Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation
by Robert Littell
Published by The Overlook Press
400 pages, 2006
Almost every veteran interviewer can tell you a story about having spoken with somebody that he or she was honored merely to have met. For me, that somebody was Robert Littell, an American master of the espionage tale. I have followed Littell's work for decades, ever since I enjoyed his 1973 debut novel, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, which won the British Crime Writers Association's Gold Dagger Award and which John Updike described in The New Yorker last year as "a deft and lighthearted performance on the edge of parody." Since Lewinter, Littell, a former Newsweek writer, has been polishing his craft, penning insightful, witty and ironic tales -- 14 in total, so far -- set in the Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass world of international spying.
Now 71 years old, the Brooklyn, New York-born Littell continues to plumb a wealth of knowledge he gleaned while working for Newsweek in Europe at the height of the Cold War, absorbing the politics of that tense time. But his storytelling, fed by his curious nature and valuable contacts within the modern intelligence community, has evolved well beyond classic conventions of the espionage genre. Littell is a legendary figure among his peers, and many members of the International Thriller Writers acknowledge him as a master of the Cold War thriller. Compared favorably with John le Carré (a.k.a. David Cornwell) and Graham Greene, Littell offers in his fiction a highly literate world as dark as it is complex and full of insight and irony. Capping (for now) a career that has already produced such masterpieces as The Amateur (1981), The Once and Future Spy (1990), An Agent in Place (1991) and The Visiting Professor (1994), the author has recently witnessed a renaissance of his work, with his novels being reissued in hardcover both by U.S. publisher The Overlook Press and by Duckworth Publishing in the UK.
His latest two novels have brought him particular acclaim. After Littell put his finishing touches on Walking Back the Cat in 1996, Peter Mayer, the former CEO of Penguin and now the owner of Overlook and Duckworth -- as well as a longtime Littell fan -- encouraged the author to compose what became The Company: A Novel of the CIA, a great doorstop of a book that aspires to be the definitive fictionalized look into the operations of America's shadowy Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). That novel became a New York Times and Washington Post bestseller, and was applauded by Irish thriller novelist John Connolly as "quite simply one of the best books I've read all year. Its scale is breathtaking, and its intermingling of fictional and real-life characters seamless." The Company is currently being developed by film director Ridley Scott as a six-part miniseries, scheduled for broadcast on cable-TV network TNT in the summer of 2007.
Meanwhile, Littell's 14th novel, 2005's Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation, just last month won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category, beating out such estimable rivals as Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer and Peter Robinson's Strange Affair. Legends tells the knotty tale of Martin Odum, a onetime CIA field operative and now a discharged spy turned slacker private eye in Brooklyn, who's struggling through a labyrinth of memories of past identities -- or "legends," in spook parlance. Is he really Martin Odum? Or might he actually Dante Pippen, an Irish Republican Army explosives maven willing to peddle his skills to the highest bidder? Or is he in fact Lincoln Dittman, a college professor and Civil War authority? Perhaps he's somebody else entirely. As the reader soon discovers, Legends is a deep and disturbing look at the role identity plays in all of our lives.
Robert Littell does not normally sit for interviews. Living and writing at his home in southern France, he guards his private life jealously -- not unlike some of his characters. However, he was gracious enough to meet with me during a swing through London. We discussed his memories of World War II and the Cold War, his brushes with fame (in the forms of actors, national security advisers and others), his clandestine efforts to make public the real story of Czechoslovakia's invasion by the Soviet Union, and his fondness for mountain climbing. His understanding of international political history makes listening to this man every bit as thrilling as reading his fiction. If you've never read Littell, it's time to come in from the cold.
Ali Karim: So, how is life treating you, Robert? Because I guess you must be well into your third decade as a writer.
Robert Littell: Fourth decade as a writer. ... Hmm, let me get my calculator out. ... Well, I guess I've been writing novels since the 1970s, so you're right; but I have been writing all my life. And to answer your question: Life has been treating me excellently.
Can I ask you about your childhood? Were you a bookish child?
In a strange way, I was a non-reader until I turned 10. I used to play basketball in the schoolyards of Brooklyn. My father was a high-school teacher of physics and chemistry, and he was a big reader. He would bring books back from his high-school library. One day, I read the last chapter of a book (the title of which I've long since forgotten); I liked it so much that I started reading the remainder -- but in reverse. I read the chapters backwards until I got to the beginning. I really loved the experience, [and] I soon became an avid reader. Then my father would bring piles of books home from the library, and I would read them all, and they were all fiction. I must add that I started reading the books from the start, as opposed to working backwards. [Laughs]
So was it your father who also cultivated your early writing?
Yes, in fact my father was a great writer of letters; my brother [Alan] also writes and he's published a novel [Courage], but I always felt that the real writer in our family was our father. My father used to write the most exquisite letters, complaining about this and that, about pension funds, about the government -- "Dear Senator" this, "Dear Senator" that, you know the type. These letters were beautiful, so it was my father who was the real writer in our family.
That's interesting, since Patricia Highsmith said in her book Plotting Suspense Fiction that unpublished writers often make the best letter writers.
Is that true? I've never heard that before. Very interesting, and I guess that puts my father's writing into perspective.
Did you follow thriller fiction in your youth?
No, unless you call Daniel Dafoe or Jules Verne "thriller writers." I never read Ellery Queen or the real thriller writers.
