Alan Furst Interview

Dark VoyageAlan Furst discusses his novel Dark Voyage, a story of courage and intrigue in 1941.

Dark Voyage is rich with detail and understated clarity. The author sat down for an interview prior to an event at Book Passage on August 9, 2004.


The book features a merchant sea captain, Eric DeHaan. He is pressed into service by the Royal Dutch Navy and then the British, to carry war-related cargo that cannot be transported by air.

The missions get more risky and complex, culminating with a trip through the Baltic Sea where the Nazis lurk. With a calm demeanor and strong navigational instincts--and with the help of a loyal crew--DeHaan does his best to survive.

But how true to history is the involvement of a merchant ship in World War II? And during a time when hundreds of commercial vessels were sunk around the world, did any withstand a journey through the Baltic? I put those questions to Alan Furst.

Grant Howard: In that period before the Americans entered World War II, how common was it for a merchant ship to be secretly carrying war-related munitions or equipment or people. Was that fairly common at that time?

Alan Furst: I don't think so. I found only one instance in my reading, where a merchant was painted to look like another ship--and was used for some kind of secret mission. It was much more common for them to use a submarine or an airplane if they could. But in this book they use a merchant ship because of the kind of equipment they have to move.

GH: The Baltic was a dangerous place around that time, right?

Alan Furst: Very dangerous place.

GH: Was it possible for ships to get through undamaged, unscathed?

Alan Furst: It was possible if you knew where the minefields were. Because the Skagerrak, which is the entry to the Baltic, was heavily mined. But if you read the book, you will see how that was done. That's as much as I want to give away.

But you are absolutely right, that nobody could just go blithely sailing into the Baltic. Nobody could go blithely sailing anywhere, really, except that it is a pretty big ocean. And based on the stuff I read, a lot of ships were able to move around--even singly and outside of convoy--before 1942.

GH: So even with all the surveillance by the Nazis and so on, it was possible?

Alan Furst: Absolutely, because the only surveillance they had was audio surveillance. And that's what this book is about. The big radars they had didn't go that far out to sea. The level of surveillance was nothing like it is now. I mean, what has changed the world now is the sattelite, which can see anything. But that wasn't true then.

They had big "freya" radars in Germany, and I guess maybe on the occupied coast of France. But for the rest of it, they had to do everything with audio detection, with the exception of--they used some infrared technology, believe it or not, which was developed during World War I. It's older than one would think.

GH: I want to talk about the main character, E.M. DeHaan. He is not a soldier or a general, but he still seems like an archetype of men who got involved in the war in some way at that time. In other words, he is aware of the danger, but he also feels a sense of duty. Is that fair to say?

Alan Furst: Absolutely, he feels a sense of duty. His country [Holland] has been occupied. His family is living under the Germans. His trade has been disrupted and practically destroyed. He is angry, and he wants to fight back. And I would think that a person like him would be the very sort of person who would want to fight back. And he certainly does. I mean, it is made very clear at the beginning of the book: there is no ambivalence in this character at all.

GH: He does sort of have a fatalistic attitude as the missions become progressively more risky, more dangerous. There is a side of him that feels like, "Well, I am not sure we are going to make it." Right?

Alan Furst: Well, he does feel, "I am not sure I am going to make it." First of all, you must understand, these boats were slow. They were unarmed. They had no armor. They were just a steel shell that carried the equivalent of 300 box cars worth of stuff. They could not defend themselves in any way whatsoever.

GH: They had a few small guns, but that's it.

Alan Furst: No, they did not have a few small guns. They didn't even start arming merchant ships until 1942.

GH: In this book, don't they have one or two?

Alan Furst: Oh, yes, I mean, they have the ship's pistol. [Laughs] Yes, they do have that--and a rifle. That's all they they have.

GH: Right, in contrast to what the Germans had, even if it wasn't a warship. They would have boats fitted with...

