This interview with Budapest-based American author Olen Steinhauer originally appeared in the ‘Wall Street Journal Europe’ in 2008. At the time, Olen was a modestly successful author of a series of thrillers set at various intervals in the Eastern bloc during the communist period. I discovered a couple of his novels one day by accident while scrounging through a bookstore in Vienna and was instantly hooked. This interview covered those Eastern European thrillers. Since our conversation, he’s gone from strength to strength, and is now better known for his ‘Milo Weaver’ books, including ‘The Tourist,’ which became a New York Times bestseller.
The 1989 Revolutions brought down the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, yet among many a feeling of nostalgia persists for those seemingly simpler times. No one seriously wants to turn back the clock, and former Cold War haunts like Prague and Budapest have never looked better, but there is a lingering romance about those spooky pre-’89 days.
American author Olen Steinhauer’s recent series of spy thrillers—all set in a fictionalized East European country during the Cold War—is a thoroughly enjoyable trip down memory lane. As you turn the pages (in the comfort of your armchair), you can almost smell the acrid sharpness of an East European cigarette or hear the rapid retort of a two-stroke Trabant being kick-started in the distance.
The five books—beginning with 2003’s “Bridge of Sighs” and ending with last year’s “Victory Square”—follow the lives of a group of people’s militia officers, their spouses, friends and enemies as they move through the tumultuous decades of post-war Eastern Europe. CIA agents and other Westerners make occasional cameos, but in Mr. Steinhauer’s world, it’s the East Europeans who drive the stories forward. The backdrop of political purges and protests, thaws and freezes serves as a kind of invisible hand that guides what are actually highly personalized stories of love and crime.
Noirish Psychic Terrain
The plot lines will be familiar for fans of classic Cold War spy thrillers, but the noirish psychic terrain recalls more Raymond Chandler than Len Deighton. Though the series packs plenty of spy v. spy-type action, most of the drama takes place within the characters’ own minds as they sort their way through a murky world of shifting allegiances and hidden motives.
Climbing into the heads of hard-bitten KGB agents was no small feat for a 37-year-old American whose brief brush with communism came only as a university exchange student in 1989 in the former Yugoslavia. He later came back to live permanently in Eastern Europe – this time Budapest – but that was already in 2002, long after they’d pulled down the big red star from the Hungarian parliament building and transplanted the statues of Marx and Lenin to a kitschy theme park outside of town.
The series has won high marks from critics and two nominations for Edgar awards (for “The Bridge of Sighs” and 2006’s “Liberation Movements”), recognizing excellence in the spy/mystery genre. Actual book sales have been more modest, but the series has a core group of supporters and readership is growing.
2008 promises to be a big year. Not only are Mr. Steinhauer and his wife expecting a baby, but St. Martin’s will publish later in the year what could be the author’s biggest book yet, an international thriller called “The Tourist.” The manuscript was optioned to Warner Bros. in October.
Mr. Steinhauer spoke to us not far from his home in Budapest. The setting was the coffee shop of the ornate Astoria Hotel—once a legendary spy hangout in its own right.
MB: What drew you to Eastern Europe, and what captured your imagination here?
OS: When I was a student in the former Yugoslavia, I found the people there to be slightly morose and existential by nature. There was a weightiness, an innate seriousness, that I didn’t find in American culture. I saw how deeply the people were tied to their history and couldn’t escape it. People grew up with the experience of World War II and oppressive dictatorships in their own town. This kind of blew me away.
MB: The characters in your books—communist party members, dissidents, militia officers—would be familiar to anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe, but practically unknown to an American. How were you able to understand your characters well enough to give them plausible emotions and motives?
OS: This is the great challenge of fiction. As I was writing, I never asked myself what a typical East European person would do in a particular situation. I always asked myself what I would do in that situation if I had grown up in that society. As people, we’re all motivated by the same things. As I was writing about the 1989 revolution in the final novel, “Victory Square,” I asked myself whether anyone really gets emotionally worked up over a revolution itself. I think the answer to that is that no one does. People get worked up about love and hate and personal things—how they personally feel about their dictator, or how a revolution will affect or change their own lives. These are things that I could understand.
