Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A with Joseph Kanon

Jane Hammons: It’s hard not to see the influence of film in your writing, and I read in one of your interviews that your dream job would be film director. Which of your novels would you most like to be involved in the filming of? And what did you think of THE GOOD GERMAN? (Personally, I was disappointed by the changes in the story, though it is certainly gorgeous to look at.)

Joseph Kanon: I think every novelist imagines his book would make a good movie, in part because he’s already written the movie in his head.  But that’s not the movie the director is going to make– he’s going to make the one in His head– so there’s a long tradition of writers being disappointed.  I had seen this happen so often to other writers when I was a publisher that I was prepared for the inevitable disconnect.  What writers need to keep in mind is that the book still exists just as it was written– and will exist that way so long as it’s on the shelf or in the cloud or wherever– but that a film is not an illustrated version.  It’s someone else’s vision.  So even though the film of THE GOOD GERMAN used a very different storyline from the book’s, I found it fascinating and, of course, it was a dream cast, one that actually looked the way I imagined the characters to look.  (This may in part be an after-effect: certainly it’s true that when I think of Jake now I see George Clooney.  Originally he would have looked more like, say, Dana Andrews.) As for the others, I think Alibi is far and away the most cinematic.  There is a grand party scene that I felt I could be writing for Hitchcock.  But the one I wish someone would do is Los Alamos, because I think the background subject is so interesting (to me, at any rate).  It’s been optioned a few times, so maybe something will yet happen.  Meanwhile, I’m excited that ISTANBUL PASSAGE is in development.  I think it would make a terrific film.  But, like most writers, I think that about all of them.


JH: As I finished reading Istanbul Passage, I wondered if your next book might cross the Bosphorus Bridge and find a setting in Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, or other parts of the Middle East. Have you considered such a setting? Why or why not?

JK: No temptation to write about the Middle East.  I just don’t know enough about daily life there and so many others do. I’m not sure why certain locations appeal and others don’t. It’s part of the magical thinking that comes with writing.  I knew the second day I was in Istanbul that I wanted to write about it—it just grabbed me.

JH: Can you tell us what the setting of your next novel is and why you chose it?

JK: The next novel is going to take me back to postwar Berlin, this time a few years after The Good German and mostly in East Berlin.  I find Berlin inexhaustible, the historical ground zero for our century, and I wanted to know more about the GDR, how it came to be, etc.  Most of us simply write it off as another Soviet client state, but it was really so much more complicated—a political anomaly, and a moral one.

JH: The Post WWII, Cold War period probably suggests setting to you to some extent, but what are some of the other reasons why you have chosen your settings? What is the relationship between setting and character development?

JK: All of my books begin with place; the characters grow out of that.  Some reviewers have said that the place Is a character in the books and certainly I think that’s true of Istanbul Passage and The Good German; I can’t imagine either of them happening anywhere else.  For that matter, Alibi is about Venice, Stardust about Los Angeles, Los Alamos very much about Los Alamos.  But the “intertwining” you talk about is probably most true of The Good German.  I felt at the time that the book was really a mosaic of Berlin and that its moral complexities reflected the characters’ own.

JH: The research you do for your novels is one reason I am drawn to them, not only because of the details—place names, clothing, movie references, etc.—but also because the themes that emerge. For example, the devastating destruction of Berlin by allied bombing is palpable in The Good German. Are there things you discover in your research that change or shape plot or character in a significant way? Or do you have the story pretty well mapped out before you begin the research?

JK: The story is the last thing to emerge.  I become fascinated with a place, want to know more about it, read everything, look at old pictures, etc.  And as you do this, you begin to find your characters.  Once they’re in your head, the story will follow.  Sometimes a piece of history or timing will suggest the character.  When I was researching Istanbul Passage, I was struck by how recent the Ottoman Empire would have seemed to Istanbullus in 1945.  People walking the streets of your novel might have been courtiers or even slaves in the harem.  This suggested Lily, the harem girl now turned modern society hostess.

