Olen Steinhauer guest post
'An American Spy is the third in the series chronicling a secret CIA section called the Department of Tourism. The tourism metaphor worked nicely with my interest in how intelligence agents might blow through foreign cities just as unversed on the local culture as your average middle-class tourist. That is to say, it was a kind of joke, and so I was surprised when interviewers and readers asked the same question: “Does the Department of Tourism really exist?” It doesn’t, of course, and if it did I certainly wouldn’t have the slightest knowledge of it.
By now, as I do interviews for An American Spy, that question has long been set to rest. These days, I’m asked: “Are you, or have you ever been, a spy?” Again, I answer in the negative, and this is when I always sense a slight deflation, as if by my admission I’ve undercut my authority as an espionage novelist and admitted to being a fake. It’s often proclaimed that the best spy novelists are ex-spies. The usual list is unraveled: le Carré, Greene, Maugham, Fleming—and as an American, I have to add Charles McCarry to that list. But there are equally excellent spy novelists who depend solely on imagination and research—people like Deighton, Furst, and Ambler—and advocates of this theory like to pretend they don’t exist. They also choose to ignore the many retired spies who have written atrocious, or at least “unrealistic,” spy novels.
In 1996, none other than John le Carré said something on this subject:
‘A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue.’ Some of you may wonder why I am reluctant to submit to interviews on television and radio and in the press. The answer is that 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.’ (http://www.randomhouse.com/features/lecarre/author.html)
I quote at length because it was a relief for me to read that the living master of this genre of ours is not a masterful espionage novelist because of his tenure with British intelligence. He’s the writer he is because he has an understanding of how he—and by extension, humans in general—function. He does not write espionage nonfiction; he writes “the stuff of dreams.” His primary source for these dreams is not the few years he worked as a spy; his primary source is every decent novelist’s primary source: himself.
Recently, this distinction has unconsciously been growing in me, a kind of involuntary thesis—and, admittedly, a defense. My thesis is this: The novel is an investigation into human nature. Anyone without a basic interest in or understanding of human nature has no business writing novels. You can use any setting for this investigation—a haunted castle, a Wall Street trading firm, a city of zombies—but no matter what your setting or subject, there is only one primary subject. It’s a subject that all humans have a vested interest in, which helps explain the endless popularity of the novel form.
A unified vision of human nature (more often felt than organized into a cohesive philosophy) is a novelist’s tiller, steering him through the long and often agonizing process of producing 100,000 words of good story. It leads directly to the creation of believable characters, and believable characters (more than physical description or, in our example, spy craft) are what make a fictional world feel realistic—for the psychological reality of a place or subculture is always more engaging than its physical reality.
The writer begins, as le Carré says, with knowledge of himself, this helps the writer understand the people around him. That’s understandable—after all, this kind of projection is what we all do every day. Yet the novelist takes it a step further when it comes time to describe the inner life of a character he’s never known directly—someone from the plains of Mongolia, the planet Venus, or the secret world. The process is essentially the same: the writer does a measure of research, then uses imagination to place himself into that distant world. If we are all at the core essentially the same, then it’s simply a matter of imagining yourself in entirely different circumstances. A better word for this might be empathy, and it goes a long way toward making things that once seemed alien familiar.
This, really, is where the magic comes in, for in creating believable characters you create a believable world. Two personal examples: After I’d finished the manuscript of The Tourist, I received an enthusiastic note from my French publisher. He told me that, as a lifelong Parisian, he was amazed that an American had gotten his city “just right.” Obviously this pleased me to no end, yet it also shocked me, for by that point in my life I had never stepped foot in Paris. Previous to that book I wrote a sequence of novels set in Eastern Europe during the decades of the Cold War. At a book signing in Budapest, an older reader who had lived through many of those years cornered me to ask how I had captured exactly how it had felt to live in that part of the world under communism. After all, I had only been nineteen when the Berlin Wall came down. I wasn’t sure how to answer.
Now, I have some idea, for the answer doesn’t just lie in imagination and an understanding of human nature. It also relies on the act of writing itself. There’s a reason why, in some countries at least, fiction writers and poets are afforded a high level of respect. It’s because, when the writing is going well, imaginative writers can sound very wise indeed. This isn’t because fiction writers are particularly brilliant (though some are)—it’s because the act of writing, the act of bringing together words and characters and situations and letting them play out, is another way of thinking, one that can be superior to the dialectic we normally engage in. I once told an interviewer, “My books are smarter than I am,” and I stick to that statement. In my regular life I get so many things wrong; I misinterpret and misunderstand and lose track of most everything; I’m petty and defensive and not all that fun to live with. Yet in my fiction I occasionally hit upon a statement or sentiment that I never would have come upon on my own, and I seldom know how I’ve ended up sounding so clever.
Not that I’ve done so here. It’s just something that’s been on my mind as I listen to an opinion I don’t particularly agree with. There are some brilliant ex-spy novelists out there, but they’re brilliant because they’re excellent writers, not because of their past profession. On the other hand, perhaps the act of novel-writing does something to you, for le Carré goes on to say: 'Artists, in my experience, have very little center. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.'
To which I’ll add: If you believe the stories we spin, then that makes you our assets.