In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan are joined by veteran war correspondent and bestselling author Scott Anderson and prize-winning novelist Andrew Altschul. Anderson shares what led him to the four spies featured in his new book The Quiet Americans. Then Altschul talks about decentering the narrative of the American abroad in his new novel The Gringa, which takes inspiration from the real-life case of Lori Berenson.
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This podcast is produced by Andrea Tudhope.
Selected readings for the episode:
The Godfather Film Series · Graham Greene · Tenet · The James Bond Films· Austin Powers Movies · John le Carré · The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway · Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert · Mark Twain · The Darling by Russell Banks · “The Storytellers of Empire” by Kamila Shamsie · Libra by Don DeLillo · “Why I Didn’t Sign the Open Letter Against Trump” by Aleksandar Hemon · American Pastoral by Philip Roth · The Good Lieutenant by Whitney Terrell · American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Part One With Scott Anderson
Whitney Terrell: We’ve known each other for a long time, since the early 1990s in Iowa, but I never talked to you about your dad, who appears in the preface of The Quiet Americans. He was what you call a “yellow dog Democrat” from Fresno, California, who worked for USAID in South Korea and Taiwan in the 1960s, which was a time when those countries were run by dictators, backed by the US, as you say. Could you tell us his story and maybe explain why you started the book with him?
Scott Anderson: He was from this ranching family in Fresno, California. As soon as he could get overseas, at the age of 18, he just took off. He wanted to get the hell out of Fresno. And weirdly enough, he ends up at Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was a civilian but he was working on a Navy contract, building, ironically enough, underground gasoline storage tanks in case of an air attack. So he was on this hill directly above Pearl Harbor when the whole thing happened. He joined the Navy, he fought throughout World War II. Right afterwards, he joined the Agency for International Development—he wanted to get right back overseas. So his first few years, in the late 40s, early 50s, he was mostly in South America and Central America. And then right around 1959, he moved over to Asia. And so I grew up in Asia, in Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia.
WT: So, what was it about his life though—other than the fact that obviously there’s some sort of foreign travel gene in the Anderson family, because your brother, of course, also writes about foreign places—what about his story made him feel like the proper introduction to this story of these four spies that we’re going to be talking about?
SA: Well, I’ve always felt my father was caught in this dichotomy. I mean, as he said, he was very liberal. Part of the work he was doing in these countries was agrarian reform, breaking up these large landholdings and distributing land to the peasants—this was a big move in the late 50s and early 60s in Third World countries. And yet at the same time, he was part of the apparatus keeping these military dictatorships in place. So, along with the kind of soft power hearts and minds work he was doing, like agrarian reform, he was also setting up rural vigilante organizations that were designed to keep an eye on the local population and to report any kind of red tendencies among the local population. I know that, as time went on, that part of his work really bothered him.
Taiwan, where I spent my formative years, was a really severe military dictatorship. Chiang Kai-shek ruled under an official state of siege, so anyone steps out of line at all, and they were gone into the prisons. And so I think that over time that really had a corrosive effect on him. We moved back to the states at the end of the 1960s, and my father used to drag me and my siblings to anti-war demonstrations down on the Washington Mall. And he always told my brother and I that if Vietnam was still going on when we came of draft age, he was going to take us to Canada. And then as soon as he was able to, as soon as he turned 50, he quit the government. I think he just got sickened out by some of the stuff he’d been doing over the years.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Your book about T. E. Lawrence focused on a person who had been a media sensation during his life and after. And The Quiet Americans chronicles the lives of these four spies—Frank Wisner, Michael Burke, Peter Sichel, and Edward Lansdale. Wisner and Lansdale are known to students of the CIA but none are what I would necessarily say are household names today. So how did you pick those four men to profile? Was the book always structured around their lives? Did you come to them through research?
SA: I came to them through research. Once I decided the parameters of the period I wanted to write about, which is essentially 1944 to 1956—so it’s the most formative years of the early Cold War—it was kind of a treasure hunt. I chose spies, because really spies were the people at the front line of the Cold War. I didn’t want to write a history of diplomats or generals sitting behind desks. I wanted to talk about people who were directly affected in the so-called frontlines of this struggle. And so I naturally came to spies. So yes, you mentioned Frank Wisner and Ed Lansdale—among people who know the early Cold War period, they’re fairly well-known. So with this parameter I had, I wanted people who were out in the field doing cool stuff, and also who left a paper trail behind, some documentary evidence that I could build out their story, whether it was letters in archives or government documents.
So I probably ended up looking at about 20 to 25 different people, and I imagined that at the end of it, I would have maybe 10 people to choose from. And as it turned out, I had exactly four. I did not have a fifth person for this book. I came across some people doing really interesting things for a few years, and then all of a sudden they joined the State Department and were stamping visas at the embassy in Paris. So, I was kind of stuck with these four.
