Realism and historical accuracy: Interview with Steve Anderson

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The Losing Role by Steve Anderson was the first self-published book, and the first e-book, that I read. I was very impressed, and I’ve since read his novels False Refuge & Besserwisser and the non-fiction Kindle Singles Sitting Ducks and Double-Edged Sword. Anderson has written short stories and screenplays, and was a Fulbright Fellow in Munich, Germany. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

Russell Phillips: Most of the characters in The Losing Role are fictional, but SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto Skorzeny is a notable exception. How accurately do you think you captured his personality?
Steve Anderson: He’s only in the novel briefly, but I hope I captured something basic about him. To best serve the story I have him as a type of wartime celebrity, the propaganda hero who can do no wrong, and the reality in the research seems to back this up. I tried to imagine him equal parts sports legend, Hollywood producer, and patriotic warrior but one who’s floating above the gritty realities of daily soldiering. An unfortunate character like my main character Max is just one of many means to a grander end.

RP: If The Losing Role was made into a film, who would you like to see playing Max?
SA: Great question! As an actor he’s handsome but in a flawed way. Slightly cheap and shady looking, yet with a glint in his eyes. Someone like Christoph Waltz or Sebastian Koch would be great, if we’re talking about German-speaking actors. Philip Seymour Hoffman (with hair dyed dark) could pull it off. Clive Owen or Russell Crowe, if either could learn to smile. Robert Downey Jr, certainly. I could play this game all day.

RP: One of the things that struck me when I read The Losing Role was the description of the prisoner of war guards, who were depicted as older men. That’s historically accurate, but it goes against the norm in WW2 fiction. Did you make a conscious decision to go with historical accuracy over what is expected in the genre?
SA: I was going for realism and historical accuracy. I found it more interesting than the stereotype of the physically imposing young Nazi. Many of those were on the front lines getting killed.

RP: Personally, I appreciate the emphasis on historical accuracy, but do you think it may have cost you some readers?
SA: Thanks. Hopefully other readers appreciate it. I certainly hope it doesn’t lose me a few readers, but it’s possible. In the end though I have to write things that I too like to read, and that includes more historical accuracy than oversimplified convention — there’s nothing wrong with the latter (really), but it just doesn’t feel right to me. Realism appeals to me, in any genre. I think it carries more truth.

RP: You obviously have an interest in Operation Greif, having written fiction (The Losing Role) and non-fiction (Sitting Ducks) about it. Was that the subject of your study when you were a Fulbright Fellow?
SA: No. I did the fellowship in Munich and had the opportunity to research the early US occupation in Southern Bavaria in the few months after the end of the war. I was intrigued by the idea of relatively sophisticated little towns cut off by the chaos, making do and starting anew on their own like farflung towns in the American Wild West. The research was for my masters thesis, but it also became the basis for my novel The Liberator (formerly Reparation), the first manuscript I attempted years ago and one I’ve reworked and revised many times since. The main character, Harry Kaspar, is a German-American US occupation official who tries to solve a murder amid the chaos of governing a small German town starting over after war. I stumbled across Operation Greif years later. I couldn’t get it out of my head and had to try it out as a story.

RP: So The Liberator was written before The Losing Role? At what point did you decide to tie the two stories together?
SA: Yep. That’s one of those industry secrets. Many writers’ so-called “first novel” is not actually their first; it’s just the first to appear and be promoted. Previous manuscripts were abandoned (some for good reason!) or were able to be put out later.
Tying the two stories wasn’t planned from the beginning. I was revising The Liberator two or three years ago and realized that Max (from The Losing Role) had to be the older brother of Harry, the main character. In the story Harry already had a long-lost brother who had returned to Germany before the war. So it was meant to be; I just hadn’t realized it yet. I ended up revising some details in their backgrounds to match up, including their last name of Kaspar. For me, it better tied in the two books’ theme of dual German-American identity, and how staying in one of two nations even a little longer than the other can have a great impact on where one ends up, depending on events.

RP: How long will we have to wait for The Liberator?
SA: Hopefully it will make it out sooner than later. My able and resolute agent remains committed to finding a publisher for it after many fits and starts. We seem to be getting closer, as new opportunities open up amid the many changes in publishing. There’s a third book in the works, by the way, set in Central Europe in the late 40s just as the Cold War begins to heat up. But, first things first. There’s a chance I could put it out myself, but I’d prefer to partner with a forward-thinking publisher.

RP: Did you do extra research for Sitting Ducks, or did you already have enough from your research for The Losing Role?
SA: I did extra research. I’d been revisiting this topic over the years. I did groundwork for The Losing Role some years ago, but I had let the manuscript sit unpublished (Max in Amerika was its original title) so I did more research when I revised it for publication. Then I dug in again for Sitting Ducks, which as nonfiction demanded a different style of research. For The Losing Role, I was looking for items that served the fictional story. To tell the true story, I had to take a good look at the overall picture and double-check everything. Since it was a rushed secret mission, there were some holes I simply couldn’t fill in with my nonfiction writer hat on because there wasn’t enough known.

RP: You’ve published two Kindle Singles now. What do you like and dislike about the shorter format?
SA: I like that I can cover a subject that doesn’t necessarily demand 300-plus pages (depending how you tell it) nor years of commitment. I’ve enjoyed working with Kindle Singles editor David Blum and his fine team. I am awed by the power of a dedicated Amazon page to get one’s name out there and get readers to try one’s work. I don’t see any dislikes, except maybe the fact that the format is still new and some aren’t judging them for what they are. They are quick reads. Some can be read in an hour or two. But I understand the confusion, since Singles reside beside full-length books in the charts. We Singles authors are guinea pigs to a certain degree, out there testing the waters, but I’m not complaining. I’m just glad to be here.

RP: Agent Garbo’s story, told in Double-Edged Sword, is quite incredible, and you’ve written it in a fiction-like style. Are you at all concerned that people will think of it as a work of fiction rather than fact?
SA: I had a feeling that could happen even though it’s listed as nonfiction, partially because I only cover the most critical points of the story and build scenes that, while they actually happened, I fill in with interpreted dialogue and other dramatic details. At the end I sum up the history and mention my sources but, just to be sure, my editor suggested I put in an intro statement at the beginning, much like those that appear in old movies. I loved the idea. It helps set the context, because the story is complicated. I was hoping to make it less complicated. It’s such an amazing piece of history, one couldn’t be faulted for hardly believing it.

RP: There were times when I was reading about Agent Garbo that I thought of Gordy in Besserwisser. Did you find yourself seeing similarities between the real-life Garbo and the fictional Gordy as you were writing Double-Edged Sword?
SA: That’s a keen observation — I never considered that, but you may be right. I tend to be drawn to main characters who are living two lives and are in over their head doing an expert’s work even though they are amateurs. Now that you mention it, it could apply to all my books so far.

RP: Thanks for your time, Steve. Good luck with The Liberator, and let’s hope it’s not too much longer before it’s available.
SA: Thank you, Russell. It was a pleasure.