As people say, there’s a fine line between love and hate. And there are no finer lines than the ones we find in war. In the following email interview about it, writer Paul Vidich explains how his new romantic spy novel Beirut Station (hardcover, Kindle) is, “A love story within a war story.”
Photo Credit: © Beowulf Sheehan
I’d like to start with some background: Beirut Station takes place during the Israeli / Hezbollah War, a.k.a. the 2006 Lebanon War, which happened in Lebanon in 2006. What happened in that war, what was it about?
On the surface, the war was Israel’s effort to recover two IDF soldiers taken hostage by an early morning cross-border raid by Hezbollah. But like most wars, other things were at work. Israel was fed up with long standing hostilities on the border, and it used the two IDF soldiers as a pretext to launch a fierce, sustained bombing and shelling campaign intended to diminish Hezbollah. 250,000 Lebanese evacuated from the south and more than 10,000 foreign nationals in Beirut were evacuated in a flotilla of British, French, and American war ships. Israel’s massive attack did not materially diminish Hezbollah’s military capability, and it had the unintended effect of encouraging moderate, nationalist Lebanese to support Hezbollah.
And then what is Beirut Station about, and when (in the timeframe of the war) and where does it take place?
The war bookends the novel. It begins with the bombing starts, and ends with a negotiated cease fire. In between, it becomes clear that Israel is using the war as a smoke screen to hunt down and kill a generation of Lebanese politicians, and one man in particular, Najib Qassem, a Hezbollah terrorist in a joint operation conducted with the CIA. Within the war story, there is a love story between a young Lebanese American woman working non-official cover for the CIA, and a journalist covering the war.
So did you decide to write a novel set during the Israeli / Hezbollah War and Beirut Station is what you came up with, or did you have the plot for Station in mind and then realize it would work really well if it was set during the Israeli / Hezbollah war?
A bit of both. I was drawn to the idea of a revenge story that started with the CIA’s ten-year effort to track down and kill Imad Mughniyeh, the architect of the murder of CIA station chief, William Buckley, in Beirut in 1985. I chose to set the novel during the 34-day war because it provided a rich background for the story that I wanted to tell. Beirut’s long history as a listening post for spies in the Middle East added to the city’s attraction.
So, where did you get the idea for the plot of Beirut Station?
William Buckley’s assassination in 1984 was a traumatic event for the CIA. During the Cold War, the unwritten rule between the CIA and the KGB was that you didn’t take out the opposition. But the war on terror didn’t respect that rule. Buckley’s murder set in motion a decade-long effort to hunt down and kill his kidnappers. Revenge is the curse of the Middle East, and it has always been that way. Aeschylus’s trilogy, The Oresteia, is a revenge story, and I had it in mind when I used revenge to propel the events of my novel.
And what was it in that plot that made you think it would work really well if set during the Israeli / Hezbollah War?
The chaos of war provides as convenient cover for the novel’s revenge story. The city is distracted as missiles fall on Beirut, and no one takes much notice of car bombs that kill half-a-dozen prominent Beirut politicians. A Mossad agent, a Lebanese Jew who fled Beirut as a child when his father was murdered during the Civil War, has come back and tracks down his father’s killers.
Did you ever consider any other war?
The 34-day war had another element that I attracted me. The war trapped thousands of foreign nationals in Beirut. I was drawn to the dramatic evacuation of British, French, American, and other nationals by a flotilla of warships assembled off the coast. It reminded me of the evacuation of foreign nationals from Shanghai in 1937 when Japan attacked the city, so well depicted in J.G. Ballard’s book, Empire Of The Sun.
The Israeli / Hezbollah war was, obviously, a real event. How much of Beirut Station is rooted in fact, how much is based on rumors or innuendo, and how much of the plot is stuff you just made up?
Circumstances around the war are factual: the bombing, the evacuation, the cease fire negotiated by Condoleezza Rice. The CIA and Mossad characters, the Hezbollah target, Najib Qassem, and the novel’s complex interconnected stories of love and revenge came from my imagination.
