An Interview with the Author of Herald Square

Q: Where did the idea for Herald Square come from?

Flanders: From two places, really. First, from hearing the stories of my father, Stephen Flanders, about the New York newspaper world of the late 1940s. After the war, he returned to the newsroom of the Herald Tribune, where he covered all sorts of stories—I think at one point he was the third-string theater critic for the paper—and he described an incredibly vibrant city. It was a Golden Age for sports, politics, Broadway, jazz, publishing.

Then I became interested in post-war U.S. counterintelligence when I was in college. I interviewed Allen Weinstein at Smith College in the the mid-1970s when he was working on his book Perjury and heard from him how his research changed his mind about the innocence of Alger Hiss. I also covered a speech Hiss gave at the time, and was struck by his reserve, his lack of spontaneity, and wondered what was behind the mask.

Combine the two and you have the ingredients for Herald Square.

Q: New York City is at the heart of Herald Square, isn’t it?

Flanders: It is. New York in 1949 was the cultural, publishing, and financial center of the world, and the symbolic capital of what truly was then the Free World. It was no accident that the United Nations had been sited there, and they were finishing up the construction of the UN Building on the East River that fall.

In the novel, Karina Lazda understands this intuitively; she loves the freedom the city represents and she has experienced both manifestations of 20th century totalitarianism—consequently she recognizes the threat that the hard men, as she calls them, present to her adopted city. Dennis Collins comes from a different place: his time in the Pacific has made him more appreciative of the city, but unlike Karina—who has experienced the destruction of Warsaw—he doesn’t fully register the existential threat the way she does. (President Truman announced that the Soviets had tested an A-bomb on the Friday that the story in Herald Square begins).

Herald Square, the novel

Q: How about your literary influences?

Flanders: Herald Square falls into the historical thriller category, so for me it starts with John Buchan, the English writer and politician. He had a simple formula: watch what happens when a regular, ordinary man is suddenly inserted into a dangerous secret world where he must figure out a mystery against a deadline—all while his enemies and the authorities chase him. It worked well in The 39 Steps, and it’s been the model for a lot of novels since.

Most of the historical espionage thrillers written today take place in wartime Europe, with few exceptions. I’m partial to Alan Furst, David Downing, Joseph Kanon, and C.J. Sansom.

Yet I thought that there were stories to be told about the world of Soviet espionage in the U.S., specifically in New York City. There was significant clandestine activity in the city in the ’30s and ’40s, enabled by American openness—or cluelessness. There’s an amazing tale of Soviet intelligence officer Walter Krivitsky, who had defected, encountering NKVD agents—a hit squad—in Times Square and seeking temporary haven in the New York Times annex building on 43rd Street. I worked in the Times annex at one point in my career but was unaware of the story until I read Krivitsky’s memoir in researching Herald Square. Krivitsky later died in a Washington hotel in 1941 under murky circumstances—supposedly he committed suicide.

Q: The question always arises in historical fiction: how close do you stick to the facts?

Flanders: Herald Square takes place over the course of one week in September 1949. What happened that week, day-by-day, is reflected closely in the pages of the novel so in that sense, I think it sticks closely to the history.

I have imagined that the American intelligence community used the Venona intercepts in a more dynamic way than the historical record shows. I plead guilty on that one count, but I also think that someone must have contemplated a scheme like I’ve cooked up—but any such effort may still be classified.

Q: How did you research the period? Were you surprised by anything you found in your research?

Flanders: I was surprised to learn about the continuing flow of Displaced Persons from Europe to the United States even four or five years after the Nazis had been defeated. I had assumed that the refugee problem had been solved within a few years, and it was an unpleasant shock to discover that people sat in camps for four or five years waiting for a host country. There was, of course, the complicating factor that British policy was to prevent European Jews from reaching Palestine.

What happened in Eastern Europe after World War II isn’t a pretty story. There was the continuing harassment of Jews in parts of Poland; the mass relocation of ethnic Germans; the problem of large numbers of people who had been made homeless by the fighting.

For research I followed several tracks. I mention in the Author’s Note in Herald Square the scholars of Soviet espionage in the U.S. whose work I turned to. I also spent a fair amount of time reading the New York papers of the time and I read whatever I could find about the 1949 pennant race. I found particularly helpful Peter Golenback’s Bums: An Oral History of the Dodgers and Roger Kahn’s The Era: 1947-1957, When the Yankees, the Giants and the Dodgers Ruled the World.

Q: Did your research influence your conception of the main characters in Herald Square?

Flanders: In a way, yes. Morris Rose, for example, mirrors the beliefs of many of the well-educated young Americans who decided to spy for the Soviets. I can imagine Ted Hall, the Harvard-trained scientist most responsible for divulging Manhattan Project secrets to Moscow, providing the same rationale for his actions. Karina’s background is very similar to that of many refugees and her survival technique not unusual—look at A Woman in Berlin, for example. Matthew Steele’s bio matches up with that of the OSS veterans who went on to staff the CIA. And Dennis Collins has a bit of every newspaper wise guy I’ve ever encountered in his DNA.

I’d like to think I’ve also imbued the characters with some ambiguity. Morris Rose is strident in part because he’s trying to convince himself; he’s far down a path that he now is having doubts about. Steele is no mindless Cold War warrior; he recognizes the grays involved in espionage, although he doesn’t question the rightness of his cause, that of the West. For Karina it’s different: her perspective has been shaped by her wartime experience in what historian Timothy Snyder has called the Bloodlands—that part of Eastern Europe caught between Hitler and Stalin.

Q: Do you have plans for a sequel to Herald Square? Will we see more of Dennis Collins?

Flanders: Yes. That’s the plan. Look for The North Building in 2013.

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Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
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