The Thriller Zone

On today's 184th episode of The Thriller Zone, a BONUS episode at that, we're pleased to welcome Washington Post Contributor and New York Times Bestselling Author David Ignatius.

On this podcast, David talks with us about his latest thriller, Phantom Orbit, and shares the inspiration and research behind his latest thriller, as well as the real-world events that influenced the plot.

Our hefty conversation delves into the complexities of satellite warfare, the role of technology in espionage, and the geopolitical landscape of Russia and Ukraine.

Best of all perhaps is when David shares insights into his writing process and offers advice for aspiring authors. Learn more at

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00:00 Introduction and Author Introduction
02:55 Crafting Realistic Thrillers
05:08 The Geopolitical Landscape of Espionage and Satellite Warfare
16:00 The Plot of Phantom Orbit and Real-World Influence
25:11 Writing Advice and Conclusion

Award-winning Green Beret, Steve Stratton, is the author of the Shadow Tier Series and the novella, A Warrior's Path: the Lance Bear Wolf Story. Learn more at

What is The Thriller Zone?

Podcast host and thriller author David Temple gives you a front-row seat to the best thriller writers in the world. If you like thriller fiction in Books, Movies, and TV Shows, you’ll love The Thriller Zone Podcast.

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (00:00.098)

Welcome to the Thriller Zone. I'm your host David Temple. On today's 184th episode, which happens to be a bonus episode as we have kicked off June here in our sixth season and our anniversary month. That's a mouthful. I'm so honored to welcome David Ignatius, New York Times bestselling author of Phantom Orbit. Lee Child says of David Ignatius, he's the best in the world at this stuff.

General retired David Petraeus says David is at the top of his game. Former director of the CIA Michael Hayden says a work for now and forever. Once again, welcome to another edition of the Thriller Zone and David Ignatius. Man, what a cool opportunity to talk to you. Thank you. Delighted to be in the Thriller Zone. I've been trying to get there for years. Well, consider yourself there.

So my wife sees me sitting in the corner. She goes, wait, wait, David Ignatius, are you, you talk about the Washington post guy. I'm like, yeah. She goes, he's going to be on your show. She doesn't get excited about a whole lot. I said, yeah. She goes, I see him on the news and la la la. And I'm like, well, this book, me first. And then you, honey. Well, that's a, we'll ship out a copy for your wife. So I'm, I'm pleased. It's nice to be on something that doesn't require you to get up at five in the morning, which is.

requirement for Morning Joe. Yeah, no, I thought I'd do something very easy. I am like, anybody can handle 11 o 'clock and if you're East Coast, you're at two o 'clock, right? So correct. Yeah, you're you're you're fine and dandy. It is an actual a real honor to have you on the show because your reputation precedes you. Thank you. And this isn't your first book. This isn't your first rodeo, David. I mean, I'm sitting there doing the count and we're going to get to this in a second.

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (01:56.526)
But you're now hitting nearly a baker's dozen with Phantom Orbit, and I want to shoot out of the gate with this nice little cut to the chase. Publishers Weekly, folks, has a starred view that says, this is contemporary cloak and dagger intrigue at its finest. Nice. I could practically drop the mic right there, David. Well, I so that's that was lovely. So I have been doing this a long time. I post my first novel in 1987.

This is now my twelfth. All my novels except one have been spy novels, but I try to make them as realistic as I can. I try to make them plausible the way intelligence activity really works, as opposed to implausible, which is the way many thrillers are, and certainly many movies about spying are. In this book, as in my recent books, I tried to focus on where technology is going.

