Past Perfect

( 12 )

Overview

In Past Perfect, Susan Isaacs gives us one of her most glorious characters ever: bright, buoyant, and borderline luscious Katie Schottland. Katie seems to have the ideal life: a great husband, a precocious and winning ten-year-old son, and a dream job — writer for the long-running TV series Spy Guys. But all is not as splendid as it should be because writing about the espionage business isn't nearly as satisfying as working in it.

Fifteen years earlier, Katie was in the CIA. She...

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Past Perfect: A Novel

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Overview

In Past Perfect, Susan Isaacs gives us one of her most glorious characters ever: bright, buoyant, and borderline luscious Katie Schottland. Katie seems to have the ideal life: a great husband, a precocious and winning ten-year-old son, and a dream job — writer for the long-running TV series Spy Guys. But all is not as splendid as it should be because writing about the espionage business isn't nearly as satisfying as working in it.

Fifteen years earlier, Katie was in the CIA. She loved her job (to say nothing of her boss, the mysterious Benton Mattingly). Yet just as she was sensing she was in line for a promotion, she was fired — escorted off the premises by two extremely hulking security types. Why? No one would tell her: when you're expelled from the Agency, warm friends immediately become icy ex-colleagues who won't risk their security clearances by talking to you.

Until that day, Katie was where she wanted to be. Coming from a family of Manhattan superachievers, she too had a job she not only adored but a job that made her, in the family tradition, a Someone. Fifteen years later, Katie is still stuck on her firing. Was she set up? Or did she make some terrible mistake that cost lives? She believes that if she could discover why they threw her out, she might be at peace.

On the day she's rushing to get her son off to summer camp, Katie gets a surprise call from former Agency colleague Lisa Golding. "A matter of national importance," says Lisa, who promises to reveal the truth about the firing — if Katie will help her. Lisa was never very good at truth-telling, though she swears she's changed her ways. Katie agrees to speak with her, but before she can, Lisa vanishes.

Maturity and common sense should keep Katie in the bright, normal world of her present life, away from the dark intrigues of the past. But she needs to know. As she takes just a few steps to find out, one ex-spy who might have the answers dies under suspicious circumstances. Another former agent is murdered. Could it be there's a list? If so, is Katie now on it? And who will be the next to go?

