A Conversation With Stewart O’nan

Steward O'nan

City of Secrets

Stewart O’nan is one of my favorite authors. He writes about real people, family situations we can all relate to in one form or another. This novel is unique in that it is more historical and actually is more of a moral thriller taking place just after World War 11 Jerusalem.

author Pittsburgh

Stewart O’Nan

I was sent this conversation by Viking, the publisher, and think you might enjoy more insight into the how and why of this story.

Q. How did you decide to center your new book on the bombing of the King David Hotel?

A. I’ve always wanted to know more about the bombing. Most Americans have never heard of it, which seems crazy, especially post 9/11, with our fixation on the uses and abuses of political violence. What kind of characters would consider bombing such a public place a desirable act–so desirable they would risk not only their own lives but those of the people around them to carry it off? In a way, it’s the same question Joseph Conrad tried to answer a hundred years ago in THE SECRET AGENT.  As usual, writing the book was a way of satisfying my curiosity.

Q. What made you choose to make Brand a Latvian Jew as opposed, to say, coming from a country with a larger Jewish population like Poland or Hungary?

A. A friend of mine from Lithuania wrote a novel about a family trying to get out in the late 30’s. Another friend came from Latvia after the Russians absorbed it, so I associate the Baltic States with complete upheaval. The combination of Russian and German persecution–the strange shift from Russian ( during the non-aggression pact) to German and then back to Russian control interested me. Bad enough you get caught up in one wave, but three–and then end up in Palestine under the British Mandate?

Q. The King David hotel bombing is often described as a pivotal act in the founding of the state of Israel and yet it is clearly an act of terrorism. How can we understand similar contemporary acts of terrorism now? Had the lens through which we view terrorist attacks shifted or have the nature of attacks themselves changed?

A. Certainly post 9-11, the lens through which we in the U.S. view political violence has changed, though it seems we also now recognize institutional political violence (apartheid, for example, or the Chinese occupation of Tibet, or the persecution of the Kurds and the Iraqi Shiite majority by the Baathist Sunnies). The question of what political violence-including war-is legitimate remains open, as do our ideas of what constitutes a soft or hard target, a notion which has become even more complicated with the advent of cyber attacks and cyber surveillance. From what root does an act of political violence come, and what ultimate effect does it have? The King David bombing, while widely decried, helped convince the British they should leave Palestine. It’s hard to imagine that response from a world power nowadays, and yet the U.S. recently pulled out of Iraq due, in part, to continued attacks by insurgents. If some of the elements have  changed, the frame of the problem remains essentially the same. In a world where there will always be contested territory, what constitutes a legitimate claim, what constitutes a legitimate protest, and is there hope of compromise?

As you can see O’nan is deeply into the history that surrounds his new novel, CITY OF SECRETS.  You can pick it up today. It’s a keeper!


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