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The Alan Furst papers: Interrogation of a spy novelist

By Harry Ransom Center

One of the more thrilling aspects of being a writer is never knowing who might read your stuff. You can safely bet on your mom, a few colleagues, and the occasional library archivist, but beyond that, it’s a toss-up. Alan Furst hit the jackpot when a copy of his book The Polish Officer found its way onto the nightstand of Thomas Staley, director of the Harry Ransom Center, who discovered in Furst’s prose a singular ability to recreate the tense and shadowy atmosphere that gripped pre-World War II Europe. Furst reminded Staley of Graham Greene, whose papers the Ransom Center already housed, and Staley thought Furst’s meticulous research files and neatly typewritten manuscripts would fit nicely next to Greene’s on the shelves of the Ransom Center’s Reading Room. He approached Furst and, after a few years of negotiating, purchased Furst’s collection for an undisclosed amount.

Furst visited Austin in October to kick off the Texas Book Festival with a reading from his latest novel, the New York Times bestseller The Foreign Correspondent. With his collection now open to the public, we crept into the Ransom Center’s Reading Room to sift through a few boxes of his papers, curious to see how one goes about writing spy novels. At the tops of the following pages, you’ll find scans of some of the materials in Furst’s first novel, Night Soldiers, that represent the various stages in the writing process. We then sat down with Furst and asked him how he does it…

By: Tim Taliaferro. This article originally appeared in March/April 2007 issue of The Alcalde.

The cover of <em>Night Soldiers</em>.
The cover of Night Soldiers.

When you decide to write a novel, how do you begin?

I’m always in the same time period: from 1933, the ascent of Hitler, to about 1942, at which point it became very clear that Germany was going to lose the war. At that point I tend to pick a country that I want to write about. People have said that the real characters of these books are nations, and that’s in some ways very true. Once I pick a country and I know what events it participated in, say, 1939, now I have my characters because they must of necessity be people who could relate in a dynamic way to the political events of that period.

Notecard with Alan Furst’s ideas for <em>Night Soldiers</em>
Notecard with Alan Furst’s ideas for Night Soldiers

How do you come up with your twisting, turning plots?

I am unable to write plots. If I write a plot, it comes out like… a plot. It’s terrible. So what I do instead is let the true history of the time dictate what the plot is. So I have my events set up. The people are always fictitious, but they’re people who could have been involved, usually tangentially, to the more crucial moments in that period. Then, after that, it’s quite conventional. For The Foreign Correspondent, and I think again for my new book because I really like this, I had essentially a group character — a bunch of people. I’d never done that before; and I did it quite by accident. Most things just happen to writers. You’d like to think that they were smart enough to figure it out in advance. Guess what, they aren’t. In the biochemistry of actually doing this work is where creative genesis takes place.

You mean the process of finding these places and getting to know the history of them?

That’s what really drives it. It isn’t great ideas late at night, which I have, and which I write down, and which I throw out every morning.

Scribblings of ideas for <em>Night Soldiers</em> on the back of a restaurant menu.
Scribblings of ideas for Night Soldiers on the back of a restaurant menu.

Once you’ve begun writing in earnest, how often do you go back to the research stage?

Sometimes I realize that I have to flavor a particular event better than I’ve been able to. And each event in a book presents very specific kinds of challenges. If, for example, I want to have two characters meet at night in order to advance the plot within their discussion, the most important things are where and how they meet — the conditions of that moment for each of them. And then what will almost always happen is I’ll have a new element or character entering the scene at that point.

Toss us an example.

In The Foreign Correspondent, the hero meets with his best friend and mentor at night in Paris in order to pass clandestine information to a railway man who’s going to take it back into Italy. But the most important character in that scene is the car of the hero’s friend. The car has only one headlight working, and that headlight is skewed. So what are we really talking about? We’re talking about a group of people who haven’t had anything new in years because they’re émigrés living in a foreign city, chased there, not by their choice. So nothing they own is new. Nothing works. Nothing is clean. Nothing’s nice. I don’t have to say that; what I do have to do is have the driver lean over and push the other side of the door so his friend can get in his car. We’ve all done that in our lives. So it goes back to individual experience of the reader, again without my stomping and tromping on it, you know what I mean?

There’s a subtlety you seek.

Yeah. What you discover as a writer is that there are certain things that are impossible to describe. You cannot describe a face. You can write it’s the sort of face that might say, “Where’s my dinner.” Now you’ve characterized, and people will see a face at that moment, but it will be their face — not the one in your mind. Sometimes I see younger writers struggling: “Well it was this kind of nose, it was that kind of mouth.” I’ll simply say something like, “She had a determined forehead.” Frankly, what the hell is that? You couldn’t draw it, but the reader knows exactly what I mean by that. It’s quite a deception process as a writer. You really are tricking people all the time and in a very interesting variety of ways.

What attracts you to the time period that you write about?

It’s morally black and white. I like to say that in that period, you could chose to be a hero, a villain, a fugitive, or a victim, but you couldn’t be nothing. Millions of people were involved — you could not sit by and watch it happen. That was simply impossible. You had in some way or another to find a way to take part.

Photo of Alexader I, King of Yugoslavia, used in research for<em> Night Soldiers</em>.
Photo of Alexader I, King of Yugoslavia, used in research for Night Soldiers.

Another thing I like about the period is, when you write a historical novel, you can play with the reader’s understanding of what happened. For instance: at the end of one of my books, there’s a Jewish couple that is exfiltrated from Berlin by one of the secret services. They get to Amsterdam at the end of the book and they say, “Thank God, we’re safe at last.” But it’s 1939, they’re going to be safe for exactly eight months. They don’t know that; the reader knows that.

That’s heavy.