No. As I grew older I got more interested in reading non-fiction, which I still do today. I read biographies [and] political history, and my interest about the Cold War grew. I also grew interested in physics. While [I was] in college, I read Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and the standard American literary figures, but I never read the so-called thriller writers -- and in fact, I still don't.
I guess you grew up during the World War II period. Do you have any memories you'd like to share with us of that time?
Yes, I do! I recall vividly my parents locking me out of the kitchen when we listened to the radio [on] the day when the news broke of the  attack on Pearl Harbor. I recall being very frightened and my father consoling me and telling me that America has never lost a war. Of course, we did eventually lose a war, but that was Vietnam decades later. I also recall the day [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt died. My mother burst into tears that day. I also remember seeing Roosevelt passing down our street in Brooklyn. When I say "seeing" him -- he was in the middle of a cavalcade of cars and police vehicles in a convoy, and all I saw was his hand waving to the crowd.
What about your schooling and college. What are your memories of that period?
Wonderful memories. I went to a small school in upstate New York called Alfred University. I had the most wonderful literature professors, philosophy professors and political science professors; and these people were extremely formative influences in my life. One of my sons went to Yale University and I always tell him that I got a much better education in my little upstate New York school than he got at Yale, because of my relationship with my professors. I used to go to their houses in the evenings; they served me my first taste of alcohol, and we'd talk into the early hours, and these men were like gods to me. As my professors died off over the years, it always felt to me like losing a member of my family, and I would go into mourning each time I heard that one of them had passed away. How many people can say that today about their teachers?
My English professor, Dr. [Mel] Bernstein, used to read my work that was published in the school newspaper and reviewed the articles beautifully, and he would write me letters. On one of my many trips to Israel, I went down to the Gaza Strip -- I didn't [ultimately] write a book, but [instead] a long letter about the conflict in Israel and the plight of the Palestinian people and their rights, which I firmly believe in. The letter was over 10 pages long and I sent it to my closest friends, including Mel Bernstein. Then my brother called me and broke the news that Dr. Bernstein was found dead slumped over his desk, still clutching my letter. I received Mel Bernstein's reply to my letter when I got back to France, but could not open the letter for months and months. I just could not bring myself to open it; but when I did, his reply (bearing in mind he was my old English professor) was an analysis of my sentence structure; why this sentence was more powerful than this one, why this sentence was weaker than this one, my choice of verbs, my choice of words -- and this is now 25 years after I graduated. So I had a very privileged schooling.
I hear that your experience in the U.S. Navy was a pivotal time for you.
Yes, very true, because I believe you can't go through military service without being marked by the experience, one way or another. I wish I had a countdown clock when I did my military service.
You're very much into these "countdown clocks," aren't you. Tell me about the one you carry nowadays.
[Pulling out a digital countdown clock from his pocket] I found this in a small bookstore in San Francisco and bought several of them, immediately posting them to my sons and friends. It is a clock that counts down the days, the hours, seconds and tenths of a second left in George W. Bush's presidency. It is a wonderful timekeeper. I then checked it out online, and the company that makes it also makes countdown clocks for pregnant women, and also has a model for parents to see how long they have to keep paying for their children's college education. The best one is for military service, counting down how long before service is completed, which is what I would have loved to have had when I did my tenure in the Navy.
When I was in the Navy, I had a calendar [on] which I used to count down each and every one of those days in those four years -- 1,027 days I counted down, day by day, until I was a free man again. It was only after I completed my military service that I truly realized that it was an incredibly important experience for me. I was 21 when I started my service in the Navy, and I was 25 when I completed my term. I had enormous responsibility, as I was on the bridge of a destroyer; so when the captain was asleep, I was the duty officer, ... responsible for maneuvering between aircraft carriers and other ships. I was very marked by the experience, and I still wake up regularly with nightmares from that time -- like being in charge of the ship, doing something very wrong, like running the vessel aground, or ramming an aircraft carrier. So, yes, I was very marked by my Navy service. I was actually bridge watch officer, communications officer, code officer and anti-submarine officer. For the role of code officer, I went to cipher school at Rhode Island, which found its way into my writing (as many of my books reference codes and ciphers). I was the guy on the ship who would decipher the messages sent to the vessel; in fact, my moment of glory was an event that has never been in print before. Would you like to know about my claim to fame while in the Navy?
Sure, Robert, you have us intrigued!
Well, the code officer has a closet with a rotor-machine; and if an important coded message came in -- it could be at any hour of the day or night -- you have to decipher it immediately. Once I was woken at 3 a.m., while we were off the French coast close to Cannes, and I had to decipher a message urgently from the admiral and then wake the captain, who had to sign the incoming order. What the message said was: Errol Flynn's yacht was tied up on the pier and he was with a 16-year-old boy, and all our ships were passing and the swells were causing his yacht to rock back and fro, and he and his young companion were feeling seasick. Errol Flynn had complained to the admiral about our activity, which was disturbing his activity. The message from the admiral was relayed to all the U.S. Fleet operating in the vicinity of Errol Flynn's boat and we were ordered to stop disturbing Mr. Flynn and his companion.
My other moment of triumph was when our ship had an inspection from the admiral of the fleet. I was standing to attention by my closet, which contained all my machines, and the admiral says, "Could you unlock the closet for me to inspect and ensure that all the equipment is in order?" My captain was standing right next to me. I took a deep breath and said, "Could you kindly show me your identification, as I need to know that you are who you say you are, and not an enemy agent?" Now, bear in mind I was a "short-timer" and not a career Navy officer, so I could say that, whereas a career man would never have dared ask such an impertinent question. [Laughs] But as a Jew from Brooklyn, I could ask to see his I.D. Besides, my question was legitimate, as he could have been a Russian spy. [Laughs] ... So, somewhat irritated, ... [the admiral] reached into his pocket and passed me his I.D. card, which I inspected very slowly. [Laughs] And all the while my captain stared at me incredulously, as if I'd lost my mind.
