Alan Furst: Master of intrigue
Published: March 28, 2003
|Paragraph by paragraph, Alan Furst meticulously creates an atmospheric world of spies, resistance fighters and Nazis|
Alan Furst uses words the way a great filmmaker uses a camera. His sentences flow like tracking shots (Renoir comes to mind), taking in every detail without interrupting the movement forward. Once you start reading, the motion takes over. Every word is there for a reason; every sentence builds the scene.
Furst writes what he calls "historical spy novels," set between 1933 and 1945, covering the years of Hitler's rise to power and the first Stalinist purges in Moscow. Fascism looms and war in Europe engulfs the lives of his unwilling heroes. A few years ago, his thrillers (seven so far) were hard to find in bookstores. You'll have no trouble spotting them today. Furst is one of the pre-eminent spymasters, often compared to John le Carré.
His novels draw you into a labyrinth of spies and resistance fighters during World War II, but he never bogs you down with exposition. The events of the war come through the details and dialogue. He puts his heroes and the reader into the middle of the fray. Like his central characters, you discover what's going on in bits and pieces as it happens. A profile in Time cites the author's "vivid, precise evocation of mood, time, place, a letter-perfect recreation of the quotidian details of World War II Europe."
In Dark Star, for example, it is the terrifying sound of thugs singing as they march to beat up Jews that alerts the main character, Szara, and his companion, Baumann, who are trapped inside a synagogue.
By now the words of the song were plainly audible; it was something they sang in the Rathskellers as they drank their beer:
Wenn's Judenblut vom Messer spritzt/ Dann geht's nochmal so gut, dann geht's nochmal so gut. When Jewish blood squirts under knives/ Then all is well, then all is well.
Baumann turned away from the door and the two men stared at each other, both frightened, uncertain what to do and, suddenly, perfect equals.
"Hide." Baumann spoke the word in a broken whisper, the voice of a terrified child.
Szara fought for control of himself. He had been through pogroms before--in Kishinev and Odessa. They always attacked the synagogue.
In another example, the hero and his lover find themselves stranded during a coup d'état in Bucharest (Blood of Victory) as they make their way across town in a trasuri (horse-drawn cab).
It was so quiet they did not speak. The cold night smelled good after the smoky cellar ... for a time, there was only the squeak of the turning wheels and the steady trot of the horse on the snow-covered pavement. When the horse slowed abruptly, Serebin looked up to see where they were. ... The horse went a little further, then stopped, its ears pricked up for a moment, then flattened back against its head. Now what? The cabman made a clicking sound but the horse didn't move, so he spoke to it, very gently, a question. Suddenly, Marie-Galante's hand went rigid on his arm, so tight he could feel her fingernails, and he smelled burning. In the distance, a muffled snap, then another, and a third.
Neither reader nor hero knows what's coming next. But with impeccably placed details--the singing, the tightening grip on the arm--he puts you in the moment. You are caught up in the confusion.
A master of show-don't-tell, Furst lets you know enough to keep your bearings. You discover the big picture in much the same way you would if you were there.
"In life you're ignorant an extraordinary amount of the time," he says. "What does this person think of me? What's going on with the news? What's going to happen next week? We live in a sea of unknowing. That's what makes human life what it is."
His heroes--including a Polish military cartographer, a French filmmaker and a Soviet journalist--move with ease across borders and are comfortable in more than one language. They operate on the shadowy fringes of smoky cafes and intellectual salons; traveling by barge or train to Poland, Romania, Germany and Paris, always Paris; often living in sparse rooms; never knowing if the next person they meet is friend or foe. They blend in and because they do, they are called upon to perform seemingly doomed heroic deeds. But they always have a choice--to lie low and survive as best they can or to endanger themselves for the greater good.
Against the backdrop of war, fascism, communism and unspeakable evil, Furst writes about courage and character. In his novels, the struggle between good and evil takes place in shop fronts, pensions and drawing rooms, in the decision to deliver a message or hide an acquaintance.
