Natalia Pastukhova and Peter Morris Interview
Today we feature our first interview on a book that has co-authors. ‘The East German Spy Mistress’ takes us back in time to the beginning of the Cold War. The authors are Natalia Pastukhova and Peter Morris. Congratulations on what I consider a very successful collaboration.
Read my full review of their book “The East German Spy Mistress” here.
Q1. Let’s start with basics. Where are each of you from, what is your background and what made you begin writing books?
A1. Natalia is from Saint Petersburg. She studied English and Italian and because of her extraordinary competency – despite not having Party links – was taken on by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and sent to Italy from where she defected.
After a short story in English about a beetle which lived in the carpet of her old headmaster’s study, she started to write ‘The East German Police Girl’, which after being introduced to Peter, she gave to him both to enliven with more idiomatic English and a broader vocabulary, but also to write or rewrite some sections especially those set in Britain, Ireland and South America.
I, Peter, am English, was in the T. A. for some years, but after studying physics and then medicine, went into anaesthetics, worked for some years in Norway and spent time in Holland and France. I have dabbled in writing for many years, translating early Dutch and nineteenth-century Norwegian poetry and self-publishing a few novels, notably ‘The Suppliant’ and ‘Scalpels Out’. I am keen to produce fiction which is engaging but in a less formulaic and unoriginal form than so much of what appears on the shelves today.
Q2. Natalia, are you old enough to have ever lived in East Germany? If not, why did you choose East Germany for your lead character instead of one of the other former Communist countries?
A2. I was born in the autumn of 1991, so just after the re-unification Germany. Some of my older relatives had been stationed in the former East Germany and although neither of these two ‘East German’ books is wholly true, they do contain elements and anecdotes which have been told to me.
Q3. Before we get into more detailed questions, would you mind summarizing your book for the readers?
A3. The backdrop is formed from two stories which then cross over. Walther Coburg, a minor German aristocrat, debased by a vindictive war and his own sexual perversities, whilst navigating a merchant ship in the Kara Sea, causes it to be damaged. He is mysteriously released from hard labour by his cousin who is ‘The Spy Mistress’ and in due course sent to Libya where it is intended that he be caught, defect and supply misinformation. The second thread is that a group of British Army and R.A.F. officers are plotting to smoke out some Russian sympathisers in their own Civil Service and to that end set up bogus trials of the new Bloodhound anti-aircraft missile in Libya. The British military are in Libya at this period by agreement, engaged in nurturing and stiffening the fledgling monarchy of King Idris.
However, all is not what it seems. The East German spy mistress, Ulrica, is also smuggling works of art and rare coins to the West in preparation to defect. The British discover that they know of some of Coburg’s past crimes and so are able to turn the tables on him and the Russians and East Germans know from day one that the missile tests are a ruse.
Indeed almost everyone is playing a double-hand and no one’s plans lead them to where they had expected.
Threads which stretch back to wartime Tangier, eventually end in a strange encounter on Otterburn Moor where there is a surprising exposé.
Q4. Natalia, your first book was about an East German police girl and from what I have seen you wrote that book yourself. How did you begin your collaboration with Peter for this book, and why a co-author?
[ N.B. The ‘William’ you mention is the English teacher whom Natalia approached with the draft of her first book and who put her in contact with Peter. ]
A4. ‘The East German Police Girl’ should also have been launched in both our names.
I had the story sketched out and sections of it written, but it was still very much a half-finished project.
My English – for a non-native speaker – is perhaps very good, but it cannot compare in depth of expression or evenness of grammar and style with that of someone who has spoken and studied it for seventy years.
Peter is retired, we have similar realistic and aspirational outlooks on life and although I suggested joint authorship, he said that he was too old to be vain and anyway he thought that my picture on the back cover would sell more than his.
Q5. Peter, how did you two communicate and collaborate on ideas? Did you meet in person, over the phone, internet?
A5. Initially Natalia was living in Britain, so after liking and agreeing to have a shot at co-authoring the first book, we met up about a dozen times, so at least you then have a feel for one another.
Since then, it has been mostly shuffling stuff back and forth via the emails.
Q6. Always interested in the nuts and bolts of collaborators, did Natalia write a part and then Peter write a part or was one of you the lead writer? And who came up with the plot and the characters?
