Olen Steinhauer & Kevin Wignall

interview each other

 

steinhauerOlen Steinhauer grew up in Virginia, and now lives in Hungary with his wife and daughter.  His first novel, The Bridge of Sighs (2003), the start of a five-book sequence chronicling Cold War Eastern Europe, one book per decade, was nominated for five awards.  The other books in the series (2004-07) are The Confession, 36 Yalta Boulevard (The Vienna Assignment in the UK), Liberation Movements (The Istanbul Variations in the UK), and Victory SquareLiberation Movements was nominated for an Edgar Award for best novel of the year. With The Tourist, he has left the Cold War behind, beginning a trilogy of spy tales focused on international deception in the post 9/11 world. George Clooney’s Smoke House Films has picked up the rights, with Mr. Clooney scheduled to star. Visit Olen’s website.

wignallKevin Wignall was born in Herentals, Belgium.  He graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in Politics & International Relations, and now lives in a small town in the west of England.  He tried his hand at several careers, including teaching English as a foreign language, before becoming a full-time writer.  He is the author of four novels: People Die (2001); Among the Dead (2002); For the Dogs (2004); and Who Is Conrad Hirst? (2007).  His work has inspired musicians and other artists, and both Who Is Conrad Hirst? and For the Dogs have been optioned for film.  Visit Kevin’s website.

Updates and other news about Kevin and Olen can be found at Contemporary Nomad.

For Crimeculture’s review of The Tourist and Who Is Conrad Hirst?, see “Who the hell are you?” Hits, Lies and Identity Crises in the Thrillers of Kevin Wignall and Olen Steinhauer.

 

variationsKevin Wignall:
Olen, after writing your five-book series set in the Eastern Europe of the Cold War you’ve changed direction with “The Tourist”, moving into the present and writing more of an out-and-out thriller. What influenced you to make the change?

Olen Steinhauer:
Primarily, I’d done what I’d set out to do–write a five-book sequence spanning the length of the Cold War. After five years, getting out of that gloom was pretty appealing. At the same time, that period had become very comfortable for me, and I started to wonder if I was taking the easy way out, writing about a more easily understandable time rather than facing the complex and often confusing present. So, if only as a challenge, I decided to hit the world of contemporary espionage head-on.

people_dieIt also had to do with my reading. Being in the business for a few years, I’d finally started seeing some of what’s being written now. To be honest, one fine writer’s “People Die” had a big effect on me. Short, sharp, and entirely contemporary-feeling. It felt fresh, and it felt like something I wanted to try out myself.

I’d be interested in knowing how you–assumedly with no practical experience–came upon what I keep calling “hit-man noir”? It’s a curious move for any writer to focus on such seemingly cold main characters, yet you do it in an entirely engaging way.

Kevin Wignall:
Flattery, as they say… I’ve always been interested in our relationship with death and with killing, and in many ways the hitman demonstrates that in its simplest form – he isn’t doing it because it’s his duty or because he believes in it, he’s doing it to fulfil a business contract. It also taps into a subject that fascinates me, how good people can do bad things.

Olen Steinhauer:
He’s doing it to fulfill a business contract–so, is that a kind of belief? What I mean to say is, for a hit man is the validity of a business agreement higher than the validity of human life? (I suppose that’s my Marxist side asking.)

Kevin Wignall:
Oh no, I didn’t mean it like that – a hitman will welch on a contract if it suits him, so you’re actually imbuing my characters with more morals than they have. The point I’m making really is that my characters don’t have the luxury of saying they kill because it’s their duty or, in most cases, because they have no sense of what they’re doing. In “Who is Conrad Hirst?” I explored the idea of the killer who’s become dehumanized, but although he isn’t quite as in control as JJ in “People Die”, even Conrad understands the nature of what he’s doing.