It was a heavy time. You have to face that. But my books are entertaining. They’re for an airplane or for keeping by your bedside and reading before you go to sleep at night. I have nothing to teach anybody. I’m not a preacher. I’m a novelist. And novelists basically are entertaining people; they’re taking them away from where they are today and all the gross, ghastly, daily stuff of life into what you hope is a more interesting place with more interesting people that when you spend some time with them it takes your head away from where you are now.

I find it intriguing that the place you take them is to this time of moral blacks and whites. What do you think the appeal is for readers to go there?

It’s exciting. People like excitement and they like the idea of excitement. For most people, myself included, every day is pretty humdrum. It’s the same stuff. But basically they like to go to an exciting time with interesting people who are saying and doing interesting things. It’s also true, and someone else pointed this out, that there’s a subtext to all these books. And the subtext asks, “What would you have done?”

A complicated and alive question.

That’s a very complicated and very alive question, and let’s all hope to God we never really have to find out the answer to it.

Tell me about your actual process of writing.

I’m a completely blue-collar writer. I go to work in the morning with a bologna sandwich. I’m in the door to my studio at 6:30 and am not seen again for five hours. I come back covered with grime, whiteout, type-ribbon stuff. I get filthy when I write.

An early plot outline for <em>Night Soldiers.</em>
An early plot outline for Night Soldiers.

You still use a typewriter?

I type on a typewriter, a descendant of the magnificent IBM Selectric. Why did they ever stop making those?

Why a typewriter?

I have a computer. I love my computer. I’m big into e-mail, big into Internet and Wikipedia, etc. It’s a fabulous tool. But it’s an inch deep and a mile wide. You just have to know what you’re dealing with on the Internet. With a typewriter, I love the sound of the keys hitting the paper. I like to work with white paper and see the black print as it comes out. And I also like to retype paragraphs because I’ve never retyped a paragraph, which I’ve had to do thousands and thousands of times, when I haven’t found with my fingers something wrong that my eyes never saw. You may merely be changing the name Jones to Smith, but you also discover that the verb in there is imprecise.

That’s an interesting idea: your fingers noticing things you’re eyes do not.

So weird. I don’t understand it. You’ll have to go to the experimental psychology people to see why on earth that might be true. It doesn’t make any sense to me. But it’s true; I’ve proven it a lot of times. And I can see in articles where writers, because they have the ability, slide a paragraph between two others, and it’s wrong. It’s not dynamically there. It was not generated there, and I know it. And the reader doesn’t necessarily know it, but the reader will feel a moment of discomfort, and if you’re a writer you do not want that to happen.

Would you call yourself a purist about the process?

An obsessive-compulsive, neurotic purist.

Why must fictional characters seem real?

Dickens said that once he got his characters going, he didn’t write anything, he listened to what they said and wrote it down. It sounds a little psychotic, but I don’t know that writers are completely normal people. That’s what happens, though. Characters will run on you. They will threaten to take over a book. They turn psychotic on you. They escape. What I mean by that is you suddenly discover a vein in yourself writing so rich and fertile about this character that you go, “No, no, you’re just supposed to come in the room and ask, ‘Would anyone like a glass of water?’ and suddenly that person has taken off and is running free. That happens to me all the time.
There’s a character from Dark Voyage named Colb who suddenly blew up and I gave him a part in that book and he’s coming back for my next book. He’s an actual spy, and one of the very odd things about these spy novels is while they have intelligence officers and civilians, they’re a little short on actual spies, secret agents.

An outline of scenes for <em>Night Soldiers</em>, marked up by Furst.
An outline of scenes for Night Soldiers, marked up by Furst.

How do you edit?

I retype entire drafts. Any decent writer is a brutal editor. A guy I knew who was a writer once said, “Everything happens on revision.” Anyone who ever aspires to be a writer should put that on their wall. Nothing happens on first draft. On the first draft often you’re not really alive.

How often do you re-use characters?

Oh, I do that all the time. I love doing that. There are people who are a little nuts about these books, I have to say, and some of them discover all the stuff that I’ve put in. I’ll give you one instance: in my second book, Dark Star, there’s a character who finds himself in possession of material that’s extremely damaging to Stalin. It’s about his past as a double agent with the Russian Secret Service. In other words, Stalin told on his friends. The character has this material, it’s hot material, it could cause his death very easily. He doesn’t know what to do with it: he doesn’t want to destroy it, it’s too important, but he can’t have it anywhere near him. So what he does is he buys a really bad painting called ”Homage to Maxos.” It’s one of those really bad shepherd paintings of the 19th century with the broken columns and the mountains in the background and the shepherd playing the pipe. He takes the picture out, puts the stuff in the back, puts the frame back together, and sends it to a warehouse. It’s the last we hear about it in that book. We do not hear about it for six books. In Dark Voyage, there’s a character in Germany who’s in incredible peril and has to get out. He has one last option, and that is to put an advertisement in the newspaper that will then bring somebody to help him, and the meeting place is in front of that painting. He spends three days staring at the front of that painting for 15-minute periods until the guy finally arrives.

Could someone look back at all of your books 20 years from now and think, “That’s really one big story”?

It is one story. It’s one novel told in chapters issued as books.

And who’s the main character of that book?

It is the period. If I had to title it, I would use a Victor Serge title, Midnight in the Century.

What would you tell students who will be looking through your files to be looking for?

They should be on the lookout for all the terrible stuff that was kept through this archive that normally goes in the wastebasket, so they can see that if they write a bad sentence, be of good hope. It can become better, and it will become better if you’re willing to sit in a chair for a long period of time. As I say, I sit alone in a chair for nine months and fight the language. And you can see that fight in these books. Sometimes the language just won’t work for you, but you try and try and try, and make it do the best that you’re able.

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This article originally appeared in March/April 2007 issue of The Alcalde.

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