Last fall I read the popular spy novel by Alan Furst, Kingdom of Shadows. Set in pre-World War II Europe, with an amazingly authentic historical backdrop, the book received rave reviews. The fine narrative, with its brilliant atmospheric detail and fully realized characters, sent me off to find others. The Polish Officer, an earlier book, had just been reprinted by his publisher, Alfred Knopf. I ran out and bought it one Sunday in November and stayed up way too late reading it. The next morning as I was shaving, I thought I was dreaming when I heard the local NPR announcer mention that Alan Furst would be interviewed by John Aielli on "Eklektikos," broadcast live from the Austin studio later that day. When I arrived at the Center I asked Travis Willmann, our intrepid assistant in the Public Affairs office, to track Furst down; he did, and Furst was gracious enough to come for a visit at the Ransom Center, where he and I spoke about his works and my admiration for them. Furst knew of the Ransom Center and was eager to learn more about us; the curiosity was mutual. I wondered how a fellow born in Brooklyn in 19XX could recreate the ominous and complex atmosphere of the rise of Nazi power throughout Europe in the late 1930s. I also wondered how an author, steeped in the knowledge of what was to come in the 1940s, could craft such accurate characters, believably devoid of the knowledge we all now have. I could see in Furst's work echoes of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, and sure enough when I talked with him, Furst mentioned these names as his greatest influences.
I relate this anecdote not simply to reveal my own affection for spy novels, but also to highlight the Ransom Center's continuing interest in the works of exemplary contemporary authors. The idea of our Contemporary Authors Program (which I will describe more thoroughly in our next newsletter) is to discover promising literary talent before the authors become "collectable" and the prices of their books inflate quite rapidly beyond our means. Among the 535 authors we collect are Russell Banks, Ethan Canin, Jamaica Kincaid, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Ondaatje, Jane Smiley, . . . and now Alan Furst.
Thomas F. Staley