Olen Steinhauer:
What do you hear from fans about these characters? Do you think they find a lot to relate to in them? I ask because I’ve always feel slightly surprised when reading your books, because I find plenty to relate to.

conrad_hirstKevin Wignall:
It goes back to the “good people” part of the equation I mention above. I try to write about people who are like you or me, but who took a couple of wrong turns. Most people relate to that (isn’t it what noir is all about?), although I do get some people who object to the amorality of my world. I also hear from a lot of people who work in intelligence or the military, and occasionally even from underworld hitmen, and their comments are usually a mixture of kudos and gratitude.

Olen Steinhauer:
Wait–you hear back from hitmen??

Kevin Wignall:
Reading between the lines, a few of my correspondents have strayed into that line of work. Of course, anyone who wrote to me and said, “I’m a hitman”, would almost certainly be a crank (and I get a few of them, too). The single exception to that rule was the guy who told me he’d been a hitman for the mob and was serving life in prison – a friend of mine pulled the guy’s prison record and he’d killed a lot of people.

Olen Steinhauer:
Yikes…

Kevin Wignall:
But on the subject of fans, how have the fans of your old series reacted to “The Tourist”?

viennaOlen Steinhauer:
I live in a bit of a bubble, but I’ve heard some mutterings here and there. They seem to be split–some were fans because of the subject matter (Eastern Europe) and the time period, so the shift doesn’t make them all happy. Others have embraced it fully, for which I’m very grateful. My French publisher recently said to me, “The Tourist is a thriller. Your other books, they’re not thrillers.” I wasn’t sure what she meant–did that mean they weren’t thrilling? No, she meant that the earlier books were more obviously novels with some literary aspirations, whereas in The Tourist I didn’t spend time mulling over themes–instead, I focused on writing as pure a story as I could, believing that, if one is writing well, the themes would come on their own.

I don’t know if it’s a good move or not.

Kevin Wignall:
I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and thought, “I want to write a story about redemption”. I think of a story I want to write – and as you know, I’m a passionate believer that our first and only rule is to remember that we’re telling a story – and the themes emerge on their own. Surely that’s the only true way of writing, a pure story, written from the heart? And as to whether it was a good move, well I know you can’t judge everything in these terms, but it certainly expanded your readership, didn’t it?

touristOlen Steinhauer:
It not only expanded my readership, but The Tourist’s success relieved a huge amount of stress–we had a baby on the way, and were broke!

Kevin Wignall:
Yeah, I imagine that would concentrate your mind on telling a good story!

Olen Steinhauer:
I’ve actually repeated your first and only rule recently to my writing class in Leipzig, where I taught for the past few months, so I obviously agree with it. It’s the most obvious truth–that, in fiction-writing, story is king–but it’s still so easy for writers (even veteran writers) to forget.

Kevin Wignall:
It’s also something that’s been forgotten by large parts of what now passes for the literary fiction community. Which brings us neatly to the subject of influences, I suppose. As you know, most of my writing heroes aren’t from the traditional mystery or thriller community – Graham Greene, Stephen Crane, Evelyn Waugh and even Jane Austen. I think the same is true of you, isn’t it?

Olen Steinhauer:
You’re right–we both certainly began outside the genre. James Joyce got me writing seriously in the first place, and while Le Carre and Deighton have been major influences on my work in the spy genre the writers who influence how I think about sentence structure, characterization, story structure, etc–those include Milan Kundera, Hemingway, Marguerite Duras, and even Lawrence Sterne. But influences are always wide-ranging, aren’t they? I feel as inspired by early Soviet graphic design, by Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc as I am by other novelists.

Kevin Wignall:
Definitely, and I know we’ve both talked before about the influence cinema has on writers today. At the moment, I’ve got a brief segment from “The Searchers” playing on loop in my mind, just because in some small way it sums up something I want to capture about one of the characters in the book I’m working on.

Olen Steinhauer:
You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen that one. Can you quickly describe the segment?

Kevin Wignall:
That’s you banned from ever returning to Texas! It’s a great John Ford Western in which John Wayne searches for years for his niece (Natalie Wood) who’s been kidnapped by Indians. I don’t want to give the plot away but the scene is one of the most iconic in cinema history – Wayne’s character, one of the most isolated and ambiguous he ever played, hesitates in a doorway in the final moments of the film, his friends and family having come in ahead of him, and from inside, we see him turn and walk away as the door shuts on him. In some ways, that single moment captures something that I’ve explored time and time again in my fiction.

