An Interview with the Author of The North Building

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

Flanders: The Central Intelligence Agency was initially headquartered in a complex on E Street in Washington, near the State Department, on a hill overlooking the Potomac. It’s where the OSS was sited during World War II.

The complex had three Federal-style brick buildings—East, North, and South. The director’s office was located in the East Building on the first floor. In the novel, when a key character falls out of favor he is “exiled” to the North Building. That’s enough context without giving anything away. By the way, the North Building was eventually demolished, although the rest of the complex is still in use.

Q: The North Building picks up where Herald Square left off. What challenges did you face in writing the sequel?

The North Building, a novel by Jefferson Flanders

Flanders: It has been an interesting experience. You don’t want to repeat yourself and become too derivative—I envisioned The North Building as standing on its own as a novel. If you pick up The North Building I want you to enjoy even if you haven’t read Herald Square.

At the same time there was unfinished business from the first book I wanted to see resolved, and the novels share some major characters including, of course, Dennis Collins.

One difference between the books is that Herald Square takes place over the course of a week in 1949 while The North Building begins in January 1951 and closes in November 1952. That much longer time period required a somewhat different approach to the storytelling, although I like to think there’s enough action and suspense to keep readers turning the pages.

Q: A lot has changed for Dennis Collins as The North Building opens…

Flanders: If Collins began Herald Square at the top of the his personal world, he begins The North Building at the bottom. When he returns to New York City from Korea in January 1951, he’s out of a job because his newspaper, the New York Sentinel, has closed following the death of its owner. Denny has also been jarred by his experiences covering the Chosin Reservoir campaign and he has seen things that he would rather forget.

Collins is somewhat lost, not sure what he wants to do next. Then some unresolved issues surface from his past which propels him down a completely different path than he had ever expected and profoundly changes his life.

Q: Collins’ experiences in covering the retreat of the Marines from the Chosin Reservoir play an important role in the novel. Why is that such a large part of the novel?

Flanders: Collins sees the Chosin campaign, and the horrific toll it takes on the First Marines, as a byproduct of General Douglas MacArthur’s arrogance and stubbornness. Had it not been for the valor of those outnumbered American Marines in fighting their way out of a trap, we might have lost the Korean War in December 1950.

Over the course of The North Building Collins discovers that there’s more to the story of Chosin, and the Chinese tactical success, than he realized—that U.S. war plans were being passed from Washington to Moscow and then to the Chinese. At the heart of the novel is the hunt for the Soviet penetration agents involved in feeding these secrets to the enemy.

That isn’t to say that Denny changes his views on MacArthur’s arrogant recklessness, but it suggests that U.S. commanders were at a significant disadvantage because of what the Chinese knew.

Q: Which brings Donald Maclean and Kim Philby into the picture…

Flanders: Which it does indeed. What I found fascinating in researching The North Building is that most writers and historians who have written about the most celebrated espionage case of the 20th century have not focused on the Korean War angle. I believe that the Cambridge Five had an immense impact on the Korean conflict. In fact, it can be argued that the Chinese entered the war only because of Maclean and Philby and the knowledge that we weren’t going to use atomic weapons (a promise made to the British) and that we weren’t going to bomb across the Yalu. Stalin and Mao had access to what was being said in the inner decision-making circles in Washington and London and it clearly emboldened them.

Most British authors center their consideration of Philby, et. al. on the act of betrayal and what it said about the Establishment, how the upper classes protected their own, how these were elegant, gentlemanly spies. You have John le Carr√© riffing on the Cambridge Five story, and injecting his own anti-American slant, and suggesting moral equivalency between East and West. Then there’s Graham Greene, who defends Philby, visits him in Moscow, praises him as an idealist.

In fact, Philby was a monster. He hands were quite bloody before Korea. Acting on instructions from Moscow Center, it’s clear he betrayed pro-monarchist Dutch resistance agents to the Gestapo during World War II—in hopes of clearing the board for the Dutch Communists after the war. He did the same in 1950 to those Albanians recruited by the CIA to start an insurgency in Albania. The KGB and Albanian secret police were waiting for them as they were infiltrated into Albania. And Maclean, Philby, and Burgess must bear responsibility for a considerable number of the American and British Marines and soldiers killed in Korea in 1950 and 1951.

Q: There are a number of actual historical figures in the novel. What challenges do you face when you’re writing fiction about real people like Dwight Eisenhower, Philby, and Allen Dulles?

Flanders: I think you stay as close to the facts as you can and that you’re careful to avoid overreaching. You want to be able to say to the reader “based on the historical record, if placed in this situation, Ike could have said what I have him saying.”

Yet it is fiction. It’s my interpretation of the past and The North Building is a work of imagination.

Q: The North Building takes us to Washington, London, and Paris. How did that influence the book?

Flanders: In a sense, the book also takes us to Korea. I prefer to write only about places I’ve been, where I can rely on my own senses in describing what the reader will see. The situation in North Korea made a trip to the Chosin Reservoir area impractical, so I relied on documentary film, photos, memoirs, and the many excellent nonfiction accounts of what it was like there.

I’m familiar with the other places in the book—London, Paris, Washington, Key West—and the challenge was portraying them as they were in 1951. I was fortunate to find some newsreels of London and Paris then and some excellent primary sources, and I think they helped me in envisioning that world.

Q: Herald Square and The North Building are part of a series of novels about the early years of the Cold War. What’s next?

Flanders: Next in the series is The Hill of Three Borders which takes Dennis Collins to Budapest in 1956 at the time of the Hungarian Revolution. It’s scheduled for publication in late 2014.

Copyright © 2013 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved