Award-winning author Joseph Kanon has researched and written all his popular novels at NYPL. He currently works in the Library's Frederick Lewis Allen Room researching his forthcoming book set in post-WWII Istanbul. In our interview, the author of the bestsellers Los Alamos, Alibi, and The Good German talks about what fascinates him about the post-WWII period and which Library collections he has used to write his books.
What fascinates you about the post-WWII period?
I didn’t intend to write more than one book set in the immediate postwar period. What interested me about Los Alamos was what it was like to be there, how the scientists felt about what they were doing, and I thought the best time to explore that was after Germany was out of the war and all the moral quandaries and ambiguities that had been put aside until then (it being unthinkable that the Nazis might develop the bomb first) came flooding in. But once in 1945, I couldn’t get out—one story led to another and the more I learned about the period the more fascinating and inherently dramatic I found it.
I think the aftermath of the war was the hinge of the century, the beginning of the world we inherited. We are so self-centered that we like to think that everything that happens to us now is important and historic (and so, in one sense, it is) but some periods are more pivotal than others. The use of the atomic bomb (and, with it, the prospect of world self-annihilation), the revelation of the Holocaust (in an ‘evolved’, civilized Europe), the sheer destructive scale of the war itself (more than 60 million people killed)—these are all transformative events. The world became a different place. How did people experience it? What was it like to be overwhelmed by history?
The books, without my planning it, all reflected different aspects of these questions: the moral confusion of scientists, faced with unexpected consequences of their own triumph; the difficulty in postwar Germany of rendering justice for a crime so vast it defied conventional notions of innocence and guilt; a city (Venice) that thinks itself lucky enough to sit out the war—not a shot fired—only to be visited by another (the Holocaust); an industry (Hollywood) made rich and powerful by the war, now so blinded by its success, and moral cowardice, that it is unable to defend itself against opportunistic political forces. Istanbul, setting for the new book, suggests yet another aspect: a neutral hotbed of espionage during the war that now faces a grimmer balancing act as former allies turn enemies. I suppose at some point I’ll have to move out of this period, but not just yet. There are so many stories.
How did you decide to set your new novel in Istanbul?
The easy answer would be to say I fell in love with it, which is true enough, but it’s probably more accurate to say that I thought it would make a great setting. All my books have started this way—I become intrigued by a place, want to know more about it, and then find it suggests a story, so that story and place become inseparable. Certainly Los Alamos could have happened nowhere else and while other postwar German cities were blighted, none was as physically and morally devastated as Berlin (The Good German). With Stardust I was initially drawn to Los Angeles because it had been a refuge for European intellectuals—a phenomenon not as well known as it should be—and then became interested in how they interacted with the movie industry. In the end L.A. itself became a character in the book, something reviewers have said happens in all the others too.
Why some places capture the imagination and others don’t is a mystery, but I think for me it has something to do with historical layering. To understand a city like Istanbul is like peeling an onion—there’s always another layer underneath. Berlin still has the feel of living history. It may look brand new, but its history is too tragic to disappear—it keeps coming up like grass growing between the pavements. Los Angeles, at first, seems an exception, at least in 1945. As one of the characters says, every building you see is the first structure put on this land. Istanbul, so to speak, two thousand years ago. But that first layer was a remarkable time.
What also draws me to these places is that they’re all very different from the way they were in 1945—you have to re-imagine them, so that they become fictional cities. Los Alamos, a temporary wartime installation, now has almost none of its 1945 buildings (although, luckily, Oppenheimer’s house and Fuller Lodge survive). Berlin is almost entirely re-built. Los Angeles in 1945 still had orange groves and trolleys, not freeways, and was not yet a sprawling megapolis. Istanbul had an evocative imperial past, and a lot of intrigue, but only about 800,000 people, not the 10 million and counting it has today. All this allows for a certain amount of creative leeway in fictional reconstruction. My Berlin doesn’t exist anymore, so I didn’t necessarily have to get every detail right (though I wanted to). The most difficult place I’ve written about, in fact, was Venice in Alibi , which is exactly the same as it was in 1945 (that’s part of its charm). If you make a mistake, right not left, your character is likely to end up in a canal—and readers write in to correct you.
What makes your spies different from the recently uncovered Russian operatives in the United States?
The big difference, I suppose, is that my fictional spies actually do something and are meant to pose a threat. Last month’s episode was so farcical (the devil in Montclair?) that it threatens to give spy fiction a bad name. You begin to wonder whether any of it can be taken seriously. Luckily, my book is set in the past, in a pre-electronic era when listening posts and agents still meant something, war made the stakes real, and those shadowy figures saw themselves in the service, however marginally, of competing ideologies.
That having been said, the effectiveness of real espionage has always been a debatable matter. A band of warriors no doubt found it useful to know if another band was waiting for them behind a hill, and certainly the passing of atomic secrets enabled the Soviets to build their bomb sooner (although even that has been argued), but with the Cold War we begin to enter that unreal LeCarre world of moles and double agents and paranoia where the secret services, in effect, primarily spy on each other—the prize is no longer the 39 Steps formula but an operative’s identity. Of course, one of the head-shaking effects of the recent spy sweep is to see that the Russian mania for espionage still goes on and on. The Czars, the Soviets, and now the current government—they can’t seem to stop, whether it’s worth doing or not.
Which collections did you use while writing in NYPL?
The General Humanities collection has almost everything anyone could want, but I have used some of the special collections as well—newspaper editions on microfilm, etc. In that instance, for The Good German, I wanted to know how Stars and Stripes reported the dropping of the atomic bomb (the actual headline is used in the book). And of course it’s valuable to read contemporary journalism—what was said at the time—so the library’s periodicals collection has been useful. My most recent book, Stardust, is about Hollywood after the war, when the studio system was at its peak, which meant spending time at the Performing Arts collection in Lincoln Center. In the new book, one of the plot elements concerns Istanbul’s position as an escape hatch for Holocaust refuges during the war and its pivotal role in the aliyah bet that followed, so I’ve drawn on the Dorot Jewish Division more heavily this time (I had also used it before), an extraordinary collection, one of the library’s great treasures.
How do you envision the library of the future?
I think this is almost impossible to predict and I don’t envy the librarians who have to plan for it while technology seems to change at the rate of a generation every year or so. I imagine almost all books will be in some sort of electronic form, but what the delivery system will be is anyone’s guess. It’s possible my grandchildren will find a Kindle as quaint as parchment paper. Our predictions often betray our biases. I’d like to say there were always be books with paper because I grew up with them and I love them and I’d be sorry to see them disappear (if they do), but, really, as long as people are still reading, does it matter?
One thing that won’t change, I think, is the library’s role in our culture as both disseminator and gatekeeper of knowledge. It’s not enough merely to collect information; you have to organize it, archive it, know how to reference it, understand its value—everything trained librarians do.
Do you use social media to directly engage with your readers?
Like most writers today, I have a website, www.josephkanon.com, whose best feature (for me) is the ability to get e-mail directly from readers. These letters run the gamut from complaints about typos to long discussions about some of the issues the books raise, but I’m glad to get all of them (and always answer). There’s nothing more flattering to a writer that hearing from someone who wants to talk about your work. I even enjoy the ones who catch mistakes—at least they’ve been reading closely enough to notice.
I also have a Facebook page, though I have to confess I’m not as active there as I should be. Posting seems to me more time-consuming than answering mail, and less personal. Twitter defeats me—I simply don’t get the point, or have the energy. I’m hoping that by the time I have to do something about it, it will already be passé and I can ignore it.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
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