Questions asked by Nick Stuyvesant,
Stuyvesant & Hoagland, June 14, 2004.
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Where did you first hear
about the OVRA?
I think my first introduction
to the term came from preparatory research on Mussolini and
Fascism for a course I was designing at the University
of Arizona. That's probably what first gave me the idea for
the novel. Much later, after the book was scheduled for publication,
Olen Steinhauer, author of two novels set in Central Europe, The
Bridge of Sighs and The
Confession, told me that Erich Ambler had
used the OVRA in Cause For Alarm. I thought I'd read
most of Ambler, but I couldn't recall that, so I read the novel
not long ago, a book first published back in 1939 during
the Fascist Era, and, sure enough, the OVRA is one of the forces
at work in the plot. I felt good that I'd given two possible
definitions of the name, while Ambler only gave one.
So what is the OVRA?
In simple terms, Mussolini's
secret police. Some people claim the term is not an acronym,
that, instead, the letters that make up the name had
no significance. The term was meant to intimidate through intentional
obscurity. I tend to doubt that. I give the two
most likely possibilities in the novel. The OVRA's goal was
the suppression of anything opposed to Fascism.
Can you comment on the novel's
structure? You use a variety of techniques it seems to dramatize
the historical material.
I rewrote this novel several
times, trying different ways to tell the story. In one version
I began with the historical material, everything set in Italy
in World War II, and then moved to the present. That made for
what almost seemed to be two separate novels. Eventually I
interspersed the first part of the historical material with
events taking place in the present. This requires
the reader to jump back and forth in time, but the technique
is often used in thrillers and doesn't have to be too jarring.
It can add to the suspense, even though I realize, as a reader
myself, that it's sometimes disconcerting to be pulled out
of one world and into another. But that's something that's
happening to the protagonist as well.
And then, for some of
the war's later events, when the three OSS agents are sent
north to gain access to OVRA documents—chronologically this
is the period of Partisan Resistance when the Germans had helped
Mussolini establish the so-called Republic of Salò—what
he called the Italian Social Republic—and the Nazifascisti were
carrying out some of the their worst atrocities in Italy, I
revealed various particulars through the contemporary investigations
of Nick Ferron, who is trying to find out who's behind the
disappearance and possible murder of his grandfather, the man
who raised him.
That brings up an interesting
issue, at least to me, that I've noticed in several of your
novels—the father\son relationship, which is rarely positive.
Why is that a significant theme in your
Well, it's a perennial
theme of Western literature, first of all. But, for me, I suppose,
it's more personal. I didn't have a good relationship
with my father, so most of my characters don't. But Nick has
a good father\bad father aspect to his story. That is, his
ideal father and the man who actually raised him is his grandfather—the
man whose disappearance motivates him to carrying out his search
into the deeds of the past. His biological father is the authority
figure he'd like to kill if the guy wasn't already dead.
As a teacher, I always
marvel when I find that most of my students have had good relationships
with their fathers. I realize that's the ideal, but sometimes
I wonder if it isn't almost better to have somebody to
rebel against. I'm probably wrong there, because there's plenty
of other things, society in general if nothing else, that
one can rebel against. But I do think rebellion is essential
to the development of character.
is not the only character who has a problematic relationship
with a father figure.
That's true. There's
not only Nick, with his abusive father, now dead, but also
Kristine Kloos, the daughter of one of the three OSS agents,
who's living in Suriname, the former Dutch Guiana. That's an
example of a father\daughter relationship that's not gone well,
so I wanted to explore that as a sub-motif, from the female
point of view, but that episode or sequence of episodes really
interested me more as an up-the-river, into-the-heart-of-darkness
story, so to speak. And I think it helped to have a conflict
between two other characters, family members, in addition to
any conflict that might exist between Nick's desire to know
the truth behind what went on in Italy and old man Kloos's
desire not to talk about the betrayals of the past.
I just realized, as I
responded to your question, that the patronymic I picked
for the Dutchman—Kloos—has a vague resemblance to Conrad's
That was not intentional. I last read Heart of Darkness well
over twenty years before writing League of Shadows. The
character's given name, Theunis, is an ancestral name from
my own lineage, but I can't remember how I came up with Kloos.
I settled on his surname fairly early on. I do family trees
for my characters and individual character profiles for each
one, so I know their backgrounds, even if I don't use it in
the novel. I usually go back as far as a character's grandparents.
