Beirut Station: Two Lives of a Spy: A Novel
by Paul Vidich
(Pegasus Crime, 3 October 2023)
Interview by Anna Roins
A stunning new espionage novel by a master of the genre, BEIRUT STATION follows a young female CIA officer whose mission to assassinate a high-level, Hezbollah terrorist reveals a dark truth that puts her life at risk.
Paul Vidich is the acclaimed author of The Matchmaker, The Mercenary, The Coldest Warrior, An Honorable Man, and The Good Assassin. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, LitHub, CrimeReads, Fugue, The Nation, Narrative Magazine, and Wordriot.
A tightly-wound international thriller, BEIRUT STATION is Paul Vidich’s best novel to date.
“There is a casual elegance to Vidich’s spy fiction, a seeming effortlessness that belies his superior craftmanship” – New York Times Editor’s Choice
AUTHORLINK: Mr Vidich, it’s great having you on Authorlink today. Thank you for your time!
Your latest offering is Beirut Station, set in Beirut in 2006 during the 34-day between Hezbollah and Israel. All your books explore aspects of moral responsibility in the world of espionage. How is Beirut Station the same? Or is there a slight departure from this theme?
Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the story.
“Beirut Station is a spy novel, but it also is a revenge tragedy.”
VIDICH: I write about spies because the moral possibilities of the world they occupy, which is beyond the ethical constraints that bind most of us, provides a rich resource of fictional possibilities. Beirut Station is a continuation of that exploration. Like most people, I am saddened by the continuing violence in the Middle East. The germ of the novel came after I read Aeschylus’s revenge trilogy, the Oresteia. In the first play, Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon, who had sacrificed their daughter to secure good winds for their Greek Army boats to sail to Troy. In the second play, Orestes, the son, murders his mother to avenge his father. In the third play, Orestes is put on trial before the Furies, the ancient Greek creatures, but his life his spared by Athena in order to end the cycle of revenge.
Beirut Station is a spy novel, but it also is a revenge tragedy. Bauman, a Mossad agent, is a Lebanese Jew whose father was murdered by a Muslim extremist group in the 1970s. He returns as a Mossad officer to exact revenge for his father’s murder under cover of the Lebanese Hezbollah war. His trail of blood deepens when he murders a CIA colleague who has uncovered the killings, and the cycle of revenge ends when the protagonist, a young Lebanese-American CIA officer sets in motion Bauman’s killing.
AUTHORLINK: That’s fascinating. We are inspired by Greeks mythology as well! How many months of research did you do, how many months of actual writing, and how many months of rewriting, redrafting, proofreading, and editing?
” I spend six months researching a novel, six months writing several drafts…”
VIDICH: I spend six months researching a novel, six months writing several drafts and another three months responding to comments and criticisms from a group of trusted readers, including my agent, my wife, and my writing group. My editor sees a draft fifteen months into the process. My novels are on the shorter side, say 280 manuscript pages, and I accomplish that by working and reworking the text. I am not a big fan of long novels and I try to follow Raymond Carver’s advice: get in, get it done, get out.
AUTHORLINK: Brilliant. Let’s go back to the beginning. We understand you originally wrote literary short stories and continued to do so after you graduated from an MFA program. You never expected to write spy novels. However, you were contacted by an agent who’d read one of your prize-winning stories and wondered if you had written a book (as he didn’t represent short story writers).
The only story you knew worthy of a novel was the case of your uncle, Frank Olson, who worked on top-secret bioweapons and was murdered in 1953, so you thought that was an excellent place to start. Is that right? Tell us about him.
The character you created from your uncle’s life became George Mueller, the CIA officer in your first novel who lives a double life in An Honorable Man, which Publishers Weekly selected as a Top 10 Mystery and Thriller in 2016. Congratulations!
The rest is history, and you have now written five novels since then!
“As Albert Camus said: ‘Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.’ ”
VIDICH: Frank Olson was recruited to the US Army bioweapons programs from his graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin. Bright young physicists in the 1940’s were recruited for top secret work in Los Alamos, and brilliant biochemists, like Olson, were recruited to work on bioweapons at Fort Dietrich. Olson grew uncomfortable with his top-secret work. He couldn’t talk to his wife about his work and he could discuss his doubts about the work with colleagues without seeming to be disloyal. He became an architype for a number of my novels: the insider turned outsider, harboring doubts about his work, whose challenge to authority puts him at risk.
Olson died mysterious in November 1953 a week after being given LSD at an offsite, when he fell to his death from the 13th of the New York Statler Hotel. Olson’s death remains classified ‘undetermined.’ My third novel, The Coldest Warrior, is a fictionalized account of his murder. My novel offers one explanation of what happened. Undoubtedly, it is precisely wrong, but I believe that it is generally correct. As Albert Camus said: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
AUTHORLINK: How moving. Would you say you need to feel fully within a character’s world before writing them convincingly like a Method Actor? Have you ever created a character you abandoned because you couldn’t get under their skin?
” Good characters are the heart of any literary novel.”
VIDICH: Good characters are the heart of any literary novel. My characters evolve from the situations in which they find themselves and the choices they make. I develop dossiers on my main characters that give them a whole life: the scotch they drink, their family background, religion, education, and what forces bring them to a particular place at the particular time. What interests me are a character’s contradictions, needs, and dislikes and how they interact with other characters. I know this might sound odd, but at a certain point they come alive on the page. I have abandoned story ideas, but never a character. A story becomes a good story because the lives of the characters in the story are compelling.
