Part-Time Parisian welcomes PETER STEINER to its series of author interviews and reviews. He’s a super-creative man — for one, he’s the force behind the New Yorker cartoon absolutely everybody has heard of, the one captioned, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” (See his bio on his Amazon author page.) Today we’re discussing his novel The Resistance, a tale of moral ambiguity and betrayal in occupied Germany.
He’s had a varied and fascinating career, beginning with his Ph.D. In German literature, through his life as a prolific cartoonist to, in a sort of retirement, a new career as a novelist and painter. For details, including a look at his paintings, see his web site PLSteiner.com.
I met Peter two years ago at a reading he did for the American Library in Paris, and liked the book immensely. I re-read it in anticipation of this interview and the new review that will follow in about a week, and appreciated it even more. It’s a pretty deep book about occupied France and the ambiguities of life under military occupation, and I encourage you to read it carefully. Peter’s next novel featuring his protagonist Louis Morgon, an unjustly cashiered CIA agent who settles into a village in the Loire Valley, is scheduled for release next Spring.
The interview was conducted June 18 by email.
John Pearce: I have read The Resistance twice, once shortly after we met at your reading two years ago in Paris and again in the last few weeks. First I read it as a thriller, or maybe a mystery, but on my most recent reading it struck me as a morality tale. Your characters were forced into the German yoke, but each of them found his or her own way to full resistance or full collaboration, or in some cases to the appearance of one but practice of the other.
When you began, what did you want the novel to be? And did it come out as you intended?
Peter Steiner: First of all I wanted The Resistance to tell a good story–riveting and compelling. But then I also wanted it to be an examination of human ethics and morality in a difficult world. It began as a question I asked myself: how would I have behaved when collaboration was the law and resistance mortally dangerous? It is difficult even in the best of times to be a decent human being. And when times are tough,it is all but impossible. During the occupation of France everyone had to do terrible things. Even doing nothing was, in some sense, severely immoral. And the choices people faced day after day must have seemed, at least to the conscientious, all but impossible. I wanted good and evil to be mixed up with one another, even indistinguishable sometimes, as they are in real life.
JP: None of us knows how we would react under the pressure of a brutal occupation, and The Resistance is a good reminder that obvious heroics are very likely to be fatal — just look at the roadside memorials in rural France, or at the plaques on building walls all over Paris, in memory of those who died resisting the Germans. Your imagining of the diverse reaction of the citizens of Saint-Léon is one of the best explorations of the ambiguity of self-interest I’ve seen. How did you go about assembling your cast of characters? From your reading, from marinating in the local culture during your life in rural France, or from somewhere else entirely?
PS: I invented two young men (Onesime and Jean) and stuck them in dire circumstances. And the characters and situations gradually developed around them. I did lots of reading as I was writing, mostly to get the settings and history right. And I had some familiarity with life in rural France. But mainly I let the story unspool on its own.
JP: The Dême looks like a charming stream, a green necklace of small towns named something-sur-Dême. Is life there much different from the way it was in 1940?
PS: In some ways it’s completely different. For one thing, it’s more cosmopolitan in that many people come there from Paris now either on weekends or settle there. It is still the province, but not as insular as it once was. But physically amazingly little has changed, which is what draws the Parisians. There are still small farms worked by locals, the towns and villages look essentially the same, and the society with its social strata and differences is as rigid as before. And people enjoy life as only the French seem able to do.
JP: How did your French friends respond to The Resistance? Have they preferred any of your novels over the others?
PS: Our French friends mostly don’t read English so they don’t know my books, although many have signed copies.
JP: Is there another Louis Morgon story in the wings? If so, please tell us a little about it.
PS: A new Louis Morgon novel should appear next spring. In this book he locks horns with a Wall Street swindler. Like The Resistance this book is on a larger canvas and takes on bigger issues, although nothing as urgent as resistance and collaboration. Here it’s capitalism and avarice. On second thought, maybe it is as urgent.
JP: You’ve had a fascinating career so far — Ph.D. In German literature, professor, writer, painter, highly acclaimed cartoonist for The New Yorker and others (who could ever forget “On the Internet Nobody Knows You’re a Dog.”) If you had the chance to start over, would you follow another path?
PS: I didn’t know I had a path when I was following it, but the one constant has always been I’ve worked at what interested me as long as it interested me. I would do it exactly the same again, assuming I got as lucky again as I have been. How many people get to make that sort of life for themselves? Not many.
JP: When you’re writing, what is your work day like? Do you dedicated a period to writing, another to painting, and so forth, or do you let your inspiration take you where it will? Do you create better in France or Connecticut?
PS: When I’m working on a book, I’m usually not painting. And visa versa. I write when the spirit moves me, which, once the story starts rolling is often. But if it’s a gorgeous day, or something else calls to me, I do that. And with both writing and painting, I try to end each session on an up moment, a moment where I don’t want to quit. That makes me eager to get back to it the next day. This is not a job for me; it’s my retirement. So I do it when and exactly how I want to. Again, how lucky can one man be?
JP: How does your preparation for writing a novel differ from preparing to create a painting or a cartoon? Do you outline your novels in advance?
PS: My novels get a little preparation in my head–lots of mulling over places and themes, imagining and unfocused daydreaming. But that’s it. Then, when the bundle of all those thoughts is too baggy to hold onto without losing something, I start writing. I have one idea that starts things off and the rest comes as I write.
Then I do lots of editing, adding stuff at the beginning, etc. My painting is similar, an idea in my head that gets painted in rough form onto the canvas and then gets worked, messed around, changed. The big difference is that a painting is always present in its entirety and a novel isn’t. You are somewhere in it without any immediate sense of what you have already done or what comes next.
Peter Steiner’s web site: plsteiner.com, with internal links to his other books, his paintings and his cartoons.
The Resistance page on Amazon
Peter Steiner’s author page and bio on Amazon
The famous cartoon: