Exclusive Interview: “Phantom Orbit” Author David Ignatius


David Ignatius is best known for his column in The Washington Post, and for appearing on news discussions shows.

But when he’s not writing about or discussing current events, he lets his mind (and fingers) wander as he writes such espionage thrillers as Body Of Lies, Agents Of Innocence, and The Increment.

In the following email interview, Ignatius discusses his newest novel, Phantom Orbit (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), including why this story about space warfare is spy-fi, not sci-fi.

David Ignatius Phantom Orbit

Photo Credit: Stephen Voss


To start, what is Phantom Orbit about and when and where is it set?

This book began with two sparks: I wanted to write about space warfare, which I think is the most important and least understood part of our military future. And I wanted a Russian character who had been crushed emotionally by the collapse of the Soviet Union and who despised the authoritarian regime that Vladimir Putin has created. The two ideas came together, with a lot of twists and turns, in this book.

Now, the cover says Phantom Orbit is “A Thriller,” but the space stuff has me wondering if it’s not…okay not sci-fi, but maybe somewhat speculative.

I just called it a thriller. I think spy fiction, which is what I write, will be more and more about technology, because that’s what is driving the world of espionage. My last four books — The Director, The Quantum Spy, The Paladin, and now Phantom Orbit— have all been about aspects of modern spy technology.

When not writing novels, you write a column for The Washington Post and are often asked to appear on news shows to talk about world events. Is that why your novels always seem rooted in reality? That they always seem to be more realistic speculative fiction as opposed to something more sci-fi?

I write my fiction to explore in greater depth the themes and characters that I have encountered in the real world of my journalism. My books aren’t sci-fi. They’re spy-fi, with that real-world tech background. I’m always happy when intelligence officers tell me, “Yeah, you’re describing the world I live in.”

So then, in writing Phantom Orbit, did you ever have an idea but then realize it would never happen, but dang, it would make this book even better? Or do you scrap it and stick with reality?

There were also some technology ideas I had for the plot, but I abandoned them because I decided they were unrealistic.

I wanted to travel to Russia, to do research on the ground about the city of Magnitogorsk in the Urals where my character Ivan Volkov was born, and the Moscow where he lives and works as the novel unfolds. But as I was beginning work on the novel, Russia invaded Ukraine, and I was banned from travelling to Russia. I was the first journalist on the Russian sanctions list. I have no idea why. But the Ukraine war ended up being part of the background of my novel.

Phantom Orbit is obviously not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Phantom Orbit but not on any of your other novels? Because in the book, Ivan finds, and tries to solve, a puzzle made by a 17th century astronomer, which gives me some serious Da Vinci Code vibes.

My guru is the British novelist Graham Greene, whose plots often involve espionage themes but whose characters have a depth and richness that you don’t often find in spy fiction.

As for Dan Brown, I’m a fan. But the plot thread about the German astronomer Johannes Kepler wasn’t a Da Vinci Code thing. Simple explanation: My lead character, Ivan Volkov, is studying astrophysics. So, while doing research, I figured I should get a college textbook on the subject and study it, too. Kepler and his laws of planetary motion are one of the first scientific puzzles that any astrophysics student tries to understand. And the more I read about Kepler, the more he fascinated me…and the more I wanted him in my novel.

What about non-literary influences; was Phantom Orbit influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

To be honest, the non-literary influences were all from reporting. I spent time with the generals who run the U.S. Space Force, the newest branch of the military. I visited the National Reconnaissance Office, our space-spying agency that used to be so secret the government didn’t admit it existed. I talked with the people who run our big commercial satellite companies, like Starlink. And I spent endless hours trying to learn as much as I could about GPS, the satellite-based “Global Positioning System” that’s essential for nearly every business and communications activity on earth these days.

What can I say? I like reporting on stuff.

Now, espionage thrillers are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re part of larger stories or just one adventure of many for the main character. What is Phantom Orbit?

With each of my twelve books, I’ve started fresh, with new characters and plot lines. The only constant character is the CIA, which you can see in a series of time-lapse images over the arc of my fiction, from 1987 to now.

I have two more novels underway; they won’t be elaborations of Phantom Orbit. For me, my books are like my children: each is different, but they share the same DNA and family history. They all breathe the same air.

Your sixth novel, Body Of Lies, was previously made into a movie by Ridley Scott, while the rights for your seventh, The Increment, have been bought by Disney and Pirates Of The Caribbean producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Do you think Phantom Orbit could work as a movie as well?

I think Phantom Orbit would be a great movie. But, hey, I’m biased. Some of the best producers in Hollywood have been looking at the book, so we’ll see.

And if any of them decide to adapt Phantom Orbit, who would you want them to cast as Ivan and the other main characters?

Bradley Cooper [Maestro] can play anybody, and he would make a great Ivan Volkov. Emma Stone [Poor Things] would be superb as my heroine, Edith Ryan.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Phantom Orbit?

Well…one thing I think I can say with confidence is that this book doesn’t end up where most readers will think it’s going.

David Ignatius Phantom Orbit

Finally, if someone enjoys Phantom Orbit, and it’s the first book of yours they’ve read, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?

People who like techno-spy thrillers should check out my last three books, The Director, The Quantum Spy, and The Paladin. And I always urge anyone who enjoys my work to go back to the beginning and read Agents Of Innocence — drawn from my experience covering the Middle East in the early 1980s, and essentially a true story — to see how the watch got wound in the first place.



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