In the world of espionage because I think that's really the heart of the matter. This is a time when traditional human spying, you know, people in disguises going across borders is almost impossible. So, so how do we use technology to continue to steal the secrets that matter to keep the country safe? That's what I'm looking at. I wish I could remember the exact way you said that, cause it's really important what you said. plausible versus implausible. Sure. We sign up for.

and grab the latest thriller off the shelf that makes us go, whoa. But there is a time when sometimes you just want to go, OK, that is so far fetched that I that I'm taken out of the story. And part of that, we want to be taken out of the story as we're inside the story. But when I read a book like this where you can pull headlines and see a lot of it in this book, then you know that you have a done your homework, be really.

reflecting the signs of the times and That's what I really appreciate about this book David So I want people to be thrilled by what's real. Yeah enough. No

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (04:08.302)
by what's really imagined and couldn't happen. So I've been to Ukraine four times since the war began. And what I've seen on those trips is that technology, and in particular, satellite technology, the kind I'm writing about in this book, have become absolutely crucial for Ukraine to survive. They could not have fought off the Russian invasion without using Elon Musk's Starlink broadband communications. They couldn't have fought off the Russian

without using very sophisticated targeting algorithms to identify what Russian T -72 tanks look like from overhead satellites. They couldn't do it without commercial satellite imagery. There are commercial satellites that will give you everything that spy satellites once did. So that's the world we're living in. I want readers to see it for what it is, to be able, when they're reading news about Ukraine, to understand exactly what's going into every

days battles. It's not the stuff that you'd see in a James Bond version of the Ukraine war. It's something different. That is no joke. I was thinking, I was reflecting back when, refresh my memory because you had your finger on the pulse of when this happened. Was there not a point in time when, did Elon pull?

The plug on some of his technology during the height of some of this war.

So Elon threatened to pull the plug. He said he wasn't getting paid. And then a deal was worked out with the Pentagon where that was taken care of. There was another more subtle issue he had where Ukraine wanted to have broadband coverage over Crimea, which is occupied by Russia but is part of Ukraine, but is seen as an area that is so sensitive it could lead to a big escalation. So,

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (06:11.456)
Elon was reluctant to allow Ukraine to use the broadband to drive drones inside Ukraine. He thought it could fuel a direct confrontation with Russia, World War III. To be honest, Elon had private support on that from people in the Pentagon at a very senior level who said, we don't really disagree with you. So here's the interesting thing. Elon could decide tomorrow. I've had it. I want to sell


David, allow me to back up just a couple of steps so that I can get some background for those people who may have been living in a cave or under a rock and don't know who you are. As background, you're prize winning columnist for the Washington Post. You've covered the Middle East, the CIA for four decades. I don't know how you did that right out of grade school. And a side note, I can't even, this is just me. I can't even mention the Post without recalling two of my favorite movies. All the President's Men.

It's embarrassing how many times I've seen that Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, Watergate 72, and then Bonnie of Lies, which Ridley Scott film, great director, Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, which I am embarrassed to say I did not even know was based on your 2007 book until I was doing homework. So if you'll allow me to geek out on that just a little bit, two big stars, huge star director, your book, I'm talking to you.

Tell me how that came about.

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (08:11.214)
big director, not to mention Leonardo DiCaprio, will star in a version of his book. The thing that I think authors have to get their mind around is that it's going to be different from the book he wrote. It's got to be reimagined by the director, Ridley Scott in this case, brilliant director, and so he conjured up his own version of Body of Lies. Body of Lies is about how the Jordanian intelligence service went about penetrating Al -Qaeda on behalf of the United States. It's all drawn from real reports.

that I did with the head of the service. I'd sit there in his headquarters and he'd tell me about how he ran operations. So making that come to life for movie viewers, it's just a different thing. Believe it or not, Leonardo DiCaprio came over to my house when he got started working on the movie.

Which was cool. I mean, I have three daughters. They basically said daddy How could you possibly have we don't have to cap your cover the house and we aren't there Yeah, but his he wanted to walk through the character. How does he move through space? How does he know? What's his what's his aura and? It was just a wonderful opportunity to watch a great actor Learn how to be the person that I had written In his in his own way. It was just it was an incredible experience

And I'd like that that movie to have as long time ago. We were in the war against al -qaeda You know something that laws been dead a long time, but I think that that movie is still interesting to see Well movies like that. There's so many movies and I could run these down But I'm not gonna take any time away from you but there's so many movies of that caliber that quality that remind us that Even though it was decades ago that threat that fear

is still hanging over us, much like this book. This book is about the threats that are real now.