Alan Furst: Oh, absolutely, fitted with machine guns and a small cannon. Anything that floated the Germans armed.

GH: Is [DeHaan] attracted to the danger? There is one scene in Crete where he is transfixed--that was the word you used--transfixed by the engagement that happens over his head.

Alan Furst: I do think he is attracted to it. I think he is a person who was happy to be peaceful during peace. But when it is the time of war he feels a national urgency and a human urgency to fight. You have to remember what that war was about, how clearly evil one side was.

GH: I wrote down a quote that I want to ask you about--about his relationships with women. Because that comes up several times in the book: "His life with women had always been a victim of his life at sea--brief affairs recollected at length. Occasionally close to mercenary--gifts, whatnot--and sometimes passionate, but typically on the great plain that lay between."

So is he accepting of that? Or do you think there is a sense of sadness there? Again, that's like an archetype. I mean, there were so many people like that, right?

Alan Furst: Well, his situation is explained in another part of the book--what it actually meant to be married as a sea captain. You saw your wife every two years for a month. And then you expected her to have children, and you expected that family to be raised basically without you. And [you did] as much as you could do to make sure they were prosperous.

But for him, that is not enough. And so the real strain for him--and it comes up several times in the book. It's like, if you want to be a sea captain, you probably are not going to have a full-time woman or a long-term marriage.

GH: So he is not content with that.

Alan Furst: No, he is not content with it, but it is all he can do. He is, just as it says, a victim of circumstance. He would like it to be different. These days, the lines allow captains to take their wives on board. But at that time it was absolutely forbidden.

So you will want to hear about the romantic life of a hero in a book like this. And the fact is that it has been a very short-term proposition for him, I think that's what it was for a lot of the men who did that kind of work at that time.

GH: And you must have done a fair amount of research to find this out.

Alan Furst: Yes, I did a great deal of research. And again and again, the same answers came up. It was simply an accepted fact--and not the only profession like that. Much of the military was like that, much of the Royal Navy was like that. Many people who worked in the British Empire did not have their wives with them; they were back in England, or they never married. It was just a different world. It was not expected at that time that everybody was going to get married and have children.

GH: DeHaan seems to have a very steadying personality--kind of a calming influence on his crew. But is he suppressing his own emotions when he is doing that?

Alan Furst: Absolutely, he is. But he knows as a ship's captain, that if he once shows anxiety and fear, it will go right through the ship. Because they look to him as the leader, as any leader is looked to: "What should we do? Should we be afraid? Or are we just going to deal with this?" And his answer is always the same: "Don't worry about it, we'll deal with it. We're plenty equal to this."

GH: So in your research, did you pick up that sort of mentality? I mean, did it include looking at logbooks and diaries?

Alan Furst: Yes. I looked at logbooks, I looked at diaries. I looked at books written about the sea. Again and again, there is that quality of being very steady. This is a very dangerous job. It's a very dangerous undertaking. Really, the casualties were very high before the war. And once the war came, I believe they were the second-highest group of people in terms of killed and injured--the merchant marine.

But material had to move. So as you read about these people, one of the great things about ship's captains--be they in Patrick O'Brien or C.S. Forester--they are very steady and they are good leaders.

GH: The other quote I noticed about DeHaan: He "found himself calm and contemplative as he armed for war." So there, it is even more than a sense of duty. It's a sense of clarity or purpose.

Alan Furst: It's time. And he is like a lot of people who are brave when the moment comes. They are reasonably calm, they are going to deal with it. They are afraid inside, but they know that they are going to have to deal with it. So they do it.

GH: I want to ask you about this character S. Kolb, who is a spy. I got the feeling that you deliberately did not get into too much detail about what exactly he was doing, what exactly he was spying on. He was a sort of mysterious figure with a shadowy mission. Did you do that on purpose?