One must get one's humor where one can.
After leaving the Navy, you moved into journalism, and then joined Newsweek?
I actually first went to graduate school in Connecticut right after I left the Navy. I didn't want to be a teacher [like my father], so I quit six weeks before graduation, and then got my things together in my little Volkswagen and headed off to work for a little newspaper in New Jersey. I became the bureau chief for the Long Beach Daily Record. The reason I was bureau chief was because I was the only one in the bureau. [Laughs] Then I went to UPI, then ended up at Newsweek, where I stayed for seven to eight years.
What were the high points, as well as the low points, of your tenure at Newsweek?
The high points were related to the work -- meeting and talking to influential people, like when I interviewed Henry Kissinger in the basement of the White House, [and had] lunch with [Zbigniew] Brzezinski when he was still a professor at Columbia, [before] he became national security adviser. So, when you met very influential people, you felt that you were discussing important world issues with key decision-makers, and these were the high points at Newsweek for me.
The low point came when I wrote a cover story on Chicanos. I went down to Texas and found a Chicano family who lived literally in a hole in the ground, and who stole their water from the white cemetery. And so I wrote this sidebar about this poor family as part of my story about the exploitation of Chicanos in Texas. We always read the letters to the editor in the hallway, so the week after the story appeared, someone had written a letter which went something like this: "Dear Mr. Littell -- That was a very moving story you wrote about the plight of the Chicanos in Texas, and I especially enjoyed reading about the family that stole their water from the cemetery. And I was wondering if you could let me know where I could hire a Chicano maid ..."
Some people can really be compassionless.
I read that letter in silence, and it was then that I knew that I had to quit. This was not how I wanted to live, or spend the rest of my life. Because I thought I was doing something important, but I had been deluding myself. And it was at that precise moment that I decided to write my first novel.
One theme that peppers your work is your fascination with Russian Literature. What sparked that interest?
I'm not sure, but I'd bet genetics has a part to play, because you must be aware of my Russian Jewish origins. My grandparents are Russian Jews, and I know the history of Russia and have traveled extensively throughout the [former] Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. I guess I have always been fascinated by this incredible region, and an important aspect is the literature and poetry and the lives that these people led, as well as the political regimes -- all of which I find totally fascinating. So I guess I was drawn to this region and enjoyed learning about its peoples, its politics and its literature.
When I quit Newsweek, I bought a car and I drove from Paris to Moscow, passing through Helsinki [and] Leningrad, and I believe I was one of the first to be granted a visa to drive through the Soviet Union [by car]. And during my journey, I read extensively about the political leaders such as Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin, and I educated myself about the Soviet Union.
The first novel I read of yours was titled The Defection of A.J Lewinter. But now your works all seem to have these interesting subheadings, such as The Defection of A.J. Lewinter: A Novel of Duplicity. Why have you inserted these subheads into the titles of your new books, and added them to your recently reissued ones?
That is something new, and [which] came about following the publication of The Company: A Novel of the CIA. I was concerned that people might think that The Company ... [was] a business book, hence the subtitle. So when Peter Mayer [of The Overlook Press and Duckworth publishers] re-issued my backlist, we decided to insert a subtitle to all my titles ...
Back when I read Lewinter, I enjoyed the deft humor that ripples throughout its plot. Could you tell us a little about the writing of that seminal work? And how did you first find your way into print as a novelist?
Sure, because [Lewinter] got published by almost not getting published! I quit Newsweek in 1970. I had $10,000 dollars in the bank -- my life savings -- plus a wife and two small children. I relocated my family, buying a third of a house [with the other two-thirds being owned by two other couples] in France. My goal was to write Lewinter. I had an agent, who I knew via my [efforts to publish the] Czech Black Book [a revised history of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia], so I sent him the manuscript for Lewinter ... He wrote back and actually fired me.
Then I had a cousin, who is unfortunately dead now; he was the editor at a publishing house and he was very close to me. I sent him the manuscript and said to him that I'm not asking you to publish it, but just let me know if you think it is publishable. He wrote back and said, "I think you should pack your bags and go back to Newsweek!"
Finally, I had a very close friend in the south of France who was a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter. He was my last resort, as by now my money was almost all gone. So I gave the manuscript to him and asked him to read it, and could he tell me if anyone would publish it. He called me back and he said, "Of course it's publishable, and could I show it to a friend" who was working for a very well known French publisher [Gallimard]. Next thing I know, I get a phone call from Marcel Duhamel [a filmmaker who would go on to run Gallimard's famous Série Noire suspense series], who bought the book for $500. So I sold the book, and I remember walking around with this letter in my hand, completely stunned. Years later, I read that the same thing happened to [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, who when he sold his first book was also walking around, stunned. Then on the basis of the French sale, I got an American agent, who incidentally got turned down by three or four big publishing houses, but finally she got a sale from Houghton Mifflin for $3,000. [Lewinter] was published and got fantastic reviews in The New York Times and other papers, and the book hit the bottom of the bestseller lists for about one hour and a half. [Laughs] ... And I was launched writing books.
