A debut novel, The Secrets We Kept was an instant New York Times bestseller, a Reese Witherspoon book club pick, and has been snapped up for a movie adaptation, Ann Chadwick speaks to the author, Lara Prescott before she heads to the Ilkley Literature Festival.
From ‘La La Land’ to Ilkley Literature Festival, Lara Prescott is a hot ticket Hollywood style. The Secrets We Kept, a thrilling tale of secretaries turned spies, is in production with the Oscar-nominated producer of the Ryan Gosling smash, and has already been translated into 29 languages.
What’s more it was picked by Hollywood star, Reese Witherspoon, for her famed book club.
“It was a huge shock that Reese chose me for the book club,” Lara said, speaking from her home in Texas. “It’s just been an amazing experience because she introduces me to so many readers that trust her opinion.”
The Secrets We Kept is inspired by the true story of the CIA plot to infiltrate the hearts and minds of Soviet Russia – not with propaganda, but with the greatest love story of the twentieth century: Doctor Zhivago.
The story, set at the height of the Cold War, follows a mission to smuggle Dr Zhivago out of the USSR to help Boris Pasternak’s iconic novel make its way into print around the world.
“My name Lara is named after Boris Pasternak’s heroine, so I’ve always had a lifelong love with both the novel and the film Dr Zhivago,” Lara explained. “I’ve read it numerous times since I was a teenager.”
In 2014, Lara’s father (her parents were huge fans of the David Lean adaptation starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif) sent her an article from the Washington Post uncovering how the CIA helped spread the novel from behind the Iron Curtain, where it was banned.
“After that point I just wanted to find out everything I could about how during the Cold War the CIA believed books could be used as weapons, and this book in particular – Dr Zhivago – was seen as the greatest weapon”
The interest was fuelled by her then job – working on political campaigns in Washington DC.
“I was writing ad copy and social media posts and very aware of how words can change people’s hearts and minds. And just the fact that Dr Zhivago was used in this way was something I found irresistible, I just had to research everything about it.”
Her parents were in love with the book for the same reasons as Lara: “You have the love story but you also have this great war and political story, and the lessons Boris Pasternak imparts by talking about the dangers of group think. And my parents have also spoken to me about recent current events and those dangers as well. It’s strange how history repeats itself.”
The premise is books can change hearts and minds – how a powerful piece of art can change the world.
“I do believe that novels and storytelling can change the world,” Lara said. “I think that there isn’t any form of art in my opinion that can connect a person for days or weeks or however long it takes to read a book with another person, another person’s heart, and they can walk in the shoes of someone they’ve never met, or a place they’ve never been, or a place that they might have opinions about but really know nothing about. And I think those seeds that a book can plant of – this is how it really is to walk in someone’s shoes – can be extremely powerful on an individual level. So my hope is, that people still take that time to engage with a book. And also, in the same aspect there can be literature that can lead people down the wrong path. It could be a really great thing or a negative thing. There’s a saying that all books are a form of propaganda, that’s never my intention as a writer but depending on your viewpoint you can see it that way.”
Lara worked as a political campaign consultant prior to writing fiction, after studying political science in Washington DC. When it comes to the rise of fake news and the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which mined data during the electoral process, are we living in more dangerous times when it comes to propaganda?
“I think the danger lies in the speed in which people can be exposed to propaganda and have their minds changed that leads them to vote or act a certain way. With the speed of a Tweet or Facebook post or YouTube video you can have millions of people seeing it within minutes. During the Cold War they thought of using books and literature as part of a long game, they didn’t think people within minutes would be hearing and talking about it. I think the advances of communication has made it a very dangerous thing and a very specific thing, when you talk about targeting people for data and how Cambridge Analytica had what they called the ‘persuadables’ – people they felt can sway an election. That is to me the most frightening thing about it – the speed and the accuracy.”
Lara said she was fortunate to only work for candidates she believed in – working on progressive campaigns, but even so, became jaded.
“My worry, and this has been echoed by many, by Elizabeth Warren who’s running for President, is how money in Washington can just perpetually influence policy and I just don’t believe in that at all. So where my politics stand today? I was really jaded for a long time after I quit my job in politics, but now I feel invigorated to take a stand again and voice my opinions and work for a candidate that’s going to take Trump’s presidency away from him.”
She said Trump’s election was a shock, and she still doesn’t trust polls and takes the news at ‘face value’.
Becoming a novelist is a crusade in its own way. She cites Toni Morrison as an example of literature’s power. “Her incredible gift to the world was connecting people with this small subset of people that they might never had run into or talked to or have all these preconceived notions about.”
The trend of shows like Killing Eve and the true stories of female spies being reported, is something she feels is fascinating.
“I’m very excited it is coming into the light for the public now because these stories that I read during my research were just so fantastic that I couldn’t believe their stories weren’t in my history books in school or that there’s not monuments to these women spies because they did so much for the US during World War Two and throughout the existence of the CIA. I think hopefully in recent years, whether it’s in the sciences or other fields – women’s stories that have been forgotten or just supressed are coming to like. I’m thinking of Hidden Figures and this recent surge of understanding women’s contribution to history. Maybe it’s in part to the current political climate that we are taking these things more seriously and questioning why they haven’t been told – but whatever the case is, I love it, anytime I hear something about someone’s story who’s been forgotten it’s such a win to me to have people telling these stories.”
As to the movie adaptation of her book, her ideal cast has included actors Nicole Kidman, Michelle Williams or Margot Robbie in the lead: “I keep changing my mind – originally I never had a thought about which actors would be good because I only saw the characters in my head.”
If all the incredible reception to her debut doesn’t convince audiences to come and see her at the Ilkley Literature Festival, how would she entice them?
“I would say, people are so fascinated with the CIA story and women spies and the love story in the Western side of my novel that I think it will really resonate with people who are fans of historical fiction, of spy thrillers, and it has this mix of different genres, so I think there’s something in it for everyone – along with fans of Dr Zhivago, the film or the book.
“I hope that if people read it they take something away from it, that it connects with them in some way, and that’s all I can really hope for as an author.”
Lara Prescott is at the Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday 5 October, 3.30pm, St Margaret’s Hall. The festival runs from 4-20 October. For the full line up and to book go to ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk Box Office: 01943 816714.