After seven postwar European thrillers, Edgar Award–winning author Joseph Kanon, whose latest novel is Leaving Berlin (Atria, Mar. 3), has firmly established himself as an heir to Graham Greene. But Kanon didn’t write Los Alamos (Broadway,1997), his first novel, until he was 50 years old. What took him so long?
Kanon says he was too busy publishing works by other authors to consider writing a book of his own. After graduating from Harvard in 1970, Kanon took a job as an editor at Little, Brown. Within a few years, he joined Putnam/Coward McCann as editor-in-chief. Later he moved to E.P. Dutton as editor-in-chief, publisher, and then president. Kanon’s final publishing role was at Houghton Mifflin, where he was executive vice-president and director of the trade and reference divisions for eight years before leaving in 1995.
“I’m sort of a poster child for midlife career change,” says Kanon, who, at 68, is charming and eloquent. “There’s just a time when you’re ready to do it.” He didn’t let anyone know he was writing Los Alamos. “What could be more embarrassing than a publisher who can’t write? But as it happened it was a wonderful ending, because the book worked.”
Despite spending over 25 years in publishing, Kanon says making the transition to writing was relatively easy for him. “Publishing is busy, and you’re surrounded by people, and there’s lots going on all the time,” he notes. “I liked that aspect of it, but now I think it’s a great privilege to have a creative life. To be able to live in your head for a while, and do any kind of creative work, is a wonderful freedom.”
Kanon’s knowledge of the publishing industry was a challenge for him when he became an author. “You do know how it all works, but you don’t want to be one of those interfering authors,” he says. “You just let the publisher take ownership of it. The reality is that a publisher is doing 150 books a year, and the writer is publishing one, so there’s a difference in focus and the amount of attention a book can receive.”
Kanon considers himself lucky to be with Atria, and to have Peter Borland as his editor and Judith Curr as his publisher. “They’re just extraordinary people.”
Leaving Berlin is Kanon at his historical best, capturing, as he has in his previous books, the haunting complexity of life in Europe after World War II and revealing how survivors on all sides of the conflict—fascists, communists, and civilians alike—struggled to adapt to the unfolding cultural and political protocols. He has long been fascinated by the postwar period in Germany.
“We know very little about it,” Kanon says. “The narrative is, the war ends, there’s the Potsdam Conference, there’s the airlift, and finally there’s the wall. And that’s pretty much the playbook about Germany that most students in this country get. But between 1945 and 1950, [the U.S.] held life-and-death power over a country of five million people. What was that experience like? How did we do during the American occupation?”
These questions led Kanon to write his third novel, The Good German (Holt, 2001), which was adapted into a film starring George Clooney in 2006.
Kanon’s research into this era revealed an “unholy mix of good intentions and cynicism and rotten apples that define nearly all historical moments.” After the war, part of Germany was under Soviet administration, and he says that the remnants of the German Communist Party who survived the Nazis thought they would finally have the socialist paradise they longed for. “But they were sandbagged by the Soviets, and what they actually inherited was a repressive police society,” he adds. This is what awaits German-Jewish writer Alex Meier, the protagonist of Leaving Berlin, when he returns to Germany in 1949 from Hollywood, where he fled during the war to escape the Nazis. “He liked California, but by leaving Berlin he left his roots—and the woman he was in love with, Irene. His liberal politics made him a target for the House Un-American Activity Committee, which forces him back to Berlin as a spy for the then-fledgling CIA to avoid serving prison time.”
Playwright Bertolt Brecht is a featured character in Leaving Berlin. “In his journal, Brecht describes how when he returned from exile in Los Angeles he was driven over the Czech border and put up at the Adlon Hotel, [which was] once the grandest hotel in Berlin, but [after the war it was] mostly in ruins,” he says. In the book, Alex, like Brecht, is driven back to Berlin over the Czech border, and, also like Brecht, he stays at the Adlon.
Alex wakes early on the first morning after his return to Berlin, takes a walk, smokes a cigar, and looks around. “He realizes that, while Hitler is gone, so is everyone else,” Kanon says. “Alex is filled with conflicting emotions.” His reunion with Irene only intensifies this.
More than 80% of Berlin was destroyed during the war, and Kanon’s descriptions of the ruined city are vivid. “I like writing thrillers because there’s kind of a peeling-an-onion quality to it,” he says. “There’s a built-in narrative arc, and it’s important that readers be entertained. But plot isn’t usually what people remember later, anyway. To me, writing is all about character and place.” Kanon’s evident talent for employing these two literary elements makes Leaving Berlin one of his finest espionage tales to date.
“World War II was the greatest event of the 20th century, and it’s really interesting because it marks the beginning of our world,” Kanon says. “There’s a movie metaphor for this: the war begins, 60 million people are killed, and we live with the after-effects for a generation if not more. [The war] begins with the black-and-white clarity of Casablanca; it’s romantic, and everyone knows what they stand for. But the war ends with The Third Man, and that kind of moral murkiness is what we take from it. The more you know about an event or time, the more complicated it gets because nothing is ever as it seems. And that, of course, is catnip for a writer.”
Wendy Werris is a contributing editor for Publishers Weekly and a freelance journalist and editor in Los Angeles.