Were you surprised by all the favorable reaction to The Defection of A.J. Lewinter? It was not only well received by readers, but won the British Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger Award for fiction. And what do you think about it being reissued now by The Overlook Press?
I have to thank the British Crime Writers' Association for giving me the Gold Dagger; it meant a lot to me. And I am very gratified that my work is being reissued by Peter Mayer, especially as publishers don't make a lot of money in reissues. But being back in circulation makes one feel that perhaps you're doing something right, I guess.
Are you a chess player? I have to ask, because the plot of Lewinter is fiendishly like a chess game, with Augustus Lewinter a pawn in the endgame?
I adore chess. It is a killer game, it's not checkers, nor like a card game ... Chess players look calm and collected, but in their mind they are out to castrate their opponent. ... My way of playing is exactly that -- to kill my opponent as brutally as I can. I read many years ago that in child psychiatry, it is often difficult to get through to a troubled child, and a shortcut was to engage them in a game of chess. Apparently, you can see so much of their character in the way they play chess. In my own case, you can tell my character completely in the way I play chess. ... I am not intent on just winning the game, but need to win it brilliantly; so I am always looking for that combination of moves, especially sacrifices -- I love sacrifices. ... [B]ut I lose many games. I play with a good friend who says that if he can withstand my initial attack, which always involves a sacrifice, then he's got me. And it's true, because if he can do that, he invariably wins the game.
I understand what you are saying. I have a very dear friend who lives alternately in Ireland and France. We play frequently and we're very evenly matched, but I also like to win with flair, and once -- and only once -- I took him to mate completely by surprise. So at endgame, I moved my rook into position, and instead of declaring checkmate, I said, "Rack 'em up Norman, I'll brew some more coffee." At which point his face screwed up in impotent rage as he scanned the board, helpless and defeated.
[Laughs] And he didn't see the move. ... That's great, Ali, and it reminds me of when I was at the American Academy of Rome [recently]. There was a particularly obnoxious professor, and I found out just as I was leaving that he was also a chess player. And my idea, had I known that he was a chess player in time, was to challenge him to a game and do exactly what you did to your friend. But what I would have done differently, is to make only eight to 10 moves, then scratch my head, and then look up at him, then scratch my head, then look up again with a worried expression and then say, "Well, done." [Laughs] And then [I'd] resign, and shake his hand, ... leaving him confused as to what I had seen ahead of the game. He would then either smile and fake that he saw what I had seen ahead, or just look stupid and confused, so diabolical minds think alike.
I consider teaching my three children to play and enjoy chess an important part of being a father. The pivotal moment was when my eldest daughter, Sophia, beat me for the very first time.
I had the very same experiences with my own children. I taught my children to play chess, and when we played, they knew that I would never lose on purpose; they knew that implicitly. And my eldest never forgets the time we were in Ireland and he beat me. To this day he remembers that day, because he knows that I would never have lost on purpose.
But let's get back to your writing. Your work is having a renaissance, thanks to the global acclaim enjoyed by The Company. Can you tell us how you wound up with publishers Overlook Press and Duckworth? Did it have exclusively to do with your friendship with Peter Mayer?
My relationship with Overlook, Duckworth and, of course, Peter is a blessing for me. I was [previously] published by Random House, and my editor was the legendary Joe Fox, who was a great personality in the publishing world and a great chess player, coincidentally (though I beat him twice, which made him mad). Unfortunately, Joe keeled over his desk one fine day behind a stack of manuscripts. You see, he always took a nap after lunch at his desk, but would always leave his door open so people didn't disturb him when he napped. Then, on that fateful day he didn't get up, he died with his head resting on a manuscript. And at that point Ed Victor, who is a great friend of mine and my literary agent, had the very good sense to put me in touch with Peter Mayer -- and life has never been the same since. Peter is a brilliant publisher and he is also a brilliant editor; he's so enthusiastic and he has changed my life. Also, to be published by small publishing houses such as Overlook and Duckworth is incredibly good, as they pay so much attention. If the book goes down, it really is not because of the publisher's lack of trying ...
Is it true that it was Peter Mayer who suggested you write The Company?
The truth is that the editor is always critical, because to launch yourself [into writing] a book that could take two to four years, you really have to be ardent about the project. You can't just write on a whim ... So Peter suggested that everything I had ever written was leading up to a big project, a saga that would take in the first 50 years of the CIA, right up to the end of the Cold War. He says my eyes widened with interest, and I thought, How could it be that it had never been done? Well, apart from Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost (1991). From the time I left lunch with Peter and had returned to my friend's house, I had pretty much figured out the book. I told my friend, the movie director Michael Ritchie, who is now sadly dead, about the project and how I could do it. Michael said, "You write it and I'll produce it." Pretty much after that, Peter Mayer was going to the Frankfurt Bookfair to sell the foreign rights so I could have enough money to write it for four years, because I had to eat. On the plane back to France, I wrote an outline for The Company -- I had never written such a detailed outline before, and I attached a letter: "Dear Peter -- Please find an outline of what the book could look like." The outline had notes, a précis, actual scenes -- I'd say 90 percent of the book was there in that outline. I thought it was a thrilling idea. Then Peter phoned me up from Frankfurt and said, "Well, we've sold it in Italy, in Germany, in Holland, England." And my response was "Oh Jesus ... I really have to do it now" ... And I spent a year doing nothing but reading and note-taking, and then I spent the next three years writing The Company. When Peter sent me the first proof copy of the book, I read the opening and thought, Where the hell did I get the nerve to launch myself into a project so daunting? Because when I started it, I just could not see the end.