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Ex-CIA agent Katie Schottland is now a successful spy novelist, but she still gets nostalgic about her glory days back at the Agency. When an old co-worker sends out an alarm, Katie jumps at the chance to reopen her (purloined) files. It doesn't take a super-snooper, however, to discover that several of her old Iron Curtain charges have become corpses. These unexplained homicides send our reactivated operative off on a mad chase to save her other associates. Susan Isaacs handles this diverting thriller with consummate adroitness.
Claudia Deane
Isaacs is so good at what she does that her deservedly loyal fans are bound to be charmed.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Isaacs's 11th novel has fewer sparks flying than nets dragging, but most fans won't mind a bit, given the amount of outside-the-bedroom adventure. Despite reinventing herself as the author of the novel Spy Guys and the creator of the resultant TV show, Katie Schottland remains wounded by her still-unexplained firing from the CIA, where she wrote intelligence briefs as the Cold War ended, 13 years earlier. When she gets a distress call from an old co-worker, Lisa Golding, who subsequently disappears, Katie plunges back into the notes she smuggled out of the office. She seeks help from an old flame and another ex-agent (now a log-cabin recluse) who helps her trace three of Lisa's former charges at the CIA, East German asylum seekers transported to America and given new names. When two of them turn up dead within weeks of each other, Katie decides to give chase to locate the third before the woman becomes the next casualty. And she still hopes she'll coerce her ex-employer to give up the truth about her termination. The operations stuff is well-done throughout. Katie's relationship with her sweet vet husband adds little, but TV show-based scenes are diverting, and her fixation on her last job is sharply funny and true-to-life. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
New York novelist Katie Schottland is the TV scriptwriter of an espionage show based on her book, Spy Guys. She is also happily married to Adam, a pathologist at the Bronx Zoo, and is the mother of precocious ten-year-old Nicky. A high achiever and more than gainfully employed, Katie has nonetheless never gotten over the shame of being fired from her first job with the CIA. Fifteen years earlier, following her graduation from college, she worked for two years as a writer/analyst for the agency's Eastern European division when she was suddenly and unceremoniously removed from the premises without explanation. Katie's feelings surface anew when she receives a blast-from-the-past phone call from former colleague Lisa Golding, who begs for Katie's help, promises in exchange to tell her why she was removed, and then promptly disappears. From that point forward, Katie's life takes on the intrigue of her TV characters as she searches for Lisa and the answer to her own personal mystery. Filled with well-rounded characters and good humor, this novel, like Isaacs's previous works (e.g., Any Place I Hang My Hat), could be a best seller. Recommended for large fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/15/06.]
—Sheila Riley
Library Journal
New York novelist Katie Schottland is the TV scriptwriter of an espionage show based on her book, Spy Guys. She is also happily married to Adam, a pathologist at the Bronx Zoo, and is the mother of precocious ten-year-old Nicky. A high achiever and more than gainfully employed, Katie has nonetheless never gotten over the shame of being fired from her first job with the CIA. Fifteen years earlier, following her graduation from college, she worked for two years as a writer/analyst for the agency's Eastern European division when she was suddenly and unceremoniously removed from the premises without explanation. Katie's feelings surface anew when she receives a blast-from-the-past phone call from former colleague Lisa Golding, who begs for Katie's help, promises in exchange to tell her why she was removed, and then promptly disappears. From that point forward, Katie's life takes on the intrigue of her TV characters as she searches for Lisa and the answer to her own personal mystery. Filled with well-rounded characters and good humor, this novel, like Isaacs's previous works (e.g., Any Place I Hang My Hat), could be a best seller. Recommended for large fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/06.]-Sheila Riley, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, DC Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A faltering comic spy caper from Isaacs (Any Place I Hang My Hat, 2004, etc.). Soon-to-be-40 Katie Schottland has a pretty terrific life in her native New York: a great apartment in a pre-war building, a devoted husband in Adam, a vet at the Bronx Zoo, and ten-year-old Nicky, a pudgy kid with a heart of gold. To top it off, she has an enviable job as the sole writer for Spy Guys, a not too awful cable show based on her only novel. But when she gets a mysterious call from ex-colleague Lisa Golding, something about national security and the fate of the nation, all that contentment evaporates. Fifteen years ago, Katie and Lisa worked at the CIA, Katie turning out reports on the crumbling Soviet Bloc. She loved everything about her job until she was unceremoniously fired, escorted from the building by guards and blackballed from finding another job. Lisa's call offers the ultimate bait-the classified information explaining why Katie was ditched. But when Lisa disappears, Katie becomes involved in a CIA conspiracy more complicated than anything she could have come up with for the cable show: Three East German officials were brought to the U.S. courtesy of the CIA just before the collapse of their government. Set up in businesses and given new identities, they benefited from quite a lot of starter money. Why such special treatment? And why are they being murdered? Katie begins traveling the country in search of answers, having a bit more adventure than she bargained for. Isaacs' thriller is complicated enough to keep you guessing until the end, but the book's momentum is halted by the slightly neurotic narrator, who enjoys the occasional tangent right at the climax of suspense. A misstep forthe usually entertaining author.
From the Publisher
"Susan Isaacs has an incredibly good ear for dialogue and a very sharp eye for the silly and stupid things people really do. Picture yourself laughing out loud while sitting on the edge of your seat and furiously flipping pages. The clever plot, the quick pace, and the pitch-perfect writing are good clues that Past Perfect was written by a master storyteller." — Nelson DeMille, author of Wild Fire

"There has to be a name for the literary form Susan Isaacs has invented: the funny scary book. The woman who made us laugh as well as shiver in fear over a murder investigation in Compromising Positions has done the same thing for the CIA and international espionage. Past Perfect made me laugh, but it also kept me jumping out of bed every time a floorboard creaked in my old house." — Sara Paretsky, author of Fire Sale

"I love Susan Isaacs! Her books come straight from the heart, and her characters are smart, funny, and feisty enough to be your best girlfriend — not only for three hundred pages, but for life. Past Perfect introduces Katie Schottland — a terrific galpal who packs her kid off to summer camp and sleuths as a CIA analyst with equal style. Put simply, Past Perfect is perfect!" — Lisa Scottoline, author of Dirty Blonde

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416572084
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 6/10/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 953,036
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Isaacs
Susan Isaacs is the author of nine novels, including Any Place I Hang My Hat; Long Time No See; and Red, White and Blue, and one nonfiction title. She is a former editor of Seventeen and a freelance political speechwriter. She currently lives on Long Island with her husband. All of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers.

Biography

Susan Isaacs, novelist, essayist and screenwriter, was born in Brooklyn and educated at Queens College. After leaving school, she worked as an editorial assistant at Seventeen magazine. In 1968, Susan married Elkan Abramowitz, a then a federal prosecutor. She became a senior editor at Seventeen but left in 1970 to stay home with her newborn son, Andrew. Three years later, she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. During this time she freelanced, writing political speeches as well as magazine articles. Elkan became a criminal defense lawyer.

In the mid-seventies, Susan got the urge to write a novel. A year later she began working on what was to become Compromising Positions, a whodunit set on suburban Long Island. It was published in 1978 by Times Books and was chosen a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Her second novel, Close Relations, a love story set against a background of ethnic, sexual and New York Democratic politics (thus a comedy), was published in 1980 by Lippincott and Crowell and was a selection of the Literary Guild. Her third, Almost Paradise, was published by Harper & Row in 1984, and was a Literary Guild main selection; in this work Susan used the saga form to show how the people are molded not only by their histories, but also by family fictions that supplant truth. All of Susan's novels have been New York Times bestsellers. Her fiction has been translated into thirty languages.

