Alan Furst has written 10 best-selling espionage thrillers set in Europe before and during World War II. Generally, they're stories of ordinary men who, in the face of atrocity, rise to face the Nazis. The novels are especially notable for their meticulous attention to period detail—Furst's scene-setting is almost obsessive-compulsive in its fastidiousness. But if you're expecting the creepy kind of basement dweller who collects Nazi memorabilia, you'll be pleasantly surprised on meeting Furst in person: He has a high-pitched voice with a Long Island accent, and he's remarkably polite and generous in conversation. He talked with me at Book Expo America in New York City about his upcoming trip to Seattle in support of the paperback release of his newest historical espionage thriller, The Spies of Warsaw.
So I understand that you used to write for the Seattle Weekly.
When David Brewster started the Weekly, I thought it was a fabulous idea because Seattle didn't have anything like the New Yorker but it's a rather sophisticated city. So, I had published a novel. Nothing that's listed anywhere now. I have four books that I never talk about...
Yeah, I've been publishing since I was 29. Those four were all about sex and drugs and rock and roll. And the problem was nobody wanted to read about sex and drugs and rock and roll—they wanted to do it. So I had published this book called Your Day in the Barrel. David Brewster asked if I wanted to write for the Weekly, and he said, "You can do anything you want." So I said, "I want to write a football column." The Nordstrom family had just bought the franchise for the Seahawks, and they brought in and unwrapped a brand-new team and there I was up in the press box, eating free hot dogs. It was great! This was Seattle back in the '70s.
So this was the very beginning of the Weekly, then.
Way back. Waaaaaaay back. I also wrote a serial for them called "The Heart of the Reigning Queen." Pun! It was terrible. Oooh, it was so bad. But I tried. I did the best I could. It ran every week, and it had its own sponsor: Yukie and Wendy's Hair Salon. It was very popular. It went from Seattle location to Seattle location. There were types—it wasn't a roman à clef, but there were types. There was the Jewish lady from Mercer Island and the veteran just come back from Vietnam and the fisherman who'd come from Alaska with $30,000 in his pocket. This was a very different Seattle. No Microsoft, no Amazon. The U Book Store was all we had. Elliott Bay Book Company hadn't started then, but there was certainly a very powerful Seattle literary community. Small, but revolutionary in its way.
How did you get into writing historical novels, then?
That was a complete, insane accident. I went to Moscow for Esquire. I had never been in a police state before. It had a very heavy effect on me. I came back, and it occurred to me that I wanted to read a panoramic spy novel set in Europe in the 1930s and '40s. And when I went to find it, I found out that it didn't exist! So I thought, well, I'll write one. You talk to writers all the time, right?
They will tell you that they'll write the book they've always wanted to read but they have to write it themselves. It sounds weird, but it's very true.
How much of your writing time is actually research?
It takes me about a year to get a book out and three months' research. But realize that I've written 10 of these. Over time I've built a library, and now there's the internet, too. I didn't have the internet for five of these books. I used to have to go to the library and it made everything run longer. But there's one thing the internet doesn't do, you know: It isn't a bookstore and it isn't a library. You can't go down on your knees and go to the dusty bottom shelf because the book you thought you were looking for was Russia Under the Czar but it turns out the book you really wanted is sitting right there and it's titled Russia Before Stalin. Do you know what I'm trying to say? I love libraries. The internet is all about "What do you want?" and the answer can never be "I don't know what I want."
Do you read spy fiction?
The books I read are always from the '30s and '40s, because I don't see much that's contemporary. All my reading time is research time. So I'm kind of deformed as a contemporary intellectual, for which I apologize to your readers.
You don't have to apologize to my readers for reading older fiction.
Well, no, I'm sure that your readers are interested in contemporary fiction and will feel that I should read it, but I don't. For example, I just undertook a lot of support of this book called Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. [NOTE: Alone, recently republished by Melville House, is a novel written by an author who participated in the German underground resistance against Nazis.] A lot of the reason you've heard about that book is because of me. I kind of become an adoptive parent for books. I helped Melville House support it and did all kinds of stuff. It's an astonishing story. I don't want to use the word serendipity, but there's only one instance where a good commercial writer was in the middle of Berlin doing resistance movements. All the other German writers were émigrés like Thomas Mann. Not [Fallada]. His British publisher sent a boat to take him out of Germany, and he wouldn't get on it.