JH: Your characters are complex and often even contradictory in compelling ways. Do they evolve as such because of the nature of the spy novel and Cold War setting?

JK: No character on the page could possibly be as complicated and contradictory as a real person, but it’s important to at least suggest that complexity.  (Otherwise, why do we write?)  The spy/thriller genre, of course, lends itself neatly to speculation: do we really know anyone?

JH: Of the characters you have created do you have a favorite?

JK: No particular favorite.  There’s a tendency to be closest to the ones you’ve just spent time with; these are people/characters you live with for months, even years, and the most recent ones are inevitably the freshest.  But I have a soft spot for Jake and Lena in The Good German, and Bunny Jenkins in Stardust, whom I thought represented so many layers of old Hollywood (as, for that matter, did Sol Lasner, his boss).

JH: Because Bloom readers are particularly interested in writers’ journeys, I was hoping you would speak a little to the connection between your careers as editor/publisher and writer.  In your interview with Jesse Kornbluth, you told the story of giving your agent the Los Alamos mss under the name Alan Whitman so she would not be influenced by that history.  Is there any way in which your career in publishing hindered you either directly or indirectly?

JK: Having been in publishing had no effect, I think, on how the books were received and certainly not on how they were written: every writer faces the same blank page.  But there is no question that the publication process itself is always a mixed bag and a former publisher knows, perhaps, too much: how often things will go wrong, how often it’s no one’s fault, how often what should happen doesn’t, how often dumb luck or timing plays a role.  Writers may think they know all this, but it’s different when the bad luck, etc. happens to you.  I tried very hard from the outset not to intrude, let the publisher take ownership and do what he does (of course, my publishers may disagree, but I hope not).  I had known writers who tried to control the process (an impossibility) and ended up alienating the very people who were working on their behalf.  The industry is filled with a lot of bright, hard working, and usually underpaid people who actually want your book to succeed.  So it’s not just courtesy, but sensible self-interest, to try to stay out of their way and let them do their jobs.  Time is precious—and time devoted to you is a gift.  Of course, it’s easy for me to say this because I have been very lucky in my editors/publishers.

JH: How important was the success of Los Alamos to your identity as a writer?

JK: As you said, I began writing in secret—I never told anyone I was writing Los Alamos because I didn’t know if I could do it—and then suddenly I was a writer.  The surprise to me, having been around writing for so many years, was how much I loved doing it. Maybe it was the right time for me.  It’s a solitary business but it’s only after you’ve been in the world—spent time working with and for other people—that you realize what a rare privilege it is to be able to live in your head.  Los Alamos enabled me to do that.  It had a charmed life and despite how hard writing can be it made me feel mine had become charmed too.

Bloom Post End

Click here to read Jane Hammons’s feature piece on Joseph Kanon.

3 thoughts on “Q&A with Joseph Kanon

  1. I already enjoyed both your feature article and I much enjoyed this interview, too. Excellent questions. I’m looking forward to checking Kanon out. I’m of course tickled (for no other reason than that I live in the city) that he singles out Berlin, and the characterization “inexhaustible, the historical ground zero for our century,” is brilliant and insightful. To those who live here, not just Germans, this is not news but it feels special to hear a writer of calibre say it. I notice as I have done before that sometimes so-called genre writers can take the pulse of time and culture more accurately and more sensibly than so-called literary writers. In the end of course it’s all story. Age and experience make a difference but one has to know how to infuse the stories with all that…life. It sounds as if Kanon knows how.

    • Thanks for your comments, Marcus! And your observations about genre, in particular—writers like Kanon really have to immerse themselves in the locations in which they choose to set their stories, to a degree that’s not always appreciated. Great to hear about your love for Berlin, too. Though I’ve never been, lately I’ve been reading a great book, ‘Metropolis Berlin,’ edited by Iain Whyte and David Frisby, that has a lot of really fascinating stuff on the city’s construction in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century that really piqued my curiosity about what the city might look like today. Between that and your love for it, I’ll have to plan a trip sometime! —V

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