In 1985, she wrote the screenplay for Paramount's Compromising Positions, which starred Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. She also wrote and co-produced Touchstone Pictures' Hello Again. The 1987 comedy starred Shelley Long and Judith Ivey.

Her fourth novel, Shining Through, set during World War II, was published by Harper & Row in 1988. Twentieth-Century Fox's film adaptation starred Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffith. Her fifth book, Magic Hour, a coming-of-middle-age novel as well as a mystery, was published in January 1991. After All These Years was published in 1993; critics lauded it for its strong and witty protagonist. Lily White came out in 1996 and Red, White and Blue in 1998. All the novels were published by HarperCollins and were main selections of the Literary Guild. In 1999, Susan's first work of nonfiction, Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen, was published by Ballantine's Library of Contemporary Thought. During 2000, she wrote a series of columns on the presidential campaign for Newsday. Long Time No See, a Book of the Month Club main selection, was published in September 2001; it was a sequel to Compromising Positions. Susan's tenth novel is Any Place I Hang My Hat (2004).

Susan Isaacs is a recipient of the Writers for Writers Award and the John Steinbeck Award. She serves as chairman of the board of Poets & Writers and is a past president of Mystery Writers of America. She is also a member of the National Book Critics Circle, The Creative Coalition, PEN, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the International Association of Crime Writers, and the Adams Round Table. She sits on the boards of the Queens College Foundation, the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Association, the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and is an active member of her synagogue. She has worked to gather support for the National Endowment of the Arts' Literature Program and has been involved in several anti-censorship campaigns. In addition to writing books, essays and films, Susan has reviewed books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Newsday and written about politics, film and First Amendment issues. She lives on Long Island with her husband.

Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.

Good To Know

Some outtakes from our interview with Isaacs:

"My first job was wrapping shoes in a shoe store in the low-rent district of Fifth Avenue and saying ‘Thank you!' with a cheery smile. I got canned within three days for not wrapping fast enough, although I suspect that often my vague, future-novelist stare into space while thinking about sex or lunch did not give me a smile that would ring the bell on the shoe store's cheer-o-meter."

"I constantly have to fight against the New York Effect, an overwhelming urge to wear black clothes so everyone will think, Egad, isn't she chic and understated! I'm not, by nature, a black-wearing person. (I'm not, by nature, a chic person either.) I like primary colors as well as bright purple, loud chartreuse, and shocking pink. And that's just my shoes."

"I'm not a great fan of writing classes. Yes, they do help people sometimes, especially with making them write regularly. But the aspiring writer can be a delicate creature, sensitive or even oversensitive to criticism. I was that way: I still am. The problem begins with most people's natural desire to please. In a classroom situation, especially one in which the work will be read aloud or critiqued in class, the urge to write something likable or merely critic-proof can dam up your natural talent. Also, it keeps you from developing the only thing you have is a writer -- your own voice. Finally, you don't know the people in a class well enough to figure out where their criticism is coming from. A great knowledge of literature? Veiled hostility? The talent is too precious a commodity to risk handing it over to strangers."

"Writing is sometimes an art, and it certainly is a craft. But it's also a job. I go to work five or six days a week (depending how far along I am with my work-in-progress). Like most other people, there are days I would rather be lying in a hammock reading or going to a movie with a friend. But whether you're an artist or an accountant, you still have to show up at work. Otherwise, it is unlikely to get done."

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    1. Hometown:
      Sands Point, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 7, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      Honorary Doctorate, Queens College
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Past Perfect

A Novel
By Susan Isaacs

Scribner

Copyright © 2007 Susan Isaacs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743242165

Chapter One

Oh God, I wish I had a weapon! Naturally, I don't. Of course, if life in any way resembled Spy Guys, the espionage TV show I write, I'd pull off the top of my pen and with one stab inflict a fatal wound, and save my life. Except no pen: just two pieces of chewed Dentyne Ice spearmint wrapped in a receipt for sunscreen and panty liners.

When I began making notes on what I naively thought of as Katie's Big Adventure, I hadn't a clue that my life would be on the line. How could I? This would be my story, and every ending I'd ever written had been upbeat. But in the past few weeks I've learned that "happily ever after" is simply proof of my lifelong preference for fantasy over reality.

Unfortunately, fantasy will not get me out of this mess. So what am I supposed to do now? First, calm down. Hard to do when I'm crouched behind a toolshed, up to my waist in insanely lush flora that's no doubt crawling with fauna.

It's so dark. No moon, no stars: the earth could be the only celestial object in a black universe. And it's hot. Even at this late hour, there is no relief from the heat. My shirt is sweat-drenched and so sucked against my skin it's a yellow-and-white-striped epidermis.

