Saturday, June 09, 2007

Espionage Author Alan Furst Opens Up

No bright lights in the face, no threats or bribes -- just a comfortable desk to lean against and a room full of readers, and Alan Furst started talking. He visited R. J. Julia Booksellers on May 31, where stacks of the new softcover edition of THE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT were eagerly purchased.

Although he read the first few gripping pages of this intense pre-World War II thriller aloud, Furst mostly talked that evening about his research strategies and writing habits.

How much time does he spend in research for each book? "It's months, not years. And it gets shorter as time goes by," because Furst is staying within one time period and more or less one continent, Europe. And he's not reinventing history, but following it closely. "History's a better writer than I am," he suggested. For KINGDOM OF SHADOWS, enmeshed in Hungary's complex evolution, he admits he plowed through the H volume of his Encyclopedia Brittanica repeatedly, working the dates and characters into his mind. Then he figured he could "just create characters and have them follow along in the webbing."

His favorite epoch has become 1930s Paris. "People knew that an apocalypse was coming, but they didn't know where, and they didn't know when." The push of history was so huge that there were limited roles for individuals to play -- "like hero and victim," Furst specified. "But you could NOT stand aside," he added, saying that France attempted to do so, and suffered for its effort.

"I moved to Paris to write the first of these books, NIGHT SOLDIERS," the author explained. He used a tape of Django Reinhardt and Stefan Grappeli to provide the background music in his room, and swore he could even smell the Paris night of that era.

Because his career was still young and fragile, Furst didn't have the money to explore the continent. Yet he needed to see, hear, taste the landscapes of Central and Eastern Europe. So he persuaded ESQUIRE magazine to hire him for a travel piece that would require him to take a steamer up the Danube River. There was an obvious flaw in this as a travel article: When Furst turned in his writing after the trip, the editor hemmed and hesitated -- "seems like such a dark piece of writing." Furst agreed: "It's a dark travel article," he urged, pushing the publication into a new face of the genre.

Classic for a Furst public appearance is a certain confusion about the details that he then incorporates in his novels. Several in our bookshop evening brought up places and people that had especially rung true for them, asking Furst where he had found the restaurant, the person, and so on. "No, it's made up -- I write fiction!" he admitted.

Yet the reality of 1930s Europe gives the canvas on which he paints his stories, and Furst doesn't expect to tire of it in any way. He has made the terrain his own.

"We sell you as a European writer," his British publisher told him.
"What's a European writer?" Furst inquired, curious.
"Nothing! There is no such thing! Except for you!"

Now Furst is creating his first "diplomatic" novel, one that takes place in the French embassy in Warsaw in 1937. That should be enough of a hint, he suggested to the gathered readers, and firmly refused to reveal more. Consider me hooked and waiting for the publication.

Oh yes, we brought home quite a few signed Alan Furst books from the trip. That's a good thing, because I need to read them all again, to make sure the characters are fresh in my mind. Furst long ago rejected the traditional series concept, in favor of developing his own set of background characters who appear repeatedly, linking each new protagonist to the other books and events. Read closely enough, and you're part of that world. Pass me another Django Reinhardt CD, would you?

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