Olen Steinhauer:
One of my all-time favorites is Tarkovsky’s Mirror, a completely baffling hour-and-a-half of a dying man’s memories before he passes on. What struck me from the first viewing was that, even though I could hardly grasp the narrative that I’d just witnessed (it’s entirely lacking in chronology), the final scene made me cry–really cry–and I almost never weep for movies. I watched it again–again, I cried. I became obsessed by how he’d done that, evoking such a strong emotional reaction without any of the typical pulling-at-the-heartstrings set-ups we’re so used to in cinema. That, I realized, is what I’d like to be able to do in a novel. Make you feel something strongly without you ever knowing how it was done. I’m still trying to figure it out.

Kevin Wignall:
I’ve never seen that, but I completely buy the ambition. A friend of mine told me she’d been ambushed by her reading of my short story, “The Window”, and found herself crying unexpectedly, which delighted me…odd as that may seem. Having said that, I was also delighted because she normally throws my books across the room in a fit of contempt, something I suspect she’ll only stop doing when she buys an e-book reader.

Olen Steinhauer:
Going back to our non-crime literary influences, why do you think it is that we’ve gravitated toward this field in our writing? It’s something I’ve often thought about, and the closest I’ve come to an answer is that most of the writers I admire would probably have been writing genre fiction themselves if they were alive today.

Olen Steinhauer:
Some people point out that before, say, the 1950s, there was no real distinction between high literature and genre–there was simply “good” and “bad” writing. Then, of course, academia took over and the rest is history. I wish we could get back to that utopia of value, but I suppose it’s too entrenched now.

Olen Steinhauer:
To be honest, I thought when I started that I would never write crime or spy fiction, but that was because I’d read so little of it. Like most snobs, I looked down on the things I least understood. I finally gave it a try after failing with yet another self-consciously literary novel, partly because I’d just stumbled across Raymond Chandler, partly because I realized that I needed some kind of preconceived structure to work with or against–it’s something that spurs creativity, and I found I thrived within the limitations.

Do you share that feeling, that the structure of genre allows you to flex your narrative muscles against a framework?

Kevin Wignall:
To go back to my favourite rant, I’d say it’s the structure of storytelling that does that, and as you rightly point out, it seems you’re only able to tell a story nowadays within one of the genres.

for_the_dogsOlen Steinhauer:
And what about geography? Both of us seem to have a love affair with border crossings. I suppose it’s a natural outgrowth of being travelers, but I feel like there’s something more to it. You’ve got Conrad Hirst jumping around, Lucas in “For the Dogs” in Italy and other places, JJ in Paris, Geneva, Vermont…clearly there’s something going on here.

Kevin Wignall:
I wonder sometimes if we were just exposed to too much James Bond at an impressionable age? I haven’t quite worked out how to include a ski chase yet, although skiing has actually featured in two of my books…. oh dear.

Olen Steinhauer:
I do think Bond had a major effect. I still flash back onto a scene in, I think, Goldfinger, when Connery is driving through the Alps on a sunny day in one of his sparkling cars. It’s very sixties, and very beautiful. That will forever be Switzerland for me.

Kevin Wignall:
To answer the question more seriously, I also think it’s something to do with the transience of the characters. I don’t know if you agree, but having your character not belong in any place for any length of time, for them to be comfortable everywhere but belong nowhere, that kind of sums up their existence. It’s no surprise that one of the most incongruous scenes in “The Tourist” is when Milo finds himself with his family in Disney World. By the same token, in “People Die” JJ is meant to be left uneasy when he finds himself staying at a cosy Vermont inn, as much because of the setting as because of who lives there. Don’t those scenes serve as reminders to both men that they don’t belong in a comfortable domestic world, that they can only ever be temporary visitors?

Olen Steinhauer:
It feels like we’re talking about the existential condition, doesn’t it? The “we’re all alone” even when, say, we’re at a theme park or a relaxing hotel.

