Alan Furst, a former journalist, has written seven novels in the historical spy novel vein, which he began mining in 1988 with the publication of Night Soldiers. He has continued with Dark Star, The Polish Officer, The World at Night, Red Gold, Kingdom of Shadows and most recently Blood of Victory. He is editing the forthcoming Book of Spies and working on his next novel. Alan Furst lives with his family on Long Island.
This is his second conversation with Robert Birnbaum. Read the first Furst here.
Robert Birnbaum: You have been asked if you had a strategy of being discovered slowly…
Alan Furst: (laughs) No…
RB: That’s not the question.
AF: I’m sorry.
RB: I am interested in the deliberation with which you write. When your books began being published I don’t know anyone was doing what you do. You didn’t get a lot of recognition and seven books later you are getting a lot of recognition: readers love your work, your books sell. Has your publishing success affected the way you have written along the way and write now?
AF: Yes, in this sense. It’s liberated me. When you start out as a writer you start out—I don’t care how much you may say this isn’t true—all books are aimed. And you think about audience and you go, “Who am I writing for? Who’s going to read this?” And that has everything to do with the kind of voice you choose. As you know perfectly well, the omniscient voice or narrator of a book is a character. It isn’t me. I don’t tell these stories, but I have someone who does tell them, and as time has gone by, I have discovered that the audience likes what I do—personally do. Not that which is crafted to be part of the genre so much, but the strange instinctual stuff that writers do, left to their own devices. There is more and more of that as time has gone by. I was so down after Red Gold because nothing changed in terms of sales. They just all stayed the same. I had this kind of niche audience, library audience, British foreign correspondents and whatnot. I just thought, “Well the hell with it. I don’t care anymore about this career or anything else. So what I’m going to do now is exactly what I want to do. I don’t care what anyone else wants. I don’t care if critics like it. And I don’t care if critics don’t like it.” People would ask, ‘What are you doing?’ I would say, ‘It’s Alan Unbound. Absolutely!’ I am just writing the book I feel like writing as personal, instinctual, eccentric and individualistic as I care to be. And if people don’t like it, too bad.” And that was Kingdom of Shadows. And that was the breakout book. The lesson as always—all the lessons are always the same—is follow your heart. It’s very hard though…to do that so much.
RB: Yes, it does sound right that despite what writers will say, there is a concern for who the audience is. On the other hand there may be a divide—whether it is real or not is another issue—between artists and craftsmen. Which is to say that artists don’t care and craftsmen do.
AF: I don’t believe that’s true. I don’t believe that’s true. What’s that Zen thing, you don’t aim at the animal, you aim at where you think it will go. It’s impossible to do that. But what you do is you pitch yourself in a certain voice at a certain level: how do you think about the subject that you are writing about? And if you want to see that wildly emphasized, italicized—look at the difference between my and everyone’s journalism and their fiction. When you write journalism, if you are writing a travel piece you are writing a travel piece. It’s not a novel. And you are talking to Mr. and Mrs. Sophisticated Esquire or Conde Nast Traveler out there and you are saying, "Well while you are in Capri you ought to take a walk here dah dah dah dah dah." And that’s what I’m talking about and the minute you start writing a novel you’re not doing that. I have never changed from the very beginning. Night Soldiers was basically a book I just wanted to write. And I didn’t care what happened. Which was just as well (both laugh).
RB: I’m still thinking about your marking Kingdom of Shadows as the breakout book. I first came across your work with The World at Night. And then I went back after Kingdom of Shadows to all the earlier works. So I had read three of the most current books before I went back. Should I have seen some difference between Red Gold and Dark Star and all the others and Kingdom of Shadows?
AF: No. Only this difference. The original idea I had was to write an enormous panoramic historical spy novel and that was Night Soldiers. And in fact, I don’t think it worked as well as some of the other books. It was a great idea that in the doing wasn’t all that great. I didn’t feel like that. It felt like five novellas—which is my form—stacked up with the same character working through them. Those are five books in Night Soldiers. There is no question about that. There’s five books in Dark Star. I mean I have actually written sixteen or seventeen books. Now my books are one book and they used to be five books long.
RB: American publishers don’t want to publish novellas. And who knows what a novella is anyway? (laughs)
AF: I know. You know what the difference is?
RB: What is the difference?
AF: [Edgar Allan] Poe said that a piece of fiction should be read in a single sitting. And that’s a very interesting thing to think about if you are a writer. That doesn’t mean a short story. He was a genius. He had the idea that what you wanted was to have your reader sit down after dinner and read into the early morning hours. And then try to go to sleep. (laughs) He was the first American writer that I knew who was Frenchified. Poe was very interested in the French and they him. And he was a genre writer. He was probably the Stephen King of his time. He scared the hell out of people. Those are scary stories. “The Pit and The Pendulum" is…
RB: Are you still pegged as a genre writer?