I first met Furst in New York City at a Marymount Manhattan College writing conference. In between his presentations, he stood apart, quietly observing. Like his characters, he didn't draw attention to himself. During a later interview while he was on tour to promote Blood of Victory, the author spoke intensely and passionately about his research and writing methods, his fascination with courage and heroism and, despite the dark nature of his novels, his unswerving optimism.
You begin Red Gold and Blood of Victory with an intimate bedroom scene. The Polish Officer begins with a battle between Poles and Germans over control of the telephone exchange in Warsaw in 1939. In both you bring the reader into something that has already started, into the heat of the moment. How did you decide on these beginnings?
I have a good sense of where to start. You must understand I'm a writer totally, absolutely tied to a calendar because I'm writing historical fiction, so it's not a big decision nor is it a very skillful decision. These are obvious decisions for me.
I had to start The Polish Officer somewhere between the 1st and 17th of September, 1939. I could have started it, I suppose, with the German secret operations that attempted to justify their attack on Poland, but I had no interest in writing about that. I knew I wanted to start this book with the telephone exchange in Warsaw. Always they fight over the telephone exchange, the radio station. It's conventional to World War II and really all kinds of wars that communications are crucial. Now we use all kinds of smart bombs and electronics, but in those days they used infantry, because airplanes were not precise enough to do the job.
|What do you try to accomplish in the first few pages?|
When I was 29 years old, a friend of mine, who was a writer, read my first book manuscript. "Well, one thing that's missing is the corpse on Page 1," he said. "Oh, there's supposed to be a corpse on Page 1?" "Of course," he said, as in "didn't you know that?"
[In Blood of Victory], Serebin goes to a florist. I mention there are flowers in the window, and there are two nice young girls in the shop wearing smocks and being very nice to him. The theory being that girls like working in florist shops. He has a bouquet made--this is for clandestine reasons, mind you. We describe how the flowers are laid down and how some greenery is put in among the roses. He makes a very conventional choice, but he's like that. He asks for a dozen red roses. Despite the fact that it's a clandestine reason (the girl doesn't know that), she makes a little joke with him in Romanian--which he doesn't understand, but he knows what she's saying: "Oh, I wish somebody would bring me this bouquet." So normal life is continuing.
The next thing that happens is there's a radio in the shop, and the station goes off. Logically, that is a technical problem. One of them goes and hits the radio. What actually happens is that this is the first moment of a coup d'état. The radio station has gone off the air, and there's just a buzz on the radio, but they have no reason to believe that. I'm hoping the reader might know it at that point. If the reader knows, that's good. I'm very reserved as a writer. I don't have them saying, "Oh, I wonder if it's a coup d'état." You leave a lot out.
There's not much exposition in your books nor do you usually use an omniscient narrator.
I make sure that the reader is on board, knows what's happening and has the macro picture. But then my characters are always characters who will be interested in the macro picture. And that's important. If you're doing a historical novel, you need to have a macro picture, and you need to have that macro picture enter through the lead character. So the lead character has to be someone who will want to know or knows or is interested in just precisely that. It can't be somebody who doesn't care.
You pack so much historical detail into your novels. What are your research methods?
I'm a very eclectic researcher. I use every possible source. I don't do a lot of primary research. I read journalists' books. I read histories of the period. I read technical books, personal biographies, memoirs. Some contemporary histories of long-ago periods, some long-ago histories of a long-ago period, immediately thereafter-type histories, which are the best. I read everything. It comes from all over the place.
I take notes copiously to teach myself the history of this period. You cannot write about something until you understand it. For Kingdom of Shadows, I had to understand the history of Hungary from 1930 to 1940. I think I spent days writing stuff out until I understood precisely what had happened. By understanding, I mean you can sit down and tell someone else about it, which is, after all, what you're doing in a novel. That's my research technique. I have a prodigious memory. Once I've learned it, I remember it forever.
