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League of Shadows

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 work?

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.

Nick 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 Kurtz. 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 profile?

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 else.

Any final words for your readers?

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 you!

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All material may be freely used.

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