Alan Furst: Writing Spy Novels

I had started out like a lot of writers with basically nothing to write about. And I started writing murder mysteries simply because that was a genre in which I thought I might be able to sell something. Then, along about in the early 80s, for Esquire Magazine, I was in what was then the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe. And I changed completely. I had never been in a police state before and I came home crazed and excited and now ready actually to write serious books. I wanted rather than to write crime thrillers or whatever you want to call that, I wanted to write about more sophisticated people. I wanted to write about politics. I wanted to write about intellectuals. I wanted to write about foreign countries. I wanted to write about what I call “near horizon history,” which is to say the 30s and the 40s. For that reason, I started writing spy novels. And for the reason that I for technical and complicated reasons, I didn’t want to write about the contemporary world. Where if you write spy fiction you’ve gotta write about technology most of the time. Whereas if you write about the 30s and 40s, thought I, then you can write about human beings and their interaction. It will often be the case, whether writers want to admit it or not, that writers go out and write a book that they wanted to read and discover didn’t exist. It’s just one of those little kinks in life of people who write books. And I was living in Paris. It was the early 80s and I thought, “Gee, I’d like to read a historical spy novel. I’d like to read a novel about the 30s.” Because in the 30s, in Europe, as the war approached, all these various spy services, the French, the British, two for the Russians, two for the Brits, the Romanians, the Bulgarians, this whole fabulous stew seemed to me would create a wonderful novel which I thought I would enjoy. So I went looking. It wasn’t there. It didn’t exist. Then, I looked in a more general way and it didn’t exist again. And I thought, “Gold! Look at this!”ť That’s like finding a bag of gold on the street. That’s how exactly it looked to me. And I immediately started doing it.

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