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Spy vs. Spy: Thomas Mullen Interviews Olen Steinhauer

The Weather ManIn the last three years, I’ve read six novels by Olen Steinhauer, more than any other writer. This doubtless means that I have neglected the classics of late, but it also speaks to the addictive nature of the worlds he creates and the rush that readers receive when being propelled through his spiraling plots.

Steinhauer has rightly been called the heir to John le Carre and a modern master of the spy novel. This month marks the publication of An American Spy, the conclusion of his critically acclaimed trilogy that follows the misadventures of Milo Weaver, an operative in the CIA’s secretive Department of Tourism.

Through a convoluted series of dead drops at international airports, crinkled notes in Brooklyn doggie parks, and flash drives left behind at Starbucks locations in the Bay Area, I asked Olen the following questions. His answers arrived in my inbox a few weeks later, as a coded attachment to an email from a Nigerian man asking me if I’d help wire some money to his family.

Thomas Mullen: While I was writing my own attempt at a spy novel, I read in a review somewhere that “all the best spy novelists were themselves once spies,” noting people like John le Carre and Joseph Conrad. I thought, “Oh, shit.” But then I remember writers like you, and I feel better. After all, you’ve written outstanding spy novels, yet you were not a spy (as far as I know). Do readers and critics too often underestimate the value of imagination and research?

Olen Steinhauer: How about Eric Ambler, Len Deighton, and Alan Furst?

I think the media, and readers, really do underestimate the value of research and imagination in this regard. Le Carre was once briefly a spy, but what he created is realistic only in small part because of this. He began writing when fantasy spies (read: 007) were all the rage, and he knew from experience that espionage looked a lot different. Yet when it came to creating his fictional spy universe, he depended primarily on his knowledge of human nature, which is why his novels read like reality.

A knowledge of human nature is any novelist’s real tool (without it a novelist has no business writing novels), and if used properly it gives verisimilitude to strange planets, a distant past or culture, and the peculiar subculture of espionage. An obvious point to bring up is that Ian Fleming worked in espionage during World War II, but I don’t think anyone would call his books realistic, least of all him.

For any le Carre or Greene or Conrad or McCarry, there are plenty of retired spies writing novels that aren’t much good. They may have some element of reality the ex-spy wants to dramatize, but that doesn’t make them good spy novels—a good spy novel is good for the same reasons any work of fiction is good: It tells bigger truths through engaging characters working their way through an engaging story, and it tells that story well.

Realism isn’t absolutely necessary, but in the case of espionage fiction it’s a huge bonus, and I think most serious spy novelists try hard for it, whether they’ve experienced it personally or not.

TM: I just went to le Carre’s web site, and in his bio he says: “Nothing that I write is authentic. It is the stuff of dreams, not reality. Yet I am treated by the media as though I wrote espionage handbooks.”

OS: I came across a similar quote from him a few years ago when I was writing The Tourist and feeling very apprehensive about it. It was like a breath of fresh air.

TM: In your first five novels, you wrote about a fictional Soviet bloc nation. Your protagonists were cops and spies trying to do good within a corrupt system, wrestling with their souls as they condemned fellow citizens to labor camps or torture chambers. Then you switched to America in the post-9/11 years, a time of water-boarding and Guantanamo and CIA “black sites.” The parallel is hard to miss. How do you write about contemporary events like this without seeming too political or potentially alienating half your readership? Or is that not a concern a writer should think about?

OS: Politically, I’m pretty left-leaning, but a large part of my fan base is on the other side of the political spectrum. At first, this surprised me, but I think the explanation goes back to the first question. If a writer’s central subject is human nature, then politics is beside the point.

A novelist knows that people on either side of the political spectrum are essentially the same—they have similar desires, yet they have different ideas about how to achieve those desires. By desires, I don’t mean “universal health care” or “pro-life legislation”—I mean personal things: personal security, love, a reason for living.

I abhor many things the Bush administration set into motion, but I’d be a dishonest novelist if I didn’t give voice to the people who believe the opposite of me, because they have their reasons just as I do. No matter how much I might want to become polemical, I think I’d be cheating the craft of fiction if I went that route.

TM: Living in Eastern Europe for so many years has to have helped in your Cold War series and even the Tourist novels. You’ve now moved back to the States. How does it feel? Do you notice it changing your writing at all?

OS: Well, the first thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve got a lot less time for writing than I used to have, but this happens whenever you make such a big move. Overall, though, I’m finding it good for the work.

No matter where I live or what I’m writing about, I’m American and my primary audience will always be American. For the last decade, though, my contact with Americans has been limited, living as I have in a little bubble in Hungary. I never spoke the language particularly well, so when I walked the streets I was linguistically alone.

Occupy Wall StreetHere, I’m suddenly chatting with strangers, learning what people around me think and believe. Television is also warping my perception of the country—it’s a bit of a horror watching endless car insurance and medical advertisements and observing the minutia of American politics again. What it’s doing, though, is turning my attention back to the States.