What goes into a character
I derived the format
years ago from a writing manual or maybe an article in Writers
Digest. I can't remember for sure. I have three basic
sections. The first concentrates on physiology—aspects like
sex, age, height and weight, color of hair, eyes and skin,
posture, appearance, shape of the head, face and limbs, and
any noticeable defects. The second focuses on sociology—the
person's social class, occupation, education, home life, family,
religion, race, nationality, political affiliation, hobbies,
and so forth. And the third on psychology—the character's moral
standards, sex life, ambitions, frustrations and disappointments,
temperament, attitude toward life, any complexes, any special
abilities, and other qualities of note. And some of these areas
have other subcategories, so the profiles are fairly extensive.
Do you outline as well?
I have so far, though
I've been thinking about trying to write a novel without having
the structure laid out ahead of time. I start out with a single-spaced
plot description. In length this runs anywhere from twelve
to twenty pages long. And then, as I'm writing, that expands,
sometimes to as much as fifty pages. I work several chapters
or sections ahead, cutting, pasting, adding detail, so that
by the time I'm finished I'll have gone through quite a few
versions of the outline. And it has a certain elasticity, so
if things change along the way it's something I can adapt to.
But I know where I'm heading. Still, if I go back and compare
the original outline to the finished product, I'm usually surprised
at the changes.
How long did it take to
write this novel?
Counting the research,
at least two years. That's for the first draft. I spent
approximately fifteen months compiling background information
and nine months in the initial writing. And
then the text went through numerous revisions. I've made quite
a few research trips to Italy, as well as having lived and
studied extensively in the country, so that helped. But I took
two trips for this novel alone. I did archival research in
both Florence and Rome. I mention a moderate number of texts,
at least ones written in English, in the acknowledgments at
the back of the book, but I read or consulted hundreds of additional
volumes. My notes on Mussolini, Fascism, the Partisan Resistance,
and the atrocities committed by the Germans and Fascists in
Northern Italy near the end of the war are well over a foot
thick—and that doesn't count photocopied material. So there's
a lot of work behind the book, much of which never makes it
into the story. The original drafts of the historical material
were probably twice as long as what now appears in the novel.
At one point I pondered
writing a novel that was set entirely in the past, but I wanted
the connection to the present—the idea that what happens
in the past continues to affect us today, even if it's in ways
we're not always aware of. That's a theme that's central to
my teaching as well. Most
of us don't pay attention
to simple connections. To cite one, perhaps banal, example,
there's the fact that we used to have a type of fasces—the
bundle of rods that's behind the origin of the term "fascism"—on
the reverse of our dime. Of course, historically, the symbol
was simply one of official power, used by Roman magistrates,
an emblem borrowed in turn from the Etruscans. So an ancient
symbol, much like the swastika, ruined by its later
use by dictators. The Mercury dime, coined from 1916 to 1945,
has the traditional axe in the center, although it's not double-bladed,
but it looks exactly like many of the Fascist images found
in Italy. [See "Fascist Symbols" under the Extras links.]
For the Romans, the message
was one of power and control, which is why Mussolini, of course,
was attracted to the symbol. Today, most sources claim the
reference was to two ways of death—either a slow beating by
rods or a merciful one by the axe. But I believe, if I'm not
mistaken, that the rods initially represented the unity of
the Etruscan League of Twelve. So while you can't forget the
message of authority, I think you also have to be aware of
that of unity. I'm not sure what was in the mind of the designer,
a man by the name of Adolph A. Weinman, though he does place
an olive branch around the fasces.
The combined symbols are usually interpreted to refer both to America's military
readiness and to our desire for peace. On the Roosevelt dime, which was first
issued in 1946, the one commonly in circulation today, rather
than the axe and bundle of rods in the center, we have
a torch with the flame of liberty, and both an olive and an
oak branch, the latter said to signify strength and independence.
But, in my mind at least, the torch itself, in its shape, is
a clear descendent of the fasces. The designer, John
Ray Sinnock, did a good job, I think, transforming an oppressive
symbol into one of freedom. The torch of liberty is a nice
response to fascism.
Do you intend to return
to this era in future novels?
That's always a possibility.
There's one particular historical event involving Italy that
I think was crucial to the outcome of World War II. If used
right, it would make a great plot for a historical thriller.
Don't ask me what I'm referring to. I might want to
use it in the future. But at the moment I'm working on something
Any final words for your
My deepest thanks for
taking the time to read the book! I hope it provides you with
some of the same pleasure that I get from reading novels of
suspense. That's why I write. If only one other reader enjoys
the book, all the work was worthwhile. I hope to hear from
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