Author August Thomas spent a lot of time working on her latest novel at the independent bookstore in Montague, Massachusetts, called The Bookmill -- so that's where we met to talk to kick off our summer fiction series.
“Liar's Candle” is a feminist spy thriller set in contemporary Turkey, where Thomas lived and studied. I asked her if her knowledge, and presumably her affection for that country, made it difficult to use as a setting, especially as intrigue and dead bodies accumulate in the novel.
August Thomas: Well, yes, and no. No, in the sense that I knew Turkey really well, so one of the things I loved being able to do with “Liar's Candle” was to take people all over Turkey to different corners that, even if you have been there as a visitor, you probably haven't been to the places in this book. Certainly, not to all of them.
In terms of bumping off imaginary characters? I tried to do two things: one was that if I knew someone who had held the real job of a fictional character, I made the fictional character as different from them as I possibly could, just out of respect. And the other thing is that I tried to make every death in the book, or injury in the book, serious and real. They're not disposable deaths, which I also thought was meaningful.
Carrie Healy, NEPR: I was intrigued by a line in your book that I'll paraphrase: “You think that because you can read newspapers and watch our television, because you come and stay in the country a few weeks, you understand.” Is that something you saw often while you were in Turkey?
I think that line, for me, came more out of the fact that, generally speaking, the Americans I knew in Turkey who had bothered to learn Turkish to the degree that they could read a newspaper were extremely observant, open-minded, intelligent people, so no.
But on the other hand, I got a master's degree in the history department at a university in Turkey when I was living there, so I was educated in how to write about Turkey and its history alongside young Turkish historians, rather than from an American perspective. I was very aware of wanting to present my perspective on Turkey, but also not assuming that I would have the same depth of insight or same point of view as somebody who had grown up there.
How much research did it take to figure out how spies work, and how best to bump off a character?
Well, I just interviewed James Bond for an hour and I was all set! That was a really fun and also really long-term process. I had encountered some wonderful and really dedicated American diplomats when I was living in Turkey, because I was there on a Fulbright, which is the state department scholarship. I got interested in their world, and what that career would look like in real life. So, I began studying that -- years before I even considered writing a thriller.
And spies? I'd always had a little low-grade interest in that. [When] I was 13, I got to spend about a day inside the NSA as part of this little academic group I was in, and it was very intriguing to me. It was just so compelling, and felt so special that they stopped traffic on the highway and brought us in. So I had been curious about that.
The CIA’s website actually it is very information-dense. They have publications that aren't classified that anyone can read, academic studies about intelligence. Spies love writing memoirs, so there are zillions of them out there.
And some of it, of course, I just made up.
Is the feeling of betrayal, which is kind of central to the book, in a non-spoiler kind of way, universal?
I think that some of the betrayal in the book is the kind of betrayal you have in a spy thriller. But some of it is, I think, inherent in growing up. Not necessarily that it is truly a betrayal, but just a dramatic re-assessment of the way the world actually works.
As you come in contact with politics, foreign cultures and violence, reassessing how the world actually works as you incorporate new information can feel like a betrayal if you had put your faith in something that turns out not to be quite as you thought it was.
Find more interviews with local authors via the NEPR summer fiction series.