“A 21st-century Spy”
by Oline H. Cogdill
Jan 5, 2009
After five crime novels set in a fictional Eastern European country during the Cold War, Olen Steinhauer examines the toll working for the CIA takes on one agent in a contemporary spy thriller, The Tourist (Reviews, Dec. 15).
What drew you to the spy thriller?
John le Carré. It wasn’t until I picked up The Spy Who Came In from the Cold that it became clear how spy fiction can encompass all the social commentary, realism, philosophy and fine writing of literature, yet still maintain the vigorous pacing that hooks an audience.
What’s the biggest challenge for you in writing a spy thriller?
Plausibility. There’s the plausibility of the story itself, which may contain terrorists or competing intelligence agencies pulling off hard-to-believe acts. The spy genre was so well-mined by the 1970s that it’s difficult to find an angle that hasn’t become cliché. You have to come up with something completely new or look at the old plots with a fresh, contemporary eye.
Paranoia and lies preoccupy Milo Weaver, the CIA agent in The Tourist.
My interest in paranoia and lies ties into a basic interest in how people relate to one another. Personal relationships involve a certain level of deception—one deceives a loved one to avoid hurt, or deceives oneself for similar reasons. As a novelist, I’m placing my characters in environments that externalize this internal deception. That way, the external and internal worlds of my characters can play off of one another more easily and give a natural sense of unity to the story.
What do you see as the future for the spy thriller?
Genres never die—they just slumber until the reading public becomes hungry for them again. If the spy novel is to remain an important form—one that critiques in a significant way the relationship between “us” and “them”—then outsiders’ views of America must be thoroughly and realistically explored.