To say it differently, the story within the story is made up.
Were there any instances where you had to decide whether to be factual or to fudge a fact or two to get a better story out of it?
Funny you should ask that. When the book was finished, I had a prominent Lebanese journalist read the book to correct errors of fact. He pointed out that Israeli tanks didn’t enter Lebanon until the end of the war, while I had them cross the border early on. I kept my version because it helped develop the tension of the novel.
It sounds like Beirut Station is a historical spy novel…
I’ve always heard that historical novels take place twenty or more years into the past, and Beirut Station is set seventeen years in the past. But it’s an arbitrary distinction. I think of the novel as contemporary because the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is ongoing, border skirmishes continue, and the scourge of revenge continue to be part of the region’s conflicts.
For better or worse, when people think of spy stories, they usually think of the James Bond movies, and not more grounded espionage stories like John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It sounds like Beirut Station is in the latter category. Is that a fair assessment?
Ian Fleming wrote fantastical thrillers. He is a good writer, but his characters are two-dimensional and he’s not concerned with subtle human moral choices. I put myself in the character-driven spy novel genre, which includes Le Carre, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Joe Kanon, and others. My novels explore the moral ambiguities of the difficult work that spies do in the name of national security. In Beirut Station, my protagonist, Analise Assad, wrestles with the consequences of putting innocent lives at risk when a very bad terrorist is killed.
Spy stories like Beirut Station are sometimes stand-alone novels, and sometimes they’re just one of many missions for the main character. What is Station?
It is a stand-alone novel. Major characters in one novel I’ve written frequently appear as minor novels in subsequent novels, and the threads that remain untied at the end of Beirut Station allow me to resurrect those characters for a future book. I don’t rely on recurring major characters, but because there is a known history of the CIA, and my novels rely on that history, I use the reappearance of minor characters to embrace the tapestry of the past. Taken together, my novels are a subjective, alternative history of the CIA.
Beirut Station is your sixth novel. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on Station but not on anything else you’ve written?
I had Ballard’s Empire Of The Sun in mind when I wrote the scene of foreign nationals being evacuated.
How about non-literary influences; was Beirut Station influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Tehran, the streaming TV series about a non-official cover Mossad agent who returns to Iran, interested me. It is a very well-done show.
And then, to flip things around, do you think Station could work as a movie, show, or game?
Beirut Station is being represented to film and TV production companies by a major Hollywood agency. They are pitching the novel as a love story, which I think is exactly how the novel should appear on screen. A love story within a war story.
So, if someone wanted to adapt Beirut Station into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Analise, Najib, and the other main characters, and why them?
For Analise, I have in mind Zineb Triki, the French actress of Moroccan descent who played Nadia El Monsour brilliantly in the Canal + spy series The Bureau. Right age, right look.
For Corbin, Damian Lewis, who recently played Nicholas Elliot, Kim Philby’s old friend, in the TV series, A Spy Among Friends. Right look, right mix of honesty and disingenuousness.
For Gal, this older Mossad agent would be perfectly suited to be played by Lee Strasberg if he were still alive.
I haven’t got suggestions for the others.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Beirut Station?
Several scenes are set at the pool and yacht club of The St. Georges Hotel, which figured prominently in the history of espionage in the Middle East. Kim Philby, the most famous double agent in the history of espionage, had drinks in the St. Georges Hotel bar on a January afternoon in 1963, and when he stepped into the blustery weather he made his way to a Russian trawler in the port, disappearing for two weeks, and reappeared in Moscow as a defector. A bit of this history is in the novel.
Finally, if someone enjoys Beirut Station, which of your previous novels would you suggest they check out next?
You know what I say, I love all my children. But the book closest in style and story to Beirut Station, is The Mercenary, the exfiltration of a Russian asset from Moscow. It, too, is a love story at its core.