Part Two With Andrew Altschul
Whitney Terrell: So, we’ve just been talking to Scott Anderson about the CIA, which overseas might be best known for its behind-the-scenes attempts to influence the politics of other countries. In your book, The Gringa, an American activist becomes involved with Peruvian militants and then ends up in jail. The book takes some inspiration from the case of Lori Berenson, who spent 20 years in prison in Peru after involvement with the Túpac Amaru. In your book, years later, a journalist comes to try to learn the truth about your character, Leonora Gelb. But then that seems to be a kind of impossibility, and he struggles. Why did you decide to frame the story that way?
Andrew Altschul: So I lived in Peru for a couple of years, in the late 1990s. And I’ve gone back many times since, and spent a lot of time there. When I was living there, it was about two and a half years after Lori Berenson had been arrested and tried and convicted and incarcerated in a military prison. And even at that time the case was still very much in the news. Every time there would be a new motion by one of her lawyers, or some kind of visit to Lima by Jesse Jackson or a member of the Clinton administration trying to to plead for leniency in her case, she would come back into the news and the press would always dredge up the same footage and the same old photographs of this woman who had, at a press conference in Lima after her arrest, basically been shouting at the reporters about the need for revolution in Peru and the oppression and misdeeds of the government. She came off as very angry, and to a lot of regular Peruvians she really fit the story that the Peruvian government had disseminated, that she was this violent, foreign terrorist mastermind.
So even years later, that same footage would always be run, and the people that I spent time with in Peru—it didn’t matter whether they were left-wing or right-wing, old or young, sympathetic to the government or to the revolutionaries during the Dirty War of the 80s and early 90s—almost everybody reacted to her the same way, with a kind of vitriol, resentment and hatred that really stunned me at the time. I mean, I was in my late twenties, I considered myself a reasonably politically aware person, but I just couldn’t quite understand why this late 20s American woman, very petite, unthreatening looking person would inspire this kind of loathing from everybody around me. So the story interested me for a long time before I started writing the novel, and one of the things that interested me most was the fact that the stories that both the government and Berenson herself told about what really happened leading up to her arrest and trial, I found both of them completely impossible to believe.
The government was painting the picture of this “soldier of fortune” who had come down and was going to foment revolution and was stockpiling weapons and was essentially a terminator-type assassin who wanted to overthrow the Peruvian government and destroy Peruvian society. And on the other hand, you had Berenson, who had been renting a house in a wealthy suburb of Lima, in which about 12 or 13 members of the Túpac Amaru group had been living, claiming that she had no idea who was living in the house, she had no idea that they were involved with some kind of violent revolutionary group, she had no idea that they may have been planning some kind of violent action against the government. That to me rang as equally implausible as the government’s story.
And so obviously, somewhere in between those two wildly polar opposite stories, lay the truth of what had happened. And in 15 or 20 years of journalism about the case, nobody has really ever gotten to the bottom of it. I’ve never read anything, where I’ve said, ‘Oh, okay, this starts to sound more like what might have been happening in that house for the nine or 10 months, that she was living there.’ And I eventually just decided that I was going to have to kind of write a fictional version of it to try to figure out for myself what might be plausible, what might explain some of the psychologies, both hers and the Peruvian people and how they reacted to her.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: And so, you chose to write about this from the point of view of an American individual—talking about this kind of earnest, do-gooding hubris and innocence. And then the Peruvian characters in your novel initially react to Leonora Gelb, the activist character you’ve created, in a certain way, partly because of how American institutions have behaved in other countries. You’re talking about the story that the Peruvian government has disseminated. Can you talk a little bit about how you see the relationship between that individual character and then the trope of the American abroad, which is sort of part of literature for so long, and then how this connects to this long history of American interference in the politics of other countries?
AA: You’re right. There is a long tradition in American fiction of the American abroad. It starts with Twain, who wrote very satirically about Americans abroad, but starting with Hemingway and really right up through the 20th century, early 21st century, the tradition has been much more earnest. These stories are largely about Americans finding themselves or going on some kind of emotional journey. If you take something like The Sun Also Rises as the kind of paradigmatic 20th century expat novel—it’s a beautiful, wonderful novel. At the same time, in that novel, we’re very much centered on the perspective of Jake Barnes, the American expat. We get virtually no access to the lives or experiences or perspectives of the French or the Spanish, the two countries in which the novel is set, no real sense of the histories of those people, or how they might have felt about all these fabulously wealthy Americans just kind of frittering away their days in their midst. And that has always struck me as a very odd, American-centric idea of the world and how it reacts to us.
WT: Eat Pray Love…
AA: Yes, Eat Pray Love. So when I went about writing The Gringa, it was very important to me to make sure that the American characters, both Leonora Gelb and this character known as Andres, who’s trying to write her story, that their experiences were not the center of the story. Certainly what’s happening with them and to them, and because of them, is central to the plot, but I wanted to surround them as best I could with Peruvian characters, with the people who really have a stake in this story. I wanted the novel to make it clear that it’s their experience that matters really quite a lot more than the inner journeys or the emotional lives of privileged white Americans.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope and Mary Henn.