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Inspiration & Luck
Paris under the Nazis

We've all had the experience of doing something other than writing—driving on an interstate, working out at the gym, strolling mindlessly down supermarket aisles—when inspiration hits us: we get the kernel of an idea, or even a sense of how we might get out of an impasse in our latest novel. And we've all woken up at three in the morning, not necessarily to answer the red phone in the White House, but with an idea that seems to us incredibly brilliant. We promise to remember it in the morning, and if and when we do we realize it's not much better than pathetic.

I've had one exceptionally lucky experience with inspiration coming to me when I'm not awake. Around the time my first novel was being published, initially in the UK, I was living on the Massachusetts coast and trying to put together some ideas for that all-important second novel. One morning I woke up with an entire novel in my head, the beginning, middle and end, as well as the title. It was to be a spy novel set in the 1940s and '50s in England and France. I set out to write it and some months later sent it to my editor in London. He declared that because it fell between the two stools of literary novel and spy novel it more or less didn't work. So I went on and wrote another book.

But the idea stayed with me, and from time to time I'd think about it. I never came across an idea like it, either in fiction or films, and yet I couldn't find a way to deal with a major technical problem that had been a problem in my first attempt.

My most recent novel, Breathless, was published just over ten years ago, and because since then I'd been unhappy at my attempts at a new novel I returned to writing scripts. I'd had a grounding in writing these since my five years in the UK writing teleplays, as well as a commissioned adaptation of my first novel for a film that in the end wasn't made. Since then I'd written a handful of (still unsold) original scripts ("specs", as they're known) and had written two with a co-writer based in Los Angeles.

But as the WGA strike was looming (I'm not a member, but the strike affected all screenwriters), I knew I'd have to back away from scripts, at least for a while. I dug out the fading typescript of what was then called The Novotny Affair (that was in the dream, as well), and began reading it. I reached the halfway point and decided that I knew exactly how I could tackle this now. I had a much more effective protagonist and, more importantly, I knew how to deal with that difficult technical issue. I wrote 940 pages in five months flat, then revised it down to 694 pages.

What, in a sense, is even more important is that I return to novel-writing essentially reinventing myself as a writer in a genre. Though my five published novels toyed with genre—whether detective fiction or the roman noir—this one is a novel of espionage, pure and simple. Not only a spy novel but an historical one (it's set largely in the summer of 1944), and a love story, as well. But this...monster found its origins in a dream I had one night in Rockport, Massachusetts. And maybe those twenty years between dream and the writing of the first sentence were needed for my conscious brain to work out exactly how it had to play out on the page. Here's a synopsis:

The Man Who Was

A young émigré to Hollywood in the 1930s, screenwriter Marty Dennis (born Mikhail Denisov) has had one hit—a 1942 Warner Bros. spy thriller, “Passage to Berlin”, starring Paul Henreid and Ida Lupino. Since then the well’s gone dry, his career tipping into failure. Until, in June 1944, he’s recruited into a scheme devised by the British secret service whereby his screenwriting skills would help him create a notional spy: a man made up solely of rumors and radio transmissions—in short a fictional construct, "dropped" into occupied France to help thwart the attempt by a Paris-based Gestapo agent to bring to a halt a plot to assassinate Hitler. 

To assist the machinery of his scenario, a French Resistance fighter working alongside Marty, and with whom he has fallen in love, is dropped into France and is presumed to have been captured and killed during the operation. Until Marty decides to discover her fate and, if she's alive, rescue her himself.

And then one day, the war now over, information comes over the wire that the notional spy has defected to the Soviet Union. The fiction has taken on a life of its own, and Marty, the man behind the creation, must elude those in the West who would arrest him for high treason.