Liner Notes: How Did It Get to be November? Edition

Definition: Liner notes (also sleeve notes or album notes) are the writings found on the sleeves of LP record albums and in booklets which come inserted into the Compact Disc jewel case or the equivalent packaging for vinyl records and cassettes. Such notes often contained a mix of factual and anecdotal material, and occasionally a discography for the artist or the issuing record label. Liner notes were also an occasion for thoughtful signed essays on the artist by another party, often a sympathetic music journalist, a custom that has largely died out.

Where the hell have I been, anyway? Apparently my assignments, projects and consulting gigs have kept me busy for a good part of the year. Here are a few highlights from the wilderness months.

A Better WorldI don’t pitch writers very often, but I did for this feature with Marcus Sakey, the author of Brilliant and A Better World. They’re these great little hard science fiction novels that postulate what would happen if one percent of the population were born with gifts ranging from a natural predictive response to vastly different perceptions of the passage of time. They get a lot of X-men comparisons but they’re much more grounded and noir-ish than any comic book.

That said, I had to make a rare correction in the story at the last minute. The books, as it’s been widely reported, have been picked up to be made into film adaptations by Legendary Pictures, who apparently intended for the books to be the next big vehicle for movie star Will Smith. At the very last minute, it was reported that Smith had dropped out and Jared Leto had been cast in the role, although I hear that the Dallas Buyers Club star / Thirty Seconds to Mars singer has since dropped out as well. I didn’t have the room to write it up in the interview but I thought Marcus had some thoughtful things to say about books and movies.

“One of the comments you see in Amazon reviews all the time that just chaps my ass is people saying, ‘he obviously wrote it to be a movie,'” Sakey told me. “That’s ridiculous and furthermore, it’s impossible. You can’t write a book to be a movie and if you did, you would write a terrible book that no one would want to make into a movie. I think my writing is fairly cinematic, probably because I watch a lot of movies, and always have. There is no part of my brain writing a novel thinking, ‘Wow, this will be a phenomenal set piece for the movie.’ I like movies and I’m influenced by that love.”

Anyway, these are really fun to read and I highly recommend Sakey’s work.

The summer was a time for a lot of spy books, both fiction and nonfiction. For the second time, I interviewed Ben McIntyre about his latest book, A Spy Among Friends, which many people in the trade consider to be the definitive account of the bizarre friendship between British agent Nicholas Elliot and spymaster Kim Philby, the story that inspired the classic novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy by John LeCarre.  Soon after, I spoke with Peter Duffy about his very cinematic portrayal of the William G. Sebold story in Double Agent, which recounts the masterful takedown of a WWII Nazi spy ring in New York City. A few months later, I got to experience something completely different when I spoke with British satirist Jonathan Coe about his new novel, Expo 58, which is set in Brussels (always ripe for comedy) during the first major World’s Fair following the end of World War II.

AThe Birth of Korean Coollso this summer, I was glad to connect with fellow journalist Euny Hong, whom I liked from the moment I interviewed her the first time about her debut novel Kept almost a decade ago. Euny had written a semi-confrontational post about her Korean heritage in The Atlantic a while back called “Growing Up Gangnam-Style,” which naturally went viral and led to a book deal. Her resulting book, The Birth of Korean Cool, was really funny and insightful. If you have any curiosity at all about why characters in Korean action flicks like Old Boy and The Raid are so pent up, why South Korea investors would back a $42 million film like Snowpiercer, or why (as Euny blissfully explains) “Korea has been fate’s bitch for 5,000 years,” I highly recommend you grab this one and connect the dots.

The Secret PlaceThe rest of the year has been a bit of a blur. On the crime front, I caught up with the great Tana French to talk about her latest novel The Secret Place, how super-creepy teenage girls can be, and about the act of writing. Tana always reminds me a bit of Ian Rankin, in that she can spin out these incredibly complex analyses of the nature of crime fiction, and yet be completely unaware of her own process. I’ve been collecting writer’s thoughts on the differences between genre fiction and “literary fiction” for a while for my own fun. This is what Tana French had to say.

“For me, the big distinction between literary fiction at one end of the spectrum and genre fiction at the other end is that in genre fiction, the characters’ main objective is exterior,” she explains. “If you’re writing pure crime, the character’s main objective is to catch the killer. If you’re writing pure chick lit, the character’s main objective is to find a husband. In pure literary fiction, the character’s objective is much more internalized; to resolve his issues with his father or to find closure for some psychological confusion. The action tends to be driven by an internal objective rather than an external one. I think that probably distinguishes what I’m writing or what Gillian Flynn is writing from Agatha Christie. She has that purely externalized objective whereas catching the killer isn’t the most important plot arc within my books. The most important part is the character negotiating some kind of journey within himself or herself. That’s what leads to the more thematically complex kind of book in any genre.” She’s really quite something.