AUTHORLINK: Doesn’t sound odd at all. Spy novels set in the modern era look different from those set in the Cold War era, as the world has changed. Male dominance in intelligence circles has waned, and even up until a year ago, Gina Haspel was the head of the CIA, and three of her top five directorates were headed by women. How do you think this has been translated into spy novels written by you and other authors?
VIDICH: The protagonist in Beirut Station is a Lebanese American woman who operates in the UN as a non-official cover CIA officer. She is a based on an amalgam of young women who served in the agency during the Afghan and Iraq wars of the last twenty years. I was drawn to the idea of a young woman, alone in the field in a Muslin country, working with men and finding herself drawn into a romantic relationship with one of them. Had the novel been writing in the 1970s or 1980s the roles would be reversed. The intelligence officer would be a man and the romantic entangled would be with a girl Friday figure. Novels entertain because they are a fictional reflection of the world we live in.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, a lot has changed since the 1970’s and the construct of ‘meet cutes’. How do you think you have evolved as a writer? Would you ever try and write a novel outside of the spy genre?
“There is an ongoing, endless debate about what makes a novel literary, and what confines it to genre.”
VIDICH: The spy genre provides guardrails in which I can explore stories that are about love, authority, betrayal, deception, greed, faith – the whole range of human experience. I happen to explore these aspects of the human condition in a novel form that is described as genre. There is an ongoing, endless debate about what makes a novel literary, and what confines it to genre. I think it is a false argument. Is The Great Gatsby a crime novel, a love story, or a commentary on social class. Or all three. I admire John Le Carre, who Ian McKeon has called the greatest novelist writing in English in the later half of the twentieth century, because he dressed up his stories about a particular class of Englishmen as spy novels, but they are also stories about love, ambition, betrayal, and English social class.
AUTHORLINK: Your first book was published when you were 65, but you had been writing on and off since your mid-twenties. You are an inspiration! What have been some of the challenges on your road to publishing?
VIDICH: The biggest challenge was time. Writing takes time. I didn’t have the time to write until I left my corporate career – I put my time into work and family and only wrote in the margins of my life, which wasn’t enough. Time is also important for another reason. Some people write excellent novels in their twenties, but I needed to have lived awhile in order to develop a mature sense of the characters whose stories I wanted to write.
AUTHORLINK: How do you deal with critical reviews, if any? Do you stay in bed with the curtains drawn, or do you take it on the chin and are determined to do better in your next instalment?
VIDICH: (Laughing.) I enjoy reading good reviews, but I don’t learn anything from them. They are good for my ego. Bad reviews, however, make me think about what the reviewer didn’t like. Sometimes I dismiss the criticism and sometimes I learn from it.
AUTHORLINK: Have there been any film offers for your books? Are you keen to write a script?
“There has been film interest in two books…”
VIDICH: There has been film interest in two books, but neither has yet been optioned. I would love to have one of my books become a film, but I have no interest in writing the script. I am afraid I wouldn’t be good at compressing the story into the constraints of a film treatment.
AUTHORLINK: How fabulous. What are you working on now? Are you able to discuss it?
VIDICH: My next novel, tentatively titled Moscow Station, is set in Washington and Moscow in 2018. An FSB intelligence officer turned CIA mole contacts his former agency handler after being dormant for ten years. He is desperate to be exfiltrated with sensitive Kompromat on the President of the United States. A Russian penetration agent in the CIA works quietly to uncover the identity of the Russian traitor before he escapes Moscow.
AUTHORLINK: That sounds like another hit to us! Finally, if you could invite three people, either dead or alive, over for dinner, who would they be and why?
VIDICH: There are three writers whose lives have provoked questions in me. I’d pick them for the dinner party so I could hear their answers. Graham Greene used lapsed catholic faith to propel many of his novels but he lived his own life voraciously enjoying his sins. I have always wondered how sincere he was about the topic of lapsed Catholicism, and how much he employed it because it proved commercially attractive.
I’d invite Homer. If he showed up, I’d know that he was a real historical figure who likely did write The Odyssey and The Iliad.
I’d invite Shakespeare. I’ve always wondered if his conversational speech was anything like the poetic verse of his plays.
AUTHORLINK: I think must be one of our top three all-time greatest answers to this question! Mr Vidich, thank you for sharing your time with us today. We look forward to your next book and wish you every success for Beirut Station!
VIDICH: Thank you Anna.
About the Author: PAUL VIDICH’S sixth novel, BEIRUT STATION will be published by Pegasus Books in October 2023. His previous novel to this, The Matchmaker, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. The Mercenary, was selected by CrimeReads as one of the top 10 espionage novels of 2021.
His debut novel, An Honorable Man, published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, was selected by Publisher’s Weekly as a Top 10 Mystery and Thriller in 2016. It was followed by The Good Assassin, also published by Simon and Schuster. His third novel, The Coldest Warrior, was widely praised in England and America, earning strong reviews from The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times. It was shortlisted for the UK’s Staunch Prize and chosen as a Notable Selection of 2020 by CrimeReads. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, LitHub, CrimeReads, Fugue, The Nation, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere.
Junot Diaz selected his story “Jump Shot” as a winner of the 2010 Fugue Short Story Contest and his story “Falling Girl,” was nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize and appeared in New Rivers Press’ American Fiction, Volume 12: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers. His story collection was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Vidich received his MFA from Rutgers-Newark, and he was a co-founder and editor of Storyville.
Prior to turning to writing, Vidich had a distinguished career in music and media at Time Warner, AOL, and Warner Music Group, where he was Executive Vice President in charge of global digital strategy. He lives in Lower Manhatten.
People may also ask: What makes a novel literary? What makes a novel fit the spy thriller genre?