Stewart O'Nan Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O'Nan

An interview with Stewart O'Nan

A Conversation with Stewart O'Nan about City of Secrets, centered on Jerusalem at the time of the bombing of the King David hotel.

How did you decide to center your new book on the bombing of the King David Hotel?
I've always wanted to know more about the bombing. Most Americans have never heard of it, which seems crazy, especially post-9/11, with our fixation on the uses and abuses of political violence. What kind of characters would consider bombing such a public place a desirable act - so desirable they would risk not only their own lives but those of the people around them to carry it off? In a way, it's the same question Joseph Conrad tried to answer a hundred years ago in The Secret Agent. As usual, writing the book was a way of satisfying my curiosity.

What made you choose to make Brand a Latvian Jew as opposed, to say, coming from a country with a larger Jewish population like Poland or Hungary?
A friend of mine from Lithuania wrote a novel about a family trying to get out in the late '30s. Another friend came from Latvia after the Russians absorbed it, so I associate the Baltic States with complete upheaval. The combination of Russian and German persecution - the strange shift from Russian (during the non-aggression pact) to German and then back to Russian control interested me. Bad enough you get caught up in one wave, but three - and then end up in Palestine under the British Mandate?

Eva is such a mysterious character. Without dispelling her mystery, can you tell us any more about her backstory, where you imagine she was from or what happened with her husband?
Eva's mystery comes partly from Brand's own guilt and secrecy about his past. Because he wants his memories of his wife Katya to be his own, unknown and therefore untouched by anyone else, he doesn't feel he can trespass on Eva's memories of her husband and her former life. But she does share glimpses of her childhood with Brand, and I don't believe she's lying to him there. Part of her mystery comes from the situation they're in. Their families are gone, and no one is using his or her real name. They've all been turned into illegals - non-people - by the Mandate. Add to that the idea, prevalent then, that survivors from Europe - survivors of the camps - needed to leave their old lives (and sorrows) behind and become new, stronger people to help create a new reality, and you can see how one's identity could become tenuous, especially with one's everyday life dependent on the movement.

Were any of the other characters based on real people involved with Haganah or Irgun?
Besides Begin, Stern, Major Chadwick and a few British higher-ups, everyone is fictional, though most of the settings and events are historical.

You discuss much of the research you did on the history of Israel in the acknowledgements. Did this research also address the structure and hierarchy of the terrorist cells of the Irgun? The relationship between Asher, Brand and Eva is fascinating and complex.
The memoirs by Menachem Begin and Samuel Katz were most helpful with the top-down organization, while Zipporah Porath's Letters from Jerusalem and Daniel Spicehandler's Let My Right Hand Wither were key to understanding the obligations and dangers faced by street-level operatives. New recruits like Brand had to trust their contacts and follow orders implicitly. They were used to both vulnerability and secrecy, having already lived double lives as prisoners.

The King David hotel bombing is often described as a pivotal act in the founding of the state of Israel and yet it is clearly an act of terrorism. How can we understand similar contemporary acts of terrorism now? Has the lens through which we view terrorist attacks shifted or have the nature of the attacks themselves changed?
Certainly post 9-11, the lens through which we in the U.S. view political violence has changed, though it seems we also now recognize institutional political violence (apartheid, for example, or the Chinese occupation of Tibet, or the persecution of the Kurds and the Iraqi Shiite majority by the Baathist Sunnis). The question of when political violence - including war - is legitimate remains open, as do our ideas of what constitutes a soft or hard target, a notion which has become even more complicated with the advent of cyber attacks and cyber surveillance. From what root does an act of political violence come, and what ultimate effect does it have? The King David bombing, while widely decried, helped convince the British they should leave Palestine. It's hard to imagine that response from a world power nowadays, and yet the U.S. recently pulled out of Iraq due, in part, to continued attacks by insurgents. If some of the elements have changed, the frame of the problem remains essentially the same. In a world where there will always be contested territory, what constitutes a legitimate claim, what constitutes a legitimate protest, and is there hope of compromise?

Your novels span an incredible range of subjects, from, most recently, the final years of the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald and a marriage on the brink of collapse to a widow whose life changes in unexpected ways, a family whose daughter has gone missing, and the final day of a chain restaurant. What themes do you see as constants across these novels, including your new one?
While my early novels were dire and violent tests of faith, in the later books I've noticed a focus on endurance, acceptance and even hope, with characters finding a way to go on after the worst has happened. City of Secrets feels like a blend of the exemplary and the cautionary - the need for a renewed faith in the face of annihilation, balanced by the terrible consequences of blind faith.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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