Interview with Alan Furst, Author of the Newly Released “A Hero of France”

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Interview with Alan Furst, Author of the Newly Released “A Hero of France”
Alan Furst was born and raised in New York City, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. After graduating from Oberlin College, he returned to New York, where for a time he “drove a taxi and wrote poetry,” before going to France on a Fulbright teaching fellowship at the University of Montpellier. On his return to the U.S. he lived for a while on the West Coast, where he wrote advertising copy and also began to write for Esquire and other magazines. In 1987 he and his wife moved to Paris, where they lived for six years. During this period he wrote a column for the International Herald Tribune, and also wrote the first three novels in his critically acclaimed and enormously popular series of spy thrillers. The New York Times has called him “America’s preeminent spy novelist,” his books have been translated into 18 languages, and in 2011 he received the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, a literary prize for a body of work. In May A Hero of France, the fourteenth novel in this series, was published. Just before leaving his home in Sag Harbor, New York for a U.S. book tour, he took the time to talk with Janet Hulstrand about the “intense and dynamic” period of history in which his novels are set; about his work as a novelist; and about Paris.  JH: Your series of novels are all set in Europe, in the years between 1933-1942. Why did you choose to focus on this time period? AF: The time period is very intense. If you look at the politics of the period, Hitler rises to power in 1933. In 1934-35 you have the purges in the Soviet Union. In 1936 is the Spanish Civil War, which goes to 1938. In 1938 you have the real beginnings of the Holocaust. Life at that point was getting worse and worse for German Jews, and they were leaving. Also in 1938 is Munich, and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia. In 1939, it was the invasion of Poland, in 1940 the invasion of France, and in 1941 is the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But then the fortunes of the German army went bad in 1942, in Stalingrad. So that’s why I cover that time period. It was a very romantic, high romance period. People were very passionate, they may have been passionate about politics, but they were also passionate about each other, partly because it was as if “the world is coming to an end, so we’d better do whatever we’re going to do before that happens…” Look at the films that came out during this period. It’s an amazingly dynamic period of time…very different from the 1950s, from the 1920s. That’s why I like the period, because there are a lot of stories in all that action that are good for a novelist. JH: Is there any particular reason you decided to cut it off before 1945? Because the war went until 1945… AF: Yes, but the gestalt changed. By 1943, with the Germans on the run, people in Europe were feeling well, maybe now the point is just to survive this. JH: Is it important to read the books in sequence? AF: No, not at all. They’re not sequential. JH: Okay, but having said that, is there any particular one that you think is a better starting point? AF: I never know how to answer this. I will say that over time a lot of people have really liked Night Soldiers, which is the first book. But then there is also a book like Mission to Paris that feels good when readers read it. Who knows why? It felt good to write it, I don’t know where that came from. Certainly I didn’t plan it. It’s not something I could ever try to do, but it just so happened I had very good research for that book. It turns out that history of movies is very well written, there are some amazingly good books written about film, why that is I don’t know, but the people who are doing that work are very good at what they do. So there was a lot of good material there for me to work with. JH: Would it be fair to say that Mission to Paris is one of your favorites? AF: Well, it’s one of my favorites. People often say that The Polish Officer is the best book I ever wrote, and they might not be wrong. I wrote a particularly good book for all kinds of reasons I suppose. That was the last book I wrote in Paris, The Polish Officer. I wrote the first three books while I was living in Paris. Night Soldiers; Dark Star; and The Polish Officer. JH: Did you have the idea for writing the books while you were living in Paris? AF: No, I got the idea, I don’t really know when, it was over a period of time. It was when I started reading the history of that period. I wasn’t particularly reading it in order to write about it. I just thought, “Oh, this is so interesting, all these various spy services operating in Paris,” there were eight or nine of them. I wanted to read a panoramic spy novel about Paris in the 30s, so I went out looking for one, and there wasn’t one. So I thought, “Ok, fine, I’ll…

Lead photo credit : Alan Furst

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and "A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France." She writes frequently about France for Bonjour Paris, France Today, and a variety of other publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for education abroad programs of the City University of New York since 1997, and she teaches online classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. She is currently working on her next book in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in Champagne.


  • Trey Gordner
    2016-12-12 16:51:24
    Trey Gordner
    Interesting. I wish he'd elaborated more on why "A Hero of France" is his "most Parisian" novel. Speaking of which, don't forget that you can find a free copy of "A Hero of France" at your local library: Enjoy!