AF: Oh, not really. I think people have figured out I’m a novelist who writes about…
AF: I wasn’t going to be the one to tell them. (laughs) Hello.
RB: People are resistant to ideas that they don’t discover by themselves.
AF: That’s correct. And so don’t bother telling them about it. But basically I am a novelist who writes about a subject area that is also widely used by genre novelists. And I am true to the genre many times. I am an Aristotelian and Aristotle said you must have a form to work in. Don’t try thinking up something new and novel because it’s not there. If you read the criticism—I read it long ago, not last week—but it had a profound effect on me in college because it seemed righteous to me, true to me. Just about everything he was saying… a comedy is a comedy. A drama is a drama, a tragedy is a tragedy. This is what you have. The spy novel at its sophisticated end had plenty of people showing the way. I wasn’t confined to Robert Ludlum when I started reading that stuff as a teenager. I read Eric Ambler. I loved that stuff. It engaged me far more than even my favorite murder mysteries. I grew up with John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. I loved those books. Those were moral tales. Those were fablio I think they were called in medieval criticism. They’re tales with moral points to them. There is always an evil man, usually a commercially evil man and the hero is a knight in shining armor…
RB: Eric Ambler. Graham Greene?
AF: Yeah, I read Graham Greene. You know Graham Greene is funny. You look in vain for the great Greene spy novel. Because the great Graham Greene spy novel was never written. The great Graham Greene spy novel is The Third Man.
RB: Our Man In Havana?
AF: Perfect, but it’s a comedy.
RB: Not a spy novel?
AF: Not really. It’s a sort of funny spy novel. Then when he really writes spy novels like The Honorary Consul and things like that, they are rather mean. They are not much fun to read. They are heavy and have that John Le Carre bureaucratic sorrow hanging over them that I never found I liked. I would really rather have an Eric Ambler on my night table than a Graham Greene book. But I am associated with Graham Greene because he was a good literary writer. A literary writer, easy to take. He’s easy to read, whatever else. I had a page of Graham Greene in my hand down at Austin, Texas in the Humanities library down there. It’s amazing. He changed two words on a page, writing long hand with a pen.
AF: Oh the Brits. (both laugh)
RB: Martin Cruz Smith’s latest book, December 6, is set in pre-WWII Japan and it was the first book by a current practitioner that reminded me of you. I think people use the word ‘atmospheric’ to describe you. Smith seemed to get the pre-war Japanese culture right as well as placing the reader in an authentic, palpable Tokyo. Is there anyone else that appears to delight in researching to assure an authentic sense of place?
AF: It seems to me Robert Littell. I don’t read many contemporary spy novelists to tell you the honest truth. I just don’t bother.
RB: Charles McCarry?
AF: Yes, but he hasn’t written for awhile.
RB: Lucky Bastard and Shelley’s Heart are relatively recent.
AF: I read his spy novels. Those are political novels as I understand it. I’m doing this book for Modern Library called The Book of Spies, selections from literary espionage. McCarry is one of the two Americans in there along with [John] Steinbeck.
AF: The Moon is Down. A resistance novel about Norway. It’s terrific. Oh man, your writers are best at their angriest, and WWII really pissed him [Steinbeck] off. He was a lefty to begin with and I guess and he really didn’t like Fascism. Then he saw it manifested with its own army and states. He just let it rip about common ordinary people—which is the best thing that he did—fighting. He doesn’t say that it’s Norway. He wants it to be kind of universal Europe. But it isn’t. It’s Norway. They made a very good movie out of it.
RB: I was just talking with Sandra Cisneros about Steinbeck’s participation as screenwriter for Viva Zapata. Apparently Steinbeck wanted Pedro Almendares, an excellent Mexican actor. The director Elia Kazan wanted and got Marlon Brando. They had him tape his eyes back to look more ethnic.
AF: But he’s terrific. That’s a very good movie.
RB: I think some Mexicans and Mexican Americans would disagree. At any rate, you are now on to your eighth book drawing on a vast seemingly endless subject. How do you decide what your story is going to be?
