WHO: Dan Fesperman
WHAT: THE DOUBLE GAME, a novel
WHEN: Published by Knopf
August 22, 2012
WHERE: Set in Washington, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest
WHY: It’s a spy novel about spy novels.
THE AUTHOR TALKS ABOUT HIS NEW BOOK:
Q: Where did you get the idea for The Double Game?
A: This was an idea that almost literally blasted me out of my chair one afternoon, sort of like that derecho storm that tore across half the country. At the time I’d been doing some research for a TV project to dramatize the history of the CIA. I’d already interviewed a bunch of old hands from the earliest days of the Cold War, and was doing Internet research about British mole Kim Philby. This turned up an archived newspaper interview with British novelist (and ex-spy) John le Carré, in which he seemed to admit to having once toyed with the idea of spying for the other side.
Well, not only is le Carré a longtime favorite of mine, I’d also interviewed him way back in 1985, four years before the Berlin Wall came down. So before I even finished reading the piece online I was wondering how I might have reacted if he’d told me something like that. As I sat there, thinking, I began superimposing the whole scenario onto a fictional American author who emerged fullblown into my imagination, a complicated fellow I dubbed Ed Lemaster. And I began to wonder, hey, what if Lemaster was a double agent? Or, more to the point, what if some of his colleagues had once suspected he was a double? And what if they’d done so partly because of the seemingly authentic material about double agents that turned up in so many of his novels? All of that pretty well sums up why the book was so much fun to write, because it involved loads of material that I’m passionately attracted to—spy novels, the history of espionage, and the interplay between fact and fiction in both those worlds.
The Double Game is, in many ways, a spy novel about spy novels. How did you come to decide to use older masters of the genre in your writing?
Mostly because so many of those masters were once spies themselves. Not just le Carré, but also Graham Greene, Charles McCarry, Somerset Maugham, Ian Fleming, John Buchan, and on and on. Even E. Howard Hunt and William F. Buckley, who were far more famous for their work in other fields, were CIA men and spy novelists.
And seeing as how my main character, Bill Cage, grew up reading all those books while coming of age in a procession of Cold War capitals, I realized that the easiest way for someone to manipulate him would be by using a series of, in effect, literary bread crumbs, to lead him on a search for the truth about Lemaster. These bread crumbs would be scenes and characters from spy novels which, to Bill, would look an awful lot like scenes and characters that were becoming part of his own life. In the course of putting all this together I had to write some prose for Lemaster’s novels, and at times that was even more fun (and easier!) than writing my own prose.
How did you choose the novels you include?
A lot of novels cited in the book came from my own shelves. But for plenty of the older ones—the novels by Manning Coles, for example, or by Erskine Childers, John Bingham, and J. Burke Wilkinson—I sought out copies at Baltimore’s wonderful Pratt Library (their underground stacks must reach halfway to the center of the Earth!) I also went hunting for copies in a lot of used book stores. At times I was a bit of a book scout, searching for lost and forgotten treasures like the strange character Lothar Heinemann who turns up early in the story.
The only fictional writer among those in the book is Ed Lemaster… who seems strikingly like another le Carré. You very pointedly use the disclaimer “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental” within the text of the book. (Wink, wink.) Are we onto something here?
Well, other than the obvious similarity of his last name, and also the incredibly erudite manner in which he gives an interview—speaking in complete and polished paragraphs, much like le Carré—Lemaster is otherwise very much my own creation. I really know quite little about le Carré’s career in intelligence, and I built Lemaster’s professional resumé mostly out of scraps I picked up from actual CIA people. As for the rest, well, maybe we are onto something and maybe we aren’t. As Bill’s dad tells him, “Son, it’s a novel. Everything’s made up.” But, as Bill himself says in the Prologue, disclaimers like that make him “perk up like a dog that has heard a distant whistle from a cruel and deceitful master.” He’s not buying it. So I guess you’re on your own, and good luck coming up with a definitive answer!
Vienna, Budapest, Prague…all great Cold War cities. How did you come to know them so well?
Research, and plenty of it. It also helped that I traveled in those cities when I was the Berlin correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, from 1993 to 1996, a few years after the end of the Cold War. To refresh some of my memories I went back to each city last October, which helped immensely.
What kind of research did you do in the course of writing The Double Game?
Apart from the travel it was mostly reading, reading, and more reading. Not just all those old novels, but also loads of Cold War histories and biographies, especially for signature characters like the mole Philby and his onetime friend, mole hunter James Angleton, a fellow who was richly enigmatic and ultimately destroyed himself, and others, with his paranoia. I also got a great deal of help and insight from all those interviews I mentioned earlier, the ones with the old CIA crowd from the late forties and early fifties. They told me a lot about the intelligence personalities of the era, as well as the work habits and mental approach of spies in the field. And, as luck would have it, one of them, William Hood, not only worked closely with Angleton, he also wrote a few spy novels.
If you had to pick one writer and one book as your favorite from the ones you refer to in The Double Game, which would you pick and why?
John le Carré and his Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. To me it will always stand as the Cold War novel, with George Smiley as the archetypal Cold Warrior, a good man who means well and works brilliantly, yet is nonetheless haunted, and even tainted, by the tactics he uses to succeed. And what other figure from espionage fiction could possibly inspire signature on-screen performances by both Sir Alec Guiness and Gary Oldman? I can’t think of a single one.
What is next for you?
A book from the point of view of a burned-out drone pilot, yet another job in which the desire to do good often comes into conflict with the means one uses to accomplish it. It’s also yet another profession in which one must shoulder a lot of burdensome secrets.
Erinn Hartman | 212-572-2345 | firstname.lastname@example.org