Alan Furst: Absolutely on purpose. I believe it says at one point that he had gone to Dusseldorf, where he committed a murder. And that's all it ever says about it. It doesn't go into it, he doesn't feel guilty about it; it's just part of the day's work. But it does refer periodically to the fact that he is spying, which is to say obtaining blueprints or plans for special machinery or weapons. He does the normal kinds of things that a spy would have done in 1941.

GH: And there is a sense in the book, with this Kolb figure as well as others, that you are not sure who you can trust. You are not sure what people are up to. That was something that you wanted to bring to life?

Alan Furst: Absolutely. I feel that was the nature of the world at that time. And it certainly was the nature of S. Kolb's world.

GH: Right. And Maria Bromen, the journalist from the Soviet Union. Was that a composite or perhaps based on somebody who actually lived.

Alan Furst: No, not based on anybody who lived. But a composite of some of the women journalists who worked in the Soviet Union at that time.

GH: So they had to mix in loyalty in their language.

Alan Furst: Yes. She describes how these things had to be written and what you had to put in them. She was never completely free as a writer in the USSR. You had to do certain things and say certain things. And then the rest of the time you could say what you wanted, sort of.

GH: It wasn't clear to me why she was on the run.

Alan Furst: She was on the run because they kept trying to recruit her as a journalist, and she kept trying not to be recruited by the NKVD Foreign Department in 1941. And she does explain that at a certain point in the book. They came after her, and in the beginning she was able to fend them off--this way, that way, the other way. She did various things. And as she puts it, finally the wrong one showed up, and he said you are going to work for us or we are going to deal with you. And then she ran.

GH: And so that kind of intimidation was widespread at that time?

Alan Furst: I would believe it was utterly widespread at that time, sure. In that secret police state they told you what to do, and you did it or they murdered you. It's very simple.

GH: So it was a time of danger from so many different directions.

Alan Furst: Yes, it was a very dangerous world. And the more high-profile you were, the more dangerous it was. In other words, Maria Bromen would have been fine had she stayed in the Ukraine, got married and had children. The only threat to her then would have been the advancing German army. So she might not have made it anyhow. But by being ambitious, by wanting to be a journalist, by going to the university--she exposed herself to danger.

GH: In terms of the secondary characters--the crew on the boat--you explain at one point that they were "married to the sea" and that "it was the only life they wanted to live." That's an interesting mentality. Are there still people like that, do you think, on the high seas?

Alan Furst: Oh, I am sure there are. It's probably different now. But I really believe that at the time, a lot of men who went to sea--back into the 16th, 17th century--they had a great passion for it, they loved it. It was dangerous, it was miserable.

You know, the terms of employment in the British Navy were pretty brutal. But nonetheless, people kept going to sea. They had that instinct and that deep desire to sail on the sea. That's an old human factor, and it's powerful.

GH: And you felt drawn to this phenomenon?

Alan Furst: Absolutely. Fascinated by it.

GH: Is this your first book that takes place largely on a boat?

Alan Furst: Yes.

GH: You must have done significant research, because you really bring to life what it was like--in terms of what it smelled like, what it felt like, all the intricacies of navigating.

Alan Furst: Yes. Well, I wanted it to seem--when they are on the ship, which is about half the time, they're in ports a lot of the time. But when they are on the ship, I wanted it to seem like really being on a freighter.

I do think it's important to understand: We are pre-airplane in 1941. Yes they had the clipper, and they had a few other things. But basically, the way people got around in the 1930's and early 1940's was on ships. That was the only way to go from many places to many other places.

GH: With DeHaan, he is not really married to the sea, is he? He has a larger purpose that is going on?

Alan Furst: No, he really loves the sea. He loves being a sea captain. His father was a sea captain before him. I think there is a good possibility his grandfather was a sea captain. In Europe at that time, there was a terrific tradition in families of following a profession. It was very important to people. Nowadays, we don't think about it in that way. We think about, "What's your aptitude? And what do you want to do? And where do you want to live? And what kind of degree do you want?"