I discussed The Company, after it was released, with John Connolly, the Irish writer who at the time was carrying out research for The Black Angel. He'd lugged the hardcover version of The Company around Eastern Europe and loved every word. The thing he enjoyed most, though, was the blurring between the edges of reality and fiction. Can you tell us a little about your research for that novel?
It was all down to my homework. I read an enormous amount about the period, and people like [CIA counterintelligence chief] James Jesus Angleton or your British spies, [Kim] Philby, [Donald] Maclean and [Guy] Burgess, as well as the Bay of Pigs, Budapest; and I visited many of the places featured in The Company. I spent a lot of time in Budapest. My son lives in Prague, and so I invited him to come with me, as I felt it would be very educational for the both of us, and it was. I spoke to people who'd actually participated in the [Hungarian uprising] in 1956, and we got walked around the square, and talked to people who were there. I saw where the radio station was, and then I went to Moscow. Basically, that's my work, my job -- to make the words come alive.
One of the key elements in The Company is your portrayal of the paranoid Angleton. He's a very interesting figure to me, as I read a great deal about him both in Tom Mangold's Cold Warrior and in William F. Buckley's Spytime, which fictionalized him. What did you learn about Angelton from your research?
That he was off his mind. He was a crazy guy, he was a madman. And what is interesting is how he functioned for so long inside the CIA ... He did more to ruin the CIA's Soviet operation than any Soviet spy could ever have done.
Did you know that there was someone in Angleton's office who has since retired, and he wrote a report looking at all the things Angleton did over the years, one of which was Angleton's refusal to take on many Soviet defectors? And since [Angleton's] death [in 1987], they looked through the papers in his safe and found the names of 20 to 30 defectors that Angleton refused to take -- and these people could have been of massive benefit to us, with terrific information. Anyway, this guy wrote a report that objectively stated that there is an 80 percent chance that the Soviet mole within the CIA was James Angleton himself. Nobody believed that Angleton was a Soviet spy, but they all knew he was dangerous. [CIA Director William] Colby finally fired Angleton, but as Angleton was escorted off the premises, he told everyone that he believed that Colby was a Soviet agent -- "because why else would he fire me?" You said he was paranoid, but I think it was Philby that cracked him, because Philby lived here before the war and Angleton learned his counterintelligence from Philby; and when Philby was in Washington in the early 50s, he went almost every day to visit Angelton. And can you understand the secrets he would have got from his great pal, because Angleton was like Philby's protégé. It's unbelievable. ...
If I may say so myself, the section in The Company that deals with what happened mentally to Angleton when he finally realized the truth about his mentor Kim Philby was my greatest bit of writing. I wrote that Angleton decided that he would never trust anyone again. He then became completely paranoid -- not that he would never trust someone who could be a Soviet agent; he actually never trusted anyone ever again. Because anyone or everyone could be a Soviet agent, and that was the crux of Angleton's madness. It is a fabulous story when you think about it deeply, and the reality is that Angleton destroyed the CIA's Soviet operations from within.
The way you portray violence is subtle, yet chilling -- even today, I live with the vision of that woman who was tortured by pliers-wielding Communists in The Company. What's your take on the use of violence in thriller fiction?
I think people can be very calm on the surface, but below the surface they can have the ability and the nature to do terrible things. I'm not a practitioner of violence (apart from my chess [playing], where I have some sublimated violence, I guess). However, I agree with you that there is a lot of violence in The Company. But I am only reflecting the world that it depicts and reflects.
Irony is something that you use in all your work. Is the world of espionage one that causes you to see the ironic nature of life more than in, say, general fiction? And speaking of ironies, do you have many readers in the espionage community?
Yes, I use irony as a tool. It is a fabulous tool, both in general fiction as well as espionage fiction, and it lends itself to storytelling. Let me tell you a story. I was on a book tour for The Company in Washington [D.C.], and I noticed in this particular bookstore a short and stubby man come up to me with five or six copies of this heavy book. He said that he was buying them for friends and asked if I minded him taking a photograph of me signing them. So I asked if he was from the CIA, and he winked and whispered in my ear that he was indeed from the CIA and added, "We like your books ..." [Laughs] That was one bit of feedback. I have a friend, who I can't tell you too much about, as he's been in the CIA for over 10 years, and I test a lot of my stuff with him. And a lot of the ex-CIA people have a network [the Former Intelligence Officers Association], and they discuss the CIA and what is happening [there], and my friend passes a lot of that information to me covertly. Other than that, I don't know that much about them ...
Talk to me about the blurb that appeared in the press when The Company was first released: "Robert Littell's The Company does for the CIA what Mario Puzo's The Godfather did for the Mafia." It's a great line.
That was [the responsibility of] my publisher, Peter Mayer. I tried to talk him out of using that line. [Laughs] I did hear that one of the ex-directors of the CIA was asked on a radio show what books should one read to learn more about the [agency], and he said The Company, which was very flattering.
Let's discuss some of your other books. The Amateur, for instance. I really enjoyed that novel, which featured a terrific character, the gentle Charlie Heller, who is seeking revenge for his fiancée's murder by forcing the CIA's hand. The  film version had stunning locations and a great cast, with Christopher Plummer and John Savage (who was hot after his Deer Hunter role). I noted that you were involved in writing the screenplay. Can you tell us a little about the writing process for that movie adaptation?