Right now I’m writing a novel that takes place in Budapest, Cairo and Libya, but I’ve got a looming idea for the next book that will be set in and deal entirely with the United States, in particular with the unrest that’s spawned things like Occupy and the Tea Party—it’s an idea I’m extremely excited about.

TM: Speaking of the Budapest/Cairo/Libya book, I too find myself inspired by global events, but sometimes I worry that a) as a white American who only speaks English, I’m unqualified to write about other places, or b) American readers don’t care about other countries, and I’ll spend two years on something that few will read. What’s your take on that?

OS: Well, I’ve been having a lot of trouble with this book, so maybe I should’ve stopped myself earlier! No, I’m joking—my troubles haven’t had to do with the location but with the fact that I spread the plot too wide and the only solution has been to cut a lot of subplots and characters.

That said, I do think a writer has to approach other cultures with a measure of humility. (This is why my Eastern European novels are set in a fictional country—I didn’t want the responsibility of telling a real country’s history.) In this new book, I’m making things easier for myself by writing almost solely about Americans—spies and embassy people who are separated from the local culture—but the local culture has to be shown and interacted with, even if it’s shown through the eyes of foreigners. That’s just research. But using expatriates isn’t necessary—look no further than Gorky Park for a perfect example of how well an American (who, if I remember right, doesn’t speak Russian) can pull it off.

As for what American readers are interested in, I simply don’t know. I believe that a good story, well told, will gain a sizeable readership no matter the setting—I’m probably delusional believing that, but it’s the only way for a novelist to think and not go mad. Second-guessing the market, I think, is damaging. First, if it were that easy to predict what readers want, publishing would be a much more lucrative business. More importantly, though, once you start to place an imaginary readership’s desires above your own, you get away from your own interests, and that has to have an ill effect one’s writing.

I know someone smarter than me has said something like this already, but: A novelist’s ideal readership is his or her own self. A writer should write the book he would want to read.

TM: You earned an MFA in Creative Writing, then spent some years crafting literary novels that you didn’t publish. Only then did you sit down and write The Bridge of Sighs, your excellent debut, which combines elements of bildungsroman and police procedural. Was it a pleasure start to finish, or were there times when you thought you were betraying those professors about what literature should be?

OS: I began Bridge with a feeling of frustration. I’d written three unsuccessful novels, one of which I’d spent a few years on and got a Fulbright grant to research in Romania, and while they had their virtues they were primarily influenced by experimental fiction and spent a lot of time wallowing in characters’ thoughts, the story only moving forward incrementally.

So when I began Bridge, it was with the intention of writing a “straight” story—beginning, middle, and end—that was viscerally exciting to read, not merely intellectually amusing. I viewed it at the time as an experiment, to see if I even knew how to write a straight story, and by arriving at work a couple hours early every day and simply going at it, I finished (with revisions) in a mere 6 months. (For perspective, it usually takes me a year to a year and a half to write a book.) It was exciting, actually. I wasn’t worried about my professors’ reactions, because at the time I couldn’t imagine past finishing the thing.

Only later, when my agent started sending it out, did the insecurity start to hit.

Then Minotaur Books generously accepted it for publication, and they asked if I could ask some old professors for blurbs. That really made me antsy. I liked the book, and was proud of it, but it was purely genre fiction, a reworking of Raymond Chandler, who I’d discovered after grad school. I sent some query letters, and three old professors told me they’d be thrilled to read it. I sent it to them with a bashful cover letter making excuses for it. The end of the story is this: None of them replied.

It took me a while to get over that, and it’s another reason I think that a writer’s ideal audience is himself.

TM: That’s enraging but not altogether shocking. I think there are a lot of people — in particular, profs at MFA programs — who don’t realize (in both senses of the word) the artistic possibilities within genre fiction.

Your work demonstrates a creative approach to narrative: Both The Tourist and The Nearest Exit make abrupt POV switches about halfway through, An American Spy surprisingly opens with a long section from the POV of the Tourists’ nemesis. Your short story You Know What’s Going On is a complex broken-mirror of character angles. I’ve noticed too that people like le Carre and Martin Cruz Smith don’t seem to get enough credit for the experimental structure many of their novels take.

OS: I absolutely agree that espionage has huge creative possibilities. I suppose crime fiction does too, but I found I was better able to stretch my wings with espionage, and so I’ve remained here. Spy fiction is flexible in part because, while readers have some knowledge of police procedure, they don’t have a shared understanding of how espionage works, so the writer has a lot of room to maneuver in any way he or she would like.

Narrative structure is my passion, and some of my favorite authors play a lot with it. I’m not sure why I’m so hot on it—it just gives me aesthetic pleasure to write and read fragmented narratives, and I’ve stumbled across a genre that plays well with them.

