Books recently released in paperback
Spy novelist Alan Furst: 'I love the gray areas'
By Todd Leopold
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Alan Furst writes about a black-and-white world.
It's a world of dapper aristocrats and beautiful women, of secretive spies and world-weary diplomats. Even the time -- the late 1930s -- seems as black and white as an old newsreel: Nazis and the forces of evil on one side, freedom fighters and the armies of good on the other, all converging as Europe hurtles headlong into war.
But Furst's world is also full of gray and shadow, where trust is uncertain, motives are suspect, and the right thing to do isn't always the thing that gets done.
Furst has now written of this period in six novels, including "The Polish Officer," "Night Soldiers," and his most recent, "Kingdom of Shadows." All six were recently acquired by Random House, which is releasing them in paperback, testament to the following that Furst's work has earned. Indeed, he has been compared to Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and John le Carre, masters of the spy genre.
"A great entertainer, Furst would probably be considered our finest practicing historical novelist if he weren't writing espionage novels," wrote Charles Taylor in Salon.com.
But Furst has no quibble with being pigeonholed as a spy novelist -- particularly when being compared with Greene and Ambler.
"I write historical spy fiction -- that's my official designation," he says in an interview at an Atlanta restaurant. "I grew up reading genre writers, and to the degree that Eric Ambler and Graham Greene are genre writers, I'm a genre writer."
'I don't think I read what other people read'
For Furst, who's about 60, creating the world of late-'30s Europe is a full-time job. In the mornings, he writes in his suburban New York-area home; in the afternoons, he does research about the era, and occasionally resumes writing late at night.
"It is so much my life," he says. His reading material, he says, ranges from World War II histories and memoirs to news accounts of the time. "I read very little contemporary anything. ... I don't think I read what other people read, but then why would I, considering what I do?"
He's been writing historical spy novels for 20 years, though he's been a novelist far longer. In the 1970s, he wrote several murder mysteries, works he now refers to as his "dumb books," while free-lancing for several magazines. In the early '80s, he was working on a story in the Soviet Union when Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet pilot.
He remembers the fear he saw in the country's citizens. "The people in Moscow were terrified. They thought we were going to send in nuclear rockets," he recalls.
He was struck by the conditions of the Soviet Union -- "a police state where the wrong look could get you in jail," he says -- and by the faces of Russians, which reminded him of his own Eastern European ancestors. When he returned to the U.S., he started writing "Night Soldiers," about a Bulgarian refugee who encounters both fascism and the iron hand of the KGB's predecessor, the NKVD. He had found his niche, and the book, originally published in 1988, helped establish Furst as a writer of intricate spy fiction.
'My plots come from history'
That fiction, he says, is shaped by the intelligence of his characters as well as his prodigious research.
"I'm just fascinated by the period, and by the incredible courage, ... endless ingenuity and courageous passion people had to fight against evil," he says. "I love the gray areas, but I like the gray areas as considered by bright, educated, courageous people."
"I am constitutionally incapable of coming up with a plot," he adds. "My plots come from history. You'll never find a bad guy fighting with a good guy at the edge of a cliff (in my books)."
But his characters are something else. There's Nicholas Morath, the Hungarian aristocratic owner of an advertising agency in Paris in "Kingdom of Shadows"; or Captain Alexander de Milja, a Polish spy working for that country's underground; or Jean Casson, a French Resistance fighter and movie producer who pops up in several Furst novels. All try to do the right thing in the murky, slippery atmosphere of late-'30s Eastern Europe, an atmosphere accentuated by Furst's smoky, angular prose.
If visiting the 1980s Soviet Union helped inspire his books' settings, the terrorist attacks of 2001 have had an effect on his writing, Furst says. His new book features a real-life terrorist attack in 1940 Istanbul, and he handled its description very carefully.
"I really had to think a long time about how graphic I wanted to make it," he says. "I'm not a very graphic writer anyhow ... but I was very conscious of what I was doing."
Furst has been traveling on and off for months promoting the paperback reissues. His wife, he says, has long since gotten used to living with a writer, particularly one who spends most of his waking life mentally living in the 1930s -- or staying in hotel rooms to promote books about that time.
"She thinks I'm totally crazy," he laughs.
But not unsupportive. After a recent swing in early November, Furst got home late on a Friday night. As he walked into his bedroom, he noticed something on his pillow: a piece of candy, left over from Halloween.
"I just fell out laughing," says Furst at the memory. "That was so funny."
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