How did you research the novel’s backdrop? I’ve known Meyer Lansky’s family for many years. It turned out Meyer had kept diaries and made notes about his Navy work.
I was able to get some of the documents relating to Operation Underworld. Also, there’s more source material about President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt’s almost unfathomable role in the intricacies of counterespionage.
You’ve returned to writing about Jonah Eastman, the grandson of a Mafia don who struggles with his legacy while making his way in the Ivy League and in Washington. What about Jonah is interesting to you and to your readers? No matter how far Jonah tries to run from his Atlantic City roots, he keeps getting pulled back there, at least metaphorically. This happens largely because of the power of his personal narrative — what people insist upon believing about him. It’s why I named him after the biblical Jonah, who tries to run from God and gets swallowed by a giant fish and spit back up on the beach. So here’s this guy, a pollster who is supposedly some kind of public opinion alchemist, who can’t control how he is perceived.
How does your own day job — which often involves a good deal of spinning — inform your fiction writing? I am fascinated by how people who should know about the limits of spin continue to peddle the illusion that there is a man behind the curtain secretly brainwashing the public. Corporate spin was invented by Big Oil companies a century ago, and everybody still hates them. I do a better job at controlling events in fiction than I do in real life, given the rough cases I get.
Your writing about the mafia — including lovable, sympathetic characters such as Mickey and Meyer — blurs the lines between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Is it more fun to write about flawed protagonists? The central question in any war is, “Who is the enemy?” The answer to that question is complex. Sometimes, as in “The Devil Himself,” well-meaning pacifists enable genocide, while criminals do a better job at facing down evil. Joseph Heller wrote in “Catch-22” that the enemy is anybody that’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on. Trying to ferret out who the good and bad guys are is my central focus.
How do you juggle an intense job with a writing life? I write in bursts, most intensely when I travel, something I don’t like doing. I write best when my work stress is the most intense because the writing gives me something I can control. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning only to find that I’ve written a few thousand words and I’m not sure how it got there.
What’s your next writing project? There was a murder in my neighborhood [when I was] growing up that has always preoccupied me. I’m working on turning it into an international spy operation. I have no reason to believe it’s true, but that’s why fiction is fun.