I don’t say this to be coy, but every writer develops their own ways to communicate their idea of the eternal condition. I suspect that both of us have ended up dealing with it through the lens of travel. Our characters end up in cities where they don’t necessarily know the language, or know anybody, and this anonymity becomes comfort–not the false comfort of believing you are really connected to someone else. Our characters thrive where they are alien, and fall apart where people, according to the adverts, are supposed to enjoy themselves and feel at one with…family, or nature.

Kevin Wignall:
That begs an obvious question, but it’s one I wouldn’t answer, so let’s move on…

Olen Steinhauer:
Please!

Kevin Wignall:
This is a tough question too, because I know both of us are quite ill-read in our chosen genre, but which crime or thriller writers of the past do you enjoy reading?

Olen Steinhauer:
Only after starting writing in the genre did I slowly start to read in it, and I guess my favorites are somewhat obvious–John Le Carre, Len Deighton (particularly his 1980s Bernard Samson series), and Charles McCarry. I was absolutely blown away by Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. To me, the 1970s was the real peak of the spy/political genre, a period that still hasn’t been matched.

I know of your love of Greene, but what genre writers get your blood going?

Kevin Wignall:
Goodness, out of those I’ve only read Le Carre, and that was quite recent – I read “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” last year. I read Agatha Christie’s Poirot books when I was a kid, I read “The Thin Man” and a couple of other classics as a teenager. You got it right though when you point to Greene – I don’t even think it was that he influenced me, more that in his books I found someone tackling subjects that already interested me.

Like Catholicism, yes? (Ha ha.)

Kevin Wignall:
Funny you should say that, but my family is Catholic, albeit in the relaxed English way of things – we’re not big on the guilt, and that’s probably one thing my characters don’t suffer from in quite the way that Greene’s do. Of course, Greene was a convert, so I think he got the guilt first and chose the religion second. Incidentally, a year or so ago, I was asked to read the lesson at a wedding in Chipping Camden and it turned out it was Greene’s parish church when he lived nearby.

Olen Steinhauer:
Brilliant. I once had sex with…wait a minute, that story has nothing to do with Graham Greene.

Kevin Wignall:
And what about people writing today? But maybe I should start the ball rolling on this one. I’ve only started reading modern crime fiction since becoming part of that community and I enjoy a lot of it, but I’m particularly drawn to writers who stray into similar territory to my own interests – people like Dan Fesperman or Laura Lippman in her standalones.

among_the_deadOlen Steinhauer:
Like you, I haven’t read a lot of what’s going around now, but there is some great work being done. Though his work has a very specific focus I think Alan Furst is an amazing prose stylist. I’m about halfway through Typhoon by Charles Cumming, which is excellent. Not so long ago, Robert Wilson’s The Hidden Assassins left me staggered. And there’s this guy called Withnail, or Wiggle, or…Wignall, that’s it! Terse, resonant novels which are weighted by philosophical issues while maintaining a large body count.

Kevin Wignall:
Or as one wag of a reviewer said of my first book, “People Die, and then some…”

But before this degenerates further, how about boiling all your work down into four or five key themes. What is it that you keep coming back to? And why, do you think?

Olen Steinhauer:
You first.

Kevin Wignall:
Fair enough, but I don’t think mine will be a surprise – redemption, loss, the relationship we have with our own past, whether it’s ever possible to undo the wrongs you’ve done, and various riffs on all of these cheery themes.

Olen Steinhauer:
Okay, then–I’ll give it a try.

Meaning, I think, is central. My characters generally recognize the meaninglessness of life, but know that meaning is something you have to consciously create, or decide on. For example, one chooses to go on because of one’s child, wife or husband, because of the desire to create something (like, literature)–and this decision takes the form of devotion, of service of some kind. This theme ties all my novels together and in The Tourist it’s as plain as day. Why? Because, though I’m not necessarily suicidal, it’s something I ask myself on a regular basis. The knowledge that death is the absolute end colors everything that comes before it.

