Criminal Element Book Club, Week 8: Olen Steinhauer Answers Your Milo Weaver Questions
You have so many details woven into the story like the CIA office in the World Trade Center and the precursor to the CIA, the Pond. Did you find these true facts before you wrote “The Tourist” or did you add them later? Was there an advisor who had intelligence work knowledge you worked with or is this all online, maybe CIA museum and imagination?—Submitted by User KathyNV
Olen: Thanks for asking. I don’t have any friends in the “business,” so I’ve always depended on my own research. However, unlike a nonfiction writer, I don’t begin with weeks or months of research before starting to write. It always begins with characters and situations I’m interested in, and as I run into areas I’m not familiar with I do my research. This is a mix of online resources and books, though I try to visit as many of the locales as possible. What’s striking is how often the things I’ve simply made up, based on my general understanding of espionage and politics, ends up appearing in some form in the news a year or so later. I’m not prophetic at all, but imagination sometimes surprises with its prescience.
I love the idea that the spies are “tourists”. My question is this. Since the “Tiger” was so elusive that Milo, who had been tracking him for years, was surprised to learn that he was a Christian Scientist – how did his killer know that he was so that he could kill him with the aids virus? And now did the Tiger reconcile his profession with his religious beliefs.—Submitted by User barbarap3
Olen: Good question. As I remember it, the Tiger’s killers knew more about him because they worked with him (they hired him), and that was the kind of information they kept out of the files Milo would have had access to. As for reconciling murder with religious beliefs, I would say that as a general rule humans don’t have much trouble doing that. But with the Tiger specifically, I think he acted as many of us do—he took the parts of his faith that worked with his lifestyle and rationalized the rest. It would be a mistake to suggest the Tiger was representative of the followers of Christian Science!
There is very little information on the Internet about your background outside where you have lived and your education. How do you research and where do you gain the information to add enough credibility to your fiction (just enough believable truth) to write a fiction story which could be close enough to a real life case?—Submitted by UserTim Milloff
Olen: There’s little information about my background because it’s not very interesting!
Before writing for a living, I worked restaurant, copyediting, and library jobs* while saving money and plotting to relocate to Europe. Eventually that placed me in Italy and then Hungary, allowing me to travel to countries more easily, and cheaper. So I got a lot of geographic research done by hopping in a car and driving.
As far as spying goes, while an enormous amount of research has gone into learning about the trade, those who haven’t been in the business can never entirely know it, and so I’ve utilized the tools of fiction to bridge that credibility gap. What’s most important to me is getting the psychological reality of espionage right—or, at least, believable. I don’t write spy fiction because I want to represent the nuts and bolts of spying; I write it because I’m interested in how it affects people psychologically. So as a fiction writer I use imagination to try and bring the characters and settings to life. When those sorts of details succeed the story feels credible, even if it maybe isn’t!
Ex-intelligence officers cross often over into fiction writing these days, and for a while I felt lacking because I didn’t have their background. Then I came across something from one of my literary heros, John le Carré, which helped soothe my insecurities, since he spoke to my own understanding of fiction writing:
A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject, if he is wise, he holds his tongue. Some of you may wonder why I am reluctant to submit to interviews on television and radio and in the press. The answer is that nothing that I write is authentic. It is the stuff of dreams, not reality. Yet I am treated by the media as though I wrote espionage handbooks.
And to a point I am flattered that my fabulations are taken so seriously. Yet I also despise myself in the fake role of guru, since it bears no relation to who I am or what I do. Artists, in my experience, have very little centre. They fake. They are not the real thing. They are spies. I am no exception.
*Note to budding writers: Library work, in my experience, is fantastic for someone trying to write—laid back, great coworkers, access to research materials all day long.
If you were able to cast the characters for a movie, who would you choose?—Submitted by User Toni Bila
Olen: Well, I’ve had a lot of these conversations over the years with agents and producers, and as someone who had a hand in casting a TV show (“Berlin Station,” which I created), I know that my casting opinions are never very rigid. A good actor can bring a new, unexpected aspect of a character to life, and until they’re doing it on screen you just don’t know how well it will work—or, at least, I don’t. Famously, George Clooney was originally going to play him, and he would have been great. But now? I really don’t know.
Was anything removed from the book during the editing process?—Submitted by User lasvegasnv
Olen: Things are always removed from my books. Sometimes the removals are small—trimming a few scenes to tighten up the story so it doesn’t drag—while other times they’re large. Since I don’t outline ahead of time, I edit and rewrite as a move along, so that by the time I show a book to my editor, I’ve put it through dozens of drafts. I think little was removed from The Tourist while, for example, when I sent in The Last Tourist my editor pointed out that a lot of characters spent a lot of time discussing contemporary politics—a reflection of my own life over the last few years. So much so that it ground the story to a halt. Her simple advice was: “Can you trim 10-15,000 words?” That’s north of 50 pages—so, an enormous amount, more than the usual request. I balked at first, then took a hard look at the book. She was right, as usual, and by the time I excised all the extraneous pontificating, I’d cut 13,000 words and the story finally worked.
