Today we have Portland (OR) writer Steve Anderson under the lens at Scene of the Crime. Anderson has published three e-books, including The Losing Role, an espionage thriller featuring failed German actor, Max Kaspar, who is forced to join a desperate secret mission in which he must impersonate an enemy American officer. The book has received solid reviews. Rose City Reader dubbed it “a terrific book that deserves a wide audience,” while Midwest Book Reviews termed it “a historical thriller … quite difficult to put down.” Historical Novel Review felt that The Losing Role “does a marvelous job of showing the ‘fog of war’ wherein no one truly understands what is going on once the attack has begun.”
Steve set out to be a history professor, spending time in Munich on a Fulbright Fellowship. Then, as he notes on his homepage, “I discovered fiction and screenwriting — I could make stuff up, using history and research to serve the story. What could be better? Whatever the story, I always root for the underdog.”
Indie publishing could, I guess, fit the category of underdog. So, Steve, it’s good to have you with us at Scene of the Crime and introduce you to more potential readers. As usual, let’s begin with a discussion of your crime scenes.
The Losing Role mostly takes place in the desolate and cold woods of the war-torn Ardennes Region in the winter of 1944-45. Sometimes picturesque, but also dangerous to anyone out in it too long. Chilling wet when it’s not freezing. For this I’m surely drawing on the Pacific Northwest where I’m from. 1940s Germany and 1930s New York also make major appearances, both of which have always fascinated me. In my crime noir novel False Refuge, there’s the oft-changing, primeval landscape of the Big Island of Hawaii — both lush and barren. For the comical mystery Besserwisser: A Novel, set in 1990, it’s the Munich and Unification-era Germany where I’d lived on-and-off as a grad student and wannabe vagabond.
What things about this place make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
I’m drawn to places that are near something significant but not quite. Maybe it’s because I’m from Portland, a city long overshadowed by Seattle and San Francisco. To me, those places in-between or off the beaten path are where people are left to their own devils and their own ends. In The Losing Role, the setting is part of that hard place the main character Max Kaspar has found himself in, stuck between the gamble of overconfidence and the desolation of total war.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
A little of both. If a character starts to sense some hope in civilization, I’ll send him or her to a grand city and destroy it with fire bombings. Grim, but there it is. It’s that old maxim about denying characters what they seek — setting should do its share too.
I try to use setting and locale as an integral part of the scene. The trick is in not overdoing it. Give just enough sense of the place and keep it moving. When I started out, I used to write much longer setting descriptions.
How do your protagonists interact with their surroundings?
My main characters are often torn between two worlds, at first guardedly enthusiastic but soon they’re committed to a pursuit that can’t be won and they feel it. This is where my in-between settings play a part. I think my books are like noirish Westerns in this way. The setting seems to inspire something like hope, but will quickly work to help isolate the protagonist.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Readers (including Germans, luckily) have enjoyed reading about Munich. Others have had historical connections through their family, like a reviewer [http://historicalnovelreview.blogspot.com/2011/02/losing-role-by-steve-anderson.html] whose GI father fought in the Battle of the Bulge on the very same front lines that Max Kaspar crosses over as a reluctant secret agent in The Losing Role.
Do you have a scene that focuses on the place?
In The Losing Role a tough experience in one place — New York City — leads Max Kaspar to retreat to what he knows — Germany — where’ll end up even worse off, and forced to face America all over, but this time it’s a juggernaut conjured up by the demands of war. Max is a German actor forced to impersonate an American officer behind the US front lines during the Battle of the Bulge — here he’s riding with his false flag comrades in a contraband US jeep:
“Up front, Max and Zoock smoked the American cigarettes. They were Pall Malls. Max had smoked the very same in New York City. For a moment the fine musky aroma took him back to his apartment on the Lower East Side, to the stoops and drug store diners, the salary men in the elevators, and even to that strange automat where he ate pie with a slice of cheese. And then the moment was gone. It didn’t take him back to Lucy. She smoked Camels.
“The sky became a heavy, dark gray mass. The morning mist formed drops on their olive green wool. It was time to consider the mission, and Felix took the lead. He checked the maps as they drove on. As planned, they had been dodging the major crossings and villages. They passed only minor crossings and checkpoints. At every signpost Felix had Zoock stop so he could jump out and switch the signs backwards. Ideally this would send any unwary or retreating Americans right back into the advancing Germans and, similarly, any counterattacking Americans far to the rear. It was vaudeville to the death. And with every switch Felix jumped back into the jeep giggling.
“They headed downhill, and a fog thickened. A stream had washed out part of the road, revealing the tops of rocks through the mud. Zoock shifted down to cross the water. Max peered through the fog. Something was ahead, at the base of the hill. He grabbed the binoculars.
“It was a roadblock. Two jeeps, an armored car, and a squad of roughly ten American soldiers stood ready. The silhouettes looked unreal in the fog, like two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Seeing them, Felix cocked his Colt pistol. Max shook his head at Felix. ‘Don’t worry, lieutenant. I’m all right,’ Felix said.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Graham Greene, Martin Cruz Smith, John Le Carré, Alan Furst, Robert Lee Burke, John Steinbeck, and I could go on. All these writers do great things with location, making it part of the story without letting it overtake the story. Other favorites include Charles McCarry, Patricia Highsmith, Philip Kerr.
The Losing Role is one of a loose series. The next book is a historical crime/mystery, The Liberator. Set in 1945, it follows Max’s estranged little brother Harry as a US captain in the occupation of the isolated and seemingly docile Southern Bavarian town of Heimgau (fictional), where Harry hopes to make his name by solving a torture-murder. The two brothers meet up in a third novel set in Central Europe at the early onset of the Cold War.
Talk to us a little about the pluses and minuses of self-publishing.
I’m somewhat of a strange bird among the fine writers interviewed here in that I’m self-publishing while represented by an agent for The Liberator, which is on submission. The surge in e-books and loosening attitudes toward the quality of some self-publishing has let me build a little readership that I appreciate to no end. The books I have out now had simply never found a house despite many revisions and those encouraging declines from agents, editors. So I put them out myself.
One thing that has really struck me is how little readers care about the who the publisher is. I have few advantages over traditional publishing, but I do retain my rights. I can price my books what I want. I can change covers. I promote in many the same ways as traditionally published authors, with social media and involvement on blogs and forums — and burn out just the same among the day job and urges to get back to actual writing. I probably spend half my time figuring out what doesn’t work, marketing-wise. But I also don’t have near the reach that’s possible through even a mid-sized publisher.
It’s always tough be a writer no matter the situation, but these are exciting days. It’s a good time to be an established writer with a backlist the writer can regain rights to. You can put those books back out and find more and different readers than the first time around. After all, it’s all about connecting with those readers who get what you do.
Steve, excellent interview, and thanks again for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Steve Anderson and his books, check out his homepage.