Sunday, March 22, 2020

Q&A with Paul Vidich

Paul Vidich is the author of the new novel The Coldest Warrior. He also has written An Honorable Man and The Good Assassin, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal and LitHub. He lives in New York.

Q: The Coldest Warrior is based on the true story of Army scientist Frank Olson, who was your uncle. How much of the story did you know growing up, and at what point did you decide to write this novel?

A: The family knew this while I was a child: Frank Olson died on Nov. 28, 1953 when he “jumped or fell” from his room on the 13th floor of the Statler Hotel in New York City.

Olson was a highly skilled Army scientist who worked at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, a top-secret U.S. Army facility that researched biological warfare agents. He had gone to New York to see a security-cleared psychiatrist in the company of a colleague. 

His sealed casket was delivered to his wife, my aunt, two days later. She was discouraged from viewing the body because, she was told, he had suffered disfiguring facial injuries. Olson was buried the next day. She received an expedited pension shortly after that. That was all the family knew for 22 years.

Then, in June 1975, one bit of new information came to light.

Buried inside a report by The Rockefeller Commission, which had been established by President Gerald Ford to investigate allegations of illegal CIA activity within the U.S., was a two-paragraph account of an army scientist who had been unwittingly given LSD and died in a fall from a hotel window in New York.

The similarity of the case drew the family’s attention and, after consulting the CIA, the Army confirmed the scientists was Frank Olson. Headlines followed in The New York Times and The Washington Post. “Suicide Revealed.”  In the years that followed, more information came out, but even today, the whole truth is not known.

I chose to write the novel in 2014. The story had been with me for some time, but as with personal family stories, it took me several years and three tries, to find a comfortable way to approach the narrative.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between the fictional and the historical as you wrote the book?

A: The Wilson family in the novel bears some similarity to the Olson family. The manner of Olson’s death, exhumation of the body, the LSD, the Rockefeller Commission Report, meeting in the White House. All this is factual. Around this factual base, I built a story about what happened inside the CIA. 

I became interested in the men who worked in the CIA in 1953 and 1975. I decided to tell the story from their point of view. These men went to Ivy League colleges, entered the intelligence bureaucracy with the intent to do good in the world. 

My novel tries to put a human face on the Cold War by focusing on the psychological burdens of its characters. Doubt and paranoia bred in a culture of secrecy characterize the novel, as does a sophisticated amorality of men at the top of intelligence bureaucracy, and above all there is the strain put on family, friends, and faith.

Men who work in covert operations inevitably bring some of that darkness into themselves, suffering the moral hazards of a line of work that sanctions lying, deceit, and murder.

The Coldest Warrior is not an effort to recreate the past, but rather, characters and a plot are grafted onto the original incident, and it imagines an outcome. Albert Camus said it well: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Q: Did you need to do a great deal of research to write the book, and did you learn anything surprising?

A: I was interested in the lives of the intelligence officers in the CIA. The best research I did was to read the biographies and autobiographies of these men to get to know their interests, needs, frustrations, accomplishments, yearnings – the full sweep of average men living regular lives who set off each morning to do secret, sometimes dangerous work. 

The most surprising thing? The secret life, particularly one that involves questionable moral choices, takes a toll on the soul of old men.

Q: Given the tensions surrounding the intelligence community today, what do you hope readers take away from the novel?

A: Stories need to entertain, but the best stories should also inform. And stories about the dark side of intelligence, state secrets, and coverup are compelling today because we see how politics and intelligence agencies operate in today’s world. 

The Frank Olson case is part of the legacy of inconvenient truths that exist in a democracy that finds it hard at times to balance openness with the need to keep secrets. 

And that tension continues to fascinate us. We love stories of the little guy challenging powerful government and winning. The Report, the recent movie with Adam Driver, tells just such a story.

And this stuff happens again and again, Yes, there are safeguards in the CIA against extra-judicial activity. But in a crisis, the safeguards are ignored, or new justifications are invented. 

This happened in the CIA’s efforts to kill Castro and Lumumba, and it happened in the renditions of suspected terrorists after 911. It happened with Frank Olson. Safeguards are set aside, or ignored, and extreme methods used when the demands of crises allow good men to hide behind national security.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next novel, tentatively titled The Mercenary, is set in Moscow in 1985, in the final years of the Soviet Union. A senior KGB officers with access to top secret Soviet military designs approaches a CIA officer in Moscow, asking to be ex-filtrated, something that the CIA had never successfully accomplished. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Read Joseph Kanon. Leaving Berlin, The Accomplice, Istanbul Passage. A brilliant writer, one of my favorites, who is up there with Graham Greene.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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