East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Guest Post: an interview with James Grady

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guestpostfeatI am happy to leave the page, today, to my friend Giulia – you can check out her blog Free to Write, Free to Read. She recently conducted an interview with James Grady, the author of Six Days of the Condor – one of my favuorite books and the basis for one of my all-time favourite movies.

What follows is the original text – Giulia’s questions were translated by Fabrizio Fulio Bragoni.
I wish to express my gratitude to Giulia, to Fabrizio and of course to mister Grady.

Here goes – enjoy!

Dear Mr Grady, welcome on Liberi di Scrivere. I can’t really tell you how honored we are to host you, so I will not try to, and I’ll go straight to the point.
So, Mr Grady, have you ever thought of yourself as a part of the wide Anti-Vietnam war movement, or even a model, someone the generation that grew up under the bad long shade of the Watergate could recognize itself in and even identify with or did you just happen to be in the right place at the right time?

This a great, but complex question.

By spring of 1969 and my second year in college at the University of Montana, I became part of the anti-Vietnam war movement — not an organization, more an attitude and the commitment to show up at demonstrations, sign petitions, etc.  In the spring of 1970, the Kent State (university) shootings happened.  I was part of the protests in Missoula, Montana (my university town).  That summer vacation, I went back to my much smaller Montana town of Shelby where I worked for the city road crew (fixing streets, broken water lines, etc., blue collar work) to pay for college.  One of the elected city councilmen and a local newspaper publisher, extreme right wing, tried to get me fired because of my anti-war activities.  My boss on the road crew, who disagreed with my politics, absolutely refused to knuckle under to the political pressure and have me fired because “this is America and James can believe any damn thing he wants.”  That blue collar, very conservative, under-educated boss became my hero.


When I was working in the winter of 1971 as an intern for a U.S. Senator in Washington (still in school, a national program for journalism students), the idea for Condor hit me.  Both in Washington and back “home” in Montana, I felt like the whole country was in a fog of secrets and danger — the war, the rise of the security state, the dark side of the drug revolution with heroin, the Mafia.  I tapped into that with Condor.

And my timing was astonishingly wonderful.  Watergate and the CIA scandals were just hitting the newspapers as inescapable forces when the novel went to the publisher and — quickly thereafter — to Dino De Laurentiis.  I think if the book had been offered for sale a year earlier or even a year later, it would never have happened.  I hit the moment just right, with just the right novel.  I’m so lucky.

You’re not just a fiction writer, you’ve worked as a reporter and a scriptwriter, which one of these activities has given you the most?

While I love movies and now the new wonderful revolution in TV dramas and comedies, the 4 years I spent as a national investigative reporter for syndicated columnist Jack Anderson (back then he was in 1,000 American newspapers) is dear to my heart and hugely influential in my fiction.  I got to be a “muckraker,” a reporter like the great Leo Sisti, looking for the story behind the headlines, the flow of power, the people who victimize those of us who are less fortunate.  I put my fiction career on hold — and hurt it — for the chance to do some good and have those great adventures.  Now every day as a fiction author, I still draw on what I learned in the streets and behind closed doors.

For you, success came very early, right after publishing The six days of the Condor. What was America like back then? What was it like to be a young liberal with big ideals and a couple of early delusions in the mid-seventies Us? And well, is that how you feel about yourself, were you really a young liberal with big ideals and early delusions, as some of us have come to think about you, or were you very far from that?

six-daysAs I hit it big with Condor, America woke up from the Vietnam war, the conservative 1950’s, the dominance of the WW II generation of our parents.  It was an exciting, “open” time, when you could chase your dreams and have a chance of catching them.

And I started the era with my biggest personal (though not political) dream already accomplished:  a successful first novel, an iconic movie from it, a great second career (a calling of conscience, I didn’t need the money) as an investigative reporter — muckraker.  I totally believed that if I was willing to put my life and talent on the line, work hard, not back down from evil, I could help make a difference and write some fiction that was worthy of the chances I’d been given.

I didn’t realize that not as many of my generation were that passionate about change and justice, but the small chunk of us who were made a difference.  Not enough, but it’s always like that:  the fight, the good fight for justice and honor, is eternal.  That’s what makes us human.

On a more personal level, in my bones, I was determined not to blow it, to squander this opportunity I had to spend my life working at what I wanted to do:  write fiction.  I refused to dishonor the luck and chance I’d been given.  So I lived quite conservatively, practically living on my reporter’s salary, saving the rest to support my fiction.  I dressed and lived like a graduate student, blue jeans and cheap shirts, leather zip-up jackets, sneakers.  I spent money only on books, movies and music (rock ‘n’ roll), listened to the radio.  Usually rose at 6:30, was asleep by 11 pm.  I avoided glitz — easy to do back then in “un-cool” Washington.  Yes, I repeatedly failed to be monogamous to a few women I had long term affairs with, but I never was a party goer or a pickup (women) artist.  I worked 40 to 50 hours a week, ran to keep in shape, worked hard to learn how to write better.  There were so many chances for me to fly apart and disappear — bad drugs, excessive spending, arrogance and ego, tawdry sexual catastrophes.  In some ways, I was too naive and shy to fall victim to my own opportunities for personal destruction.

I was — am — an idealist, but one shaped by the realities of growing up in a tough working-class town from middle class parents, from riding with homicide cops in big city drug wars, from listening to criminals both minor and organized racketeers, from watching the quiet heroism of ordinary people.  I’m not sure the term liberal means much anymore, just as conservative has also been co-opted.  I want as much freedom from fear, persecution and injustice as possible for every ordinary citizen in the world.  And sure, I’m an idealist, but without the light of ideals, how do we know which way to run in the darkness surrounding all of us?

In 1975, your novel was turned into a Sidney Pollack movie, Three days of the Condor, and you’ve been asked to take care of the script. Max von Sydow, Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, among others, were in the cast. Is there anything curious you can tell us about the making of the movie, or something we should really know about script writing in general?

three-daysActually, I had nothing to do with writing the script:  I was 25 years old, they would never have let me handle a multi-million dollar project.  But Dino, Redford, Sydney Pollack, all were kind to me and let me visit the set whenever I wanted, kept telling me things, showing me things.

The script was an amazing story I only know part of.  They had to keep re-writing it as the news of the latest scandal in espionage and politics broke — Nixon was still fighting to stay in office, 1973-early 1974.

As for scriptwriting in general, what many people forget is that the movie script is like a blueprint or architectural plans for the building of a movie involving many more people and constantly changing circumstances.  It’s rare for a screenwriter to see his vision completely translated onto the screen, in part because it’s almost impossible to turn that theory into a finished project — what if rains during all the budgeted outdoor scenes?

So I’ve recently re-read Six days of the Condor and then I’ve watched the movie back, which I hadn’t done in a while. I think your book has the weird capability of never coming to bore me, and this is  an ultra-rare thing, so please tell me, where did you get the idea, and did you expect the novel to be so successful?

Thank you!  I was walking to work on Capital Hill through the cold winter of 1971, and everyday I passed this same white walled three story building on the corner.  All the other buildings were townhouses or apartment buildings, not very tall.  This white building had a plaque beside its front door — but I never saw anyone come in or go out of it.  And the thought hit me: What if it’s a CIA front?  Maybe steps later, maybe days later, the second idea hit me:  What if I came back to the office where I worked from lunch and found everyone there murdered?  Two questions, two great “what-if’s.”  Answering them in the context of the times and the idea that Condor was like everyone, not a James Bond superhero, gave me my novel.  Maybe all art comes from “what-if” questions.

I had no idea Condor would be so successful!  Hell, I didn’t think it would even get published.  But I’d been driven to write since I was about 6 years old, I had to write that story, the first story I’d ever been seized by that was big enough to be a novel.

I am still blown away by Condor’s success.

There’s a passage in witch Maronick tells Condor he’d better keep on reading, as his luck has come to an end, and once it does one’s not worth so much… every time I get there.. well, I just think it’s great. By the way, Joe Turner/ Ronald Malcolm is a common man, an academic turned spy. Do you think that kind of relationship depicts, although maybe metaphorically, the way many young people used to cope with the establishment, I mean being oppressed and yet standing up all at once?

That attitude of “standing up” to being oppressed, of opposing authority and “the way things are,” that emerged in the 1960’s in America, inspired by the Civil Rights movement at first, then the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the bizarre hopelessness of living in a Cold War world that could destroy itself with atomic bombs in 15 minutes.  The idea was to “rebel” but — as Camus would say — toward something better, to say YES, not just NO.  I wish that attitude were stronger in today’s youth.

As the movie comes to its end, right in front of the Times’ office there’s a sense of loneliness, a sense of unease which seems to me to be slightly softer, I mean, lighter, in the book. At that point in the book Condor has found out some things about himself, things he’d never suspected; he’s grown older and more mature, and he’s tuned out to be more of a “natural” at spy game than he ever thought. He finds out he could do much more than he ever thought he could do, and much more than he’s ever done. As the author of both the movie and the novel, you’re like the only person in the world to be entitled to answer this rude question:  Movie or novel, Three days or Six days, which one has the better ending?

Wow.  What a powerful question.  I think the answer lies in the differences between the two works.  And I think both endings have a resonance that is important and fits within the work and the times that the work first appeared.  While I’m the only person in the world entitled to answer the question, I may be the only person in the world who can’t.  I love both works of art.  The movie is ultimately more hopeful on a global scale, while the book is more focused on the personal level.

How does it feel to talk about your novel after all these years?

Lucky.  It feels unbelievably lucky to know that my work is still a force, still living.  I’m so grateful.  And blown away.

Somehow Six days and Three days diverge; the movie shows a glimpse of political disenchantment that it’s hard to find in the book. Is that something that came out of your confrontation with the director? And did you suggest the actual modifications of the original plot?

The movie’s political disenchantment and broader perspective came from Redford and Pollack’s — and Dino’s, I think — desire to make the movie be as important and deep and honest about those times as possible.  I think they were very influenced by the great 1960’s films of Italy and France.  They felt a huge responsibility to the audience, our country, the world.  They — we all — felt like they were taking a great political and social risk with this “entertainment:”  What if Nixon had not fallen, what if Watergate and the CIA scandals had triumphed over the forces of good and justice?  That was a very real possibility as they were writing and shooting the movie — this was before All The President’s Men.  And again, I made no suggestions to the movie writing.

Six days of the Condoris the first installment in a series. Can you tell us something about the other novels? How many books is the series composed of? What about the audience: did people receive the other novels well?

last-daysWay back as Condor was being filmed and the book was about to be published, I considered making the character a series of novels, five actually, with him ending up dead or insane.  My agents, my publisher, hell: everyone in the world who “knew best” was urging me to do so.  About halfway through the writing of the second novel, I realized I could never complete with the Robert Redford version of Condor and at the same time, I realized that if I did go with a long series of stories and novels right then, I would be pigeonholed, type-cast, and would have a hard time getting other stories I wanted to do published.  That’s not fair or artistically logical, but it probably was true. I finished that second novel (Shadow Of The Condor), then walked away from the character completely until after 9/11.  Then I wrote a novella with a “modern” Condor to express my rage, sorrow and concern over what was happening in our post 9/11 world, it got published a few places.  Since then, I’ve written three or four other Condor short stories or novellas, but those all featured my original character and take his saga up to date.  He’s also a cameo in my novel Mad Dogs. Then last year, I published the first “real” sequel, Last Days Of The Condor, with my original character trying to survive our post-9/11 “security state.”  The stories and novel have been well received, with my favorite reaction coming from The Washington Post review that said Last Days Of The Condor remind them of both George Orwell and Bob Dylan.

Now, let’s get back to present days: what do you think about the U.S. In the ultra-unstable contemporary situation? In a few months, you might have your first female president, or… well, how about that? Are you optimistic?

For me what’s even more important and terrifying than the specter of Donald Trump becoming president is how his rise revealed dangerous and tragic forces within my country.  He’s used a rich man’s resources and risen on massive ignorance, fear mongering, lies, the worst kind of hatreds, and the power of TV celebrity culture.  If he loses, that doesn’t mean truth, justice, rationality, humanity and the American way have won.  That means we just avoided a catastrophe and have a huge political and social re-invention to undertake.  I’m more hopeful than optimistic.  And yeah, it would be nice to finally have a female president.  Women need to be celebrated as equals and for who they are in full.

What else can I say? Thank you for answering me. If someone had told me, just a couple of years ago, that I might have the chance of interviewing you, I would never have believed that… well, I guess that’s the power of blogging and the free press…

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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