I adapted that to my own work. You can't dawdle and fool around with readers. I believe you have to do several things and do them quickly. One of the things you have to do is engage the reader's attention in your main character, and you have to [make] the reader like that character, right away. I like to tell myself this story:
When I was in high school I was in the theater, I acted. I had a wonderful man, Fred Little, who was the director ... a really good director. He had once directed a play about a king. A good king. And in one scene, the king had to play chess with his page. So the two of them were on stage with a chess board and chess pieces. At some point, the page left and the king sat there alone for a few minutes, perhaps he had a soliloquy. One night when the page got up and left, the actor playing the king noticed that one of the pieces was halfway on and halfway off one of the squares. So he reached out his hand, moved the piece and destroyed the play, because from that moment the audience thought, "this king cheats." The whole character of the king was changed for the rest of the play, no matter what he did.
That's the story I use to remind myself that you can lose an audience immediately if you do the wrong thing with a main character. You don't have a long time to have the main character be liked by the reader; therefore, it's best to show him when he's at his best in a situation with some tension in it. Conflict or intimacy--those are the two areas where people experience tension, want to do their best.
How do you write that first scene and get everything you need in one or two pages?
I will write a first paragraph over 40 or 60 times. I change the words, the actions, what is described, how it's described, the mix. It's like building something out of many different kinds of blocks. There are all kinds of things that are happening. That's how I do paragraphs. I write books in paragraphs, and every paragraph has to pay off.
What do you mean by pay off?
The hardest part of writing is transition from one paragraph to the next--that's where people fail. It's not easy. It takes a lot of work. When I said every paragraph has to pay off, I wasn't kidding. There has to be something good in every paragraph. It's not just a question of you needing to get Smith from 42nd to 50th Street. Either you start the next paragraph: "Smith is now on 50th Street," or you work something into the paragraph that pays off--a funny, dramatic, interesting phrase, an interesting characteristic, an observation. It can be anything, but it has to be something. You cannot have just an expository paragraph in a novel.
How do you keep the history part of the story on track without getting the reader bogged down?
It comes in a conversation, newspapers, radio, newsreels, which are the ways people learned things. The rules of the game for me are that it has to happen organically.
|How do you decide what to use?|
You don't get to put it all in. I have the most wonderful leftovers ... good stuff. Do you end up using it? Rarely. You really have to be reserved. It's the cardinal sin of historical writing that people put things in because they are just too good to leave out. They don't lead to anything. They're just flapping around like something loose. It's awful. Readers hate it. I don't like it. You can't do it. Good historical writers never do it. But, alas, you do spend time developing certain things, finding certain things historically, great lines. I have one thing I'm waiting to use. I've been waiting for two books. I can't get it in. The moment hasn't come to use this particular line.
What techniques do you use to create the atmosphere of an era without overdoing it?
When you read [works from] a period, that really transmits a sense of time and place. You have to absorb that in some kind of way and be able to fall back into it. There are a lot of ways I do that. Not just one way. I'm very careful with language. Nobody ever says "OK" in my books. They often say, "that's right." The language is important, the setting is important. Even things like weather. You have to put those kinds of things into 1940s terminology. It's the same terminology that would be used now, but somehow it's a 1940s snowstorm. It's not quite like a  snowstorm. I was reading a passage from Blood of Victory, where there was some snow on the streets, but what you really see is a horse-drawn cab, which is what they had. So the snow is different. I think so, at any rate.
--Posted March 28, 2003
When I'm writing, I'm in that year, and I can sort of project myself into that year.
They have a person who works on movies and [his] job is called continuity. That person's job is to make sure everything is right where it was the day before. And it's my job to make sure that everything is in the right place, and it's all the right stuff, that it's not out of date, and that it's not the wrong thing to be there at the time. The phone in the office of the phone company director in Warsaw is Bakelite. I do that every now and then; again, you can't do it too often. You can't make your book chockablock--a beginning writer will say, "Oh, what a great idea! I'll use these eight other terms for things." No you can't.
Do you create a backstory for your characters? And if you do, how much do you include?
I always work out all the backstories. I tend to take copious notes about them. Who is this person? Not every character. There are too many characters in the book to do that. Most of the characters--I want to know their history. I want you to know their history.