Kevin Wignall:
Hmm, and you say you were inspired by Milan Kundera… that all makes sense now. Any others?

Olen Steinhauer:
Other themes? Betrayal, of course, but in spy novels that’s like saying there’ll be a dead body in a murder mystery…

confessionKevin Wignall:
“The Confession” is a superb book. I remember I read “The Bridge of Sighs” and this back to back, and whilst I thought the first book a great opening to the series, I was blown away by the power of the second. I think “The Confession” was a more personal book to you in many ways – is that fair to say, and how much of you and your life goes into your books generally?

Olen Steinhauer:
First, thank you for the compliment. Of the two, I agree that Confession is clearly the superior book–it mirrored the demise of my own first marriage, and was a much more individual, less imitative, work than Bridge of Sighs. Ironically, it wasBridge that garnered five award nominations, while Confession–though reviewed extremely well–was ignored by award committees and the buying public!

bridgeThat said, my life and my work are very separate. I don’t recreate scenes from my life for use in fiction. I’m not sure my life is interesting enough for that; but more importantly, if a story is going well the scenes will be suggested by the story itself, and there’s no need to search around in my own life for material–if that makes sense. As I mentioned, Confession did mirror in some ways the demise of my own marriage, but in fact I’d written half the book before my marriage crumbled. I had to stop writing for 6 months to get my head back together and move to Budapest, and only then did I sit down to the story again with a fresh knowledge about the subject I’d already been writing about. So of course my life went into it, but only insofar as I understood the subject in a more nuanced way, not because I had new dramatic material to take from my life and insert into the story.

My guess is that you work similarly. Unless, of course, you’ve spent a hidden chunk of your life executing people for money!

Kevin Wignall:
Actually, I’m amazed at how autobiographical my books are (and no, I’m not saying I was a hitman!). Quite a few friends, when they read “People Die”, said that JJ closely resembled me in many ways, so it upset me slightly when my agent of the time said, “of course, he’s clearly a sociopath”.

(Laughs.)

Kevin Wignall:
But throughout all the books, I find elements of my own life seeping into the story. Maybe as with the themes, and as per your comments regarding “The Confession”, we’re drawn to certain stories because they reflect our own experiences.

Olen Steinhauer:
I’d like to ask about work habits. It’s something most professional novelists aren’t so interested in because it’s really beside the point, but I still enjoy hearing about this. For me, I grab time to write whenever I can–laptop, usually on the couch or in bed. I’m psychologically unable to stick with an office space (though I wish I could; it would help my poor organization). As far as the writing itself, as you know I don’t outline, so I make it up as I go along, usually writing twice as many pages as I keep. It’s slow, but it’s the only way I know how to do it.

You?

Kevin Wignall:
Well, I usually write one draft. There have been occasions when I’ve taken a mis-step, had it pointed out by my agent, and rewritten. But usually, it’s one draft that I tinker with. The infuriating thing with me is that I can spend two years with a plot just revolving slowly in my head – once I do sit down to write I can get the book finished in three months, but I probably need to find a way of getting to that actual writing stage somewhat quicker.

Olen Steinhauer:
I don’t know of anyone else who works like that. It’s amazing that you can conceive of the book, entirely in your head, with enough detail to sit down to a 3-month final draft. Christ, I wish I could do that! Sitting on one’s ass, typing for a year or more, is just plain unhealthy, not to mention anti-social. I may end up writing more books, but I have a feeling you have more fun along the way.

Kevin Wignall:
I’ve never written a series so I’m intrigued to know if you miss writing about the characters in the first five books, particularly as they lived entire lifetimes in the course of the sequence?

Olen Steinhauer:
It’s an interesting thing to think about. On the one hand, a writer needs to keep his characters at a distance; otherwise, you become sentimental about them and hesitate to do what’s necessary (say, torturing and killing them). If I kill off a character I like, whatever grief I feel is completely overshadowed by the aesthetic pleasure of having done what I felt was necessary for the story. Still, a few do return to me at times. But I can’t say I miss writing about them–their world is a very specific one that, after five books, I’ve had enough of. I think that by the end I was Cold-Warred out.

victoryKevin Wignall:
Would you ever be tempted to write about them again, or to write about your fictional state as it might be now?

