I first came across Joseph Kanon when I read his novel The Good German. It’s a literary thriller, with a lot to think about in addition to following the page-turner of a plot. So I was delighted when he came to talk at the Fairfield Public Library in Connecticut a week or so ago. (In case you missed that, he’s appearing again at R.J. Julia in Madison CT on July 18th at 7pm.) He talked about how he wrote his novel (longhand on yellow legal pads in the New York Public Library) and how his latest book, Istanbul Passage came to be. He was kind enough to agree to answering some additional questions.
GC: You said you were a person who writes their novels without plotting them out. Have you ever taken a writing class or workshop? And if yes, did you find it helpful in actually writing your books? I ask, because so many classes want you to plot out the book from start to finish.
JK: No, I have never taken a workshop, though I was a guest teacher once or twice. I think the question of outline is simply a matter of temperament– some writers prefer them, some don’t– and there are no particular advantages to either side (it really depends on the writer). I’ve never used a proper outline but of course at a certain point in the narrative you have to have at least an over-arching sense of where it’s going and how it ends (though not necessarily the particulars). Working from a detailed outline would take much of the pleasurable surprise out of the process for me, but someone else may well feel at sea without one.
GC: I think you said that you’d visited Istanbul 5 times. Were all those visits related to the book?
JK: The first time I went to Istanbul I was simply a tourist (in fact, my wife and I were celebrating our anniversary) but all subsequent trips, however delightful, all had to do with researching the book. The most recent, last February, well after the book was finished, was to film the author video (see link on my website, Amazon, et al.). (GC: This is well worth seeing if you want to see the background for the book.)
GC: When you get an idea for a book, clearly the location is one of the most important ‘characters’ (rather like Alexandria and Laurence Durrell). Have any of your books been inspired by a place first, before the characters and plot?
JK: All of the books have more or less been inspired by place, but especially Los Alamos. The Good German really began with an interest in the postwar Allied Occupation, so another setting might well have occurred to me but, happily, I was fascinated by Berlin, whose stories seem inexhaustible. In fact, I’m planning to set my next book there again, this time with more focus on East Berlin and the rise of the GDR.
GC: What made you choose the time period immediately following WW2 as your preferred period? Does it have something to do with the murkiness of the loyalties/situations/duty that existed at that time? (Versus the more absolute moral certainties – right or wrong – that one uses to make decisions during wartime.)
JK: Yes, very much. To use a movie metaphor, the war begins with the black and white moral clarity of Casablanca, but it ends with the gray, murky, more compromised world of The Third Man. I think this is the world we inherited, more complicated and nuanced than what came before (or so it seems to us). But from a writer’s point of view, the immediate postwar period also has the advantage (to my mind) of being inherently dramatic– everything that happens then, in the aftermath of the war, takes on real importance. Decisions made then will reverberate for decades. So who made them and why? This seemed/seems to me an irresistible subject. (Of course, it also now has the pragmatic advantage for me of having already done so much research in the period…)
GC: I’ve just finished the novel, by the way, and love the way JK gives one several ‘what would I do?’ conundrums, but also makes his characters real, so that as the tension builds to a white-knuckle ending, you really care what happens to them. Highly recommended if you like thoughtful thrillers, romance and adventure.