Olen Steinhauer can thank James Joyce and an exchange program as an undergraduate in Eastern Europe for his writing aspirations. “I was living in a garret in Zagreb in 1989, reading Joyce for the first time,” he says over lunch at a French cafe in Carmel, Calif. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man completely floored me.”
Steinhauer is quick to point out the “complete cliché” of this life-changing moment, but 23 years later, he is indeed a writer, and an increasingly successful one. His eighth novel, An American Spy (Minotaur), is the third in a trilogy of contemporary spy novels that began with The Tourist (Minotaur, 2009), the first volume in a three-book trilogy focused on reluctant spy Milo Weaver, “the tourist” of the title, part of a group of deeply clandestine CIA field agents in a post-9/11 world. In this latest entry, Milo’s old boss, plotting revenge after losing operatives, disappears in London, and Milo is forced back into the game.
Not surprisingly, the admirer of Joyce didn’t set out to become a genre writer. “I was going to be a literary writer,” he says. Graduating from the University of Texas in 1992, he received an M.F.A. from Boston’s Emerson College in 1999, where he “got bored with suburban angst.” But he soldiered on, completing three serious novels that he never sent out (“I knew they were failures”) before a chance conversation with his father sent his writing in a new direction.
“My dad was noticeably silent about my work,” he recalls, “and finally, I cornered him. He told me that it just wasn’t his thing. So I thought I would try writing a straight story, a story for someone like my dad.”
That catalyzed his first published novel, The Bridge of Sighs (Minotaur, 2003). Set in 1948 in an unnamed country in Eastern Europe, the story of detective Emil Brod investigating the murder of a “state songwriter” was shortlisted for five awards, including the Edgar for best first novel.
Steinhauer was living in Hungary at the time, and he mined his experience of living abroad to write four other mysteries set in Europe during the cold war. He was getting some traction with readers and critics, but decided he wanted a new novelistic challenge. “I’m terrified of falling into a formula, even if it’s good formula,” he says. “I was afraid of hiding in the past. The present is so much more messy; we don’t have the benefit of hindsight.”
Which prompted The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, and An American Spy. Steinhauer’s remarkable portrayal of the trilogy’s Weaver has garnered comparisons with John le Carré. A huge fan of le Carré, Steinhauer calls Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy “a wholly literary novel.” It seems clear that Steinhauer, in that spirit, is trying to marry a literary devotion to craft and seriousness with the compelling narratives of genre. A lot of today’s spy fiction “is interested in how spies work,” he says. “I’m interested in how people deceive each other.”
His approach seems to be working; The Tourist landed on the New York Times’s bestseller list and was optioned by George Clooney’s production company and Warner Bros. As so often happens in Hollywood, the deal fell through, but, Steinhauer says, “having Clooney’s name attached to the book helped put me on the map.”
After a decade of living in Hungary, where he met his wife, Slavica, and where his young daughter, Margo, now four, was born, Steinhauer returned to the United States. The family’s trying to figure out where to settle, probably in California, Steinhauer says, while he’s hard at work on his ninth novel, set in the Middle East and inspired by the Libyan revolution.
He admits that the book is such a work in progress that he’s not sure what the finished product will look like: “I write myself into a corner, then get stuck, then get an idea, then change everything,” he says. “If it went smoothly, I’d be worried.” But the narrative will undoubtedly be compelling, given Steinhauer’s devotion to the art of storytelling: “The more I write, the more interested in narrative I get.”
Tim Peters is a freelance writer in San Francisco.