You bet I can. Firstly, the movie was awful ... I wrote it [originally] as a screenplay ... and then I went to London and met with an American producer who was living [there] at the time, Elliot Kastner. ... He knew I was a novelist and had asked me to write a screenplay. I have always had a wonderful relationship with movie producers, because they pay me what they think are small amounts of money to write screenplays -- but I always consider the sums involved as extremely large amounts of money for me. Anyway, as I was between books, I was only too happy to accept this windfall. So I wrote a screenplay called The Amateur. [Some time later, Kastner] was sitting in his office one day when these two guys, [film executive] Mario Kassar and [Hungarian producer] Andrew Vajna, came up to Elliot and asked him what he had available. Elliot had 10 available screenplays, which they read; and they decided to buy The Amateur from him for a sum of money that even Elliot would have considered large. I had no resentment toward Elliot, because he had bought it off me speculatively, like he was betting on a horse.
Had you written other screenplays before this one?
Yes, but nothing had ever happened before. [So after all this], I went to my publishers and showed them the screenplay for The Amateur, and asked if they were interested in it as a novel. And they were, so I then went on to write it as a novel. Meanwhile, I was asked by Vajna and Kassar to go to Los Angeles to meet [director] Charles Jarrett ... I asked why I couldn't do it over the phone; they said. "No, you've got to come to L.A. and take a meeting" ... and not only that, I'd have to [stay] in L.A. to do the revisions. I said, "No, no, I have my two little kids in my farmhouse in France and there is no way I'm going to write in L.A. I will come to L.A. and take the meeting, but I am a professional writer, I don't need you guys looking over my shoulder, because I can do the revisions in France on my farm." They agreed. Then, while [I was] in New York on the way home, I get a call, and Charles Jarrett tells me that they've changed their minds and I had to come back to L.A. I told them, "No, I'm going home, and if you decide not to pay for my flight home, screw you, I'll pay for it myself." So I went back to my little house in the south of France. Then they hired a woman, Diana Maddox, to do the revisions in L.A. And in that complicated formula that Hollywood uses, she obviously did enough to get a co-screenwriter credit.
A week before filming started in Canada, I was again in New York, and again Jarrett contacted me. [He] asked me to read the finished screenplay, which I did. I called him back and told them that there were new plot points in the screenplay that were really good, and if I had thought about them I would have added them in myself. But what's wrong in the screenplay is that [Maddox] thinks that people who watch movies are stupid and can't take good dialogue. I said that the dialogue is truly awful, and she has taken out all the interesting aspects of the film, and the film is just bland now. Jarrett asked if I could fix it, and I said, "Yes, but you're going to have to pay me." A lesson I learned in dealing with Hollywood is that if you don't ask for money, they don't take you seriously. Jarrett asked how much I wanted, and how long would it take? I thought of a number -- $5,000, which is small change for them -- and then told them that it would take me one week to fix the screenplay. Jarrett ... then said, "I'll get right back to you." And guess what? He never called me back. They did their film, and I thought it was awful, and I am in a qualified position to say that, because I was one of the writers. [Laughs] Years later I found out that Jarrett's wife was Diana Maddox ... and of course now I understand why he never called me back, because I had said some pretty dreadful things about her, not just about the changes in the dialogue. There is a moral there somewhere.
Tell us a little about a curious book you mentioned earlier, The Czech Black Book, which you had a hand in disseminating.
I was at Newsweek and happened to be in Czechoslovakia a month or so after the  Soviet invasion, and I knew some people that worked in the Czech Academy of Sciences. They were historians. They told me about The Czech White Book, which had been published by the Russians [and] which justified the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. (The book essentially said that the Soviets had been invited into Czechoslovakia.) [In response], these Czechoslovakian historians decided to gather up all the records of meetings of the Czech Politburo, raw evidence, et cetera, to publish as a true account of why the Russians had invaded ...
They published it at the university press -- secretly at night, on hand presses -- and as soon as they had 100 copies done, they sneaked them out, as they were frightened that the KGB and secret police would be knocking on the door any second. I spent all night having the book translated to me, because I was going to feature it in Newsweek. And then they asked me to take the book out to America, and have it published in the West. I didn't want to take the actual book out of the country, for obvious reasons; so they paid a guy with a bottle of malt scotch to convert it into microfilm at the university, [and it was] then spliced inside the lining of my raincoat. My Czech friends saw me off at the border, where I had to pass through a security check, and they stood by to see if I made it through the border safely. Then I ... returned to America, where we had it professionally translated and it was published in part by Newsweek and then as a full book [in 1969]. The sales from the book were channeled into a fund to help the Czechs dissidents that had to flee to Germany when the country was invaded by the Soviets.
You mention your home in the south of France a great deal. What attracts you to that region of Europe?
You know, there was a wonderful American writer who worked at The New Yorker, [and who] when asked the same question, used to say, "The best thing about France is that it is in France," and that says it all. France is France. I left America under [President Richard Nixon] and I am certainly not coming back under Bush! So what can I do now? I like France very much. The best line I ever wrote in any of my books is that "You can't live in a country where you speak the language," because if you speak the language you get to know exactly what's going on -- [and that] is often too horrible. I speak English, so I know exactly what is going on in America, which is not good; unfortunately, I now speak French also, so I know what is going on in France too. As I tell my friends who hate [French President Jacques] Chirac, "It's not serious, because France is not a world power and can't hurt anybody, whereas America and Bush are serious threats to the world." Also, France is a lovely place to live.
So what's this I hear about your interest in mountain climbing?
Where did you read about that?
