Alan Furst on 'Midnight in Europe,' and Why His Women Like Laughter and Sex

Random House

More from Sean Elder's interview with Alan Furst, author Midnight in Europe, the latest in his bestselling Night Soldiers series.

[Related: Alan Furst, the Anti-Fascist Novelist]

Are your books getting shorter, or is that my imagination?

AF They got shorter after the first three big ones. … When I started to do these kinds of books – I had written four trashy books that were complete failures, 'cause I had nothing to write about. By the time I went to Night Soldiers I had a heart's passion… Night Soldiers [the first book in the espionage series with the same name]; took a long time 'cause I had no money but I was living in Paris at that point. I had to do travel pieces; I'd write for a while, go do a travel piece, come back, write some more. I thought I was writing a panoramic spy novel of the thirties and forties. It went to 1945; it was 600 pages in manuscript. My books are now more like 320, but I don't want to write that Big Book anymore, I don't like big books. I find the kind of book I write now to be infinitely more entertaining. They're still hard to write, I still work very hard on these things; it's the only way I can do it…

It takes me three months of research and nine months of work to produce a book. When I start writing I do two pages a day, if I'm gonna do 320 that's 160 days. I don't work Sunday any more… The Sabbath is a very reasonable idea. Otherwise you work yourself to death.

Do you consciously not think of the period? On your day off do you read modern magazines, modern fiction?

AF NFL, baby. I do nothing cerebral. I'm looking for something that doesn't require me to think as a writer. That's television. I don't want to do cultural things, I don't want to go to the theater, I don't' want to go to an art museum. I go out with friends... I never now go to a dinner party where I don't know the people. I did it once; it was awkward beyond belief. …

When I come home [from a book tour] I have a thousand unanswered fan emails I have to deal with. I try [to answer them]. The idea that someone is going to write me and I'm not going to answer – I was just raised not to do that. We are the result of our upbringing, and my upbringing was very much to meet obligations…. You just didn't let things go

Your books come out on Father's Day but I know more women who love your books: They have female characters they can relate to, and romance and sex stuff that gets them where they live.

AF I try very consciously to do that. I just started out saying, I'm not going to have people having sex standing up or a woman sitting on a kitchen counter – I haven't done such things and most people I know haven't… Any erotic stuff I do is adult, what regular people do, and women like that… [The women in my books] like to laugh and they like to have sex. Most books don't have much about a woman who likes to laugh and that's crazy. Most women I've known, that's their favorite thing! They like sex and they like to laugh… I try to have real women; I have real men and I want real women to go with them.

What was your connection to that old world before you started Night Soldiers? Were your parents from the old world?

AF No, they were the children of immigrants … Being a grandchild of immigrants is not the same as just being another person or American. The values, the ambitions ... they were from Latvia. But [my father] didn't know it was Latvia; it was Russia. He left at the age of 18, reason being his father had been kidnapped at the age of 12 and forced to serve 35 years in the Russian army. And he came home! Survival genes, I'm telling you…

That's my attachment to the old world. My grandmother, whom I adored, and who partly raised me, loved Liberace and she watched Liberace every afternoon and when she watched Liberace, she'd get dressed up and put on makeup because I think she thought, if she could see Liberace, Liberace could see her. Immigrant background.

Even when I was in high school – my father had left to go on the road and sell ladies millinery, whereas my friends in prep school, their father's were doctors and lawyers … Now kids are taught they have a lot of things coming to them; I was not taught that. I remember telling my mama, "Mama, I'm bored," and she'd say, "Why don't you go hit your head against the wall?" The contemporary mother would try and find some nutritious learning thing for the child to do. Not my mother.

Did she work?

AF My father's business failed. My mother's parents were divorced, an adultery divorce in like the 'teens, and my mother wound up a foster child from the age of five to the age of 18 until she was brought back home to work as a secretary and put her brother through Harvard law school. So in a way I was almost raised as a feminist because this woman was talented and smart but she never had an opportunity to do anything. When my father's business failed and he began to die – which he did over 10 years, heart attack, stroke – she went out at the age of 51 and got a job and supported the family. But that's what people did.

Your books are often compared to those of John Le Carre and you have expressed admiration for the Karla novels. But many of his later books seem to end in a tirade against Americans.

AF He's using his novels as platforms. And for some reason I find the anti-Americanism in them startling. 'cause he's so sophisticated about other things [and] all the sudden here's this tirade. Where do you get off having a tirade, coming from the UK? What, they're great? Really?

Your novels focus on the unusual alliances before WWII – anarchists, communists, loyalists, royalists, all fighting a common enemy, fascism, that was coming down the tracks. That sort of history seems too complicated for a lot of Americans.

AF They aren't good at understanding history. [I know a woman who] teaches history in a D.C. high school and she says Americans are ahistorical. They just aren't taught history. How much we have to pay for that I don't know, but you do have to pay for that. … You shouldn't have a population that doesn't understand history, or geography…

One of the best experiences of my life was living outside the country; I learned a whole lot fast about where my place was in the world, and it wasn't where I thought it was when I was a kid. … This French guy said to me one time in Paris, "It's a pity we don't wear bead necklaces and loin cloths and carry spears, because if we did that you would understand how different we are from you."