It's a great story.
It is a great story. And I did it for a fellow writer. I didn't do it for the publishing house, although they've been very grateful. I reviewed it for the Globe and Mail and I said this is for a fellow writer. This is to honor a writer who wrote this book and then died. He was destroyed. He was a morphine addict and an alcoholic. He died, but the Nazis didn't get him, and, oh, he gave them a good one.
Have you read Irene Némirovsky?
That's kind of a similar story, an amazing story.
Yes. It's all interesting to me because I write '40s novels. They're written like '40s novels. And people who read them don't understand that they like my books because they really want to go back and read Dos Passos.
Do you read pulp from that time?
When I can get ahold of it. Some of it's funny. I'll give you one example that will knock you head off: White Eagles Over Serbia. That's fiction written by Lawrence Durrell.
Yeah! That's something most people don't know. And there was a lot of spy pulp at the time, too. Most of it's French, and most of it hasn't been translated. I can read French, but I get a little frustrated because I need a dictionary for too much of it. It was all menace fiction like mine is, but mine's postmenace menace fiction. The pulp authors didn't quite get the menace right, but they knew there was menace.
How did they not get it right?
They were projecting scenarios, and they just had no idea how bad it was going to be. I'll give you an example: There was a movie I saw that takes place in Dachau, made in Hollywood about 1940 or so, and in it, Dachau was a place where men dug holes with picks. At one point, there's a man digging a hole and a Gestapo guard says something to him and the man talks back to the Gestapo guard and the Gestapo guard slaps him. Just slaps him. If you want to know how horrific something really is, a way to figure that out is to read something that was written when people couldn't envision it happening. They had no way to imagine what was going to happen or what was happening [in Nazi Germany].
What do you think about the state of the publishing industry?
I'm doing very well, but some people tell me I'm the only one. Well, not the only one in the business, but they tell me that I'm in a rare position, in that I still sell consistently in bad times. I seem so far not to be affected by the Kindle. I'm published in 17 languages. And if you bitch about publishing, they'll come back and tell you there's more people buying books than ever before. Is that not true?
I think it increased by 1 percent last year, which is the smallest increase in a while.
Ah, but it's increasing because literacy is increasing. Because so many people are going to college or community college, or they have serious reading programs in high-school American education, for all its faults, it's getting better. Broader. We all feel that every American kid has a right to go to college. You don't feel like there's anybody who shouldn't be able to go to college, do you?
Of course not! It's an experience that everybody should have. I have a young marine machine gunner who friended me on Facebook. He's my Facebook friend. He downloaded one of my books. The Marine Corps has a program where the marines can download books.
Unbelievably neat! I'm unbelievably flattered that my books are there. I heard other stories about isolated units that are reading my books. So what do we think about publishing? You know, I don't think bad things about it. I think it's very frustrating. If you're a young novelist, God help you, you are going to get your butt kicked the way I did. It's murder. It's always been murder. It was no better with Alexander Pope! Ink-stained wretches and all that. I feel bad for young kids who come in through my website and say, "I want to sell this novel and I'm having a terrible time." And I say, "I wish to God I could help you!" But there's no such thing as an undiscovered masterpiece. If there is, show it to me. I want to know about it. It's very hard to break in at the trough, but it works. It's just a very creaky system, and it's hard on people. And not everybody is a great writer, no matter what they've been told in their writing class at wherever it is. Fairmount High or wherever.
Last question: You're going to continue with World War II espionage, then? You're not going to write more novels like those four you wrote when you lived in Seattle?
I'm never going to change. Every time I write one story, I find two more characters to write about. I can't believe the number of stories. This was a world war. It involved hundreds of millions of people. So there's no end to the heroic, beautiful stories of people who tried to fight against evil in some way. And what else can you write about? I don't know what else there is to write about. I mean, you could write—what is it? Jenny Jones's Diary?
Bridget Jones's Diary.
That's good too, you know. For people in distress.