly I was privy to a very big and important secret that I was allowed, and encouraged, to lie about. So in one way I grew up very quickly; I had to be an adult about a very adult kind of thing.  But the other processes of maturation that come with being a regular kid, in a community with sustained and consistent pressures, was delayed or never occurred at all.  And so I had to find my own way to it.

SL: There is a point in your life when you had a psychological break, what seemed to me to be a spinning out of control, spinning out of your orbit as though you had slipped beyond whatever forces had held you together. What is your take on that—now that you have moved beyond that period? How do you think you were able to find your way back to yourself?

SJ: It started very abruptly when I was still in my final year of college. I began to have very intense and repeated obsessive thoughts, accompanied by pretty severe depressions.  It took many years before I got any kind of official diagnosis, and I can honestly say that there was quite a bit of suffering for a period of several years. I masked it well and told very few people. But that was also a period where I used writing as a source of healing. I wrote constantly, about this suffering, but also about anything and everything else because it was a kind of distraction.  It may sound silly or strange, but as much as anything, I used writing as a tool to take my mind away from itself, away from me.  And perhaps because of what I explained in the previous answer, that I had lived for a long time with a great sense of fragmentation, I think I also used it as a way to make sense of things, to tell a story to myself, about myself, which is where the book originated, and how it continued to grow over a period of many years.  The process of writing the book, editing it, finishing it — all of that dovetailed with the slow process of coming out the back end of that psychological or spiritual crisis that began so precipitously in college. I would like to say I’ve moved beyond that period, I guess I have in many important ways, but one of the things I’ve learned is that one moves into other challenging mental spaces, with new rules, new parameters, new goals and limitations.  We discover unknown parts of ourselves and they present their own questions that require answers.

SL: Despite profound complexities, there was and continues to be great love between you and your father. This strong love, coupled with the thread of an international adventure story, make your memoir anything but predictable. As someone said in one of the promotional blurbs: this book is a real page turner! I certainly could not put it down, and I think what you have done is a major accomplishment. When you first began to formulate how to write this book, were you aware of how complicated and perhaps antithetical the roles of journalist and son might be?

SJ:  Thank you, again.  When I began the book, I had no idea how the various themes would grow and develop:  journalism, espionage, fathers and sons, love and betrayal, and so forth. It really began with a memory of being a boy on a secretive base, wondering what my father did, who he was, and how my burgeoning life as a journalist compared with that. I was fascinated by the memory of that place, by being a boy who had so many questions, and by the rather stunning revelations that came so soon after that period. It was just thinking about those couple of years that I first began formulating the book.  But as I continued to develop as a journalist, and as my questions to my father gained more weight and heft, it was as if a curtain began to rise.  The questions became thornier, more difficult for me to ask and for him to answer. How did I reconcile his humanity with his profession?  Was I okay knowing that he might have done things that would scare or shame me?  Would I ever know him completely and was that even an acceptable thing to expect?  And what had I imbibed as a son without even knowing I’d done so?  And on and on, the questions kept pouring forth, all having originated in these very innocent childhood memories. And as they did the shape of the book began to emerge, and it became incredibly interesting to me objectively, journalistically, as well as personally. I began to think of it as a fascinating story, and started to approach it as such.  And I had endless resources to call upon—my own memories, his, our lives became the subject and the process both.

SL: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. To keep the momentum flowing, as a final question, we ask all our authors if there other memoirs by other writers they’ve enjoyed. Are there any you would like to recommend?

SJ: Yes.  These come to mind: This Boy’s Life; Another Bullshit Day in Suck City; A Stone Boat (not exactly a memoir, but close); The Glass Castle; and The Duke of Deception.


Scott Johnson has spent much of the last decade in the Middle East, covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in Africa, reporting on politics and current affairs. He has been the chief of Newsweek’s Mexico, Baghdad, and Africa bureaus, as well as a special correspondent from Paris. He was part of the team that contributed to Newsweek’s 2003 National Magazine Award for reportage of the Iraq war, and in 2004 the Overseas Press Club honored his reports on Latin America. He has appeared in various American media, including on CNN, MSNBC, and National Public Radio, and his work has been featured in publications such as GrantaGuernica, and National Geographic ExplorerThe Wolf and the Watchman. was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2013, for nonfiction. Johnson lives in California with his wife and cat, Dude.