I cannot let myself dwell on the fact that my danger is doubled because I'm so out of my element. Me, Total Manhattan Sushi Woman, cowering behinda toolshed in fried pork rinds country with unspeakable creatures from the insect and worm worlds who think my sandaled feet are some new interstate.

Adam, my husband, would probably be able to identify the nocturnal bird in a nearby tree that refuses to shut up, the one whose hoarse squawks sound like "Shit! Shit! Shit!" Adam is a vet. A veterinary pathologist at the Bronx Zoo, to be precise. Were something that feels like a rat's tail to brush his toes in the dark, he wouldn't want to shriek in horror and vomit simultaneously, like I do. He'd just say, Hmm, a Norway rat. Adam is close to fearless.

I, of course, am not. If I concentrate on what's happening here in the blackness, the slide of something furry against my anklebone, the sponginess of the ground beneath the thin, soaked soles of my sandals, a sudden Bump! against my cheek, then something, whatever it is (bat? blood-swollen insect?) ricocheting off, I will literally go mad, and trust me, I know the difference between literally and figuratively. I'll howl like a lunatic until brought back to sanity by the terrible realization that I've given away my precise location to that nut job who is out there, maybe only a hundred feet away, stalking me.

Feh! Something just landed on the inner part of my thigh. As I brush it off, its gross little feet try to grip me.

Don't scream! Calm down. Taoist breathing method: Listen to your breathing. Easy. Don't force it. Just concentrate. Listen. All right: three reasonably calm breaths. What am I going to do? How am I going to survive? Will I ever see Adam again? And our son, Nicky?

What used to be my real life back in New York seems as far away as some Blondie concert I went to when I was fifteen. All right, what the hell was I originally thinking I had to do here behind the toolshed? Oh, try to remember what I wrote in the journal I began a day or two after that first disturbing phone call. Maybe something I'd unthinkingly jotted down could help me now, or could at least allow me to delude myself that this episode will be yet another of my...and they lived happily ever after.

Copyright 2007 by Susan Isaacs



Continues...


Excerpted from Past Perfect by Susan Isaacs Copyright © 2007 by Susan Isaacs. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Introduction

Reading Group Guide

Katie Schottland appears to have it all: a great husband and son, an upscale Manhattan lifestyle, and a dream job writing for the television series Spy Guys. But an unexplained incident from her past has long troubled Katie: fifteen years earlier she was dismissed from her post as an analyst at the CIA with no warning and no explanation.

When Lisa Golding, a former Agency colleague, telephones Katie out of the blue and asks for her assistance with "a matter of national importance," she promises, in exchange, to reveal the truth about Katie's firing. Lisa disappears soon after, and Katie finds herself drawn from a fictional spy world into a dark, intriguing real-life case of espionage.

As the body count begins to rise, Katie realizes she might be an assassin's next target but is determined to complete her self-imposed mission. Driven by a need to know what really happened all those years ago, she risks her marriage, her television career, and even her life to finally make peace with the past.

Discussion Questions

1. For fifteen years Katie has obsessed over her termination from the CIA. Why was working at the Agency so important to Katie? How much of her fascination with the job stemmed from her interest in espionage novels and films? And why, as Katie wonders, does being fired "still have such power" over her?

2. The people in Katie's life offer opinions as to why she's so intent on delving into the circumstances surrounding her dismissal from the CIA — Maddy theorizes that Katie is looking for an adventure, while Jacques suggests it's because her fortieth birthday is looming. What is your theory as to why Katie sozealously pursues answers about her past?

3. In chapter one Katie reveals that she has had a "lifelong preference for fantasy over reality." At any point in the story, did you question Katie's judgment about the events taking place or the decisions she made? Why or why not? In what ways does her fascination with espionage stories hinder or help during her investigation?

4. With Nicky off to camp for several weeks, Katie had envisioned using the time to rekindle her "marriage flame." Why, then, does she prioritize her investigation above her marriage?

5. What is your opinion of Adam? How supportive is he of Katie's search for answers? What do you suppose the future holds for their relationship?

6. When contemplating why she might have been fired, Katie asserts, "I was confident the decision had nothing to do with Ben." What makes her so certain that Ben was blameless in her termination? How is her visit to Ben's Washington, D.C., office a turning point in how she sees her former boss?

7. Discuss Katie's relationship with her parents and her sister, Maddy. How much of Katie's concern about being fired from the CIA had to do with their opinion of her? How is Katie now viewed by her parents and sister?

8. "You've involved yourself in a dangerous business...You know it, but you don't appreciate it," Maddy remarks to Katie. Do you agree or disagree with Maddy's observation of Katie, and why? What basis does she have for assuming Katie doesn't fully comprehend she that might be placing herself in harm's way?

9. After Jacques and Huff reveal to Katie why she was fired, she has the answer she was seeking. Why, then, does she continue to look into the circumstances surrounding her dismissal? What more does she want?

