Elizabeth Kiem discusses her love of classic spy fiction, the inspiration behind Dancer,
Daughter, Traitor, Spy, and her favorite clandestine characters.
What are some of the
classic spy novels that inspired Dancer,
Daughter, Traitor, Spy? Its title, Dancer,
Daughter, Traitor, Spy clearly tips its hat to John le Carré's classic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But my
novel is a similarly melancholic view of the games spies play. My story is
about a girl who becomes a pawn in a contest not of national security or
ideological supremacy, but of personal gain and survival. I recently re-reread Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; I was
struck by George Smiley's observation that some people are capable of
"random acts of treason" in the same manner as random acts of
violence. What a fascinating premise.
What do you love
about classic spy fiction? In writing Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, did you
add your own twists? To my mind, the best spy novels are as attentive to
atmosphere as to plot. I don't necessarily need to understand why the man with
a scar on his left cheek and bouquet of white roses is crucial to the mission,
as long as I believe that the bench he is sitting on is the perfect meeting
place and the coming thunderstorm is prescient. Alan Furst is a master of
atmosphere (along with David Downing, author of the incredible Station series).
I hope they would approve of my attempt to make the very building Marina lives
in every bit as ominous as the KGB itself.
Who would win in a
battle of wits, Jack Ryan or George Smiley? George Smiley's preference for method over wit is as
reliable as his ill-fitting clothes. But he's also the man with the most
sardonic view of "intelligence." Honestly I think Jason Bourne has them both on the mat, but in the end
I'm one of Smiley's people.
What attracted you to
writing about the Cold War era? As a teenager I was captivated by the notion of a society
that revealed itself as both the pinnacle of culture and the nadir of personal
expression. A handful of beautiful dancing defectors embodied this paradox and
I was in awe. I can't say when exactly I realized that beyond the iron curtain
(and the stage curtain) there was another world devoid of glamour and intrigue.
But when I did, that daily existence—the life of a normal Soviet teenager—became
even more exotic in my eyes than Baryshnikov and his crew. I didn't make it to
the Soviet Union until January 1992, a month after it was officially declared
dead. But when I did, Muscovites my age were my guides. With them I experienced
a pivotal moment in their coming of age, but all the while I was tucking away
bits of their coveted past, reliving their youth vicariously, imagining a
childhood that was both strikingly different and much the same as my own. That
era has always called to me and I wondered if I could translate it for yet
You lived in Moscow
just after the fall of the USSR, and you just got back from a return trip.
What’s changed? Moscow just after the collapse of the Soviet
Union was still Soviet, which is to say externally grim, socially hostile, and
impoverished. It was a city where celebration and socializing and relaxation
were saved for "home." Today Moscow is floodlit, socially diverse,
and rich. It’s caffeinated, hipsterized, paved in pedestrian zones, and always
"out." Externally, it's a big change: a Moscow that drinks macchiatos and eats sushi and smokes hookah pipes
and feeds the parking meters and gets manicures and does yoga in the park was a
fantastic notion a quarter century ago. On the other hand, there's a political
street life that has been largely absent since the 20th century.