Sag Harbor writer Alan Furst is a master of the literary spy novel. "Under Occupation" ($27, Random House), the 15th book in his popular "Night Soldiers" series, continues to delve into pre-World War II Europe. In his latest, a French novelist gets pulled into the Resistance after a Polish laborer forced to build U-boats for the Nazis secretly hands him blueprints as he is dying on the street from a Gestapo bullet.
Furst spoke by phone from his home in Sag Harbor, where he is already at work on the next installment of the series.
Many of your "Night Soldiers" books share characters. Are there any familiar faces in this novel?
Actually, in this novel there aren’t. I like to salt old characters from the series into the books, but for whatever reason, I didn’t do it this time. The tension of the situation, or what I wanted the tension to be, didn’t allow for those characters. They probably would not have been acquaintances of the lead character in this book.
But readers will certainly recognize the landscape.
Yes, they will recognize the landscape, assuredly. This book takes place in Paris, during the war, once again. That’s the theater in which all my books occur. People love Paris. I have a feeling quite a number of my readers have been or would like to go or have seen movies of it.
You show a Paris under occupation, with broken streetlamps and “occupation coffee: a few inferior beans with ground chicory added for volume.” This is a very different Paris than most people know. How did you find these details?
I have read so much about Paris during this period that I virtually learned the circumstances of people’s lives. And mostly the circumstances of people’s lives during this time period was doing without things they were used to. So, they did without great coffee beans because the Germans diverted them all. They did without new clothes because fabric — and the machines that made fabric — were taken to Germany. This poor city was stolen blind. It was impossible to repair shoes because leather was unavailable and people were walking around in clogs, so the sound of the streets was very different with those wooden shoes clacking around on the pavement.
As with many of your books, this plot digs into some of the lesser-known details of pre-World War II history, specifically Polish emigres forced into labor for the Nazis. Is this based on fact?
All of my books are basically written on the basis of true stories. I like to say that I am incapable of writing a plot, meaning making something up in my head and writing about it. For whatever reason, I cannot do that. What I have done — and what works much better for me — is to take actual stories that happened and use those for new characters who could have or should have been there to tell their stories. The story of the Polish laborers is true. There is probably more to it than the part that I told, but that was the part I used for this novel.
How did you find this story?
I think it was in a book about Poland. The Poles, as opposed to some other occupied countries, wrote very fully about their experiences under German occupation. Book after book came out. If they had lost their money, position or loved ones, they still wanted to make sure that their story was told and remembered. I think any reader can understand that.
Your main character in this novel is Paul Ricard, a novelist. Why did you choose a writer as the way into the story?
I’ve written about so many other different professions — lawyers, diplomats. This time I wrote about a writer, and I know something about that because I’m a writer. He is like me, writing literary spy novels, or as I like to call them, novels about spies — these are not thrillers. The Occupation kept close tabs on intellectuals in order to make sure they did not become part of the Resistance. But guess what? The writer in this book became part of the Resistance anyhow!
Ricard is a student of observation and humanity, living in a city and learning to be a writer. You write, “So he walked, and became a writer.” You grew up in Manhattan and then lived in Paris. Is this how you became a writer?
That passage is written from the heart. It is true of me and the way I grew up, so I made it true of my character and the way he grew up. This is, after all, a writer writing about a writer, albeit French and from another time!
Where do you do your writing?
I moved from Paris to Sag Harbor 25 years ago. I have a writing office in my house in Sag Harbor where I have a Lexmark Wheelwriter. I like writing on a typewriter rather than a computer; there is a very powerful sense difference. When you write on a computer, you hit a key and an image of the letter appears. On a typewriter, you hit a key and it goes clack and the letter is engraved into the paper forever.