Book Report: Aftermath of WWII plays out on pages of historical thriller
Portland writer Steve Anderson just published his seventh book, "The Preserve" (Simon & Schuster, $21.78). He'll read from his fast-paced thriller at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19, at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.
The Tribune caught up with Anderson to discuss the book and more:
Tribune: What is your new book "The Preserve" about?
Anderson: It's set in the U.S. territory of Hawaii, 1948. A World War II veteran turned deserter, Wendell Lett, seeks a cure for his combat fatigue (PTSD) at a mysterious facility called the Preserve, but his handlers aim to turn him into an assassin for a deadly plot that runs all the way to Gen. MacArthur.
"The Preserve" is based on some true events, includes a few real-life characters, and offers a sobering take on the dark side of American power in the postwar era.
Tribune: Who's the audience for your book?
Anderson: Anyone who reads crime, espionage and mystery, especially with a historical setting. Readers of my books are usually willing to face some grim truths. That power can corrupt even the good, or that the bad have their reasons for doing what they do. Hopefully they appreciate learning weird bits of history or local color on the way, since I often introduce lesser-known historical events in my novels.
Still, any historical realism also needs to serve the story — I want readers to be entertained first. Luckily, as a novelist I also get to make things up in that regard. Anyone who's read the loose prequel, "Under False Flags," might be interested since that book also features Wendell Lett.
Tribune: "The Preserve" is a work of fiction, but did this place exist?
Anderson: It's entirely fictional. That said, the existence of a facility like the Preserve wouldn't have been surprising in that in-between world between World War II and the Cold War. The U.S. intelligence system was undergoing huge changes and getting bolder, and the founding of the CIA in 1947 only increased the boldness.
There were clandestine rogue operations and camps, classified psychological drug programs, and even plots against major figures, including assassination. I'm no conspiracy theorist, but there's enough historical record already released to show such things went on.
Tribune: Why did you want to write about this period of U.S. history?
Anderson: The U.S. had gone from playing a relatively minor role as a world power before the war to assuming clear control of the world stage. There was plenty of adjustment. How to convert our wartime footing into something that would ensure peace and the American way?
I'm intrigued by periods and settings experiencing great change or turmoil — they're always fertile ground.
Tribune: Describe your research habits and techniques. Any rabbit holes or unexpected detours while writing "The Preserve"?
Anderson: The research always involves a combination of internet sleuthing, historical records, period documents and media, books, interviews — whatever works — and hopefully local research. I've had the good fortune to research in Hawaii itself, on Oahu and especially all over the Big Island, talking to people and scouting locations.
I had a lot to learn. Most of my other novels take place in WWII-era Europe, usually involving Germany. I know that language, the places and the era well. The territory of Hawaii in 1948 was completely new ground.
One fascinating thing I learned was that the Imperial Japanese had plundered fortunes throughout Asia during the war, yet some of it has remained missing, allegedly. I was also surprised to learn of the "Business Plot" from the 1930s, whereby certain wealthy American business interests were purportedly seeking to overthrow President Roosevelt.
For Hawaii, I discovered just how much wartime U.S. military government rule changed Hawaiian society and culture in profound ways. The rugged geography of the Big Island alone was surprising, much harsher than I realized.
There are always rabbit holes. In earlier versions of the manuscript, I had one of the main characters, Kanani Alana, speaking hardcore Hawaiian pidgin English throughout. In the end, though, certain wise folks, including a linguistics professor in Hawaii, helped me realize that I should ease up on the pidgin because it might distract the reader. The language dork and literary translator in me resisted, but common sense won out.
Tribune: What do you most wish readers take away from the story?
Anderson: That a person and even a culture can change profoundly despite deeply ingrained, traditions, consequences and afflictions. Without giving too much away, Wendell Lett will try to reject using violence altogether — not an easy thing to pull off in a thriller.
Apart from that? Maybe it's that not all was rosy among the victors in the post-WWII era of the late 1940s. Sure, the war was won, but the seeds for failures and tragedies were already being sown. In every great success, there's always that kernel of self-destruction.
Readers can also learn unfamiliar bits of history and local color on the way, especially about the territory of Hawaii in 1948. There's also the issue of PTSD, what then was commonly called "combat fatigue." It wasn't understood like it is now, and was often disregarded or ignored.
Tribune: What books are you most looking forward to this fall?
Anderson: Whatever's next in the pile! Seriously though, my reading habits tend to extend all over owing to my assorted writing, editing and translating hats. I'm often reading a history book from 20 years ago, a German novel from a decade ago, a thriller from the '60s. So I'm not always looking to the latest books as much as I wish. I do have my eye on the new Lara Prescott novel, "The Secrets We Kept," as well as James Benn's latest, "When Hell Struck Twelve," and the upcoming Alan Furst novel, and there's the new Kate Atkinson.
I could go on. Oh, there's also "Poisoner in Chief," a promising new history of early CIA drug experiments, which ties into my story.
Tribune: You have an event coming up at Powell's on Hawthorne. Do you enjoy reading in front of an audience?
Anderson: I definitely enjoy it, which is somewhat surprising to me. I was shy about talking in front of people when I was younger, but I've grown into it. It helps that I'm excited about the story and about sharing it with others. There's a confidence and calmness that comes from knowing your subject and from being excited about revealing things that people might not know.
Tribune: Will you attend Portland Book Festival on Nov. 9? Is your style to hobnob with other writers or lone wolf it?
Anderson: I'll be attending. It's a great event, and I'm very proud of it as a writer born and raised in the Portland area. I'm usually more of a lone wolf, though I'm always open to connecting with other writers and enjoy doing so. As a writer, I'm simply more of an observer by nature.
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