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (10:04.302)
threats over us quite literally in space are enormous and are growing adversaries like Osama bin Laden, we think we've extinguished them but I just was writing stories about the new danger of ISIS -K, an offshoot of the Islamic State which our FBI is worried that their operatives may be slipping across our basically open southern border and

in touch with facilitators back in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and that we may be back in that frightening world of terror operators, not at the level of flying airplanes into buildings, but it's just, you know, nothing in this world really goes away. You know, we fight it off for a while, but it's just inevitable that we live in a world where...

People come to see us as their enemy. You know, it's one reason that I've always thought it's good to have a good intelligence service. People sometimes give me a hard time for, you know, thinking CIA is a positive factor on balance. I think it is. I think countries need to have people out there who are good at spying who will figure out where the threats are and do something to stop them. One more thing before we jump back into the book because, and I don't think you're going to mind this, I want to go back because a lot of my listeners, David,

They find a book that we talk about here on the show in this case your very latest and then they go I want to go back and learn more So I'm gonna do a quick little rundown which I don't think you'll mind of some of your past books the Paladin back in 20 the quantum spy Probably one of my favorite titles by the way followed by the director blood money the increment back in nine body of lies We talked about done in seven the Sun King 99

A Firing Offense, 97. The Bank of Fear, 94. Ciro, 91. And back in the late 80s, Agents of Innocence. That is a prolific output. And does, now I understand why you're at the New York Times bestselling top of that list. This is probably going to be like asking, who's your favorite child, David? But do you have a favorite of those besides, besides Phantom Orbit, your new favorite baby?

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (12:22.83)
so i do favor baby was like that like the youngest not you know just like asking about children and the standard answer every parent knows is a lot of all my children and see some different there is a way in which your first book is the one where you teach yourself how to how to be a novelist like with your first shot to teach yourself through trial there out of the apparent that that book

described one of the most extraordinary real -life operations the CIA has ever run in the Middle East in which the CIA recruited Yasser Arafat, then leader of the PLO, biggest terror organization in the world, his chief of intelligence and ran him as an American asset for almost ten years until he was assassinated by Israel, which regarded him correctly from their standpoint as a leading terrorist. Even as he

was saving American lives. One of the most interesting, ambiguous intelligence operations imaginable. And I wrote it as a story for the Wall Street Journal where I was a reporter. A couple months later, I'll just tell you, I was at the American Embassy one day in April, went to see the military attache, left the embassy at 1230 just after one boom, biggest explosion I'd ever heard in Beirut. The man who'd run that operation, been visiting Beirut that day, was killed along with

with every other member of the CIA station at Beirut that day. I was like the only person who really knew what this was about because I've been reporting on it for so long. And so I ended up knowing so much detail that I felt the only way to use it was in a novel. So that's how I ended up writing Agents of Innocence. It's, you know, I love talking to people who like to read thrillers in part to say the fun of this often is to get inside something that's real.

and explain it to people. This book, Agents of Innocence, I'm told for a generation now has been given to agency officers in training who ask, what does an operations officer really do? And they give them this book, not because it's a great book, but because it described in such detail this one amazing, long -running operation and how it was put together. Wow.

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (14:45.006)
Fascinating. I'm going to have to snag that one. Folks, let's take a short break. When we come back, we're going to be talking about Phantom Orbit, David Ignatius' latest thriller. So stay with us.

And welcome back. I'm with David Ignatius and the book of as we mentioned is the Phantom Orbit. We're here on the Thriller Zone. Thanks for coming back with us, David. Happy to be back. I want to jump right into it. How would you best describe Phantom Orbit for my listeners?

So this is a book about the new frontier in warfare, which is satellite warfare. It opens with a Russian astrophysicist who comes to believe that Russia and China have developed what he calls a kill switch that can turn off GPS.

And as we hope realize GPS is part of almost everything we do these days. Every time we use our cell phone, it's connecting with four different satellites. Every time we get on a plane, obviously it's navigated by GPS. Every time I get in our car, there's almost nothing that GPS doesn't touch. So this Russian, he's not a spy, he's not a trader, but he decides he has an obligation to tell the CIA about this threat.

So he does what anybody could do. If you go to the CIA website, you'll see an invitation in different languages to people around the world. If you have important information that you want to share with the United States, here's how to do it. Send us a message. So he sends a message. Your world is about to freeze.

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (16:18.222)
Don't trust your satellites, they're unreliable. North is going to become South for you and tries to give some hints as to how the agency can find them. Sends this message off at great risk. He doesn't hear anything back. Yeah.

through the book in different ways, the CIA doesn't want to hear what he's saying. Why is that? What's going on? That's one of the riddles in this book. So that's how it starts. And then we spend a lot of time understanding him as a character, understanding a woman from the CIA who from his student days in China, ran out of money in Russia, she has to go get a scholarship in China, from his early, early days, he has this relationship with a woman.

Ends up being central in the way the story plays out story ends really in like right now post ukraine invasion russia All the all the urgent challenges we're seeing now end up kind of wrapping themselves around this character And what he knows often people will say would dave tell me what you thought about the book and I go well It's one of those richly textured thrillers that pack there is packed full of of course, you got history

Technology and as David mentioned, spycraft. It entertains, it enlightens, but it also frightens. And it's that, especially as you come down the home stretch, when you realize, wait a minute, I just saw something in the headlines in the last few days. And that's when you start getting that chilled on your back. And that's why I love the book. It does turn out that right now when the books come to market,

we are getting very concerned about Russian ability, plans to take out satellites, especially in low Earth orbit, like the kind that Ukraine is depending on in its war, through really diabolical means. The Russians have a plan to detonate a nuclear weapon in space and just blow everything in low Earth orbit out, so you've got nothing but a debris field left. It's terrible.

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (18:27.374)
the kind of ghastly way to deal with the problem. But it shows that the Russians understand how important space warfare is and how vulnerable they are. man, it goes without saying that this is a prodigious amount of research it took for the book and and how long the process was. And if you were to analyze it deeper, what went through my mind, would you say there is and this is an odd question, more research or more creativity required on your part? Because what I.

What I mean by that is there's so much research based in reality. You started off the show talking about, I want to base this on something that's real. So how would you say that that balance turned out for you in the process?

So I did do a lot of research. I got fascinated by satellite warfare back in 2018 -19 when the Space Force was being created. I was interviewing for my column, the commander of the Space Force, General J. Raymond. I'd go visit him at the Pentagon, talk to lots of other people. And I thought, man, this is so interesting. I want to write a novel about it. So the thing that happens, as I'm sure you know, every reader knows, is that

characters have to make these subjects, these important subjects come alive. You don't want to read a hundred thousand word account of what space warfare is. You want something that engages you with a plot and all the loop -de -loops that we love in thrillers. So then you start thinking, who are the characters that I'd like to bring into this book? I was going to travel to Russia. I wanted my main character to be Russian.

And I applied for a visa from the Russian embassy. Everything was going great. And then Russia invaded Ukraine and guess what? I was put on the sanctions list. I was like one of the first journalists who was sanctioned. I don't know why. But so I am banned for life as things now stand from going to Russia. Unbelievable. So I had to make other, find other ways to do my research. Thank God for Google Earth, which lets you walk the streets of any city on the planet.

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (20:35.184)
the planet. But that was, you know, so it was a desire to make the characters carry the plot and the really fascinating technology things in a way that would make it a novel as opposed to a techno man.

Yeah, I had read that you were banned and I thought how does one get that first hand look into things and then I had read about this Google Earth and one of my favorite things about Google is Google Earth because you're it puts you right there. When I was where did I read this? Where did I read that your book was and I have this quote in the dark shadow of the Ukraine war and the collapse of free and humane society in Russia was that was that you was that in your acknowledgments?

So in my acknowledgments, I say that...

