Strolling down Main Street in Sag Harbor, N.Y., PW catches nary a glimpse of intrigue. No spies dart here among the white clapboard houses, the red brick American Hotel, the firehouse, the old Variety store, the Civil War monument. Such a sleepy, innocent town seems an unlikely haunt for historical espionage writer Alan Furst, but this fabled Hamptons community is where the author of sophisticated World War II dramas makes his home. Sag Harbor does boast an impressive literary history. Walt Whitman walked these streets in the great whaling days. John Steinbeck and Nelson Algren lived here a century later, and these days, many contemporary writers and editors make their summer home here.
Down the street today, town regulars are gathering for lunch at the Paradise Café. The Paradise has gone through many incarnations since it was a sandwich shop in Steinbeck's day. Now it is a combination bookstore and restaurant, the restaurant downstairs and books all around, upstairs and down. Asking for a quiet table in the back, PW settles in to collect notes and thoughts when Alan Furst arrives, the front door banging in a gust behind him. No longer are we adrift in historic Sag Harbor. It is November, the presidential election is still unresolved and history is being made all around us, much as it was over half a century ago.
After we order lunch, the talk turns to Kingdom of Shadows, which is already out in the U.K. and doing so well that it gave the phenomenal Harry Potter a run for his money on the London bestseller lists. It is curious that this American writer, well received though his books are in this country, is more of a household name in the United Kingdom. Alan Furst, a dynamic, energetic, talkative man, grapples for an explanation of his popularity abroad. He tells us that he was amazed on a recent trip to London when he discovered that one bookstore after another displayed all his novels in their windows. Recently, he was nominated for the Irish Times International Fiction Prize.
On both sides of the ocean, critics and readers praise Furst's ability to recreate the mood and atmosphere of Paris and particularly Eastern Europe during World War II. "I don't know how I do it. I've never lived in Eastern Europe, although both my wife and I have ancestors in Poland and Russia--but I can see the scenes I create," he says. "Somehow, I know these people, I know their voices. I'm just a guy from the West Side of New York. It spooks me sometimes. I write whole scenes of dialogue and I really don't know how I do it."
Kingdom of Shadows is Furst's sixth historical espionage novel--"historical espionage" being a term he coined . Many reviewers call his books "espionage thrillers," but "thriller" suggests a mass marketing niche, and Furst's novels deal more in the stuff of everyday reality than the melodrama of cinematic cliff-hangers. Reviewers often compare him to Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Somerset Maugham and John le Carré
Furst explains that he avoids sensationalism. "I don't inflict horrors on readers. In my research, I've uncovered truly terrible documentations of cruelty and torture, but I leave that offstage. I always pull back and let the reader imagine the details. We all know to one degree or another the horrors of war."
The lead character in Kingdom of Shadows is a Hungarian aristocrat, Nicholas Morath, a handsome former cavalry officer who associates with a 1938 Paris social circle of déclassé royalty. Morath, the co-owner of a small advertising agency, lives for dinner parties and love affairs. Shadowing this elegant world is the cloud of impending war. As the nations of Eastern Europe fall under Nazi domination, Morath volunteers for secret missions in fascist-controlled Hungary. His missions become more daring and dangerous as he risks his life defying Hungarian secret police, German spies and Soviet assassins.
For Furst fans, this is familiar territory. These are not stories about superheroes, but about ordinary men and women in a Europe seized by panic, horror and helplessness. The author's gift makes every detail of these gripping tales seem right, every voice authentic. How d s he do it, and where do the stories come from?
Pragmatic PW suggests that his novels are probably the product in equal parts of research and imagination, and Furst shrugs. "I guess it's something like that," he agrees. "Yes, I'm a reasonably good self-taught historian of the 1930s and '40s. I've never wanted to write about another time or place. I wouldn't know what to say about contemporary society. What would I write about--e-mail? I'm a born historical novelist."
He is moved by the people he writes about: "You have to realize that there were people of great evil in that time, but there were also real heroes. They gave their lives, they literally gave them, these heroes. Their lives were not taken, they were given."
"I started writing in my 20s," Furst says, ignoring the food that has just arrived, so intent is he on telling his story. "I just wanted to write, but I didn't have anything to write about, so in the beginning, I wrote entertainments, mainly murder mysteries."
Born in Manhattan, he grew up on the Upper West Side, the only child of older parents. His father was in the millinery business. Furst attended Horace Mann high school "on borrowed money." Then it was on to Oberlin College, where he majored in English, graduating in 1962. Back in New York after graduation, an interest in anthropology led him to Margaret Mead's general studies course at Columbia. He sat in the front row. They liked each other, and he was invited to work with her. Even to this day he thinks of himself as an anthropologist.
"But," he is quick to point out with a laugh, "I also did all the author jacket-copy jobs like driving a cab, picking fruit, working in a factory and writing freelance copy for advertisers." He liked advertising: "It's good training for writers. You have to pick your words."
