Paul Vidich’s spy thrillers have snaked through the history of the Cold War, beginning with his debut, An Honorable Man, which was set in 1950s Washington, D.C. His fourth novel, The Mercenary, opens in 1980s Moscow as a KGB agent attempts to defect to the United States. Former CIA officer Alex Garin has been sent to Moscow to make contact with and extract the agent. Here Vidich discusses the compelling humanity of spies and why the Cold War continues to fascinate readers.
First, congratulations on your new book, which is one of the most anticipated thrillers of 2021. Does it live up to the hype in your mind, or do you think the best Paul Vidich book is yet to come?
I think every writer suffers from the useful delusion that the book they are in the midst of writing is their best, which protects their fragile ego from the depressing prospect that their best work is behind them. This is what I know: Every book is hard work. I try new things with every novel in order to challenge myself and to surprise the reader. I play with point of view, with time, with narrative structure. So while every book is a spy novel, I experiment with new ways of engaging the reader. A bad novel for me would be the one where I got lazy.
It is an honor to be on a few of these lists, and hopefully they will bring attention to the novel, but my hope for any of my books is that a reader is taken in by the story. That’s all that matters.
Your novels have drawn favorable comparisons to authors like Joseph Conrad and John le Carré. How does that make you feel, and how do you live up to that sort of expectation?
I am a great admirer of Joseph Conrad and John le Carré, so comparisons to them are humbling. But it is dangerous to be lulled into believing comparisons to great dead writers because there is no way that you can live up to the comparisons, not just because they’re better, but because in death they are elevated to an unimpeachable status.
"Today, the enemy is stateless and violence seemingly random, which I believe makes us nostalgic for the measurable dangers of the Cold War."
What do you think you’ve been able to do in your writing that is unique to the literary spy genre?
My novels are character driven, and while they are plotted and the plots may be complex, the novels explore the difficult moral choices that men and women in the spy business make. Spies operate at the limits of civilized behavior, almost as outsiders, and their work requires them to betray acquaintances, suborn friends and sometimes murder adversaries, and inevitably these highly educated men and women bring some of that darkness into themselves. I am fascinated by that world. I explore themes of honor, trust, truth, betrayal and revenge in my characters, all with a dose of light-hearted fun.
What is your research process like?
Before sitting down to write a novel, I usually do six months of research to become comfortable with the novel’s elements: setting, characters, dialogue, theme and the historical context. Setting is not just scenery or nice descriptive passages, although an illustrator’s eye for a place is part of it. It’s about mood. It’s about the things that draw a character to a place, establish the novel’s atmosphere and provide the yearnings, fears, attractions and possibilities that are available to characters who find themselves at a unique moment in a particular place.
For The Mercenary, I read several autobiographies of high-ranking KGB officers who successfully defected to the West. They are gripping real-life stories of spies that paint a graphic picture of the paranoia, incompetence, intrigues and sheer nastiness of the KGB. I was able to understand the hopes and fears of men who were caught in the Soviet system, and once I inhabited their world, I created Viktor Petrov, a KGB Lieutenant Colonel who wanted out.
I usually visit the city where the novel is set, doing something akin to location scouting. I want to see where the action happened, the routes my characters take from their hotel, where my characters live and what they see when they walk down the street. I also look at old photographs, read newspapers from the time, and along the way I develop dossiers for my characters so I know what type of scotch they drink, or if they drink at all, their faith, speech patterns, the books they read. I try to have in my mind all the little details that make up a whole person. This research then goes into a chapter-by-chapter outline of the novel. Then, I begin to write.
The character George Mueller appears in all four of your novels so far, albeit in varying degrees. He is not the main emphasis of this book but sort of gets the ball rolling. Do you see him as the glue that holds your novels together? Where do you see this character going in your future works?
Jennifer Egan’s brilliant A Visit From the Goon Squad was marketed as novel, but it’s really a series of interlocking short stories in which the main character in one story becomes a minor character in another, and from chapter to chapter the cast of characters changes. The book is more complex and, in my view, more groundbreaking, because of the way she chose to tell it.
Mueller is a major character in two of my novels and a smaller character in the other two. He connects the novels, but because his role is reduced in two of them, I can enlarge my canvas with other characters and themes. I am not writing Mueller’s story. I am writing about men in the CIA in the Cold War. Mueller appears in my next novel, which is set in Berlin in 1989.
Do you find any similarities between yourself and your characters? What traits do you or they share, good or bad?
I was not a spy. I did not work at the CIA. None of my characters are my silhouette. Very little of my life is directly reflected in the book; however, we all see the world through the lens of our own experience. I was a senior executive at Time Warner, and I know how a bureaucracy like the CIA works—men and women with ambition, who game the politics of the organization, who betray colleagues when needed to advance themselves. These things I know, and I use them in my novels.
I place my characters in circumstances that test decency, honor, trust or friendship, often where there is tension between national security and personal integrity, and I see what choices the characters make. I am often surprised by their humanity. I suppose, in a way, that is one thing I share with my characters. The humanity. Humans suffer, they torture each other, but they can know hope on the far side of revenge.
What is it about the Cold War era that still appeals to readers? What is the key to keeping this type of story and this period fresh?
The Cold War gave rise to the golden age of the literary spy novel. Novels by le Carré, Greene, Kanon, McCarry and others put a human face on the Cold War by focusing on the psychological burdens of its characters. Doubt and paranoia bred in a culture of secrecy characterize these novels, as does the sophisticated amorality of the men at the top of the intelligence bureaucracies. The novels explore the strain that covert work places on family, friends and faith—themes that resonate today long after the end of the Cold War.
And there is another thing at work. We were able to measure things in the Cold War — borders, hope, annihilation. Today, the enemy is stateless and violence seemingly random, which I believe makes us nostalgic for the measurable dangers of the Cold War. The resurgence of Cold War fiction coincides with the enormous popularity of current Cold War movies, notably Bridge of Spies, and television series like “The Americans.” Readers can look to the literary spy novel to glide beneath the noise of headlines and see a complex world through the knowing eyes of empathetic characters. The age of surveillance in which we live makes the genre feel contemporary.
Have you considered writing a book set in our contemporary era? Or is it too soon to go there?
I am researching a novel about the CIA and the war on terror that is set a few years after the World Trade Center attack.
Do you have any aspirations or desires to tell stories outside of this genre? What’s next for you?
John le Carré stayed in the spy genre most of his career, taking a brief detour after A Spy Who Came in from the Cold to write The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), a pretentious romantic story about a ménage à trois and his biggest flop. He returned to the spy novel after that and stayed with it for the rest of his career.
He discovered in the spy novel a laboratory in which he could lay bare the intricacies of human nature. He once said in an interview: “A spy story is not just a spy story. It can be a love story, a story about engagement and escape, about the search for institutional integrity.” But because it was a spy story, he culled a much larger readership than if he had written about a suburban English housewife. He found that the constraints of genre gave him greater freedom to explore the things he wanted to say. I like to think I am doing the same thing.
My next novel, The Matchmaker, is set in Berlin in 1989 in the months that bookend the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Author photo © Bekka Palmer