MB: Eastern European communists and bureaucrats are usually portrayed as one-dimensional: gray, stony-faced, and committed to the cause. By contrast, your characters are more human, filled with inner conflict and even doubt about the rightness of the cause. Do you think you succeeded in creating realistic characters?
OS: If you had asked me this question a couple of years ago, I would have said that what I was writing was a kind of Western fantasy of life in Eastern Europe under communism. I didn’t live there. My first interest has always been in writing fiction. But recently I’ve had a couple of older readers, people who lived through those times, come up to me and say “you got it right, that’s how it was back then.” My favorite character was actually Brano Sev (author’s note: an officer in the People’s Militia who epitomizes the classic stalwart, stoic supporter of the regime). He’s the one I most wanted to be since on the inside he’s emotionally conflicted but still acts. In a way, he’s the most idealistic of the characters. His methods appear completely perverted until you get inside his head, and then you understand his reasons.
MB: In “Victory Square” you wrap up with a chase scene in Vienna, a shootout at the airport, a carjacking, another chase scene, a train ride to Italy and finally a showdown in Trieste—and that’s only in the last few pages. Do you work out these complicated story lines in advance or do you plot them out as you write?
OS: I don’t plot beforehand. A lot of times I know what’s going to happen in the next 30 pages, but I have no idea after that. Writers are often advised to work from an outline, but that’s just not interesting for me. As I write, I discover things that I had no idea I was going to write. Themes emerge that I had never planned. This type of organic writing is the only way I can do it…the only way I can get results that I really believe.
MB: All five books are placed in an unnamed fictional country—something like Romania, but not quite Romania. The capital city is referred to only as “the Capital.” What country did you use as a model and why did you create a fictionalized location?
OS: I’m not going to tell you what country it is! Actually, I am not writing about any particular country. The model changes for each book. “Victory Square” was obviously based on Romania and the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu. But other books use different countries’ experiences. I do have a particular region in mind when I am writing and I’ll give you a hint: all the cities in the books outside “the Capital” are real. If you read the books and plot the cities on a map, you’ll find my capital. That’s all I’m going to say.
I chose a fictional country because what I am doing, in a sense, is a form of Western decadence. I am writing about real people who had bad things happen in their lives. I don’t want to be accused of treating something lightly or of getting a particular country’s history wrong.
MB: The Cold War was a fertile period for spy thrillers. The post-1989 years have not been as fruitful. Who are your heroes from the glory days of spy fiction?
OS: I actually sent John le Carré a fan letter. He’s a genius with voice. His characters speak completely realistically. I also really like Len Deighton and his Bernard Samson novels. This may sound strange, but Milan Kundera has been a strong influence, particularly “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Immortality.” I admire the way he is able to unite philosophy and basic story telling.
MB: What about the future of Eastern Europe? Much of that Cold War romance is gone. Does the region still hold a fascination for you?
OS: It does, but not as much as before. All of the countries in the former Eastern bloc, including ex-Yugoslavia, will end up in the EU eventually. Some will go in kicking and screaming. When I first came to this region in 1989, everything was gray. I loved it. But Budapest, for example, has become a very normal place. I suppose you could do a novel set here in the 1990s—a messy period in Eastern Europe. Someone is going to write that book, but it’s not going to be me.
MB: Tell us a little bit about “The Tourist” and your immediate future.
OS: It’s a contemporary thriller set in Europe, but involving the CIA. A “tourist” is an agent with no home and no identity who moves from town to town, hotel to hotel, working for a fictional CIA section called the “Department of Tourism.” It’s been optioned to George Clooney’s production company (Smoke House). My agent thinks this could be my breakout book—we’ll see how it goes.