Married in 1969 and awarded a Fulbrightaround the same time, Furst and his wife, Karen, set off for the south of France, where they lived for a year. When they returned, they moved to Seattle, then to Bainbridge Island, Wash. Life on the island centered around writing, an Irish wolfhound and Karen's growing reputation as an ornamental horticulturist. By now, Furst's byline was appearing in Esquire and other places. At one point he proposed an article to Esquire--an Eastern European travel piece featuring a boat trip along the Danube. At this time, the Cold War was as cold as it got. President Reagan had dubbed the U.S.S.R. "the evil empire." Esquire didn't like the idea at first, but at the last moment gave Furst the go-ahead and an advance. His life was about to change dramatically.
His trip took him first to Moscow, where he arrived on September 1, 1983, the day the U.S.S.R. shot down a Korean Airlines plane. Furst remembers the Muscovites' palpable fear. People kept looking up at the sky, expecting American rockets, and were terrified of their own authorities. "I'd never experienced a totalitarian culture before. It was a huge shock. The police were everywhere."
Yet it wasn't this collective fear that impressed him most. Furst was most struck by the faces of the people he saw on the streets. "I recognized them," he recalls. "I knew them. They looked like me." His ancestors immigrated from Russia and Latvia, he explains, and his great-grandfather
was drafted into the Russian army. As a Jew, he was required to serve 20 years. America and the Upper West Side of New York all fell away and Furst discovered he was at home in a fearful land. It was to write about this, he suddenly realized, that "God put me on earth."
After five days in Moscow, Furst flew down to the Crimea, then took a passenger steamer across the Black Sea to the Romanian delta of the Danube. The river forms a border between Romania and Bulgaria, flows up to Belgrade, then proceeds past Budapest and Bratislava in Czechoslovakia. "All frozen in 1939," Furst says, "and it really was the evil empire. They weren't subtle about it; they wanted you to feel it. When I got back to America, I kissed the ground at the L.A. airport.
"Back on Bainbridge Island, I sat down and began writing, first for Esquire and then for myself. In Moscow, it occurred to me that this was a terrific place to write a spy novel, but the Soviets weren't allowed to do that. Fine, I thought, I'll do it myself."
He knew very little about World War II when he started out, he admits. During high school, working at summer jobs in Brooklyn factories, he'd met refugees with concentration camp numbers on their arms. They didn't like to talk about it, "but they told me things, and the way they spoke, who they were, told me even more."
Karen remembers: "I sent my husband to Russia, and he never came back. A new man did." From then on, it was research and more research as the story that eventually became Night Soldiers emerged. In the midst of this writing fever, Alan and Karen decided to move to Paris.
They sold the island cottage and most of their belongings. "We reduced our lives to four suitcases and arrived in Paris with only three." (The other case had disappeared.) In Paris, they found an apartment in the Marais on the Right Bank. Furst supported himself with freelance work and had his own column on the back page of the International Herald Tribune. Karen found a job in the French corporate world as a landscape designer. "She is amazing," Furst says. "The French loved her and loved what she did, and she moved right into their circles." Her work helped support Furst in his writing career. Because of what Furst will only say were "family reasons," the couple returned to the United States, but the writing kept coming.
Night Soldiers turned out to be a sprawling 500-page tale, the result of extensive research, travel and conversation. Furst had bounced around--Atheneum, Doubleday, Delacorte--for his earliest writing ventures, thrillers that also bounced around in locales and about which Furst d s not speak these days (they are out of print). But with Night Soldiers, Furst found his period, his voice and a new publisher. Houghton Mifflin, with Robie Macauley as editor, published the book in 1988. Furst remembers Macauley as a magnificent editor and great friend. "Robie never touched Night Soldiers, but he was very supportive. When Karen and I spent one July 4 at his house on Cape Cod, he said, 'Someday you have to write about the Hungarians, wonderful people, Hungarians.' Then we got drunk, and he tried to sell me a scallop boat."
Houghton also published his next novel, Dark Star, edited by Joseph Kanon, whom Furst also remembers with affection. "I've been very fortunate in the people I've worked with, especially Ann." He is referring to Ann Godoff, senior editor, editor-in-chief and CEO at Random House, who began publishing Furst with The Polish Officer (1995), followed by The World at Night (1996), Red Gold (1999) and now Kingdom of Shadows. His English publishers include Bodley Head, Methuen, HarperCollins and now Orion, where Malcolm Edwards is his editor.
Two of his books are available in America in St. Martin's mass market paperback editions, but Furst is happy to announce that for the first time Random House will issue all of his titles since Shadow Trade in quality paperback, beginning in September 2001. "I've never had a quality paperback issued in the United States, and I think that hurt sales. I'm not really a mass market writer," he says.
After our lunch, we drive a short distance to the 1890 house he shares with Karen, and he shows us the expansive English garden where he gets much of his physical exercise when he is not writing on an IBM Selectric typewriter in a converted garage. "I work all day, every day," Furst explains. "If you're a writer, you're always working. Morning is for writing and afternoons are for research."
"We've lived seven years in Sag Harbor," he continues, "and we know all sorts of people. There are many writers, agents and editors here, but I don't feel it's inbred." Sag Harbor is, however, a great distance from the Eastern Europe Furst recreates so vividly and believably in his fiction. Across the street on this bright November afternoon, students leave an elementary school, laughing and shouting. As long lines of yellow buses pull up to collect them, a departing PW is left to marvel once again at Furst's ability to capture a world so far removed from this time and place.