Olen Steinhauer Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Olen Steinhauer
Photo: Nancy Crampton

Olen Steinhauer

An interview with Olen Steinhauer

Olen Steinhauer explains the origins of his spy novel, The Tourist.

What is Tourism? We know the pitch—Langley will tell you that Tourism is the backbone of their readiness paradigm, the immediate response pyramid, or whatever they've rebranded it this year. That you, as a Tourist, are the pinnacle of contemporary autonomous intelligence work. You're a diamond. Really.

—The Black Book of Tourism, Anonymous

The idea of a Tourist as a kind of intelligence agent sprang out of my own lifestyle. Not that I've ever been a spy, committed murder, or smuggled state secrets across borders—no, not that. What I've done, since 2001, is live in that tenuous non-place in which many expatriates exist. It's neither the home you've left behind, nor an adopted culture—instead, it's somewhere in between: a bubble of your own construction, in which English is the national language, and the details are arranged so that you can live just as you'd like.

It's a world without roots, carrying within it all the pros and cons this suggests, and until the recent birth of my daughter, I felt very much tied to the rootlessness of the expat. I knew that at any moment, if necessary, I could disappear.

Tourism is one logical extension of this feeling. It comes from the part of me that still wishes I had a bottomless credit card and could move, day-to-day, week-to-week, for the rest of my days. Travel light, without luggage, because when the clothes are dirty I'll just buy new ones. That's the romantic side of me, the Hemingway-loving side. Nabokov, I read with glee, spent his final decade in a Swiss hotel. It's my gullible side that thinks this impermanence leads inevitably to happiness.

Autonomy is the most attractive aspect of Tourism. When you were taken from your cubicle and handed off to one of those bloodless agents who drove you, hooded, to a place of conversation, this was the cornerstone of the pitch. See the world! Live well! Leave paperwork behind! It's called Tourism because it's an endless vacation!

Yes. Right.

Those who take the path of eternal vacation learn pretty quickly that it's a ruse. When Tourism started, in the early fifties, it was different. Back then, the Company was the only advocate of Tourism, the only producers of Tourists. But since the unfettered expansion and experimentation of the early seventies, Tourism has become its own international industry. There are Tourists from all over the world. Most of them want to kill you.

In truth, the rewards of absolute rootlessness are fleeting, and over time the strain begins to show. We all need someplace to rest, someplace to call home. Most of us, over time, begin to unconsciously construct a new home by accumulating people we love and depend on—which is one reason my fictional Tourist must keep on the move.

After finishing a sequence of five Cold War novels, I wanted to get out of the past and take on something contemporary. In a way, it was an outgrowth of settling down into a new home with my wife and daughter—I no longer lived in a bubble, where I could pretend the world was still gripped by the easier-to-grasp ideological battles of the 20th century.

So: a spy novel set in the global world of now. Ideas bounce around the planet with remarkable speed—Eminem fans abound in Estonia, Nigerian scammers take money from the gullible in South Carolina, and the US military transfers prisoners to its own network of non-Geneva-Convention basements spread around the planet. Cartoons in a Dutch newspaper spark riots in Iran, Belgrade protesters wave signs asking Barak Obama (during the primaries) to let them keep Kosovo, and when I look at the tags on my daughter's clothes, I find the world: USA, China, Pakistan, France, Serbia, Hungary, Mexico. Even she: half-American, half-Serb, born in Hungary.

In a world like this, what's the point of a spy having a home at all? Technology has made so much moot. A spy's controllers don't need to sit him down in an office to explain his jobs; cash is delivered through ATMs; miniature cameras are in the cheapest cell phones now. Guns, perhaps? Airport security is so tight that a pistol wouldn't make it through anyway.

For a contemporary field agent, stripped down to his essentials, a home and office are pointless. All he needs is a passport and credit card, his wits and the mental stability to not go off the deep end.

It's all about working the odds. You do this by following simple rules, some of which are in the Company manual, some of which I've added here—these are the learned rules the bureaucrats don't want to tell you about. Because the first one is this:



Langley doesn't want you to know this. They're afraid you'll break, lose your bearings, sink into nihilism, or, worse, run away. But it's true. The opposition will track you down and do you in. Or, when you've become too much of a burden, Langley will take care of it for them. Because the second unwritten rule, or cliché, of Tourism is


A picture evolved of a spy whose life has been streamlined and made purely functional, like a perpetual tourist. And that, too, seemed apropos: With today's global tourism industry, no longer the activity of only the well-off, why bother with awkward legends? Is a journalist any more likely to be found in Romania than a tourist? Certainly not.

I'd like to think that the final picture presented in The Tourist looks, if not real, then at least realistic—a crucial distinction in fiction. I didn't want Tourism to be just some metaphor for contemporary global politics or culture; that's only a fraction of the story. More interesting is what effect such a lifestyle has on someone who's been at it for years—years, homeless and rootless, his raison d'etre merely the next job. It's a life that strikes me—the me who has begun life as a father—as finally crushing, which is why the book opens:

Four hours after his failed suicide attempt,
he descended toward Aerodrom Ljubljana.

Like their small-t namesakes, Tourists are well advised to leave trust behind, but unlike tourists or even expats like myself, their travels are nearly always solo, and there's no possibility of finding love in exotic locales. Nor can the Tourist check out of the hotel and head home to the wife and baby daughter, the knowable variables of an everyday life. Who, really, could survive such a life?

Perhaps that's why I've given my Tourists a little light of hope, a book that, according to Tourist lore, is the secret guide to survival. Some think The Black Book of Tourism is a myth, while others believe that a legendary Tourist hid twenty-one copies of it throughout the world. Whatever the truth, the Good News of Tourism's bible does not mince words:

You will die. Know that from the start. A car accident, the crossfire of a drug shoot-out, a collapsed building, a sunk ship, a short-circuited electrical line, a plummeting airplane. I don't have to list them all—as Tourists you know the methods are everywhere and in everything. They can be directed at you at any time.

Just keep it in mind from the start, and never forget it: They will kill you, Tourist. You will be dust.

There was a time when this description of a Tourist, the rootlessness and the danger, would have excited me. Little did I know that the greatest challenges would arrive from a different quarter. Perhaps that's why I gave my protagonist both worlds: He begins as a Tourist, then leaves it to take on marriage and fatherhood. He thinks his worries are over, but he's just as naïve as I once was, dreaming of passports and credit cards and the light step of the unencumbered.

Every fool gets to be young once.

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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