Monday, February 4, 2008

Olen Steinhauer

Mark Baker interviewed Olen Steinhauer for the Wall Street Journal.

Part of the interview:

The characters in your books -- Communist Party members, dissidents, militia officers -- would be familiar to anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe, but practically unknown to an American. How were you able to understand your characters well enough to give them plausible emotions and motives?

This is the great challenge of fiction. As I was writing, I never asked myself what a typical East European person would do in a particular situation. I always asked myself what I would do in that situation if I had grown up in that society. As people, we're all motivated by the same things. As I was writing about the 1989 revolution in the final novel, "Victory Square," I asked myself whether anyone really gets emotionally worked up over a revolution itself. I think the answer to that is that no one does. People get worked up about love and hate and personal things -- how they personally feel about their dictator, or how a revolution will affect or change their own lives. These are things that I could understand.

Eastern European communists and bureaucrats are usually portrayed as one-dimensional: gray, stony-faced and committed to the cause. By contrast, your characters are more human, filled with inner conflict and even doubt about the rightness of the cause. Do you think you succeeded in creating realistic characters?

If you had asked me this question a couple of years ago, I would have said that what I was writing was a kind of Western fantasy of life in Eastern Europe under communism. I didn't live there. My first interest has always been in writing fiction. But recently I've had a couple of older readers, people who lived through those times, come up to me and say "you got it right, that's how it was back then." My favorite character was actually Brano Sev [an officer in the People's Militia who epitomizes the classic, stoic supporter of the regime]. He's the one I most wanted to be since on the inside he's emotionally conflicted but still acts. In a way, he's the most idealistic of the characters. His methods appear completely perverted until you get inside his head, and then you understand his reasons.

Read the full interview.

The Page 69 Test: Liberation Movements.

--Marshal Zeringue