TCS Daily

Furst in His Class

By Josh Manchester - August 9, 2006 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: Alan Furst is a master of the historical spy novel. His latest work is The Foreign Correspondent, available now from Random House. TCS Daily's Josh Manchester recently caught up with Furst.

Josh Manchcester: Are you an historical novelist who happens to write about espionage, or a spy novelist who confines himself to one period of history?

Alan Furst: My shorthand has always been 'historical espionage novel' -- a genre I went looking to read, in the early eighties, couldn't find, so decided to write. I thought surely the Russians had some great mid-thirties stuff, but they were busy being executed, and there's only Bulgakov's White Guard (a terrific novel, by the way) to see what the political adventure genre might have been had these people been permitted to write.

What I say about my own work, is that I write novels about the intelligence wars of the mid-thirties, a form of political adventure novel. See Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Malreaux, Man's Fate, Conrad, The Secret Agent -- yes, fancy literary names but don't kid yourself, it's just fine to read on a plane.

Manchester: How did you choose the 1930s and World War II Europe as your subject matter? When you started writing the Cold War was still going strong, yes?

Furst: Yes, but I always knew I could never be a cold war novelist -- LeCarre has that mean upper-class British cynical voice; it like, drips, which was perfect for the hall of mirrors and all that "was Petrov disguised as Laval? Or Laval disguised as Petrov?" stuff that characterized the Cold War.

For me, the thirties was an heroic period, good versus evil, and all the best will likely die. People in the mid-century were idealists, or victims, or fugitives, or heroes, or villains -- but you had to be something, you couldn't get out of the way, what was coming down was too big, you had to stand up.

Manchester: Your protagonists share a few traits throughout your novels. Even though they frequently are pulled into the world of espionage, few of them are professionals. Did you make a conscious decision to focus on those whom the CIA in our day would call "agents" rather than the professional class of "case officers?"

Furst: I'm soon enough going to do an intelligence officer, but lately my heroes have been agents, the sort of people who make a choice to try to act against brutal, vicious regimes. Where can they turn? Well, in my books, what comes their way is useful, in the way that information can be, and they see it is a weapon, and they determine to fight.

Manchester: How did you do research into the workings of the various agencies running around Europe at the time? Night Soldiers alone contains thorough depictions of the OSS, the NKVD and British Intelligence.

Furst: One thing I discovered early on: for stuff that's supposed to be secret, the intelligence world never stops writing about itself. That's how I'm able to write all these books. I mean, take a look at the line-up!! -- SIS, British Naval Intelligence, SOE, Deuxieme Bureau, Surete Nationale, NKVD, GRU, OSS, then add the Romanians, Bulgarians, the Abwehr, SD (SS intelligence) -- hey, that's a novel right there, to me it is, just that list of names. Then don't forget the Poles, and all the Foreign Offices, and resistance movements. All of it in Paris, or Prague, or Madrid -- how could you not write about it?

Manchester: Another similarity in your protagonists is their ultimate inability to know whether what they are doing has any impact at all on the course of the war. Is this a lesson you'd like to impart in your novels, the way in which war pulls people into its orbit and makes cogs of them all? Or are you instead trying to show their heroism since they fight on without knowing the outcome? Is your ultimate purpose to entertain or instruct?

Furst: To entertain. I'm not teaching anybody anything, but if somebody finds a more complete view of the world by reading a novel, well, why not. But, basically, these books are meant to take you away from your daily grind and off into the fictional distance. And my books are always about heroism, the kind that may never be known, the kind that people do as an act of faith, with no idea if it will matter, with no idea if anybody will ever know it happened.

Manchester: A third recurring episode in your work is what could be called the spy tryst: a man finds a woman with whom he can attempt to escape from the dirty business of spying in which he's employed. Yet in the end, they both usually know that their rendezvous cannot last. There's something very ephemeral about each of the liaisons you describe. The lovers can't make them last no matter how hard they try.

Furst: Love's a big part of life, and a big part of the novel. In my books it's the island in a storm-driven sea -- much as it is in daily existence. To my people, it's the one good thing in a bad world, so they are passionate, whether it's one night or forever, and, the way life went in those days, nobody knew if they would be alive next week, and that's the feel of love affairs in my books. "We have only tonight. . . ."

Manchester: So far, I know of no female protagonists. Any desire to feature a lady in the leading role in a future work?

