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By Daniel Ford
I’ll have much more to say about Paul Vidich’s debut novel An Honorable Man in August’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” but you should go out and read it as soon as humanly possible. It’s an old school spy thriller in the best sense!
Vidich talked to me recently about how he became a storyteller, his love of short stories, and what inspired An Honorable Man.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to become a storyteller?
Paul Vidich: I grew up in an academic family and my parent’s friends were writers, professors, and journalists who regularly gathered for cocktail parties. These literate people always had something to say, and often it was stories. I remember being impressed by the ones who could hold the attention of the room. I admired their storytelling, and I think it was then, as a 10-year-old, that I saw the power of storytelling, and its rewards.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
PV: Before I knew who Charles Dickens was, I was taken by the elaborate tapestry of his novels, which came to life in my imagination. Later, I was drawn to Tolstoy, Graham Greene, and Joseph Conrad, and later still I was drawn to the remarkable Ian McEwan. Early on I was drawn to story, but as I grew into writing I was taken by the great stylists like Nabokov, Wolfe, Bronte, and Flaubert. I greatly admire John le Carré for his ability to disguise his literary works as spy novels.
DF: What’s your writing process like?
PV: Deliberate. Steady. Unremarkable. I find setting and characters first, and from the characters emerge the conflicts that become the story. Plot follows. I write about 100 pages of research, which consists of snippets of dialogue, phrases, character biographies, smells and tastes of a place. With this in hand I write a first draft longhand. Months of research can become a first draft in 45 to 60 days. This first effort is sloppy, shapeless, and sometimes embarrassing, but from it comes the second draft, and a third, and a fourth. By the fifth draft, which may take six to eight months, the manuscript is settled enough to type out.
DF: In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a short story writer. We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about the format that appeals to you?
PV: Good short stories, as James Joyce said, rise to epiphany. They provide the reader a clear insight into one thing human—the dutiful young daughter in “Eveline” who chooses to stay in Ireland with her old widowed father rather than leave to Australia with her lover, sacrificing her future. Empathetic characters. Clear choices. Each great short story reveals a whole world that is not on the page.
DF: What inspired your debut novel An Honorable Man?
PV: I received a letter from a well-known New York agent, who read my short story that had won second prize in the Fugue short story contest judged by Junot Díaz. He liked the story, but didn’t represent story collections. Did I have a novel? I looked at my wife. “I think I should write a novel?” But what novel? There was a devastating family loss that sat unsettled in my mind for many years.
My uncle Frank Olson was a highly skilled Army scientist who worked at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, a top secret U.S. Army facility that researched biological warfare agents. He died sometime around 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 28, 1953 when he “jumped or fell” from his room on the thirteenth floor of the Statler Hotel in New York City. He had gone to New York to see a psychiatrist in the company of a CIA escort, Robert Lashbrook. This was all the family knew about Frank’s death for 22 years.
In 1975, a report by The Rockefeller Commission, which had been established by President Ford to investigate allegations of illegal CIA activity within the U.S., contained a two-paragraph account of an army scientist who had been unwittingly given LSD and died in a fall from a hotel window in New York. The CIA confirmed this was Frank Olson. To the conflicting theories that he “jumped or fell” another possibility was added: He was pushed. Frank Olson’s death came to embody our collective fascination with the Cold War’s dark secrets, and it shined light on the dubious privileges men in the CIA gave themselves in the name of national security.
Frank Olson left behind his wife, Alice, my aunt, and three young children, Eric, Lisa, and Nils. I observed this tragedy over the years from within the tenuous intimacy of our family connection. I witnessed how my cousin Eric’s search for the answer to his father’s death was frustrated by an agency clinging to it secrets
The details of Frank’s death would never be known, so a conventional telling of the story in a memoir was not possible. I chose to tell the story of my cousin’s life-long search for the answer to the question: How did my father die and why? I wrote the story as fiction—inventing some characters to help complete the portions of the real story that would never be known. The book, in its several versions, never completely succeeded. Combining memoir with fiction weakened the imagined world. The baggage of real details didn’t give me the freedom to build a story that lived only within the text on the page. So I abandoned that effort after two years.
In the course of the research for that novel I came across a brief mention of the mysterious case of James Kronthal, the first Soviet mole in the CIA, a close associate of Allen Dulles, who committed suicide in 1953. This intrigued me. I created a storyline around the incident. I had already explored a man who lived a secret life—Frank Olson—so I took the essence of Frank’s life and used it to create a fictional character, George Mueller. I knew the life of a man cut off from family by covert work. When I set down to write the first draft these things were in my mind, so the draft, sloppy and uneven, came quickly.
DF: How much of yourself, and your experiences, ended up in your characters and your plot?
PV: Very little of my life is directly reflected in the book, however, we all see the world through the lens of our own experience. I was not a spy. I did not work at the CIA. But I was a senior executive at Time Warner and I knew how a bureaucracy worked—beneath the work are the personalities that compete—men and women with ambition, who game the politics of the organization, who betray colleagues when needed to advance themselves. These things I knew and I used them in the novel.
DF: Authors have been writing about spies and the Cold War for just as long, if not longer, than the Cold War itself. What did you do in the research/writing process to ensure that your tale had something fresh to offer the genre?
PV: My novel is character based. It has a plot, and there is a story arc, but the book is propelled by the fears, goals, and ambitions of its two central characters, George Mueller and Roger Altman. I gave them a moral grounding. They had personal lives that came into conflict with, and were sacrificed for, their work. It is the personal nature of their stories, and their deceits, that is fresh to the genre, I believe.
DF: How long did it take you to write the novel, and what was your publishing journey like?
PV: As I said, the first draft came quickly. I had a completed manuscript within nine months that benefitted from comments from six fine writers who graduated with me from the Rutgers Newark’s MFA program. We regularly meet and comment on each other’s work. I sent the manuscript to four agents who represented authors whose work was similar to my own—espionage novels with a literary register. Olen Steinhauer is one such author who is represented by The Gernert Company. David Gernert got back to me and asked if I’d be willing to work with one of their agents. They liked the book but wanted some changes. Will Roberts has been a remarkable agent and collaborator. His comments helped me make several critical changes. He then handled the auction of the novel. I was fortunate to land with Emily Bestler, Emily Bestler Books, an imprint at Simon and Schuster.
DF: An Honorable Man has gotten rave reviews from critics and readers alike. What has that experience been like, and what’s next for you?
PV: It was exhilarating to get back the first blurbs from authors like Joseph Kanon, Olen Steinhauer, and Jayne Anne Phillips. These are writers whose works I admire, and I was humbled by their kind assessments. The book has also gotten high marks from readers on Amazon. That too is satisfying. These recognitions are important for a debut novelist, coming out of obscurity as I did, and to find that my story and storytelling earned some modest praise.
My next book is set in Cuba in 1958 in the months before the fall of Batista.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
PV: Write every day. Write from the heart. Treat language as a craft.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
PV: My favorite wine is a burgundy, Clos De Tart.