10 Questions with Joseph Kanon
1. Mr. Kanon, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. LEAVING BERLIN, your newest novel, came out on March 3. Tell us a bit more about this book.
Leaving Berlin is set in January, 1949, just as the Berlin Airlift was heroically supplying the besieged western sectors and the city was about to split into two. I had already written about the American occupation of Berlin in The Good German and I now became interested in the Soviet side– how did the GDR come to be? What was it like to live under the Soviets? Was it different (at least in the beginning), etc.
2. Who is Alex Meier, and how did you come up with his character?
Alex Meier is a Berlin-born writer who fled Hitler into exile in America and made a new life there. Now he’s been lured back by Soviet occupation authorities (as many notable cultural figures had been) — but he’s also been coerced by the fledgling CIA to spy for them. Almost immediately he realizes that he’s in over his head and, worse, morally compromised. His real assignment is to spy on the only woman he ever loved. Like most fictional characters, Alex is a composite, a stand-in for the many eminent exiles lured back to what became East Germany.
3. What kind of research did you do for LEAVING BERLIN?
I read what seemed hundreds of books on the subject, and especially any with information that became available after the Wall came down in 1989. The formation of the GDR is a fascinating subject– we think of it as an inevitability but in fact it was a political anomaly, an improvised state. The diaries and letters of returning artists like Bertolt Brecht were invaluable. But most importantly, I spent time in Berlin, walking the streets, imagining where the characters lived, how they got to work, what daily life was like, etc. I do this with all my books– walk the city so that you get a feel for it on the ground. Then supplement with old maps, photos, etc. to get the right look in your mind.
4. How is LEAVING BERLIN different from other spy thriller in this packed genre?
Well, I’d like to think that it has serious elements of moral inquiry, but that’s really for readers to say. Certainly it is more concerned with the actual politics of the period than most thrillers.
5. Why do you write? Why spy thriller?
I write thrillers because I love reading them. They’re essentially character-based, which is for me the supreme interest of any fiction, and they open up all sorts of possibilities for moral ambiguity. I came to writing late in life (I was 50 when I wrote my first book) but now I can’t imagine doing anything else– being able to live in your head, to do creative work, is a great privilege and I feel lucky to be able to do it full time.
6. How did it happen that your novel, THE GOOD GERMAN, became a movie featuring George Clooney?
The book was bought while still in manuscript by Clooney’s production company. His then partner, director Steven Soderbergh, looked at it and decided he would like to direct. After that, everything seemed like one long green light. I had nothing to do with the script or indeed the finished movie, but I did get to visit the set and watching everybody in action, from Cate Blanchett and George, to the prop man to the make-up director was like seeing a professional team at the top of their game. It also happened that I was then researching the novel that would become Stardust, about Hollywood in the 40s, so being on the set was an extraordinary way to do research– given the period of the film, I felt I was in a 40s studio watching a 40s movie being made.
7. How did you make the switch from being an executive in the publishing industry to become a bestselling author?
I enjoyed publishing and never really intended to leave, but I visited Los Alamos as a tourist (in 1995) and while there had an idea that became Los Alamos. I never told anybody I was writing it, because I didn’t know if I could (and what would be more embarrassing than a publisher who couldn’t write?), and even submitted it to my agent under a pseudonym (to get a cold reading). Obviously, this was a story with a happy ending– she took on the book, sold it to a publisher, it did very well and suddenly I was a full-time writer, working on the other side of the desk. Having been in publishing, of course, you’re aware of how much can go wrong with a book’s publication, but I try not to interfere or even suggest that I know anything about the business– it’s important for the publisher to take ownership. Of course when you have the right publisher (as I think I do) you don’t need to interfere– they know what they’re dong.
8. What is your greatest satisfaction as a writer? What is your greatest disappointment?
The greatest disappointment is that the book is never as good as you’d like it to be, or even as good as it was in your head. I think all writers must feel this. The greatest satisfaction comes in those rare moments when it’s close to being what you want, when something works on the page, the right word, the right rhythm, a patch of dialogue that sounds just right. As I say, rare moments, but the real satisfaction in writing is doing the work itself, not the publishing that comes after. One pure publishing pleasure, however, is getting a foreign edition of one of your books– there you are, in Russian, or Greek, or whatever, and it seems a small miracle.
9. What are your thoughts on the latest publishing industry developments, mainly the rise of the self-publishing?
Since publishers now put out more than 150,000 new titles a year, I’m astounded that we feel we need any more. But good luck to everyone.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
I never say in any detail, because I’m always afraid of ‘talking it out’, but I will say that I’m planning a trip to Moscow to get to know the city better…