A6. The basic skeleton was Natalia’s and the part-writing of many of the sections. She has though always been willing to give me a fairly free hand about suggested changes or the adding in of extra sub-plots.
So Natalia supplied the initial plot and the impetus, but much of the writing and rewriting was by myself.
Although we are happy that the story is unusual, makes sense, depicts the period quite well and does not fall into the standard ‘dramatic end’ of many espionage books, we do accept that its complexity may mean that it is not the easiest read, at least for the less serious reader.
Q7. Could you tell us what was the inspiration behind the book?
A7. Natalia’s grandfather knew of a fairly similar disinformation campaign. Also Soviet penetration of Britain’s military and espionage set-ups was almost total in that era, as is well known.
Q8. What background research did the two of you have to do in order to make the plot believable?
A8. Very little. My father worked on the radar and guidance electronics of the Bloodhound. I used to know a chap who had been stationed at El Adem – which was the principal R.A.F. base in Libya – and small details we could just check by using either Google or opening a book.
Q9. There are a lot of characters, a lot of different settings in this book, it is a lot for one author to keep everything flowing cohesively. How did the two of you manage to handle all the details, settings and plots?
A9. Despite the number of locations and characters, the overall plot is simple enough. The next logical step in the story – to us at least – always seemed obvious and so hopefully the reader too can sense where it is going and feel that he has the general picture.
Q10. While there is not a lot of character development, the reader still is able to feel invested in your characters. Was this done deliberately since it would be near impossible in such a plot driven book?
A10. I think we just described the characters as seemed apt for the part they were playing. If this turns out to be life-like and not too stereotyped that is excellent, but in part accidental.
Q11. Staying with the characters, a lot of writers include an index of characters at the beginning of the book. Did you ever consider this and if not, why not?
A11. It did not even cross our minds and I cannot think that it would be helpful. The basic identity of most of the players is given simply by the office they hold or the role they are playing.
Q12. Your book involves a lot of different locales. Did you visit those locations to get a feel for those area before you wrote about them?
A12. We often cheated a bit here by using places we knew. For instance, I am very familiar with Otterburn and the old drill hall in Newcastle. The Lebanon and French Guiana we just read up on, so there may well be errors of detail, but most of these settings will have changed over the last seventy years so we can largely get away with that.
Q13. Did either of you have a favorite character?
A14. I think we both felt a lot of sympathy for Ulrica, the spy mistress. Her life in many ways has been shaped by circumstance more than her own volition and whilst what she is up to is not particularly good, she has had a tough and risk-filled life and yet deep down is still essentially a good woman.
Major Dardry and David Fairweather come over as shrewd but honest men of that era and ones with a very firm opinion about what is right and sensible.
Q14. Your book reminds me of some of the writings of Donald Westlake, because plans are made and plans fall apart. Westlake did this in some of his books, specifically his classic “The Hot Rock.” Was this a deliberate attempt on your part to portray the chaotic and sometimes duplicitous nature of the Cold War?
A14. I had heard of Donald Westlake only under his pseudonym Richard Stark. Looking him up I see that he was noted for ingenuity of plot and – as you say – things not going according to plan, which is a point in common with our book. I suppose non-predictability is a good attribute in any form of adult fiction.
Diverting briefly to the topic of titles, I have always thought what a wonderful title ‘From Russia with Love’ is. It just hints at both the Cold War and the sex, yet is so simple.
Q15. Just a few closing questions please. Are you two planning on co-authoring any more books? And is there a sequel planned to this book, since the ending appears to set up a Book 2 of the series?
A15. We do seem to have the bug, though I think we have finished with East Germany. Another book is half-written about a bright but self-willed young lass in this century who runs into troubles but is then saved by the love of very humble and unlikely character … there are vague adumbrations there of the Mary of Magdala story. Natalia has also been talking about the Germans under Kaiser Wilhelm II making trouble for the French in Morocco around the 1895 to 1905 period, but that would need quite a bit of reading and getting into first.
Q16. Finally, if you are free to answer this, were either of you spies?
Thanks so much for taking time out of your schedules and allowing my readers to get to know you. Best of luck with this book, and I look forward to more from the two of you in the future!
The opportunity was a real pleasure.
Good wishes, Natalia and Peter.