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The Schmooze

Adam LeBor: An Englishman in Hungary

Courtesy of Szabolcs Dudas

Adam LeBor is an author and journalist who, as well as writing for outlets such as The Economist and Newsweek, has written books including “The Believers: How America fell for Bernard Madoff’s $65 billion Investment Scam” and about a world bank in “Tower of Basel: The Shadowy History of the Secret Bank that Runs the World.” Most recently he has taken up his pen to write a series of thrillers about a secret U.N. operative called Yael Azoulay.

The London native became a foreign correspondent and moved to Budapest in the early 1990s where he covered the region after the fall of Communism, leading to “The Budapest Protocol,” his spy thriller about a Nazi conspiracy for an economic Fourth Reich.

On a recent visit to the Forward offices on his way to a speaking appearance in New York, LeBor spoke to Dan Friedman about his latest Azoulay book, “The Washington Stratagem.”

Dan Friedman: What’s a serious writer like you doing writing a series of thrillers like “The Geneva Option” and “The Washington Stratagem”?

Adam LeBor: My answer has two parts. Firstly, I believe that writing fiction is the greatest challenge for a writer. Having enjoyed reasonable success as a journalist and author of serious nonfiction books, I wanted to try something new. Fiction demands greater creativity, deeper and more lateral thinking, and even more self-belief than nonfiction. Would-be novelists have to be made of rubber and Teflon to keep bouncing back from the rejections. But if you get it right and sit at your desk or on the bus or in the bath, dreaming up vivid characters and enthralling stories to put them in, then publishers give you money and put your books on sale. What could be better than that?

At the same time, my thrillers are inspired by and draw deeply on my nonfiction. “The Budapest Protocol” was inspired by a document I was given called the Red House Report, which detailed the secret plans of Nazi industrialists for economic domination after the military defeat of the Third Reich. The Yael Azoulay series is set in and around the United Nations, where she works as the covert negotiator for the secretary general. The series was partly inspired by my time as a reporter in Bosnia, where I first encountered U.N. peacekeepers and also by my nonfiction book, “Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide,” which investigated the role of U.N. officials during the genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. The first job of a novelist and thriller writer is to tell a good story, but Charles Dickens, for example, is one of many writers who have used fiction to explore real-life themes.

You’re an Englishman in Hungary, how did you end up with a protagonist like Yael Azoulay?

Yael was first inspired by a Bible history lesson I had at the Jewish Free School in London, back in the 1970s. Yael is mentioned in the Book of Deborah. Sisera, the Canaanite general, fled the battlefield after being defeated by the Israelites. He saw Yael standing by her tent and she beckoned him, offering him sanctuary. There are two versions of what happened next. One says she gave him milk and a blanket and a place to sleep. The other says they made love seven times, then she gave him a blanket and a place to sleep. Both versions end the same way. Barak, the Israelite general, came by and asked Yael if she had seen Sisera. Yes indeed, Yael replied, and invited Barak inside her tent. There was Sisera, very dead, with a tent peg through his head. This story made a great impression on me.

What’s the difference in process for you between writing a nonfiction book and a novel?

I find nonfiction easier, or perhaps a better term is less creatively challenging than fiction. My nonfiction books are usually a mix of extended journalism, reportage and history. Although I try and find a narrative arc to keep the reader engrossed, the story is much clearer because I am writing about something that has happened. “City of Oranges,” for example, tells the story of Jewish and Arab families in Jaffa from 1920 to the early 21st century. It was a slow process to gain the families’ trust, gather their material, then weave the narrative together in a vivid and dramatic way, but I did not have to invent anything. My most recent nonfiction book, “Tower of Basel,” is an investigative history of the Bank for International Settlements. I discovered that the BIS was also the main point of contact between the Allies and the Nazis during the Second World War for the postwar planning of the European economy. I needed to do more work around that to understand the context. Nonfiction also demands a substantial amount of research and fact-checking, especially when dealing with controversial topics. But fiction also demands accuracy.

How do you decide where you are going to set your novels? You have Budapest, Washington, Geneva, and you wrote a nonfiction book about Tel Aviv (“City of Oranges”), so is that where you are going to set the next one?

Sense of place is crucial, especially in the thriller/spy genre. Readers want to be taken somewhere new and feel the character’s journey. “The Budapest Protocol,” my first thriller, was set in the Hungarian capital because I live there, and because the city’s atmosphere and history are a perfect setting. The Yael Azoulay series is set in and around the United Nations, so the first half of each book takes place in New York, although in “The Geneva Option” there were some scenes in Goma, Congo. I have never been to Congo but I think these scenes worked. I have learnt that a couple of short scenes in foreign places can be written from one’s imagination (and Google Earth), but lengthier ones generally demand a visit. Geneva was an obvious choice for a U.N. thriller as the U.N. has a major headquarters there. I visited the city, took a tour of the U.N. headquarters, and took lots of photographs to get a sense of the place. The next Yael book, “The Reykjavik Assignment,” takes place in New York and Iceland. I visited Iceland earlier this year. The landscape is extraordinary, black lava fields, dark, jagged mountains, and weather that can switch from sunny to freezing and back again every half an hour. Perfect for a chase scene.

Iceland! That sounds great. Does a handsome friend of Yael’s from the Mossad help her foil a plot at the heart of the U.N. to take glaciers hostage and ransom them?

Yael is the covert negotiator for the secretary general of the United Nations, brokering the secret deals that keep the wheels of diplomacy turning, but even she would find it a challenge to free a glacier that had been taken hostage! All I can say at this stage is that Iceland would be a great place for a secret meeting between American and Iranian officials. But not everyone is keen on the new rapprochement between Washington, D.C. and Tehran — and especially not Yael’s old friends from the Mossad.

This interview has been edited for style and length.


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