Just came off of a couple weeks looking in on 4MysteryAddicts as they discussed The Bridge of Sighs. It was an interesting experience, because as I often say, over here I’m separated from most reader feedback, and I appreciated the honesty of the participants. Some liked, while others hated, the use of a fictional country. And everyone gave clear, thoughtful reasons why they felt as they did. Others liked, or disliked, my main character, Emil Brod. Etc.

Perhaps the weirdest thing was the lag-time. I finished writing this book in June 2001, and now I’m half-way through my fourth book. But it’s not a bad thing to look back and relook at what you’ve done.

I chose to pipe in at the end only to try to clarify why I’d used a fictional country, because after reading some of their comments, I began asking myself the same thing—“Why? Are you just a bozo who doesn’t like the research?”

Luckly, I realized I wasn’t a bozo as I began to remember some reasons, and for those of you with the same question, here are some bits from my over-lengthy answer:

I wrote half of this book still unsure what country I’d place it in. It was based on research I’d done over a year in Romania for another book that never saw publication. That unpublished book, to me, really suffered from the qualities I don’t like in some historical novels—that it feels at times less like a story than an essay on a particular place and time, and the action gets halted for pages. So I didn’t want to fall into that trap again, and creating a fictional country made it easier for me to show rather than tell….

At the same time, I knew I was beginning a five-book series, and since I’d never done this sort of thing before, I had to ask myself: Am I really interested enough in Romania (or some other country) to spend the next five years of my life writing about it?

Fact is, my interest was always in the region. I’d spent a formative semester in 1989 in Zagreb Croatia (then, Yugoslavia), as well as the Czech Republic and Hungary, in addition to Romania. I could imagine five years in the region, but not five years and five books in any one of these places.

When you live in this part of the world, and you’re writing about it, you’re faced with local reactions to what you do. When I was writing about Romania, I’d often get the “But you’re American, you can’t understand” reaction. This always made me question what I was doing—I mean, maybe they were right. Who did I think I was? And when I dwelled on this I realized that what I was most interested in exploring was—as Barbara Fister said—the “zeitgeist”. When I write this stuff, I never quite fool myself into thinking I’m writing the world that actually existed at this time. What I’m writing is a kind of American dream of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Empire.

Which isn’t to say I’ve got it wrong—I’ve had enough Hungarians and Serbs tell me I got it right to feel pretty confident about my work. I do a ton of research, but my research is really to give me details to fuel my imagination. Because the details of history are interesting and all, but the only reason I do this job is to tell stories. I’m more interested in the psychological reality of a time than its physical reality.

So BRIDGE is essentially a fantasy of communism, which is why I also felt free to use all these noir staples. And with all the books I’m trying to toy with my own American vision of this part of the world. The fifth book, which I’m taking notes for, will address this idea directly, while commenting back on the previous four books.

(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)