Sunday, February 6, 2022

Q&A with Paul Vidich




Paul Vidich is the author of the new novel The Matchmaker. His other books include The Mercenary, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Nation. He lives in New York City.


Q: You write that The Matchmaker was inspired by East Germany spymaster Markus Wolf. What intrigued you about him, and how did the book come about?


A: I came across the novel’s premise after reading the autobiography of Markus Wolf, the legendary head of counterintelligence of the East German Ministry of State Security, known as the Stasi. His Communist parents fled Nazi Germany just before World War II for Moscow, and he returned with the victorious Red Army to set up East Germany’s spy service.


Wolf was intelligent, well-read, and a sophisticated apparatchik of the Communist system who created what became known as the Romeo Network.


Spies have always used sex as tradecraft, but Wolf went further and used love as tradecraft. He trained handsome East German men to secretly cross into West Germany to begin relationships with young women who worked in military and political positions with access to secrets.


His Romeos looked for a particular type of woman – woman on the edge, with drinking problems, difficulties with loneliness, money problems – women who were vulnerable to the affections of a handsome man. Romeos groomed their targets, offered friendship, and in many cases, married these woman. 


I was intrigued to write a novel through the eyes of one young Juliet.


I was drawn to the notion that a woman loved her husband – was happy in her relationship, and also blind to his mischief. What goes on inside a marriage is always complex. Two people meet and give up a little of themselves to share in the togetherness of a marriage. Every spouse has some secret, or bit of his or her past that remains hidden. 


What happens when that secret is profound?  When your loving husband has a wife in East Germany and he’s a spy?


Q: How did you create your character Anne Simpson?


A: To create Anne Simpson, I gave her a personal history filled with ambition, sadness, disappointment, joy, humor, dreams – all the little uncomfortable conflicts and details that makes each of us unusual, unique, and mysterious.  I also relied on my marriage for insights.

My wife and I have been married 44 years, but there are still moments when we surprise ourselves with a previously unknown incident from the past.


My wife was previously married and we met when she was in her early 30s. She had a life in the Peace Corps, as a student at Berkley, and a young editor- by-day and cabaret actress-by-night. I’ve wondered about her life then: Who was she? What hasn’t she told me about previous lovers? What happens when the secrets in a marriage are profound? 


By looking closely at my own marriage, I was able to find details that I could use for Anne Simpson.   


Q: In a review on, Kate Padilla writes, “The strength of the book is the recounting of historical events, many now forgotten or having occurred in another generation.” What do you think of that description, and how did you research the novel?


A: It is important to distinguish between writing history and writing a novel set in an historical moment.  The historical facts should be broadly accurate, but the novel tells an imaginary story. The truth of the story comes from the opinions and actions of the characters.


In The Matchmaker, I use the fall of the Berlin Wall to explore themes of deception, disloyalty, doubt, and justice in an unjust world. Truth, if there is such a thing, emerges from the beliefs and actions of the characters.


I read a lot of books about divided Berlin. These included accounts of East Germans of their lives under the GDR. The personal hardships of living in an authoritarian country were moving and helped shape the mood I wanted to create in the novel.


As I said, Markus Wolf’s autobiography was particularly helpful. That book led me to journalistic accounts of young women who were victims of the Romeo Network. 


Finally, I created a mental map of Berlin with the various locations that would be important to the novel. Apartment houses, specific hotels, streets. I wanted to understand what a character would see when she stepped onto the street, the metro stations she would enter, the neighborhood she would pass on her daily jogs.


These details have to be present to create a sense of authenticity, but they have to remain in the background so they don’t distract the reader, or make the book sound like a travelogue.    


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Generally, the finished novel is true to the original outline, but the book is filled with the character complications and surprises that only emerge during the actual writing. As my characters develop in the book, they begin to take on a life of their own, and they shape the story in subtle but critical ways. I begin a novel knowing how it will end, but how I navigate to the ending usually is a surprise.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next novel is set in Beirut in 2006 during the 34-day Hezbollah Israeli war. The Cold War has turned into The War on Terror.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I chose Berlin because I was fascinated by the Stasi. By 1990, when the GDR fell, the Stasi ran a comprehensive surveillance organization that employed 91,000 people and managed a network of one million informers. One in seven East Germans spied on friends, family, or neighbors.


The GDR’s surveillance state had implications for America today. Methods of surveillance differ, but the dangerous loss of privacy is similar.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Paul Vidich.

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