10. What motivates Katie to travel to Florida and speak with Maria Schneider in person? What warning signs does she miss during her conversation with Maria in the park?

11. Discuss the CIA's offer of restitution to Katie. Ultimately, does Katie get the closure she was seeking? Why or why not?

12. What is your overall impression of Past Perfect? How does this book compare to other novels you've read by Susan Isaacs?

Enhance Your Book Club

In the spirit of Ian Fleming's suave spy, James Bond, mix up a round of martinis — shaken, not stirred, of course. Or, like Katie does in Past Perfect, indulge in hot chocolate and Mallomars.

Make it an espionage-themed gathering when you discuss Past Perfect and show a classic film, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Three Days of the Condor, or Dr. No.

Visit www.simonsays.com to watch a video clip of Susan Isaacs discussing her fiction and the writing process.

A Discussion with Susan Isaacs

Where do you get your ideas?

I don't think there's been a time since I've been answering questions that I haven't been asked where I find my ideas for novels. I hope my answer is enlightening, although I don't know if it will be helpful. That's because each writer's inspiration is as unique as his or her fingerprints.

My "ideas" come to me as characters. Before I wrote my first novel, Compromising Positions, I was reading a dangerous number of mysteries a week: three or four. Suddenly, a character popped into my head. Like me, she was a housewife on Long Island with two young children and a husband who commuted into Manhattan. Unlike me, she wanted to find out who killed...well, I had no idea who had been murdered, but since she seemed to be hanging around in my head, I decided to figure out a mystery for her to solve.

The same holds true for my novels that aren't mysteries. For Shining Through, a legal secretary came into my head wanting me to tell her story — about being in love with one of the law firm's partners, even though social-class differences supposedly put him out of her league. I wanted to give her some way to prove her worth, to herself if not to him. But it wasn't until World War II popped into my head, a time when ordinary people often displayed extraordinary courage, that I had my story.

Other writers use the big What If. Something arouses their curiosity and they ask themselves: What if a savvy businesswoman turned stay-at-home mother starts to believe her house is haunted? What if a couple in the midst of a bitter divorce finds themselves snowed in for a week?

Some authors may get intrigued by a story or situation they hear about on the news or just in casual conversation. Henry James is said to have gotten the idea for Washington Square from a story he overheard at a dinner party. Just a phrase or a word might get the creative juices flowing. "Seduced and abandoned," "Poor little rich girl," "Won the lottery." There are writers who give a new spin to an old work: a fairy tale such as Cinderella, or the biblical story of Job.

Finally, a would-be writer or an old pro can wonder, What's the book I most want to read that hasn't yet been written?

Where did you get the idea for Past Perfect?

Before I wrote Past Perfect, some random ideas were floating around in my head. The first was what a tight grip the past has on the present. For so many of us, a long-ago relationship (a lost love, a callous parent) or an event that happened years earlier (getting fired, being the victim of an unjust accusation) still has so much power in our lives. Friends advise, "You're thirty/fifty/eighty. Get over it." Yet we can't.

Another idea: Like so many other Americans, I was thinking about Iraq. How did we get it so wrong? More specifically, How did the CIA, an agency filled with supposedly smart people, make such bad calls? In Shining Through, which was set in New York, Washington, and Berlin during World War II, I'd written about America's spy organization, the OSS [Office of Strategic Services]. The CIA grew out of that group, and I'd read a fair amount about its development — everything from spy novels to books on American foreign policy to memoirs by ex-spooks. So I got to thinking how the Agency had gotten it wrong before: the Bay of Pigs invasion, failing to predict the rapid implosion of East Germany.

And suddenly I had a new novel. Katie Schottland had her dream job in the CIA — and then lost it in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She never learned why she was fired, but the pain of that dismissal still plagued her years later. Sure, she had what most people would say was a great life, but...That's one of the joys of writing fiction. Disparate ideas meet and suddenly, whammo. It's rather like falling in love.

Did you always want to be a writer?

As a child, I wanted to be a cowgirl. Perhaps that seems odd for a kid growing up in Brooklyn, but even then I had the ability to be anyone I wanted to be — in my head, if not in reality. Writing was always something I did reasonably well, but it didn't occur to me that I could make a living by it. After college I worked at Seventeen magazine. I began by writing advice to the lovelorn, and after a few years I became a senior editor. I left Seventeen to raise my children, and I worked part-time as a political speechwriter. When my second child was two, it occurred to me that I wanted to write fiction.

Of all the books you've written, which is your favorite?

There's a writers' cliché about books being like children. Well, it's true. You love all your children, even the goofy ones.

Do you write longhand or use a computer?

A computer and, more recently, speech recognition. I sit there with my headset, and dictate. To me, it's a boon because I speak faster than I type. Also, for some reason, I focus better using this method. Naturally, there's a downside. The program I use doesn't seem too comfortable with a New York accent, even with the extra training I gave it. So when I had the protagonist of my new novel say "I opened the door," what I saw on my monitor was "I opened the Torah." Ultimately, I don't think it matters what method a writer uses. Longhand, typewriter, quill and ink: they're simply tools.