There's a way in which this book is a love letter to the Russia that was and maybe again. So I've been to Russia many times as a journalist. I've always enjoyed it. I find Russia just heartbreaking. Russian people, Russian culture, so complicated. Russian people have such a chip on their shoulder about the West. So it's a place I've always been fascinated by. I've read all the great Russian novelists.

So I wanted to find this place that in...

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (21:59.79)
most ways right now under Vladimir Putin is completely unlovable. I hate what Putin is doing in Ukraine. It makes me sick. But I know that there's a country there and a people that we need to stay engaged with. So that was the reason I wanted, as you put it, to write about a country that's living under the shadow. I was a great fan of Alexei Navalny. He died tragically in prison.

I'll tell you something strange. I was on live television from Munich in Europe at the moment that word was confirmed that Navalny was dead. I got it in my ear somebody saying, Mr. Ignatius, we're getting a report from Russia that Alexei Navalny may be dead. Hold on, hold on. And then a minute later...

It was confirmed he's dead. Could you talk about Alexei Navalny? And I've spent hours and hours listening to his videos. I thought the guy was just one of the most courageous people. I mean, imagine getting poisoned to the point that you almost died. I mean, he was lucky that he got out and doctors in Germany saved his life. And then he went back. He went back knowing that he would be arrested as soon as he got off the plane. What guts. So, you know, there are people like that in Russia.

As I said, I was sort of a love letter to the Navalny's. I hope over the long run I hope I hope they do better than better than Putin. Well, I want to say I so admire that in your acknowledgments and What a hero he was and that is the personification of a hero when you just as you put it when you have faced death come back and you're gonna face the fire again knowing exactly what the results will be

Extraordinary, extraordinary courage, you know, inspiring, I think still to the Russian people. Russian people can't help but admire that bravery. I was there when his, now his widow had just learned the news that he was dead and listened to her speak again with incredible courage about how she was going to keep the fight going. So, you know, these are the real things that lie behind the novels that I like to read. I hope your listeners like to read too. Yeah. Yeah. Well, it's a stunning.

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (24:20.624)
And I want to always close with this one thing, David, is I like to ask my authors their best piece of writing advice. And now with a dozen books under your belt or your typewriters, in that case maybe, what would you give as advice to my listeners who want to make a career of this just as you have? So this is strange advice, but it's genuine. But if somebody wants to be a writer, they need to get out of the way.

and let their preconscious be as rich on paper as it is inside. There's something that writes our dreams, the idea that it falls into our head when we're running or taking a shower, playing sports. That's the creative engine for fiction.

And I think so often we're trying so hard, just, great hearty guy. That we just, we block the process that will produce something good. So, you know, it's just, you know, kind of close your eyes, think, you know, let that first scene fall into your head, let the dialogue be in the right itself. And there comes your novel. That's where it's coming from. I love that. So allow the preconscious, was that the word? Yep.

Yeah, I think everything we do that's really creative and graceful is pre -conscious. Every sport we play, every piece of music we play, every beautiful word in a novel. Well, this has been fantastic. Folks, if you want to learn more, go to DavidIgnatius .com again. The book is Phantom Orbit. You want to pick up a copy. My apologies that we didn't get you in sooner because I know it dropped.

that first week of May, but I figure the end of the month is better than not at all. So David, thank you once again for being on the Thriller Zone. Great. Thank you so much for having me. I really, really enjoy the conversation.

The Thriller Zone with David Temple (26:13.294)
Thanks again, David, and thank you for putting up with some of the technical issues. That stuff happens. All right, folks, coming up Monday, one of my all time favorite authors, New York Times bestselling author, Meg Gardner, with her latest Shadowheart, number four in the Unsub series. Now, the last time we talked to Meg, she was coming out with Heat 2 with Michael Mann. So on Monday's show, we're going to get caught up on what's been happening with Michael since last we spoke and so much more. So.

We hope you'll make plans to attend. Until next time, I'm Dave Temple, your host. I'll see you next time for another edition of The Thriller Zone.