The only previous interview you've done was a short piece published at the Barnes & Noble Web site, in which you talked about your interest in climbing mountains.
Well spotted! Well, once a year I go up to the French Alps, near Mount Blanc, and I meet my favorite guide, a dear friend. We go up the mountain, where my heart beats faster. And at that height you can stop worrying about Bush and Iraq, and about how well your books are doing; and your only intent is making sure you don't lose your life. But the reality is that my life is not in any real danger, ... [although] it is very hard to convince yourself that you are not in danger when you look one kilometer down the [rock] face. I really enjoy rappelling -- that's when you throw the rope down and you walk yourself down the rock face. That is really thrilling, and you feel like what Spiderman must feel when he walks down a skyscraper. Also, the people are great and you come back after a day's climbing and feel alive, drinking wine, and then we go to bed in the refuge dormitory around 10, because we get up around 4 a.m. The amusing thing is that the manager of the refuge, a big bearded giant, would come into the dorm and yell, "All those of you going at the four o'clock climb, get up! And those of you going out at 10, keep sleeping!" [Laughs] This really happens. And then [the manager] comes back at 4:30, and then we get up at 5 for the cooked breakfast. And then we leave in semi-darkness and it's just thrilling. Then you come back at noon, exhausted, to your chalet and take a nice long shower and sleep the sleep of a baby. Wonderful sport.
Your name is often mentioned alongside that of John le Carré, who recently won the Crime Writers' Association's Dagger of Daggers for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). Have you followed le Carre's work?
I am very familiar with John le Carré, and he is the master of us all. He is a fabulous writer -- what more can I say? He is the grand master and someone I deeply admire, not only in terms of his writing, but also his social conscience and insight into our world.
You spoke during a panel discussion at Crimescene London last year. And your topic was post-September 11 thrillers and how such an outrage might be handled in this genre. Can you elaborate on your thoughts along that line?
What I was saying was that we don't really understand the world, post 9/11. So we should stay away from it, because we need distance, because we don't understand how it is going to really affect the world. Look at the affect on the Islamic world ... Or the effect on America. Just look at how Bush uses 9/11 to do so many things, passing his very right-wing programs. ... Will America come back from the brink? We don't understand this "war on terror," [or how it's provoking] a reaction against Bush. I can see ... the Democrats are naturally opposed to his policies; but I can see the same coming from the Republicans also. I am a Churchillian optimist, insofar as I recall something he said, which went along the lines of "You can always rely on America to do the right thing after it has exhausted all other possibilities and alternatives." I hope this is correct. I hope America will come to its senses, because it is in a very bad way right now.
As to writing about [the post-9/11 world]: We're too close to it at the moment, we need distance ... There will be people who try to write about it, but I don't think they will succeed ... I personally think that the [U.S.] intelligence agencies -- all 15 of them, including the FBI [and] the CIA -- failed completely in their job to protect the country, which we now call Fortress America. And in many ways, their failure is more shocking than the actual attacks, which were totally predictable. The actual attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, with hindsight, was totally predictable ... when you look at all the evidence that was available -- and missed, in the sense [that] it was pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that some analyst could have pieced together ... [For] example, in the mid-90s ... Islamic fundamentalists from North Africa tried to crash a plane into the Eiffel Tower. The French stopped them -- they raided the plane on the tarmac in the south of France, and prevented [the attack]. In the late 90s, there were reports of Islamic fundamentalists in the Philippines talking about crashing a plane into [CIA headquarters at] Langley, [Virginia], so it was in the air. The FBI had the famous Phoenix Memo, which said that they had noticed a number of Islamists learning how to fly; but what was confusing, was that they seemed more interested in learning how to actually fly than [in] landing or takeoff. It would be funny if it weren't so tragic. The CIA also had information from foreign agencies that [Osama] bin Laden had summoned back one of his four wives from Syria, urgently. These were all pieces of the same jigsaw. Imagine if the pieces had ended up on the same table. [But neither] the FBI nor the CIA shared information between themselves. They are very compartmentalized, but fragmented, and therefore dysfunctional as organizations. So when these organizations get their $30 billion a year to feed their dysfunctionality, that's what we end up with. I think that it is terribly shocking, and even more shocking than the fact that there are crazy people out there.
Despite all the changes in the world, you still consider it a safer place to live now than it was when you were a youth?
Yes, without a doubt. I thought that the Cold War was the most dangerous period in the history of mankind. But people lose sight of that now. I think that we are more frightened today, and that leads us to misconstrue the reality.
Remember that during the Cold War, each side had 30,000 to 40,000 warheads -- unbelievable. If you read [U.S. military strategist] Herman Kahn's thermonuclear war scenarios, you will truly understand the dangers we faced then. I took one of his courses at the Hudson Institute on how to win a thermonuclear war. He said that a nuclear war is winnable, even though 50 [million] to 100 million people would die ... He was thinking about the unthinkable. [During the Soviet Union's 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster], radioactivity spread across the Ukraine and into Europe. If you believe the French, the radiation stopped at the French border, which we know now is not true. The radiation is still in the Alps, and that is only one Chernobyl. During the Cold War, they were thinking about a limited exchange of 20 or 50 warheads, so imagine the results -- and imagine the nuclear winter. There was a theory about nuclear winter, that the climate might never recover. Herman Kahn said in his book that it might take 50 or 100 years to get life back to normal, but isn't that worth it, to win the war?