It can be anything from a three-word history to a 10-paragraph history. It just depends on how important, interesting and appealing that history is. The reader has to say, "Oh, isn't this great! I'm reading a terrific history of this person." You can't say, "The reader has to learn the history of this person even though it's a boring, stupid history, so I'm just going to impinge upon, demand the reader's good graces for two pages here while I do this important thing." You can't do that.
Are some parts of writing a novel harder than others?
Here's something to say to all writers: Beware of the end of the middle. In a 350-page manuscript, along about page 240, even earlier, you are going to have a case of the miseries. Page 220, in there, that's suicide alley because you know what the end is, but it's too early to start ending. You're stretching the middle at that point. It's very uncomfortable.
Your material is getting short, and you're going to let plot take over for the run to the station. You can't avoid it. It's organic. It's a structural problem. Of necessity, at that point, you're running out of material, or you haven't written a good book.
If you figure the book in thirds, the first third is easy. Anybody can write the first third of a novel, and the last third is not hard because you're going somewhere. The middle is like the middle of anything, like the middle of the afternoon. What do you do with it? You have to do something, so you kind of go along with your story, you go along with your characters, and you go along with the development of the relationships between characters. All of this threatens to get boring at the end of the middle. At least, I begin to get very panicky at that point.
One theme in your work is the optimism that comes through in moments of pleasure and kindness between characters. The last paragraphs of The Polish Officer really capture that. Here are these two characters who have just come through a horrendous journey, who don't know what will happen tomorrow, who stop to take some pleasure in the thought of hot coffee and the sound of dogs barking.
It's the little things. At the end of the day, all of us live lives under difficulty. You won't find anyone to tell you life is perfect. They do one day at a time. Everybody comes back to that at the end. What small pleasure can I have? How am I going to deal with this problem? And then, tomorrow is another day.
I love the end of The Polish Officer. And the last line just blows me away. It goes, "a dog barked, another answered." In five words you have the essence about optimism, about life. I was very emotional when I wrote that ending. I was very moved by it, because it means that life is going to go on, as bad as it might be. As bad as it might be, these common daily notes of positiveness will be there. So, it's very hopeful.
I think given that period, given the terrible things that went on, it's very important for me as a writer to end in such a way. All the characters say, "I may not be here tomorrow." You know that they are there tomorrow, but you also know that they are the kind of people who accept the possibility that they won't be. Like we all have to. That's the deal.
I like optimistic fiction. I used to say to people (I don't say it so much anymore), "I'm in the business of consolation." That's a word you almost never hear, but I say it all the time because I think it's a very crucial and important one. The sub-theme of being in the business of consolation is to look at the world as a place where people do good things. It's a world where strong people take responsibility for those not as strong as themselves. That's the greatest human act there is. You see it again and again.
You address the idea of taking responsibility in Blood of Victory, when Serebin's friend tells him, "... if you don't stand up to evil it eats you first and kills you later, but not soon enough." What does this passage mean to you?
I put that passage in after 9/11 as a memorial. I did it absolutely on purpose. That was a late fix. At the end of the day after that experience, I thought, well, it's the truest thing I know to say. I'm not a public spokesman or anything like that, but I do write books and they are publicly read. That gives me the right to say something sometimes that's close to my heart. That's exactly what I did.
The world is a place where good struggles with evil. You can see it. Turn on the television. It's not far away from you. And that has been true in all history. When didn't you have terribly negative things going on, evil people, brutal things, catastrophes, predatory people? Then you have heroes who come along and try to save the day. To save is such an elemental part of humanity. When you see how 9/11 finally is playing itself out ... we have chosen to think about it in terms of the fireman and policeman. That is the emotional final paragraph of 9/11. That's the hopeful thing [we] found in it-that there are people who are heroic.
What does it mean to be heroic? It means you try to save people when they need to be saved. My books are about that all of the time. None of these people have to do what they do. None of my heroes. I always give them an option. #