AF: I get to select as this point because I have done so much research. I have so many stories I could tell that are untold. People just don’t know these stories. They didn’t know the story of the oil in Rumania in WWII which is a phenomenal story in Blood of Victory. I couldn’t believe it. When I give my reading I talk about it. When I found this out, that there would have been no WWII if the British Secret Service had stopped that oil, I thought, “That’s a Ludlum idea if there ever was one and I’m certainly not going to use it.” But, no I was wrong. I did use it. But it happens to be true in this case. And the oil was never stopped because those operations were apparently betrayed by oil executives in London. I said that last night and people gasped. Gasped out loud that that could actually have happened. But it did happen. Five or six of my authors say it did and they are very dependable.
RB: What’s not available archivally? Has everything about WWII been released?
AF: I haven’t any idea. I don’t do primary research like that. I’m not into papers released by the OSS.
RB: Well, eventually it gets to you. Your sources use primary sources.
AF: Yeah, it gets to me through historians. The only reason to read that kind of material is to really be a historian and not a novelist. I’m a historical novelist.
RB: You do look at contemporaneous newspapers?
AF: Yeah, what it gives you again and again is a reminder that people really didn’t know what was going to happen in the future. So that valences, the weights of stories in those papers is all wrong. There’ll be a lot of stories about Singapore and nobody even remembers that now. But at the time, if you look at the NY Times in 1940 or whatever it was, Singapore, Singapore, Oh God they may lose Singapore, etc. It is really interesting in light of contemporary events. This looks important and that doesn’t look important. In time that all corrects because what you get ultimately with history is the plot. (laughs) You just don’t get it until later. You can’t figure it out while it’s going on.
RB: What do you call that facility or ability that requires you to keep in mind that in the story the characters don’t know what the outcome is going to be?
AF: It’s easy for me, I live in that moment when I am writing. I teleportate. I travel through time and go back there and I know exactly what everybody knew at that moment. I mean, you have to know your history. [Emphatically] You really have to know it. Day by day, week by week. And I still make mistakes, I’m sure. But I get it as right as I am able. I do the best job that I can. One of my favorite scenes is never mentioned—it’s not very important—in Red Gold. Late at night in a hotel in Paris, there is a commotion and it wakes the woman that Casson is with at that moment and she wakes Casson. He thinks a moment then puts on a shirt and pants and goes out in the hall, like we all would in a hotel. There are two women out there and they are going, “We’re finished. The American fleet has been destroyed by the Japanese.” He goes, “What?” And they say, “Yes, at some naval base in Hawaii.” He goes back to the room in this scene and the woman asks, “What happened?” He says, “The best possible thing has happened.” Because he knows. He’s a smart guy. She says, “What is that?” He says, “America is coming into this war. Their fleet has been attacked by Japan. Now they’re back like they were in 1917. Thank God.”
RB: Why were we talking about your favorite scene?
AF: Just the idea of being in the moment in these books. A teacher of mine in college once said you have to remember when you are reading history what halls were open to people and which were lighted. It stuck with me. Suddenly at that moment—I must have been nineteen years old—realized for the first time that a person in 1830 had the knowledge of a person in 1830 and had no idea what lay ahead and that would affect behavior in all kinds of ways.
RB: If you got that understanding because you had a good history teacher.
AF: He was a classics professor.
RB: Are people using your novels as adjuncts to teaching history?
AF: Yes, I have that all the time now.
RB: The flaw in history education has been the failure to show how alive it is with stories and characters. Education seems to emphasize dates and royal and presidential successions…
AF: And you don’t get the emotional…that’s why the Ken Burns and Geoff Ward’s Civil War hit like it did. Suddenly through letters and the way the images were manipulated you were able to know what it felt like to be a twenty-year-old soldier from Pennsylvania fighting in Virginia in 1862.
RB: They told the story. But American History as taught is not a story.
AF: Right. I never took a history course and haven’t taken a history course.
RB: Of the very large number of stories you can write, what’s the next one?
AF: I’m not quite ready to talk about it. It’s a little early. I can tell you it takes place in the Baltic.
RB: You are moving east now. You’ve given up Paris?
AF: North. I’ve been in the Balkans. My books have proceeded from Bulgaria and Eastern Europe to the Polish Corridor and Paris to Poland and Paris to France and then Middle Europe and Hungary and then to Rumania.
RB: With a taste of Turkey.
AF: With a touch of Turkey and a little bit of Paris. It’s really like cooking something. And now I’m going to do the Baltic which is Latvia and Estonia and Lithuania.
RB: When we last spoke you were armed with a conversation from the forthcoming Blood of Victory that you cited as a example of how you were refining your writing…
AF: They say, “Where will you be if the war continues?” He says, “Wherever it isn’t.” Somebody says, “Why is that?” He says, “I’ve seen too many people shot.” And somebody says, “In battle?” and he says, “Afterwards.” That’s an example to me of me doing my best work, using one word where other people might go on for three pages. But you don’t have to go on for three pages because everybody knows exactly what I am talking about. I prefer to let the reader’s imagination work rather than trying to fill in all the corners. I have huge affection and trust for my reader. Which is why my books are popular. I am very reader friendly. Ask anybody, they’ll tell you.
