An interview with the author of The Hill of Three Borders

Q: What’s the story behind the title of your novel?

Flanders: The Hill of Three Borders—in Hungarian, Hármashatárhegy—is the part of Budapest where three cities once met—Buda, Pest, and Obuda. It’s a scenic location, with great views of the surrounding countryside and Budapest. It’s also the setting for several key episodes in the book.

Q: The Hill of Three Borders finds your protagonist, veteran newsman Dennis Collins, in Budapest in October 1956 just as the Hungarian uprising begins. What’s with his knack for finding trouble?

Hill of Three Borders

Flanders: Or is it that trouble finds him? Dennis Collins has traveled to Hungary reluctantly—he has been strong-armed by the CIA into venturing behind the Iron Curtain to assist his childhood friend, Morris Rose, in re-defecting to the West. It’s supposed to be an uncomplicated, low-risk mission, but when the city erupts in revolt, things become quite complicated.

Budapest is wonderful, by the way, the Paris of the Danube, and when you visit the city today and walk its streets it’s almost unimaginable that in 1956 that Soviet tanks were lobbing shells into its elegant buildings and machine-gunning people queueing in line for bread. The tragic reality is that they were. When you talk to Hungarians you find that 1956 isn’t ancient history, but very present for them. I think that’s apparent in the current political situation there today, because the process of “truth and reconciliation” (as conducted in South Africa) never really happened and Hungary still struggles with confronting its dark past.

Q: Morris Rose, who was a key figure in Herald Square, returns in this novel…except he shows up as Maxim Rusakov.

Flanders: Yes, Morris has been renamed by the KGB, which was common practice—both for defectors and for their clandestine agents who worked overseas. I thought that it would be interesting to explore what life might be like for an American defector behind the Iron Curtain, working for the KGB in Warsaw and Budapest. How would he deal with the gap between Marxist rhetoric and practice? And what are the psychic costs of living in societies so governed by fear? Of knowing that the next purge might condemn you to death or exile in the Gulag?

His double life as Colonel Maxim Rusakov, the KGB colonel, and as Morris Rose, the former American diplomat, kid from Brooklyn, has created an immense internal conflict for Morris. The disillusionment he feels was replicated in many Communist Party members around the world as they learned the full extent of Stalin’s crimes starting with Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech to the 20th Party Congress in early 1956.

Q: The novel plays out against the backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution. How did that factor into the writing of The Hill of Three Borders, and how did you research the book?

Flanders: Ever since reading James Michener’s Bridge at Andau as a teenager, I’ve been intrigued by the Hungarian uprising. It’s an amazing story, reminiscent in some ways of the revolt led by Spartacus against Rome—this spontaneous explosion by an oppressed people despite long odds for success. Although the uprising was crushed, it revealed to the world that state Communism could only survive through terror and occupation. Any hopes the Kremlin had of exporting its brand of socialism to Western Europe died in the rubble of Budapest.

As to the research, I traveled to Budapest and stayed in the city at the same time of year—late October—as when the uprising occured. I interviewed some historians of the period and talked to city residents. And I had the benefit of turning to the journalistic accounts of the uprising by reporters like John MacCormac of the New York Times and Endres Marton of the Associated Press, and numerous memoirs by Western correspondents who were there. There’s also some amazing newsreels of the uprising shot by Pathe and others.

Q: Your protagonist, Dennis Collins, is older now, a married man. Has that changed the way you see him?

Flanders: Older but not ancient—Denny is 40 years old when he heads to Budapest; at 62, Liam Neeson is the world’s best-paid action adventure hero, so I’d like to think Denny isn’t over-the-hill yet. It’s true that he has become more cautious, and he’s mellowed, but he has that Irish temper. He can still throw a punch, but he has a family and he doesn’t want to take any great risks. Of course life doesn’t work that way and Denny finds himself in some very tight spots.

Q: What, if anything, do you want readers to take away from The Hill of Three Borders? A message, of sorts?

Flanders: First and foremost, I’d hope that they were entertained by the story. Beyond that, if they’re unfamiliar with this particular period of American history I’d hope that the novel sparks an interest in the early years of the Cold War—it was a fascinating time that helped shape the world we live in today.

It’d be personally gratifying if readers found some of the cast of characters memorable: Denny, Morris, Feliks Hawes, Eva Nemeth, Anna Sandor, Viktor Toth, Mikhail Durov, Isabelle Lavalle. They’re at the center of the novel.

Any messages? For the most part, I’m in Samuel Goldwyn‎’s camp: “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” But I won’t deny that I have a decided point of view on the early Cold War. The West faced two totalitarian threats in the 20th century: the first was National Socialism, a collectivist system based on race and terror, and the second was Marxism-Leninism, a collectivist system based on class and terror. Neither affirmed the individual. We’re fortunate that the Greatest Generation resisted both.

Q: The Hill of Three Borders completes the First Trumpet trilogy about the early Cold War. Any writing projects on the horizon?

Flanders: Historical fiction will take a backseat for the moment. My second short story collection, The Girl from Recoleta and Other Stories of Love, will be published this fall.

Then, next year look for Hometown, a very brief novel about country music, family, and some out-of-fashion virtues. Also on horizon, there’s another Cold War novel set in Berlin in the late 1950s.

Copyright © 2014 Jefferson Flanders
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