The Writer’s Life
Joseph Kanon: The Power of Place
In Istanbul Passage, Joseph Kanon’s sixth novel set just after World War II, he continues to explore the moral ambiguity of war and the beginnings of the Cold War. A thriller based on historic events and rich with details and descriptions of the Turkish city, Istanbul Passage (see our review below) follows American tobacco company exec Leon Bauer as his attempt to help smuggle out a Romanian soldier with information on the Soviets goes awry and leads to fast-paced cat and mouse involvement with Russians, Turkish police and a beautiful American widow.
In 1995 book publishing executive Joseph Kanon quit his day job to focus on his writing. Except for missing the congeniality of an office setting, he said, he loves what he’s doing now. “Most of us spend our lives working for and being responsible to others, and the ability to do creative work is a gift.”
His debut novel, Los Alamos, which won the Edgar Award for best first novel, explored what Kanon sees as the turning point of the century. “Life before and after the bomb” defines our world, he said. His following works continued his theme and move among major cities: The Prodigal Spy is set in Prague; Alibi, Venice; The Good German, Berlin; and Stardust, Hollywood, where Communist witch hunts and European refugees collide in a tale of political intrigue that masterfully blends fact and fiction.
Kanon’s interest in Istanbul began when he and his wife, literary agent Robin Straus, vacationed there six years ago. “I wanted to know more and more about it. When I fall in love with a place, I know I’m on my way to a story.” What particularly drew his interest was Istanbul’s position in World War II–a neutral city between Europe and Asia: “Istanbul was a Casablanca prototype. I asked myself, ‘What happens after the singing stops and people leave Rick’s Cafe? A lot,’ ” he said.
He read widely, finding “there’s very little written about this period in Istanbul in English” and returned to the city five or six times, recalling fondly a visit during a snowstorm that coated the ancient domes and minarets. As in his earlier books, he strove to make the Turkish city come alive for his readers. “I want to create a mosaic of the place, for people to feel what it’s like on the streets.” (Readers can easily imagine the merging of old and new Istanbul, and can see a brief tour of the city led by the author at josephkanon.com.)
Realizing that some of the women freed when harems were outlawed in 1908 might still be alive in 1945, he created Lily, the Istanbul hostess who oversees society events from her lush mansion. At a party in the book, numerous significant and clandestine encounters occur. “For Istanbul, losing its position as a drawing room for power plays after the war must have been a wrenching experience,” Kanon noted.
The varied responses to war is one of the themes present in his books and, throughout his novels, Germans are key, including the German anti-Nazi migration of the 1930s and the country’s postwar history. “You find your stories, and your stories find you,” and ones from that era “are always and inevitably moving,” he added. While the plots of his thrillers are fiction, these recurring themes are historically accurate and reflect the author’s passionate mission: exploring the questions of how we live, and what is the right thing to do. Kanon’s favorite review said he “writes novels of moral intrigue.” The protagonist of Istanbul Passage faces a moral dilemma, and the “passages” are not only of the agent through the city, and of Jewish refugees down the Bosphorus, but also Leon Bauer’s moral passage. His dilemma is to choose, but “What do you do when there’s no right thing to do?” Kanon posits. “We need to ask ourselves what we really stand for. We must always remind ourselves of the legacy of wholesale slaughter” that was World War II. It’s easy to romanticize the war since it was ours to win, and we did, he noted, but “it’s not just a Betty Grable movie.”
As Kanon begins an 11-city book tour for Istanbul Passage, he reflects on his recent trip to Berlin, the setting for his next novel, which will cover a longer time period and focus on East Berlin. “It’s an inexhaustible place!” he said. After he wrote The Good German, people often asked him how long he lived in Berlin. “In my head, for a year! I got up, got on the subway, went to the library and was in Berlin.” —Cheryl Krocker McKeon, bookseller