Furst: Don't think I'll ever try a female point-of-view. LeCarre did it in The Little Drummer Girl, and I guess it was okay, but almost all my models - Ambler, Conrad etc. -- wrote with a male hero, and I'll likely stick with that.

Manchester: You do a good job of showing all facets of the Allied side of the war in your novels: you pull no punches in relating how even the good guys are manipulative and double-crossing. Given that you can paint portraits of such complexity, I find it interesting that most Axis characters are just bit players and rarely featured as main characters. Is this out of a desire on your part that the reader not sympathize with the bad guys?

Furst: No, it's that the good guys don't usually know very much about the bad guys -- they're like a shadow, a force. In my books, clandestine operatives avoid the opposition, they know they're out there, but they don't often see them, only their tracks. But they're much more in evidence (Sombor in Kingdom of Shadows, Count Amandola in The Foreign Correspondent and the OVRA operatives) in the later books. And, when they appear, they are plenty evil enough.

Manchester: How did you decide to be a writer?

Furst: I knew I was a writer when I was a kid; it was never a decision, only something I liked to do that I tried to get better at, and never stopped.

Manchester: How do you research your work? Your telling of the destruction of the railroad yard in Night Soldiers almost seemed like a how-to guide.

Furst: That's because it happened. Reality is much more powerful than fiction, stronger, and more interesting. Historical novelists are allowed to retell historical events, adding their own characters. That's a good thing---for me, anyhow. I like Isherwood, who was in the middle of the 30s. Read The Berlin Stories -- that's actually sort of a spy novel. On a very real level.

Josh Manchester: How about the nuts and bolts of writing itself? You travel between Paris and Long Island. Do you do all of your writing in either?

Furst: I wrote my first 2 and a half books in Paris, then production writing moved to Long Island, where I have a studio. Now I do research in Paris, write in Long Island, but it's really one process.

Manchester: Have you been to all of the settings in your works? Do you speak any other languages, and if so, do you use them in your research?

Furst: I've been to some, not others. I speak okay French, nothing else. I can read in French but I don't like to because it's too slow, I get impatient when I have to look up words.

Manchester: You spend a large part of your time in France and have for some time. Do you see changes in Europe brought by the spread of Islam?

Furst: Europe hasn't changed -- they pursue the good life, try to ignore threats, then, one day, they can't. I always make the point that good people don't spend much time being good, mostly they want to mow the lawn and play with the dog, whereas bad people spend all their time being bad, or thinking up ways to be worse. Then, one day, the good people have to turn around and do something, or the whole thing will go off the cliff. Sounds simple, but that's the way it's always seemed to me.

Manchester: The Foreign Correspondent is also the title of a great and underrated Hitchcock film. The film is really a unique cultural artifact: in 1940, a British filmmaker made a movie about spies in Europe, set in August of 1939, with the main character being a US reporter sent to figure out if there's going to be war or not. At the end of the film, you can practically hear the British screaming for American help. Much of your work is set in the same timeframe.

Furst: Scream the British did, and help didn't come quickly, and for a long time they were alone, and it didn't look like they were going to win. "A close-run thing," Churchill said. My Foreign Correspondent is different -- but, considering how important these people were in the international scheme of things, I had to write about one -- along with the diplomats, army officers, movie producers, émigré poets, etc.

Manchester: Do you ever plan to shift the focus of your work? And what do you read when you want to relax or escape?

Furst: No, I'll stay with my time period. I read in my field, and that is, for me, escape. And entertaining others isn't a bad obsession, if that's what it is. More true, it's my profession, and I'm privileged to be able to do it, every day. In fact, to have something to which you give yourself, something you really like to do, and make some money too -- that in itself is a privilege.

Alan Furst's new novel is The Foreign Correspondent. His website is here ( Josh Manchester is a TCSDaily contributing writer. His blog is The Adventures of Chester (



1930s spy novels
I would add Helen MacInnes to the genre and she had female protagonists. Her first, "Above Suspicion," was set in prewar and "Assignment in Brittany" was set in 1940. She has written that hundreds of allied soldiers tried to find her locations in Brittany after the Normandy invasion. "While Still We Live" was set in 1939 Poland and was not, technically, a spy novel but is almost unique in its picture of that place and time. After the war, she began to write cold war novels that read like travelogues. I have spent pleasant hours inspecting her locations in Europe. I hadn't read any of Furst but I will order this one.

Audio Interview
I hope you recorded this interview. It would be great to listen to an extended version via mp3 download.

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