Saturday, August 25, 2007

Epitaph for a spy series


AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Saturday, August 25, 2007

"Romania is the most self-hating country I've ever been to," the thriller writer Olen Steinhauer says by phone from his home in Budapest, Hungary. "There's a joke they have, that says God created Romania, and he made it the most beautiful country in the world: The most beautiful water, the most beautiful mountains, the Danube delta, the most fertile soil. And then God sat back and looked at it and said, 'Well, this is perfect. This is like Eden, it's just too good. So what can I do? I know — I'll fill it with Romanians.' "

Steinhauer, a University of Texas graduate whose fifth book, "Victory Square," came out this week, has spent the past few years collecting stories such as this about the politics and culture of 20th century Eastern Europe. He reads cold war histories, talks to his Budapest neighbors and, "like everybody else these days" does research on the Internet. Amazon's international delivery service comes in handy, too. "Without the Internet I'm not sure how I could do this, because there aren't any English language libraries here," he says.

When he's finished with his research, Steinhauer takes what he's learned and pours it into a series of sharply etched novels about security agents and homicide detectives living under communism.

It's a world Steinhauer happened on through a series of happy accidents. After graduating from high school in Virginia (the jacket copy of his first three books mistakenly says he was "raised in Texas"), Steinhauer enrolled in Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, which has one of the largest international exchange programs in the country. For his sophomore semester abroad, he decided to go to Scotland because he'd hung out with some cool Scottish students. But then he met a group of Yugoslavs "who kind of blew my mind; they were just so different and interesting." So he walked back into the exchange office and changed his destination.

The resulting semester in Zagreb, Croatia, was one of the most eye-opening experiences of his life. "I was there in the fall of '89, when the Berlin Wall came down," he says. "I was 19, I was just learning to drink and smoke and dance, and this wasn't part of my reality — the whole political situation. And when everything started crumbling in all of the neighboring countries, it was shocking just how little I knew. So I became obsessed with writing about it."

Steinhauer took a few detours before he committed himself to living in and writing about Eastern Europe. After he got back to the States, he transferred to UT (his parents had moved to Dallas), where he majored in English. He says he doesn't remember much about his classes here, but he does happily recall going to the Ransom Center and gawking at the James Joyce and Ezra Pound manuscripts. "I sort of drooled in front of the glass," he admits.

Following graduation, Steinhauer stuck around Austin for a few years. He worked at the now-defunct Martin Brothers Cafe on the Drag ("I was called 'smoothie to go,' which means I made the smoothies and ran the to-go window"), married a local woman and saw too many artist friends sacrifice their talent at the altar of dope smoking.

Then there was a grad school stint in Boston, some short stories about small-town American life and a Fulbright that brought him to Romania, the subject of a first, unpublished novel.

Five years ago, after getting divorced, he moved from Italy to Budapest, where he writes every day and is engaged to Slavica Pilic, a Serbian woman who is carrying their first child. He doesn't think he'll stay there forever — Western Europe beckons — but for now it's home.

Steinhauer's first book, "The Bridge of Sighs," came out in 2003, soon after he'd settled in Hungary, and quickly drew notice — a starred review in Kirkus, raves in The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune and a finalist slot in the Edgar Awards' Best First Novel category. The book, set in 1948, focuses on Emil Brod, a rookie homicide detective in the "People's Militia" who must navigate the baffling and dangerous world of post-war Eastern Europe soon after the Soviets established communist rule.

Despite the somewhat de rigueur love story at its center, "Bridge of Sighs" vividly evokes the feel and texture of a traumatized country — which is all the more impressive given that, like all of Steinhauer's books, it's set in the unnamed capital of a fictional Eastern European nation.

"Originally, when I was writing 'Bridge of Sighs,' I didn't know if it was going to be set in a fictional country or in Romania," he explains. "When I was in Romania writing this other novel, I researched the history of the country very intensely, so I had a good picture of 1948 there. But honestly, I didn't want to deal with the tedium of getting every single fact right — like, Do you turn left or right on Boulevard Eminescu? And I was kind of entranced by the idea of creating a fictional country because that meant I could use something from Romania in one book, something from Hungary in another book or Poland in another book — whatever seemed most interesting."

Each book in Steinhauer's "People's Militia" series takes place in a different decade, beginning with the imposition of Soviet rule in "The Bridge of Sighs," continuing with the failed rebellions of the 1950s in "The Confession," and concluding with the fall of communism in "Victory Square." Which brings Steinhauer right back to where he was when he began this obsession: in Eastern Europe circa 1989.

In fact, Steinhauer originally planned to include himself as a character in "Victory Square," which started out as a 1,000-page Joycean epic called "Falling Sickness." His editor made it clear this wasn't going to work — Barnes & Noble wouldn't stock a big brick of a book by a midlist author — so Steinhauer stopped at the 400-page mark and reined it in. (An autobiographical element remains, though: Early in the book, the Militia detective Gavra Noukas travels to America on the trail of a defector and visits Clover Hill High School in Virginia — which is Steinhauer's alma mater.)

Steinhauer has built a sturdy reputation in the thriller community — last year's "Liberation Movements" was an Edgar finalist for Best Novel — but he still needs to produce a book a year to pay his bills. "It's not a very stable way to make a living, particularly when you're writing Eastern European crime novels that are critically well received but don't necessarily sell that much," he says. So now that his quintet of period novels is complete, Steinhauer has sent his agent the first draft of a contemporary CIA thriller that he hopes will be his commercial breakthrough.

"I'm thinking trilogy," he says.

jsalamon@statesman.com; 445-3610

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