Do you know the whole story before you start writing? Do you make an outline?

For me, making an outline is a way to work out the plot, since with me, the characters come first. Also, it's easier to see the structure of the novel that way, and I have the security of knowing where it's going. Sometimes, the outline is a snap. I guess that's when my subconscious has already done the heavy lifting. However, on a couple of books, including Lily White, I took almost a year to work out what was going to happen. Naturally, I was petrified the whole time that I was losing my marbles and/or having the world's most unconquerable writer's block. However, I know many authors who don't bother with an outline, who feel it's too constraining. There is no one right way to write.

Are any of your characters based on people you know?

I never consciously pick someone I know and put him or her into a book. The fun of writing, as well as the agony, is in creating a new universe and populating it. Also, I don't want to get a lot of grief from Uncle Joe or my down-the-street neighbor that I didn't portray them in a flattering light.

To learn more about Susan Isaacs please visit www.susanisaacs.com.

Susan Isaacs, novelist, essayist and screenwriter, was born in Brooklyn and educated at Queens College. Her novels include Compromising Positions, Close Relations, Almost Paradise, Shining Through, and Past Perfect. A recipient of the Writers for Writers Award and the John Steinbeck Award, Isaacs serves as chairman of the board of Poets & Writers and is a past president of Mystery Writers of America. Her fiction has been translated into thirty languages. She lives on Long Island with her husband.

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

Katie Schottland appears to have it all: a great husband and son, an upscale Manhattan lifestyle, and a dream job writing for the television series Spy Guys. But an unexplained incident from her past has long troubled Katie: fifteen years earlier she was dismissed from her post as an analyst at the CIA with no warning and no explanation.

When Lisa Golding, a former Agency colleague, telephones Katie out of the blue and asks for her assistance with "a matter of national importance," she promises, in exchange, to reveal the truth about Katie's firing. Lisa disappears soon after, and Katie finds herself drawn from a fictional spy world into a dark, intriguing real-life case of espionage.

As the body count begins to rise, Katie realizes she might be an assassin's next target but is determined to complete her self-imposed mission. Driven by a need to know what really happened all those years ago, she risks her marriage, her television career, and even her life to finally make peace with the past.

Discussion Questions

1. For fifteen years Katie has obsessed over her termination from the CIA. Why was working at the Agency so important to Katie? How much of her fascination with the job stemmed from her interest in espionage novels and films? And why, as Katie wonders, does being fired "still have such power" over her?

2. The people in Katie's life offer opinions as to why she's so intent on delving into the circumstances surrounding her dismissal from the CIA — Maddy theorizes that Katie is looking for an adventure, while Jacques suggests it's because her fortieth birthday is looming. What is your theory as to why Katie so zealously pursues answers about her past?

3. In chapter one Katie reveals that she has had a "lifelong preference for fantasy over reality." At any point in the story, did you question Katie's judgment about the events taking place or the decisions she made? Why or why not? In what ways does her fascination with espionage stories hinder or help during her investigation?

4. With Nicky off to camp for several weeks, Katie had envisioned using the time to rekindle her "marriage flame." Why, then, does she prioritize her investigation above her marriage?

5. What is your opinion of Adam? How supportive is he of Katie's search for answers? What do you suppose the future holds for their relationship?

6. When contemplating why she might have been fired, Katie asserts, "I was confident the decision had nothing to do with Ben." What makes her so certain that Ben was blameless in her termination? How is her visit to Ben's Washington, D.C., office a turning point in how she sees her former boss?

7. Discuss Katie's relationship with her parents and her sister, Maddy. How much of Katie's concern about being fired from the CIA had to do with their opinion of her? How is Katie now viewed by her parents and sister?

8. "You've involved yourself in a dangerous business...You know it, but you don't appreciate it," Maddy remarks to Katie. Do you agree or disagree with Maddy's observation of Katie, and why? What basis does she have for assuming Katie doesn't fully comprehend she that might be placing herself in harm's way?

9. After Jacques and Huff reveal to Katie why she was fired, she has the answer she was seeking. Why, then, does she continue to look into the circumstances surrounding her dismissal? What more does she want?

10. What motivates Katie to travel to Florida and speak with Maria Schneider in person? What warning signs does she miss during her conversation with Maria in the park?

11. Discuss the CIA's offer of restitution to Katie. Ultimately, does Katie get the closure she was seeking? Why or why not?

12. What is your overall impression of Past Perfect? How does this book compare to other novels you've read by Susan Isaacs?

Enhance Your Book Club

In the spirit of Ian Fleming's suave spy, James Bond, mix up a round of martinis — shaken, not stirred, of course. Or, like Katie does in Past Perfect, indulge in hot chocolate and Mallomars.

