Thursday, February 26, 2015

Interview with Alen Mattich, author of Marko della Torre series set in Croatia

British author Alen Mattich began publishing the Marko della Torre series in 2012 with Canadian publishers, House of Anansi. In July 2015 his work will be available in the United States for the first time. The series is set in the early 1990s in the region of the former Yugoslavia. Observers of international affairs will recall that NATO’s first involvement in Bosnian and Yugoslavian wars came shortly after the events related in this series. Review: ZAGREB COWBOY

Mattich has a light touch, however, and we get our history while laughing at the antics of a group of spies from the breakup of states who are less aligned by nationalism or political persuasion than by personal aggrandizement and fear of retribution. Real life mysteries like "Who Killed Olaf Palme?" and the "Massacre at Vukovar" are related with just enough material to make one wonder what did actually happen, conceivably leading readers to investigate more thorough histories and source materials, which Mattich thoughtfully provides in his Acknowledgements. Review: KILLING PILGRIM

Below Mattich answers a few questions about the origin of his series and about his literary forbears and influences. This is the kind of fiction I like best--international fiction that brings real events into focus. After all, written history often has fiction woven into its fabric, albeit not as funny as this, and the close up view of Croatia is worth all the time spent with this unusual group of characters. Review: THE HEART OF HELL

1. You have a profession as a financial journalist for Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. Do you find writing novels relaxing?

I'm not sure relaxing is the word. Maybe I write instead of relaxing, say watching TV, which I haven't done for years, or reading novels, which only makes me feel guilty for not doing my own writing. But in a way writing novels helps to distract me from my own life and its problems and demands. And though sometimes it's exhausting writing my novels in the evenings and writing for a day job--when I'm in the thick of both I can sometimes write 15,000 words a week for weeks on end--there's enough variation between the two to keep me going.

2. The della Torre series takes a unique angle on genre fiction and none of the traditional classifications (mystery/thriller/spy) seem to fit. How do you classify it?

I would probably classify the books as thrillers. That's how I envisaged them anyway. But really they're stories about relationships between people in difficult circumstances and about some not very nice choices otherwise ordinary people were forced into by totalitarian governments.

3. Does your work have literary antecedents or influences?

I'm sure it does. I can list some of the conscious ones, but there are plenty of unconscious ones too. I'm a big fan of Elmore Leonard's books. His writing is spare, has a tremendous momentum and is full of humour. I feel that a lot of otherwise well written books miss out on humour. Finding things funny, even in the most desperate of circumstances is an innately human characteristic. Humour has an important social function. Ignore it and you miss a big slice of how people interact (even if most people aren't actually very funny). But because Leonard wrote genre fiction his work isn't generally regarded as seriously as books by literary writers. A mistake, I think. I also enjoy George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman books. That's a rare anti-hero, a thoroughly rotten, self serving rogue who it's impossible not to like and cheer for. Flashman was a model for Strumbić, who is my favourite character and one I'd like to live on. I enjoy Simenon's atmospheric descriptions, which I'd hoped to mirror, though I'm not sure I succeeded. And there are a number of east European writers from the Cold War era who wrote about the struggle of living during the Second World War and under Communist regimes, people like Danilo Kis, Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, Tadeusz Borowski, Ivan Klima, Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Vasily Grossman and numerous others whose words have seeped in over the years.

4. You write so intimately of Croatia. Why there?

Zagreb Cowboy started as a KGB book set in Moscow. I wasn't far into it when I went to visit my parents who'd returned to Zagreb from the U.S. after retiring. It was January. The city was coldly beautiful, atmospheric. In the evening, gas lamps were lit in the old town, the streets were empty, trams ground through the Hapsburg part of the city, and I thought, why am I writing about Moscow, a city that's been done endlessly by people who know it so much better than I when here's a city full of history and exotic charm that I know well and which is almost entirely absent from popular literature. I have family in a hidden village in a deep valley not far from Zagreb, and so that featured as Strumbić's hideaway villa. And I have other relatives in Istria, an almost unknown corner of Europe that is soaked in history and spectacular scenery.

5. I note you studied at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. Is that why you decided to have your novels published there? Are you also published in Europe?

My closest friend at McGill--and since--is a writer and editor who's now based in Ottawa. He'd been at me to write a novel for years, decades even. So when I started writing my airport novel, I also sent it to him, chapter by chapter. He didn't edit, but he offered encouragement. And he also passed along my book to his agent in Toronto. The agent liked it and signed me up. The agent also knew that the publisher House of Anansi were looking to expand their newly founded crime imprint Spiderline but weren't having much luck finding interesting new books. So almost the minute I finished Zagreb Cowboy I had both an agent and a publisher. Anansi bought the world rights which means they can choose to sell the book on to other publishers elsewhere including Europe. But they haven't so far.

6. When you have time to read novels, what kind of novels do you read? What books make you laugh?

I don't read as much as I should. I just don't have the time. My day job is fairly demanding and my four children and my wife need to be reminded every once in a while that I exist. Most of my reading I did in by my early 30s. Having said that, in the past couple of months I've read Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, John Williams' Stoner and Augustus, the latest Bernard Cornwell Viking book, which I've forgotten the title of but they're pretty interchangeable, the first of Mary Renault's Alexander trilogy and I've reread Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy and Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, which is perhaps the funniest book ever written. Elmore Leonard can be pretty funny too, while Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim is the second greatest comic novel ever written.

7. Did you read Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and if so, what did you think?

I read parts of Picketty when I had a review copy, but didn't review it because I couldn't summarise his thinking in a fair and clear way. It's not a book that's easily digestible and a better way into it is through reviews written by various economists (don't ever read just one though, to get a sense of what he's saying you need to read four or five long reviews from different economic perspectives). So my thinking of the book is entirely derivative. Having said that, in my day job I often write about the economically harmful effects of excessive inequality. It's not an easy subject to write only a few paragraphs about, so I'll leave it at that.

8. Will we see more of Marko della Torre and Julius Strumbić or do you have something else in mind?

I've written a children's book set at the start of the Second World War and based around the Dunkirk rescue that my agent is currently trying to sell. And I have three or four chapters of at least half a dozen books on the go, one a historical fiction, another a romance, another a children's story and one about a corrupt corporate troubleshooter. I'll see which one holds my attention to the end. As for della Torre and Strumbić, I don't have any intention of writing more in the series. But circumstances can change.

You can buy these book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Thank you for the interview with Allen Mattich. I am glad to report that I received his book this morning.

    1. So glad you got his latest book and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.