Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Q&A with Jonathan Payne




Jonathan Payne is the author of the new novel Citizen Orlov. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Turnpike. He is based in Washington, D.C.



Q: What inspired you to write Citizen Orlov, and how did you create your titular character?


A: The initial inspiration came from a fever dream, literally. In the early stages of the pandemic, I caught COVID-19 and spent a few days in a feverish state, experiencing strange, vivid dreams.


In one dream, I was back in my government days and my boss sent me to a strange country, which I somehow managed to reach without knowing where it was. On arrival, someone began to shoot at me, apparently trying to kill me. I remember the disturbing sense that I had walked into something I didn't understand.


I woke up with the idea that this dream had the potential to form the kernel of a novel, so I wrote it down. Readers will find those elements - with some modifications - in the early chapters of the book.   


In terms of the Orlov character, it was clear to me from the outset that he needed to be an everyman; a regular, working-class guy with zero experience in espionage. He's most certainly not a James Bond or a Jack Ryan or even a George Smiley. Orlov is an ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. 


Q: The writer Dixe Wills said of the book, "A triumph—and an answer to that age-old question of what would have happened had Gogol, Kafka and G. K. Chesterton collaborated on a thriller. A timeless work which will, I fear, be forever timely." What do you think of that description, particularly regarding the book's timeliness?


A: I love this review, especially the idea that the book is timeless. Another early reviewer used exactly the same word. I take it as a real compliment that these reviewers had the sense they had read something outside of time and fashion.


I guess it's because the primary inspirations for this novel (stylistically, at least) were classics like The Double by Dostoyevsky and The Trial by Kafka, rather than contemporary thrillers. My aim was to incorporate spy thriller tropes but to tell the story in the way I imagined one of these great writers of yesteryear might have told it. 


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


A: The honest answer is that Citizen Orlov started life as a novella. But once I had decided to expand it into a novel, I knew where it had to end. Readers will find that Orlov goes on something of a journey in terms of his role in life and how he feels about it.


One of the reasons for expanding the original novella was to provide the space for a character arc. I hope there are some satisfying resolutions at the end, but I think there's also a logical path to continue into a sequel.


Q: How did you create the country in which the novel is set?


A: One of my first decisions was that the novel had to be set in an unnamed, imaginary country. This was partly an attempt to emulate the sense of confusion in my dream, but also an homage to The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, one of my favorite novels, a dream-like story in which a concert pianist travels to an unnamed European country to give a recital.


The sights, sounds, and smells of the country in which Orlov lives were inspired by a trip I once took from Austria through Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland. The names of characters and places in the novel are a deliberate mishmash of names from those countries but also from several other central and eastern European countries including Russia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm currently working on two things at once, which is probably not wise. Firstly, I'm writing the sequel to Citizen Orlov, the title of which I'll keep under wraps for now. I think readers will get the sense towards the end of the first novel that Orlov's world is on the brink of collapsing, and the sequel will follow him as he attempts to navigate the terrible consequences.


I'm also working on a novella which is a retelling of the Russian classic "The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol. I move the action from 19th century St. Petersburg to interwar London.   


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: One character to watch out for in Citizen Orlov is Agent Zelle. She is based on a real historical figure: Margaretha Zelle, a Dutch woman better known as the exotic dancer Mata Hari. The real-life Zelle was executed in 1917 by a French firing squad.


Both sides in the Great War thought Zelle was spying for the other side. Historians now believe she was probably not spying at all, but was just an escort for powerful men on both sides. So her execution was really a tragedy.


I thought it would be a fitting tribute to imagine an alternative history in which she escapes from the French, lands in a new country, and gets to try her hand at espionage after all.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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