By Jeremy Burns
A sleepy French village may not be a common setting for gripping character-driven crime novels, but in the hands of Peter Steiner, it becomes the perfect backdrop for his Louis Morgon series. A unique thematic combination of Agatha Christie and Robert Ludlum with the literary bent of masters like Graham Greene, the series is now getting its fourth exciting entry. THE RESISTANCE takes readers to the rural hamlet the series is known for not only in present day, but also in the tumult of World War II.
Peter Steiner recently sat down with THE BIG THRILL to take us behind the scenes of the intriguing world he has created.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I made my living first as a college professor (German/ German literature), then as a cartoonist for the New Yorker. At about the time most people are thinking of retiring, I started writing novels.
Tell us about your new thriller, THE RESISTANCE.
I don’t think of THE RESISTANCE as a thriller in the strictest sense. The story develops slowly, the thrills are often moral or spiritual in nature. Character and setting are very important. It takes place during the German occupation of France during the Second World War. This is a novel about the difficulties of living a decent and upright life when the law of the land is immoral and it is dangerous to live according to a normal sense of what is right or wrong. We like to simplify all things into good and evil, but life is usually more complicated than that. That is what this novel is about–the complexity of situations we imagine to be easy, where solutions are elusive and the path forward disappears into the thicket of moral ambiguity.
Much of your Louis Morgon series is set in rural France. Why did you choose this setting?
I love being in rural France–I spend part of every year there. Writing about it is a way of being there when I’m not.
This is your fourth Louis Morgon novel. What makes THE RESISTANCE different from his previous adventures?
THE RESISTANCE is more ambitious in several ways. The story is more complex and less linear; there are many more characters. And the novel seeks to illuminate a deeper and more profound set of questions and themes.
What was your initial inspiration for THE RESISTANCE? How did the story’s premise develop through the early days of your writing process?
I started with the question many of us ask ourselves: What would I do in a truly perilous situation, one where doing the right thing would make me an outcast and put me in mortal danger? There have been many heroic people who, when faced with that prospect, did not hesitate to do what was right. But the vast majority went along, got along, did not do the brave and right thing. I decided that the moment of the German invasion into France was the perfect moment to examine my question.
How much of yourself do you put in your characters? With which character in THE RESISTANCE do you most identify?
I see part of myself in all my characters, including the bad ones. I love all my characters, but I try not to identify too much with any of them, because I don’t want my illusions about myself to get in the way of the character development.
Which character was the most fun for you to write? Why?
I particularly enjoyed writing about the characters who were unexpected, who just sort of showed up and then made me tell their story. Simon, the Resistance organizer, is one such character. Marie Piano another.
What is your favorite book you’ve written thus far? Why?
My most recent book is always my favorite. It incorporates what I’ve learned writing the others.
What is your favorite book by another author? Why?
I don’t have one favorite. I love Hans Fallada’s WOLF AMONG WOLVES and EVERY MAN DIES ALONE. I love Mark Helprin’s FREDDY AND FREDERIKE and WINTER’S TALE.
What are some of the ways you’ve conducted research for this novel and/or series? Any interesting stories there?
I research as I need to, as the story develops. No interesting stories, I’m afraid.
What is your favorite travel destination? Why?
France, hands down. The French know how to live better than anyone else I’ve encountered. The country is mostly beautiful; the people cherish eccentricity; the climate is agreeable; the food is marvelous.
What do you find most rewarding about writing?
I love diving into a story and losing myself there. I love dreaming things up, telling a story, and polishing the language. Maybe because I started late, after my main career, and do it only because I want to, I love all of it.
What is one thing that would surprise your fans about you or your writing process?
That I don’t have a conscious process. I sit down and write without having much of a clue where I’m going. Some novels start with nothing more than an idea. I start writing without knowing even what I am about to write.
What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring/new authors who look up to you?
Read great writing. All of it.
What can we expect next from you, and where can readers go to hear the latest news?
I don’t know what I’ll be writing next. I feel something welling up, so I’ll be getting busy soon. At the moment I’m working on a cartoon blog about the current political nonsense. There’s more about the novels I’ve written, my paintings, and my cartoons on my website.
Thanks to Peter Steiner for showing us a little more about a world he clearly loves, a love that comes across vividly in his writing. If you like your thrillers thought-provoking, introspective, and character-driven, check out THE RESISTANCE (and the rest of the Louis Morgon thrillers) for a great read.
Peter Steiner was a college professor, then he was a NEW YORKER cartoonist and a painter, then, when he was nearly 60, he started writing novels. THE RESISTANCE is the fourth novel in the Louis Morgon series, following LE CRIME, L’ASSASSIN (“literate crime thrillers don’t get much better than this”–PUBLISHERS WEEKLY) and THE TERRORIST, which BOOKLIST named one of 2011’s ten best crime novels .