Make it an espionage-themed gathering when you discuss Past Perfect and show a classic film, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Three Days of the Condor, or Dr. No.

Visit www.simonsays.com to watch a video clip of Susan Isaacs discussing her fiction and the writing process.

A Discussion with Susan Isaacs

Where do you get your ideas?

I don't think there's been a time since I've been answering questions that I haven't been asked where I find my ideas for novels. I hope my answer is enlightening, although I don't know if it will be helpful. That's because each writer's inspiration is as unique as his or her fingerprints.

My "ideas" come to me as characters. Before I wrote my first novel, Compromising Positions, I was reading a dangerous number of mysteries a week: three or four. Suddenly, a character popped into my head. Like me, she was a housewife on Long Island with two young children and a husband who commuted into Manhattan. Unlike me, she wanted to find out who killed...well, I had no idea who had been murdered, but since she seemed to be hanging around in my head, I decided to figure out a mystery for her to solve.

The same holds true for my novels that aren't mysteries. For Shining Through, a legal secretary came into my head wanting me to tell her story — about being in love with one of the law firm's partners, even though social-class differences supposedly put him out of her league. I wanted to give her some way to prove her worth, to herself if not to him. But it wasn't until World War II popped into my head, a time when ordinary people often displayed extraordinary courage, that I had my story.

Other writers use the big What If. Something arouses their curiosity and they ask themselves: What if a savvy businesswoman turned stay-at-home mother starts to believe her house is haunted? What if a couple in the midst of a bitter divorce finds themselves snowed in for a week?

Some authors may get intrigued by a story or situation they hear about on the news or just in casual conversation. Henry James is said to have gotten the idea for Washington Square from a story he overheard at a dinner party. Just a phrase or a word might get the creative juices flowing. "Seduced and abandoned," "Poor little rich girl," "Won the lottery." There are writers who give a new spin to an old work: a fairy tale such as Cinderella, or the biblical story of Job.

Finally, a would-be writer or an old pro can wonder, What's the book I most want to read that hasn't yet been written?

Where did you get the idea for Past Perfect?

Before I wrote Past Perfect, some random ideas were floating around in my head. The first was what a tight grip the past has on the present. For so many of us, a long-ago relationship (a lost love, a callous parent) or an event that happened years earlier (getting fired, being the victim of an unjust accusation) still has so much power in our lives. Friends advise, "You're thirty/fifty/eighty. Get over it." Yet we can't.

Another idea: Like so many other Americans, I was thinking about Iraq. How did we get it so wrong? More specifically, How did the CIA, an agency filled with supposedly smart people, make such bad calls? In Shining Through, which was set in New York, Washington, and Berlin during World War II, I'd written about America's spy organization, the OSS [Office of Strategic Services]. The CIA grew out of that group, and I'd read a fair amount about its development — everything from spy novels to books on American foreign policy to memoirs by ex-spooks. So I got to thinking how the Agency had gotten it wrong before: the Bay of Pigs invasion, failing to predict the rapid implosion of East Germany.

And suddenly I had a new novel. Katie Schottland had her dream job in the CIA — and then lost it in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She never learned why she was fired, but the pain of that dismissal still plagued her years later. Sure, she had what most people would say was a great life, but...That's one of the joys of writing fiction. Disparate ideas meet and suddenly, whammo. It's rather like falling in love.

Did you always want to be a writer?

As a child, I wanted to be a cowgirl. Perhaps that seems odd for a kid growing up in Brooklyn, but even then I had the ability to be anyone I wanted to be — in my head, if not in reality. Writing was always something I did reasonably well, but it didn't occur to me that I could make a living by it. After college I worked at Seventeen magazine. I began by writing advice to the lovelorn, and after a few years I became a senior editor. I left Seventeen to raise my children, and I worked part-time as a political speechwriter. When my second child was two, it occurred to me that I wanted to write fiction.

Of all the books you've written, which is your favorite?

There's a writers' cliché about books being like children. Well, it's true. You love all your children, even the goofy ones.

Do you write longhand or use a computer?

A computer and, more recently, speech recognition. I sit there with my headset, and dictate. To me, it's a boon because I speak faster than I type. Also, for some reason, I focus better using this method. Naturally, there's a downside. The program I use doesn't seem too comfortable with a New York accent, even with the extra training I gave it. So when I had the protagonist of my new novel say "I opened the door," what I saw on my monitor was "I opened the Torah." Ultimately, I don't think it matters what method a writer uses. Longhand, typewriter, quill and ink: they're simply tools.

Do you know the whole story before you start writing? Do you make an outline?

For me, making an outline is a way to work out the plot, since with me, the characters come first. Also, it's easier to see the structure of the novel that way, and I have the security of knowing where it's going. Sometimes, the outline is a snap. I guess that's when my subconscious has already done the heavy lifting. However, on a couple of books, including Lily White, I took almost a year to work out what was going to happen. Naturally, I was petrified the whole time that I was losing my marbles and/or having the world's most unconquerable writer's block. However, I know many authors who don't bother with an outline, who feel it's too constraining. There is no one right way to write.

