Richard and Judy ask Joseph Kanon

Richard and Judy ask Joseph Kanon

You have a terrific, unmistakable way of writing that is a pleasure to read in itself, irrespective of the plotline. How did you develop your style?

Whenever a writer starts thinking about style, he is heading for trouble – or at least self-conscious prose. Style should be instinctive, as natural as breathing. Of course, to say this is slightly disingenuous. Writing involves choice, revision, listening to an inner ear. Maybe a better analogy would be to singing: you have to master some basics (grammar, etc.), you have to listen to others, even at the risk of falling temporarily under their stylistic spell, but in the end the phrasing, the breath control, the feeling behind the words, have to be yours, your voice. The challenge is to be tough on yourself. If you think a passage reads especially well, take another look – it’s probably overwritten.

Apart from a brief author’s note, which also acts as a preface, there is no appendix or explanation for the acronyms and complexities involved in immediate postwar Berlin. It is refreshing to come across an author who has respect for his audience’s knowledge and intelligence. Have you always believed in trusting your readers in this way?

Yes, always. I like to learn things when I read but I don’t like to feel I’m being taught, and I think most readers are the same. The trick is to provide context so, if there’s something the reader doesn’t know, he can pick up the sense of it without having to run to a reference book. I find dialogue is useful in this – the assumptions, the attitude of the speaker, tell you a lot of what you need to know. I always assume readers will pick things up quickly and that they’d much rather get on with the story than get bogged down in detailed explanation.

The Cold War is over and the world is a much more complex, divided and fragmented place today. Do you regret the passing of the relative us-versus-them status quo?

As a private citizen, no. The world feels much less dangerous today than it did when I was a child, when we were told there was a real possibility of nuclear annihilation. But as a writer, yes, in part because it’s a lot easier to see the moral ambiguities of us-versus-them when you share the same culture (if not the same ideology). Cold War motivations were more easily understood, not to mention the ground rules of engagement. Groups like ISIS, on the other hand, are so foreign to our sensibilities that it’s extraordinarily difficult to see them as characters, and imagine the world from their perspective. (Of course, we need to try to do this, but that’s another issue.) Another dramatic advantage was that the Cold War was largely pre-digital – things could happen away from a computer screen. Spies did the spying, and could actually have dialogue without fear of being overheard (if they took a walk in the park). All this gave the writer a lot more flexibility. The irony is that our new hear-everythingsee- everything world is sending writers back to retro Cold War devices – characters are meeting on park benches again.

You have been compared to le Carré, Greene and Orwell. Do any of those writers influence you?

All three. They are writers I admire enormously and any comparison is probably unwarranted, but certainly an honour. I think anyone who writes about the secret world owes a debt to le Carré. He remains the living master of the genre. Greene taught us to explore the moral grey areas of what used to be a black and white world, and he did it in prose that still sets a standard for rhythm and precision. And Orwell was the century’s conscience, our most eloquent champion of clarity and sense. This is exalted company – one couldn’t help but be influenced by them.