AF: I really write for the reader.
RB: Does that affect your choice of stories?
AF: My choice of stories is very much affected by my own ignorance. If I don’t know a story then I am going to assume that most people I know and that people who read my books don’t know them either. I always like in a book, a story I don’t know, a place I don’t know about. Something new and interesting and that lets you into a world. You go then through a door and you’re in fantasyland or wherever you are and that’s why you read books.
RB: Novelist Darin Strauss quoted to me something he got out of a course with E.L. Doctorow about writing historical fiction, which was that you do as little research as you can get away with.
AF: Well, that would be anybody. If it’s a philologist in 19th century Britain, you only have to learn eleven antique languages, learn Old Norse and maybe you don’t have to learn Frisson. In a very broad sense I do the least amount I can…but that’s not true. I do much more than I use in the books. Three times as much.
RB: I remember asking you how concerned you were about the accuracy of the historical detail and you said, “Very much, because people had given their lives around these things.”
AF: Yes, absolutely.
RB: There are many fiction writers who gleefully proclaim that they are professional liars.
AF: I am that too. I am that as well. You have to be. You have to be deceptive to write fiction. But there are certain things where you can’t be in my work and in the area that I write about. Because, as I have said, that history has been paid for in blood and thereby deserves its accurate rendering.
RB: Okay, you have written more than seven books and you are writing your next. When you began in this vein I would expect that you didn’t where it was going to go or what was going to happen.
AF: No idea.
RB: You probably didn’t even know if you were going to make a living doing it…
AF: I felt I would make a living doing it.
RB: You felt it…
AF: Right. And I was doing all right, not great. But I was managing. I would fill in with journalism.
RB: You don’t have to do that anymore?
RB: Do you want to?
RB: There is no publication that you want to write for?
AF: No and I have had great offers. I talked to an editor at Harper’s, and he said, “Would you write a piece for us?” There is a part of me that would like to and another part of me that knows that I don’t have the time.
RB: So here we are in what artists call mid career. What are your ambitions for the body of your work?
AF: That it remain…
RB: How large would you like it to be?
AF: I have no idea. I don’t have a grand master plan. I always have a one book plan. Or, in fact, I have a contractual plan. I have a two-book contract with Random House. So I am going to write two books. That means, in fact, that I am thinking about the next one while I am writing this one. You can’t help yourself. You come across things in your research and you go, “Well that’s not right for this book but it may really be great for the next one.” I have things I have wanted to get in since book one (laughs). There are still sitting there.
RB: Where do you keep them?
AF: I keep them in notes. I am so disorganized, that way. I have a big notebook with a lot of sticky papers stuck into it. That’s what I do. I don’t do it on a computer.
RB: I don’t recall if there were recurring characters from other of your books in Blood of Victory?
AF: The spymaster, the Hungarian Polanyi, is the same one as in Kingdom of Shadows. That’s the same guy that was uncle of Nicholas Morath. He was effectively the boss of I.A. Serebin in Blood of Victory. There might be one of two more from earlier books. There is a mention of the barman friend of Nicholas Morath, Balki the Russian emigre. He also appears very briefly as the author of a piece that’s going to go in the literary magazine, The Harvest. So there is some recurrence but no big recurrence of much earlier characters.
RB: How do you decide whether things referenced earlier will reappear?
AF: It depends. If it’s right, if that person…there are certain people that are bound, in a funny way, to appear. Lady Angela Hope is mentioned in Blood of Victory. She is the British spy mistress that is first introduced in Dark Star. So, they are around. (laughs) The wife of Voshenkovsky. Lion of the Bourse, last seen in Kingdom of Shadows as a men’s room attendant, appears at this cocktail party in Istanbul. Obviously, she has been able to get out of Paris while her husband has remained there for whatever reason and she is now at this cocktail party that Serebin attends on the yacht. So they are there…
RB: The appearances of these characters is out of a narrative necessity, not because of your playfulness or your wanting to inject hints of continuity?
AF: I do like to use them. I have a separate page that I keep this kind of thing on and I like to bring this or that person in. I do it on purpose and there is always the Brasserie Heinenger which always appears in a different guise. This time they go in the afternoon to have leftovers for lunch. A very Russian emigre kind of thing. And I have already written the Heinenger scene for the new book. And it’s recollective. There is no way to get him there. It’s a very, very tightly plotted book this time out. The new book.