Are any of your characters based on people you know?

I never consciously pick someone I know and put him or her into a book. The fun of writing, as well as the agony, is in creating a new universe and populating it. Also, I don't want to get a lot of grief from Uncle Joe or my down-the-street neighbor that I didn't portray them in a flattering light.

To learn more about Susan Isaacs please visit www.susanisaacs.com.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 1, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    CD/abridged/Mystery?: Big disappointment. I got this for two b

    CD/abridged/Mystery?: Big disappointment. I got this for two bucks at the library sale because I had listened to another Issac's book. This book is not a thriller, as there is no real suspense and not a mystery, or maybe I stopped caring.
    It's the story of a former CIA agent, Katie, living her life as happy as possible. She was fired from the CIA without cause from her low level position. Without good references for a regular 9 to 5 job, she is now writing books and screenplays for her creation, TV show "Spy Guys". A former annoying co-worker, Lisa, calls needing a journalistic contact. She claims to have startling information that can't be told over the phone. Katie, not really having any contact like that, tries to blow Lisa off until.........Lisa says she know why Katie as fired. Dun-da-da-daa. The rest of the book is Katie trying figure out if Lisa is really missing and why.
    The Randye Kaye does a great job in the reading, but the story is lame and empty. There are too many unanswered questions at the end mixed in with complicated Eastern Bloc issues.

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  • Posted June 5, 2009

    Not a summer beach book

    This was my first and probably last book by Susan Isaacs. I bought it based on the book jacket's description of the storyline and because of the raves by other 'authors'. Big Mistake! HUGE mistake! I literally trudged through this book. I skipped parts, tried to reread, put it down, and then start over. Finally, I just skipped to what seemed to be getting close to some sort of climax, read it, and put the book down. What bothered me? First, her completely over-the-top-need for over-the-top sentence structure and language. I found it confusing, unnecessary, and down right sill confusing. I'm an English major and teach reading, yet I struggled over and over with this book's prose and style. The plot itself? I thought it might have possibly had some direction. That was until I kept reading and rereading almost entire pages of useless commentary and reflection by the main character. Bottom line, the protagonist got fired from the CIA 15 years ago. She never got over the fact that nothing was explained to her or a satisfactory answer given. So, after receiving a strange phone call from her past, she embarks on this "dangerous" mission to find out what "really happened." At no time in the book was I in suspense. At no time in this book did I feel chills run down my spine. I simply was angry at myself for buying the book in hard cover. Waste of money. Totally. The ending was corny and the "suspense" not suspenseful. Sorry, but this book is not worth your time.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2009

    Good Book

    Past Perfect was a good book. The story and characters were different and I wish it was a series with these same characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2008

    Engrossing

    I don't understand why there are so many negative reviews. I usually am not a fan of the mystery genre, but this book was engrossing, entertaining, and hilarious. I would highly recommend it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2008

    Present Imperfect

    In the past, with a few exceptions, i.e., among others, 'Any Place I Hang My Hat', I have enjoyed Susan Isaac's work for what it is - light entertaining reading. But she has struck out with her last two. This book is boring and repetitive. The protagonist's imaginging all sorts of dire things happening to her, i.e., an overworked imagination, got to be annoying after about 30 pages and the plot was lame, lame, lame. Not one likeable character in the whole novel - and, to boot, they were cardboard cut-outs rather than real people. Skip this.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2008

    HUGE YAWN!!!!!

    At first it seemed like this was going to be a promising read...sadly it went from ok to just plain boring. The writter took so long to get to the point you could really care less! I kept on reading hoping it would turn around, but it never really did.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2007

    I enjoyed it!

    I enjoyed this book! While it wasn't as great (for me) as my favorite (Shining Through), I really had a good time reading it. I thought the book was more in line with the books she's written that I really like: Lily White, Red White & Blue (I think!). The main character was believable, the story interesting, and of course, the Isaacs sense of humor (and some nice political commentary) spread throughout. If you like Susan Isaacs (heck, if you like a good, fun read), I recomend this book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2007

    Not worth the effort

    I have so enjoyed Susan Issacs in the past - not so the last few novels. This book looked promising but was plodding and slow and, by the end, you didn't even care any more. She can do better.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2007

    Diappointed Reader

    Story was drawn out and boring - I skipped to the end to see why she was fired,closed the book and brought it back to the library. Would not recommend book to anyone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2007

    BORING

    I enjoyed Susan Isaacs past books but the past 2 have been a waste of my time. I couldn't even finish Any Place I Hang My Hat and this one I barely finished. The plot was just too political and drawn out. It just kept going on and on with her meeting with these people and trying to find out about why she was fired from the CIA. At least her husband was supportive in this effort but otherwise it was not worth reading.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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