Do you ever compare your series with any other book series, same/different genre?—Submitted by User Dione Amore
Olen: The original inspiration for writing a contemporary espionage series was the Karla trilogy by John le Carré. In fact, he’s the reason I even started writing in the genre. But I hate to compare them because I fear my own series won’t stand up. (To be fair, most series couldn’t stand up to George Smiley’s adventures.) What I wanted was a series centered on an interesting character who’s forced to reinvent himself often. I wanted someone who found their meaning not in their work but in their family. And I wanted the reader to feel as if they’d visited a world that looked like ours but wasn’t, with its own internal logic and contradictions and deep complexity. If I’ve done those things, then I’m happy.
Is Milo Weaver based off of any real life person living or dead?—Submitted by User Mrs. Mary M Coder
Olen: No, though in some ways he’s my avatar. While our differences are apparent, we have the same birthday, went to the same college, have a daughter (I wrote The Tourist while we waited for our daughter’s birth), and share many opinions, obsessions and fears. Hopefully as time has passed, we’ve grown up together.
Did you visit all the places that you had Milo go to in this book? The descriptions of the various venues were very realistic.—Submitted by User Romonko
Olen: Many, but not all, and fewer once I became a parent. Often, I would write about a place, and then visit it to check the details, because I the story comes first, and it helps me see the locations through my characters’ eyes rather than my own. Interestingly, I wrote The Tourist and published it without ever having yet visited Paris. I was insecure about this fact, but when on tour for the French edition of the book my French editor took me out to a big dinner. He made a point of saying that what he loved about the book was how perfectly I’d captured Paris, as if I’d lived there all my life! Showing terrible manners, I admitted that when I wrote it I’d never visited Paris, and I think I embarrassed him. Sometimes the imagination really does get it right, but that doesn’t mean we have to always confess to it.
How do you develop the storyline? Is it something you plan on multiple sheets of paper or do you use your computer for this? What does it look like? And how do you keep track of the characteristics and the appearance of each person of your story?—Submitted by User Raphael Miese
Olen: As a general rule, if I have enough of an idea to fill a cocktail napkin, then I have enough to begin writing. Which is another way of saying that I don’t do much developing before sitting down to write. This can partly be blamed on impatience, but also on the understanding that without writing out scenes and characters in detail, I’m never entirely sure what choices they will really make. Also, if I know the whole story before writing it, I fear I’ll become bored during the composition, and that will come through to the reader. For me, the act of writing fiction is like a superior way of thinking. I used to say that my books are smarter than I am, which might still be true.
As for keeping track of everything as I write, if you were to look back at the notes for any particular book, you’d find a scattershot of thoughts spread between my Apple Notes app, Word documents, Moleskine notebooks, and emails to myself.
One thing I don’t worry about is my characters’ appearance. With a few exceptions (Milo, for example), I give sparing physical details because I don’t consider appearance particularly important, or interesting. When I read others’ books, I inevitably skim over or forget detailed character descriptions beyond, perhaps, some small, repeated detail, and I don’t see the point of wasting my readers’ time with details better left to their imagination. What I do worry about a character’s psychology, which is what I try to hold onto throughout the writing—and if I get that right, readers will imagine someone who fits that description.
I was struck in The Tourist by how you gave us information about Milo and Tina’s meeting and subsequent marriage in small pieces throughout the novel. Was that a deliberate choice to keep us reading or did you have some other motive?—Submitted by User Wendy Barker
Olen: I seem to remember that this was a dramatic choice. Ending the opening section with Milo being shot seemed like the most exciting way of launching into the main story (like you say, it was a way to keep people reading). I knew I wanted to describe the rest of their courtship, though, so I looked for places where Milo and Tina would each reflect on their courtship and—more importantly—where the reader could best learn that, despite their love for one another, they saw those old events, and the world, in radically different ways.
*A Note from Crime HQ: We’d like to thank everyone who participated in our Criminal Element Book Club to help make it a success. A very special thanks goes out to Olen Steinhauer, whose insight and engagement with the Book Club took our discussion to the next level. We hope you enjoyed reading The Tourist, and remember to look for the next thriller in the Milo Weaver series, The Last Tourist, on-sale March 24! Listen to an excerpt below:
About The Last Tourist by Olen Steinhauer:
In Olen Steinhauer’s bestseller An American Spy, reluctant CIA agent Milo Weaver thought he had finally put “Tourists”―CIA-trained assassins―to bed.
A decade later, Milo is hiding out in Western Sahara when a young CIA analyst arrives to question him about a series of suspicious deaths and terrorist chatter linked to him.
Their conversation is soon interrupted by a new breed of Tourists intent on killing them both, forcing them to run.
As he tells his story, Milo is joined by colleagues and enemies from his long history in the world of intelligence, and the young analyst wonders what to believe. He wonders, too, if he’ll survive this encounter.
After three standalone novels, Olen Steinhauer returns to the series that made him a New York Times bestseller.