Olen Steinhauer:
Probably not. I have a fear of repeating myself, so I’d have to have a hell of a good idea to make me sit down to it again–also, of course, there would have to be some significant public interest so that the story wouldn’t disappear without a trace. For a few weeks I did toy with one idea–another 60s novel, focusing on Emil Brod’s wife, Lena–but if that ever sees the light of day it will likely be as a short story.

Have you never been tempted to extend one of your characters into another book or two? I think it would be great to see one come through to see another day.

Kevin Wignall:
As it happens, all of my books (except “Among the Dead”) overlap in subliminal ways. One character is mentioned in “People Die” and then again in “For the Dogs”, a character who appears in “For the Dogs” is mentioned in “Who is Conrad Hirst?”, and a minor character in “People Die” plays a bigger role in “Dark Flag”. But that’s not the same thing as a series. I think I’m always ready to move on, and as I’ve said before, I tend to write about once-in-a-lifetime situations, so to have the same character keep running into them would be all a little too “Die Hard” for my tastes.

Olen Steinhauer:
Excellent point.

Kevin Wignall:
What’s on the road in front of you, and what’s on the horizon?

Olen Steinhauer:
On the road in front of me: Wrapping up my teaching semester at Leipzig University (there are papers to grade), and sitting down to the last book of the Milo Weaver trilogy, and the fear that it’ll turn out lousy.

The horizon, I suppose, includes whatever follows. I told my agent that once the trilogy was finished she should expect a few years to pass before getting something new from me. I’d like to take time out and read a lot of the classics I never got around to, sort of reeducate myself, then write without expectations to see what comes of it. However, I do have a family to support, so I have another expanding idea in mind, a sort of contemporary version of Tom Ripley, who suffers from an almost medical lack of empathy, has a voice full of sweet naivete and a freakish level of optimism, and is entranced by some kind of “est” therapy that “changed my life.” One or the other.

You usually have a bunch of projects on your plate–what’s coming up next and (to up the ante) where would you like to be in ten years?

Kevin Wignall:
I think my continual “bunch of projects” is a time-wasting mechanism, but I’m edging towards the point at which I’ll start work on my new book – I know what it’s called, all the characters and most of the story, but I won’t start writing until I’m absolutely sure it’s all in place. As for ten years from now… you know, I really don’t know where I want to be. I’ve been in the business for ten years now and I’m probably less sure than I was in February 2000 about what it is I want to achieve. A bestseller? A literary reputation? I think, as for most writers, my goals are summed up by Robert W Service’s lines from “The Spell of the Yukon”, “There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting; It’s luring me on as of old; Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting, So much as just finding the gold.” Maybe a non-writer would see the gold as fame, but I think all writers would recognize it as something else entirely.

Olen Steinhauer:
That’s heavy, but true. I’m just hoping to get my blood pressure under control by 2020. Maybe grow a mustache.

Kevin Wignall:
I’m a heavy kind of guy, and if I get any heavier I might also go down the route of inapropriate facial hair. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed this – last word to you?

Olen Steinhauer:
Word.

Leave a Reply

Users must be registered and logged in to comment. Log in to Reply

PULP NOSTALGIA

What's in it for Me?We have a fabulous line up of crime fiction rockstars for our upcoming series, Pulp Nostalgia. Watch this space for childhood reminiscences, favourite pulp covers and more. If you'd like to be a part of our nostalgia season, please get in touch.

On Facebook

About Us

Crimeculture was created in 2002 by Lee Horsley and Kate Horsley. Our online magazine features reviews of film and fiction and interviews with writers as well as essays on crime fiction, crime films and representations of criminality. The site receives well over 5 million hits a year from all over the world. Our current series, Pulp Nostalgia delves into writers' childhood memories and their favourite books, films and bad girls.

Read more about Crimeculture...

Powered by WordPress.org - WordPress Theme deZine by ThemeShift.com