Then there is the story about the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the general of the [U.S.] Air Force explained to [President John] Kennedy and his advisers that he could put the planes up and all the missiles, [and he added] " ... and Mr. President. I can guarantee you victory." There was a silence on the table, and Bobby Kennedy said, "Would the general care to define victory?" And that was the Cold War. At that time, parents would ask their kids, "What do you want to be if you grow up?" It was an incredibly dangerous time.
Now, these terrorists that surround us today -- as bad as they are, they can't destroy the planet Earth. They can kill several thousand -- and I don't want to belittle the deaths that could occur from these enemies -- and they could also affect the economy, making it dip for a few years; but the reality is that the danger is just not on the same order of magnitude as it was during the Cold War. The point that makes today different from then, was the fact that during the Cold War, we knew who the enemy was and where the enemy was. We knew where to look, where they hid their missiles and planes. We felt pretty confident that we were always in a standoff situation. But now, [Islamic terrorists] make it impossible for us to know where the threats are and where they are coming from. George Bush, for all his posturing, does not know where the danger is, or who the enemy is. Is it the Shiites? Is it the Sunnies? Is it Iraq? Is it Syria? Is it Iran? The truth is, we don't know. OK, the enemy might be in Iraq, in training, ... that's what the CIA said in a report recently, that Iraq is being used as a training ground and when the Iraq war is over -- and God knows when that will be -- these guys will go back to Indonesia, to Algeria, to Syria, Egypt, Lebanon or wherever they came from, and who knows what they will do. ... [As U.S. Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld said, "We just don't know if we're killing them faster than they are being recruited and trained." A chilling thought.
Returning again to the subject of your writing, I want to say that I really enjoyed Walking Back the Cat . I found it to be one of your more amusing books, but based on a very serious premise. What was involved in bringing that story to life?
The roots of that novel come from the time I was spending a winter at Santa Fe, [New Mexico], looking into the work of [painter] Georgia O'Keeffe and her lover, [photographer] Alfred Stieglitz. I also looked around the Anasazi Native American roots of our civilization and found the whole area fascinating. ... And the whole thing about the balloon trip was based on my trip in a hot-air balloon, which I found fascinating, a wonderful experience. So basically all these different elements came together and they shaped themselves into the book, and the espionage angle came later.
Legends, your most recently published novel, provides an interesting look at life and reality. It has an almost Philip K. Dick-ish view of the world, as seen from the eyes of a former CIA "legend," Martin Odum. What interests you about the theme of identity?
Well, I think the origins of Legends come from my longtime feeling that we all live legends, or different lives. You'll notice that everyone in Legends has different legends, different personalities -- like Stella, like the man [who's] behind the smuggling from the island in the Aral sea, [and like] my main character, Martin Odum. Even I feel like [I have] different personalities. Like when I went to the Cannes Film Festival, I'd put on my tuxedo and I'd feel like James Bond, in terms of my personality; and then when I get home and change into my sneakers and slacks, I'm someone else. I think that the germ for the [Legends] idea comes from that. [Of course], Martin Odum lives legends professionally for the CIA, and we must not miss out on his trauma: he has lost track of which of the legends [if any] is the true Martin Odum. But that goes for all the characters -- they all exhibit multiple personalities.
For instance, [there's] the scene where Martin Odum goes to London, to Golders Green, the Jewish District ... [and he] meets an office receptionist. Some call her by her maiden name, while others call her by her married name. And Martin asks if she dresses differently for her husband than for work, and she says, "Sure, my husband would not approve of me wearing short skirts." Even she has different legends. So when [in the book] the BBC announces that several people were found dead in Golders Green, one of whom is the receptionist, [while] another woman is still missing, Martin knows that both women are the same [person]. That is the theme of the novel I guess: how we live our lives with more than one personality hidden in the same body.
How important is research in composing your books?
Research is very important to me -- and being a former journalist, I guess you can see why. ... I do a huge amount of reading, especially researching the people and the places and the times that feature in my work. But going to places is wonderful; as I quoted on the [Crimescene] panel, [it was] Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain], who said that the right word is the right word, and as writers, we are always struggling to find the right word, or the better right word. And I think the same thing holds true for details. ... You must get the detail right, and you can only get that from actually being there, to see, to smell, to hear the location. Like when Martin Odum, in Legends, goes to the acupuncturist in Golders Green -- because I was there. I love detail and love getting the details right.
With Legends now out in paperback, what's next for Robert Littell?
I'm going back to the 1930s [for my next novel], but beyond that I will not say. I'm actually going to publish a book on the Middle East in about a year's time, a novel.
Lastly, let me say that I look upon you as a man who has really lived. So what have you learned about life in all your years?
Sheesh, Ali, that's a very deep question. ... Hmm. ... Well, ever heard the old story about the guy who goes to the Himalayas seeking wisdom? He has a long and tortuous journey, and finally he comes face-to-face with the Guru after many year's and asks him, "What is life, Guru?" The Guru smiles and says, "Life is a fountain." The man says, puzzled, "So life is a fountain?" The Guru looks back at the man and says, "So" -- and he shrugs his shoulders -- "so life isn't a fountain." But you have to draw out that story to truly understand it. It's a bit like life, I guess. | May 2006
Ali Karim is an industrial chemist, freelance journalist and book reviewer living in England. In addition to his being a regular January Magazine contributor, he's also the assistant editor of the e-zine Shots, and writes for Deadly Pleasures and Crimespree magazines. Karim is an associate member (and literary judge) for both the British Crime Writers' Association and the International Thriller Writers. He's currently working on Black Operations, a violent science-fiction-tinged thriller.