A great example is Charles McCarry’s The Miernik Dossier, which utilizes multiple viewpoints through first-person agent reports collected in a “dossier” on a single man. One wonderfully subversive thing about this book is that it begins with a question: Is Tadeusz Miernik a spy or not? And though you have multiple characters all pursuing the answer, by the end the reader still doesn’t know for sure. McCarry’s brilliant, and has the chops to pull off this sort of unfulfilled quest without ever disappointing the reader.

Sears (Willis) Tower, Chicago, USA: Tourist Attraction #1TM: You admitted to me that you often don’t know where your novels are going. You eventually get stuck, and you despair, but then you figure things out. Even though this happens to me sometimes too, I was still surprised to hear it from you, because your novels are so exceptionally well plotted. Without spoilers, can you give me an example of something you were stuck on in one of the Tourist novels, and how you bailed yourself out?

OS: This is true, and I think this despairing method is the how I come across solutions that, hopefully, result in unexpected storylines. Also, I think I’d get bored with writing if I knew beforehand what was going to happen.

I’m trying to remember a good example of writing myself into a corner, but all examples are escaping me now. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that with the Tourist books I’ve tended to write about twice as many pages as I’ve ended up with. They average around 400 pages, so in each case I’ve written about 800. I don’t bang out 800 pages and go back and cut—I write for a while, realize I have a problem, then go back and cut 50 or so pages and start fresh. This adds up quickly.

A number of times I’ve written, say, two-thirds of a book without actually knowing what the “conspiracy” is at the end. That is, my protagonist will go through trials and reach the point where all will be revealed, and I’ll find out that I don’t know what’s going to be revealed! So I have to sit down and figure it out. Sometimes this takes a month or more, me sitting down and writing out one idea before realizing it won’t work with what I’ve already written. At this point in a story, you don’t want to bring in things out of the blue—the solution should be cobbled together using things that are already in the book. So I’ll try to find clues within the text, and see what they could possibly be pointing at. It’s an odd method, but it’s largely worked for me.

TM: I’m curious about what differences you’ve noticed in critical/popular reception to the books in America vs. other countries.

OS: That’s an interesting question, but I’m not sure if there’s an easy answer. The Eastern European books (which contained no American main characters) received excellent critical attention in the US, UK and France, but in all the countries my sales were low. It’s only with Milo Weaver that things have really taken off.

Inevitably, there are some who bemoan the end of the European books, but by and large sales have increased everywhere. In Hungary, for example, I wasn’t even published until The Tourist. Is this because the later books are better? I don’t think so—the apples-and-oranges analogy almost works here—and I think the books themselves only partly explain the shift in fortunes.

I had the phenomenal good luck of having The Tourist optioned by George Clooney and Warner Bros before it was published, and that created a great stir internationally, opening up markets I’d previously not had access to. And when the reviews first came out, Clooney was always name-dropped. So I can thank him for a lot of the success I’ve got now.

Continental-European critics are interesting because they often bring up my Americanness, usually as a deficit. If I get something wrong, it’s because I’m American. If I get it right, it’s despite me being American! On the other hand, American critics are sometimes too kind to me, assuming that since something sounds right, then I must’ve researched it into the ground, or experienced it, and sometimes it’s just me winging it.

TM: You’ve become something of a literary critic of late, writing cover reviews in the New York Times Book Review of such writers as Martin Cruz Smith and Elmore Leonard. How does it feel to critique such heavyweights, who I can only assume have been big inspirations to you?

OS: Leonard is an interesting example, because before reviewing Raylan I’d never read him. In his case, I found some of the language difficult going and tried to communicate this while allowing that he was sticking to his own rules, and they take some getting used to. With any writer—well known or not—I try to be respectful, to get inside the book, to deal with it on its own terms, the terms with which the writer penned it. I’ve read reviews that say more about the reviewer and what they want when they open a book, and I’m trying to avoid that trap.

Smith was my first review for the Book Review, and I was terrified of screwing it up, so I went back and reread Gorky Park—a major influence for my Eastern European novels—and read a couple more Arkady Renko novels so I could put it all in perspective. Though I enjoyed that, the real pleasure of reviewing has been discovering fresh voices. I was really impressed by two Germans: Ferdinand von Schirach and Zoran Drvenkar—the latter’s book, Sorry, just blew my mind, and it was a joy to share my enthusiasm with the world.

At the same time, reviewing for the Book Review is a big responsibility, and my fear is that I’ll be handed a book that I simply don’t like at all. I don’t believe limited review space, particularly in the paper of record, should be wasted giving attention to a bad book. I imagine I’ll just contact my editor and tell her I’m bowing out, and we’ll see if they bother sending me more books.

Olen Steinhauer is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, including An American Spy, now in bookstores everywhere. He is also a two-time Edgar Award finalist and has been shortlisted for the Anthony, the Macavity, the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, and the Barry awards. Raised in Virginia, he lives in California.

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, and his new novel, The Revisionists. His books have been named to Year’s Best lists by such publications as The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The San Diego Union-Times, The Onion, The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, and by He lives in Atlanta with his wife and sons.