Blind SpotSoon after, I interviewed Reed Farrel Coleman, who has been hand-picked by the estate of Robert B. Parker to continue the novels about small-town sheriff Jesse Stone (who happens to be my personal favorite of the late Parker’s creations). If you’ve read any of the Jesse Stone books, or indeed caught one of the television adaptations starring Tom Selleck, you’re aware that Jesse take a drink, or two, or six pretty much every night of the week, but never descends into a full-blown tailspin like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder. I’m actually surprised it didn’t make it into the interview (you and your short attention span are to blame), but Reed had some great insight into that aspect of Jesse’s character after re-reading all of the Parker books.

“You know a lot of cops and P.I.s drink,” he explained. “I though Tom Selleck as Jesse was a brilliant move because he’s all the things that Jesse is supposed to be.  But drinking represents for the readers all the struggles in their lives. Some people struggle with food, some people struggle with drinking or drugs, but every one of us struggles. There’s not a reader in the world that doesn’t have their weak spot. Unlike Scudder, who one day stops, Jesse keeps drinking. His on and off struggle with drinking doesn’t stop. In Blind Spot, he doesn’t even bother beating himself up about it anymore. I think we all have that in our lives. That was really smart. You don’t even realize what he’s pulling off.”

I need to wrap up for the moment, but you can also read my interview with prize-winning theater critic John Lahr about his new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh as well as my Q&A with British novelist Michael Faber about his fantastic science fiction exploration The Book of Strange New Things, and another conversation with the very funny Brock Clarke about his latest, The Happiest People in the World.

Stay warm, friends. See you on the other side.

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70 Years After: The Great Escape

There was a great ceremony in Zagan, Poland this week, to mark the 70th anniversary of the escape at Stalag Luft III, the German prisoner of war camp popularized in the 1963 film The Great Escape, which starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Sir Richard Attenborough and James Coburn, as well as the great Scottish actor Angus Lennie as Sir Archibald Ives, who keeps McQueen company in “The Cooler.” At the ceremony on Monday, members of the Royal Air Force carried pictures of the original prisoners. One speaker properly said, “They were not prisoners of war. They were prisoners at war.”

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

Strangely enough, I have some personal experience with these men. In May of 2004, I was living on the South Bank in London. That morning, we heard on the radio that six former prisoners at the camp were going to reunite for a private event at the Imperial War Museum that afternoon. Using nothing more than a business card that identified me as a writer, I talked my way into the event, which was incredible. I got to meet two of the surviving escapees, squadron leader Bertram “Jimmy” James and flight lieutenant Sydney Dowse, both of whom since passed away in 2008.

It was also thrilling for me that several actors from the film adaptation were there as well, including John Leyton, George Mikell, Tom Adams and Angus Lennie. I got to spend a good half-hour with Angus talking about the making of the film, the London stage, and working with actors like Alec Guinness. “People in my business have great strength,” he said. “I used to go and see the films and think I could do that. How could I do that? I was just a little boy who wanted to sing and dance. I think it was determination, too. At the age of 16, I was in London performing. If you did that today, you’d end up sleeping on the Strand.”

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

I also spoke briefly with Tim Carroll, author of The Great Escape From Stalag Luft III about the connections between the film and the real-life events of the escape. “There’s a moment in the film that captures the experience for me, and it’s the moment just as Donald Pleasance, playing the forger, is killed by the Germans,” he said. “He says to James Garner, ‘Thanks for saving me.’ That’s what these men cared about.”

In honor of the anniversary, I thought it was worth reprinting my original story. Enjoy.

THE GREAT ESCAPERS REUNITE IN LONDON (2004)

Trolley Escape

Jimmy James and Sydney Dowse with a recreation of one of the escape trolleys used to flee from Stalag Luft III.

“For you, the war is over,” said Nazis to Allied aircrew that were shot down over Europe in World War II and captured. That was not good enough for the prisoners of Stalag Luft III, a POW camp 100 miles southeast of Berlin run by the Luftwaffe. Dozens of prisoners spent eleven months excavating three escape tunnels, “Tom, Dick and Harry,” with bed boards and stolen materials while others forged fake identification and scrapped together civilian clothing.

The March 24, 1944 escape of 76 prisoners is one of the best-known episodes of World War II and was fictionalized in the 1963 film, “The Great Escape.” The 60th anniversary of the escape was marked by a reunion on March 16 at the Imperial War Museum in London. Attending the event were two escapees who made it out of the tunnel, Squadron Leader Bertram “Jimmy” James, 89, and Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse, 84. Fourteen other veterans attending included Flight Lieutenant Alex Cassie, a skilled artist who played a crucial role as a forger of documents and Flight Lieutenant Ken Rees, who was caught in the tunnel when the Germans discovered it and inspired Steve McQueen’s role in the film as “The Cooler King.”