RB: You could spin off a Brasserie Heinenger Cookbook (laughs).
AF: Laughs. I did get a call from Susan Spano, a travel writer for the LA Times, who correctly guessed the model for Heinenger.
RB: Let’s talk about movies and your books?
AF: That’s really a sore spot. It really is. I’ve come close several times. It’s been very strange. Actually, I don’t really understand why there haven’t been films of these books.
RB: Are they all are optioned?
AF: They are periodically in and out of option. Two are currently in option. The World At Night has been in option for two years. Dark Star has been in option for three years. There is a possibility that one of them might get made.
RB: As I discuss this issue of making films with various people I am made aware of the rational black hole that it is. Ethan Hawke suggested that making movie deals is very actor driven.
AF: I can not believe that some Hollywood man or woman hasn’t read these books—they are on the LA Times bestseller list all the time—and they didn’t take the next step and call a producer and say, “What about optioning this book for me?”
RB: You should believe it. Michael Connelly has written ten or eleven books and the first movie has just been made with Clint Eastwood starring and directing.
AF: Right. So maybe that’s the problem. I don’t know that to say.
RB: That movie business is a wacky business.
AF: It is. And if you talk to people it’s amazing that any movie has ever been made of anything for any reason. Everything mediates against it.
RB: So, I guess no one is making a movie at the moment.
AF: That’s the answer.
RB: And you would like them to be made?
AF: Of course, of course. They belong on screen. These really are movies.
RB: I thought that when I read The World at Night.
AF: Well it’s in option.
RB: Can you say who has optioned it?
AF: William Randolph Hearst III. He has been wildly interested in these books and this movie for a couple of years. I think Kingdom of Shadows is a movie.
RB: Of course.
AF: The earlier books are episodic. I began to be narrative driven about two books ago. And the book I am writing now is completely narrative driven. It’s a single line plot like you wouldn’t believe.
RB: Uh huh.
AF: Well, you know. You grow you change and originally I decided to do these books as episodic novellas. Any they are but they are almost novels. And it makes them difficult for film. You really have to pick one of the books or one of the stories and then try to get the characters you like into that particular story.
RB: I think I read you quoted as saying that it’s a convention to have eight characters…does that sound like you?
AF: I don’t think that’s me. (laughs) I have many, many characters. All the time I like Cecil B Demille, cast of thousands. I really like having lots of characters and having them be very different. I think minor characters make novels. In most novels you might like the lead character but basically the lead character is no more or no less than your opening door to all the wonderful minor people. Much like all of our lives. We all have minor characters in our lives—our friends, and people we know, they are of more or less importance in our lives but they all have their own stories.
RB: Well, whether I understood the quote correctly or not, I am interested in what you are conscious of changing as you continue to write these novels.
AF: I begin in Kingdom of Shadows to really do a single line narrative. It’s the story of innocence lost in a way. Even though the lead character is an extremely urbane and sophisticated man, he come to understand the level on which you have to deal with evil—by his affiliation with his uncle and by, sadly, bringing in a man who he doesn’t know anything about—who later commits a murder that he would definitely not agree with. Plus he has an ongoing opponent in the Hungarian embassy, who is later murdered by his uncle in the embassy. Which is followed by one of my favorite scenes—which is between a French police detective and this diplomat—where the detective knows exactly what happened. And he says, "Let me understand this. You came into this man’s office. You said, ‘Hello.’ You spoke briefly. You turned to go out the door, at which time he extended his arm fully above his head, aimed the gun back at the top of his head and shot himself?" (AF & RB both laugh) and the diplomat says, “Yes, that’s what happened.” And the detective says, “How bizarre.” And the diplomat says, “Yes, you are right.” And then the detective says, “I take it, he was with the secret police?” And the diplomat says, “Yes, that’s true, he was.” And the French policeman says, “My sympathies.” And that’s a very funny thing for him to say at that point. It’s subtle. But his sympathies for what? His sympathies for living in a world where you had to deal with a person like that and where you were forced ultimately to kill him. I really like that scene.
RB: How well do you remember your seven books?
AF: I think pretty much perfectly. Not all the words but I certainly remember all the characters and scenes and I try not to duplicate. Sometimes I am tempted to write a certain scene and I go, “Oh no, I can’t do that, I’ve done that.” At this moment I have very good recall about these books and everything that happens in them. Including where the good lines are and how they are delivered and the circumstances that allow them to be delivered. That’s pretty much what writers do: set up, set up, set up, pay off, pay off, pay off. And then start again.
RB: Okay. Thank you.
AF: My pleasure.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing