Lisa Leiberman hits the sweet spot between “Casablanca” and Alan Furst, mining the post-World War II world for social and personal tensions. In person, however, she’s a jolly companion, one I always seek out at conferences and book events, which makes me more than happy to host her here today.
How does a book start for you?
My series is based on old movies, noir classics for the most part. I’ll take a recognizable scene or storyline, then play with it and make it my own. So, All the Wrong Places opens with a body floating in a Hollywood swimming pool, à la Sunset Boulevard. The dead man in that film was killed by his dreams. So is the dead woman in my mystery, albeit under different circumstances.
Burning Cold borrows shamelessly from Graham Greene’s treatment for the great Carol Reed film, The Third Man. A rather clueless American arrives in war torn Vienna, searching for a friend who is believed to be dead. I’ve changed the setting to Budapest during the 1956 revolution and the missing friend has become my heroine’s forgotten half brother Zoltán—a man every bit as complicated as the character played by Orson Welles in the movie.
Who in your latest book has surprised you most – and why?
I created a character named Magda, a housekeeper modeled on the key figure in the late Hungarian author Magda Szabó’s novel, The Door. Szabó’s housekeeper is quite tough, but she was never called upon to wrestle a Russian spy to the ground and get him in a half nelson!
When and/or where is your latest book set and is there a story behind that setting?
A crucial segment of Burning Cold takes place in Mád, a small town in the Tokaj wine region on Hungary’s eastern border—a place I chose simply because of the potential for wordplay. Then I learned the fate of Mád’s once-thriving Jewish community.
Some three hundred men, women, and children were locked in the town’s synagogue when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944, deprived of food and water for three days, then herded into cattle cars with the help of the Arrow Cross (Hungarian militia). Most perished in Auschwitz.
I visited Mád during a research trip to Hungary in 2015. The desecrated synagogue was only restored in 2004, a lonely memorial to the town’s murdered Jews. As I stood in the sanctuary, I was overwhelmed by sadness.
My father’s family emigrated to America from this corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. There’s a scene where one of my characters plays the Kol Nidre on his violin, a small tribute to the memory of my ancestors and all who perished from this region.
What are you working on now?
The third Cara Walden mystery is set in Saigon circa 1957 during the filming of Joseph Mankiewicz’s version of The Quiet American. Yes, I’m still hanging with Graham Greene, am thinking of sending the crew off to Cuba next. (Our Man in Havana, also directed by Carol Reed and starring Alec Guinness, Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, and Ernie Kovacs, with cameos from Ralph Richardson and Noel Coward, is a delightful film)
The Glass Forest explores America’s growing colonial involvement in Vietnam after the French left. A quiet insurgency is building in the South and my characters are inadvertently caught up in it. There’s also a love triangle (as in Greene’s novel) and a number of characters based on real people, including a Vietnamese double agent and a dashing Frenchwoman, a former member of the Resistance with a taste for danger.
What didn’t I ask you that I should have?
I’d like to talk a bit about escapism. More and more in these troubling times, I turn to my mystery writing for escape. Old movies have always done that for me. Re-watching classics like Sunset Boulevardand Ninotchka(also referenced in All the Wrong Places) and certain Hitchcock films featuring Cary Grant (who makes a cameo in that book) reminds me that playful acts of the imagination are necessary. My stories take readers to dark places, and yet I aim to delight readers with my writing, the vividness of the settings I create, the quirkiness of my characters, along with a bit of black humor for leavening.
I review classic films on my blog at Deathlessprose.com. In my review of the great Rossellini neorealist film, Rome Open City, I wrote about necessary myths: stories that unite audiences and help them to gird their loins and recommit themselves to a set of common values. Think of Casablanca and the scene where the scene where Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) leads everyone in Rick’s bar in a rousing chorus of “The Marseillaise,” drowning out the Nazis.
I hope to do the same.
Trained as a modern European cultural and intellectual historian, Lisa Lieberman abandoned a perfectly respectable academic career for the life of a vicarious adventurer through dangerous times and places. She has written extensively on postwar Europe. Leaving You: The Cultural Meaning of Suicide,her first book, addresses the suicides of notable Holocaust survivors including Primo Levi, Bruno Bettelheim, and Jean Améry. Her translations of Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay, “Paris Under the Occupation,” and Simone de Beauvoir’s essay, “An Eye for an Eye,” are available on Now and Then Reader. “Dirty War,” an account of the French campaign against terrorism in Algeria, was selected as a Kindle Single. Her most recent essay on the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution, “Stalin’s Boots,” was the inspiration for the second Cara Walden mystery.