Newsday July 13, 1996

From Childbirth to the Civil War to Israeli Spies

Leslie Hanscom Talks with Gay Courter


Everybody knows the gag about the undercover agent in Israel who needs to make contact with another agent named Cohen. Stopping at what looks like the right apartment house, be rings a bell and speaks the secret password. On hearing it, the man who answers the bell redirects the visitor. “You got Cohen, the tailor,” he says. “Ring the third floor. You want Cohen, the spy.” As a comment on the matter-of-fact way in which covert activity is practiced in that country, this silly joke, according to Gay Courter, has a grain of truth in it.

In researching her novel, Code Ezra (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95), Courter found out that many unique circumstances account for the widespread operations of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. During one of her numerous visits to Israel, she met a woman agent who had been stationed with her husband in Morocco under pretext of running an electronics business. This was a cover for what they were really up to, which was helping Jews escape to Israel, As demonstrated also in Ethiopia, this is, according to the novelist, one of the important efforts of Israel’s undercover network.

In Code Ezra, the author creates a story of betrayal within the organization. A spy master and three women agents whom he has trained and trusted over many year-s collaborate on a mission in France to blow up parts of an atomic reactor assigned for shipment to Iraq. The blast succeeds, but there are attendant circumstances which show that one of the three women is a traitor. The mystery of which one she is provides the line of suspense which Courter deftly spins out for more than 600 pages, exposing along the way the many personal problems peculiar to the game of being a female spy.

The author, an enthusiast for meticulous research, explored these special dilemmas the way she studied the backgrounds of her two earlier novels. For The Midwife, she investigated and filmed childbirth practices here and abroad. For River of Dreams, which was about a Confederate family who fled to Brazil during the Civil War, she traveled arid lived in that country. For her novel of Israeli espionage, she not only studied the techniques and perils of secret agentry but went so far as to learn to fly an airplane.

Why would a novelist go so far afield from the typewriter when her material is fiction anyway? “Because,” says this one, “I have no patience with the writer who is making it up.” “If,” she continues, “I’m writing about somebody flying a Piper Cub, I want to come up with a few details that tell the reader I know what I’m talking about, and I always give pages of acknowledgments to the people who help me do it. Since I’m also involved in making films, I’m used to credits.”

Gay Courter and her husband have their own movie company with which they produce documentary and educational films. They have also produced two sons, one of whom, 9-year-old Josh, wan visiting New York with her the other day from their home near Tampa. The mother is a youthfully attractive brunette; the son is a platinum blond. Courter, no nom de plume, is the name of both. Sometimes it is a burden to the son.  Disrespectful schoolmates, according to Josh, pronounce it Quarter and tell him he is worth 25 cents. He claims to be very stern in telling them what they are worth.

A child by the side of a woman espionage agent is an asset, according to Josh’s mother, because this departs from the profile of the female spy. She had no such motive, however, in bringing along her 9-year-old. Her purpose, she says, was to cure him of suspecting that, when she is away promoting her book, she is having fun he ought to share. In his squirming boredom at hearing his mother interviewed, Josh appeared to absorb the lesson she intended. He was visibly unexcited to hear her views on the superiority of Israeli espionage over cloak-and-dagger work American-style.

Because of that superiority, she says, the U.S. gets much of its information on Libya through Israeli sources. On the other hand, the U.S. has information on armaments in Syria which Israel feels the need to possess. This, in her view, wan what lay behind the recent revelations of Israeli espionage in this country. According to Courter, the information sought would eventually have been shared anyway, but Israel is a country perpetually under threat and consequently behaves that way. One woman interviewed by Gay Courter told her what she introduces in conversation as “a horrendous story.” The woman was an espionage agent married to another agent, although the wife held a higher post in the organization. Thanks to her senior position, she learned of an intelligence leak which endangered an operation involving her husband. The circumstances were such that, if she passed the word on in an attempt to secure her husband’s safety, she would wreck an operation of her own. The woman chose to be the loyal spy rather than the loyal wife. Could Courter see herself acting like this zealot? “No,” she says, “and I guess that’s why she’s a secret agent arid I’m not.”

For all her research into the intrigues of international espionage, Courter confesses that she is baffled by the underground which operates in the publishing business. The first readers of a literary property when it is allowed outside the offices of its publisher are the readers for the book clubs (Code Ezra is a dual main selection this month of the Literary Guild). These readers see the manuscript before it goes to the printer. Almost immediately after Code Ezra was thus submitted, the author started getting inquiries from the movie scouts. “Within three days,” she says, “they not only had photocopies but had read them! There is some kind of underground network in this business which almost beats the professional spies.”