The unprecedented escape was a major disgrace for the Nazis and led to tragedy for many of the escapees. Out of the 76 men who left the tunnel, only three made it to safety and 50 of the recaptured prisoners were murdered by the Gestapo on Hitler’s direct orders.

Read more about The Great Escape after the jump.

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What Might Have Been

It’s no secret that I love alternative histories, not to mention the secret histories of the world, so these next two interviews feel like kindred spirits to me.

DominionFirst up, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing C.J. Sansom, the distinguished Scottish novelist and iconoclast behind the Matthew Shardlake historical thrillers and the very fine spy novel Winter in Madrid. I feel very lucky to have caught him when I did, because his new novel Dominion is spectacular. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. I had to laugh when the interview was published to see no less than Stephen King broadcast, “That book DOMINION is terrific. And no, this isn’t one of those publisher-sponsored blurbs. I just fell in love with it. Nice and long, too.”

As stated, it’s an alternative history of World War II, but it’s a damned thoughtful one, let me tell you. Sansom pulled off a great trick, as we discuss in “Inventing a New History,” in that he only changed a single fact: instead of the ferocious Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister, the so-called “architect of appeasement,” Lord Halifax, takes the role. By the time we catch up to the “present” in 1952, Great Britain is under German occupation and America has retreated under the cover of isolationism. It’s a great spy novel but it’s also truly creepy at times, throwing out seemingly random facts like the fact that the Holocaust has come and gone, with only whispers that it ever happened at all. I’m told that BBC radio adapted it as a miniseries, so there’s a note to self to go check that out, too.

You can get the most interesting comments in the interview at Kirkus, but I thought it was worth sharing a few conversations that didn’t make it into the feature. It was a bit too much to go into there, but Mr. Sansom definitely had an agenda in writing Dominion.

The author, a trained historian himself, managed to drum up a bit of controversy when the book was released. The minor kerfuffle was over his portrayal of Enoch Powell, which you can read about in the British Press. The underlying theme of the novel, however, is warning against the dangers of nationalism. It’s an issue that Sansom cares about deeply, as it falls right in line with his passionate opposition to the Scottish vote on independence later this year. Here’s what he had to say about the dangers inherent in national idealism.

“The short answer is: look at modern European history,” he explained. “The first danger is the extent to which socially liberally or socially conservative views on issues of personal freedom prevail. Those are the things that most people argue about when they argue about politics. About only a week or two ago, Nichola Sturgeon, who is the deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, said that independence transcends conventional politics. Well, I think it’s very bad to transcend conventional politics, because you’re saying other issues don’t matter; it’s just nationality that matters. I think that’s wrong. It’s also completely unrealistic and myth-making because the issues that one faces in daily life are ones of political economy. Dreams of nationality don’t fill people’s stomachs. It’s also dangerous because nationalism by definition defines itself against an an enemy of ‘other’ There always has to be an enemy. That’s dangerous.”

“If you say nationalism trumps other issues, it’s very easy to stomp down the road to authoritarianism,” he continued. “I’m not saying it always happens, but there is always a risk. Nationalists also wind up anthropomorphizing the nation as just a collection of people who lived in the same place under the same political rule for a few hundred years. Nationalism gives the state a sort of human personality. The national destiny, the national dream, the national feeling. To me, that’s all just so much rubbish.”

Half WorldBack on this side of the pond, I connected with novelist Scott O’Connor about his eerie new novel Half World. It’s about one of the great secret histories of America, delving not only into a series of desperately dark personal journeys but into the connective tissue of American conspiracies, the threads that lead directly from Menlo Park to Dealey Plaza to Jonestown, Abu Gharib and beyond. In my feature “Thought Control” at Kirkus Reviews, we delved into the history of Project MKUltra, the CIA’s decades-long experiment in bioengineering behavior through the use of LSD, behavioral modifications, hypnosis, rape and torture.

“What we know is true is a very small percentage compared to the theories out there about the program,” O’Connor explained. “A quick Google search will implicate MK Ultra in just about any act of public violence in the past 50 years. The records were only destroyed because the agnecy knew that public hearings were coming. The political climate was changing because of Watergate and Vietnam and they knew they were going to be called to be counted. In the mid-70s, there were a couple of hearings in which they disclosed assassination attempts and coups. It was pretty shocking, especially at the time. The idea that this was the project that they destroyed records over is terrifying. I mean, they didn’t destroy the records about trying to kill Castro, which was a pretty shocking revelation in 1975, but this had to be buried. It really makes you wonder how bad it got. As a novelist, you now have something to write about because it gives you a place to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have happened there.”

Sleep tight.