It wasn't like that in Europe in 1941. Families followed a tradition, whether it be a military tradition or a naval tradition or a merchant marine tradition. They followed it in a serious way, and it went back generations.

GH: And so when his company basically summoned him and said, we need you to do this--this work that is more dangerous and so on--did he have a choice?

Alan Furst: No. He was happy, but he didn't have a choice. No, of course not. What was he going to do? Stand up in that restaurant in front of all those people and say, "No, I think it's too dangerous, we're not going to do it"? No, he had no choice at all. They knew that

GH: And that was kind of the way it worked in those days?

Alan Furst: I think it is always the way it works. I mean, if a moment comes when somebody is asked to do some important kind of thing that concerns the serious national security of your country--and in a believable way, if you know what I mean--you probably will do it.

Most people certainly did it in World War II. Because as I say again, this was a war where the enemy was evil, and clearly evil. And when people were asked to help, they were happy to help by and large. They were happy to help, they were happy to put themselves in harm's way--men and women.

GH: And these weren't just people who were conscripts fighting in armies....

Alan Furst: All kinds of people. Old, young, men, women. When you look at the resistance movement, it encompassed every level of the economy, every class--working class to aristocrat--it encompassed everybody.

GH: I understand it, but it's hard to go back that far and relate to it. Because we don't have that today.

Alan Furst: We don't have that today. That's one of the reasons I am a historical novelist. Because I do find it interesting that there was this time, and that people were that way. I should say to you, however, that after 9/11 in New York City people were that way. There was nobody that wouldn't help anybody in that city for months after that happened. The emotional mentality of that city changed violently.

GH: Does that solidarity still exist today in the region?

Alan Furst: I believe it does more than it did before 9/11. Maybe less so now. But it is very different now than it was. And people think differently because they went through this experience. It marked them and it changed them.

GH: Another interesting thing that happens in the book is that--we were just saying how he has no choice and he goes along with what his company wants him to do. But then suddenly he gets a cable from the British government saying, you are working for us now.

Alan Furst: Right. They are not going to discuss it, either. [Laughs]

GH: Right. Was that also common in those days?

Alan Furst: I am not sure. I have no idea how that actually worked because it is probably still secret. They have a long secrets act in Britain. But I believe that was probably the way it would have worked. They weren't known to dither or to be courteous about it. They needed this boat and this captain to do this thing at this time, and they told him, you work for us now, period.

GH: And not only that, but it was often one-way communication, right? There was no way to modify it.

Alan Furst: No, there was no way to modify it or anything else.

GH: Because if they did, then they would give away their position?

Alan Furst: Well, he could have radioed them from port. But what would he have said, after all? No thanks, or I have to ask the owner? I don't think so. He knew when an order is an order. And it was an order.

GH: There's just a certain glamour to the whole thing. I mean, it's very dangerous, and it gets more dangerous as the book goes along. But there's a certain--when he hooks up with the woman, and I won't give away who that is...When I think of World War II, I think of a lot of danger, but I also think of heroism and people doing the best they can establishing relationships.

Alan Furst: And that was absolutely true. And the more you read about the period, the more you see that the way it was shown in movies and the way it is written about in novels--and written about in my novels--is absolutely the way it was.

People didn't think they were going to live. And that changed everything, violently. Because this was 1935, 1940. People were not so free as they are now. But they were free then, and I'll tell you why. Because they thought, "I'm not going to live another three months. Here's my chance, here's an opportunity, here's somebody I like. I think we should have this night together." And I think women felt that and men felt that. And unfortunately, they were often right.

GH: So that created a sort of willingness to live in the moment?

Alan Furst: Absolutely. You had to, because it was very unclear what the future was going to be. They did not know that Britain was going to win the war. They did not know that America was going to be bombed. They did not know that America was going to fight in this war. And they were losing. When this book takes place, Britain was losing big-time.

GH: I forget, does the United States enter the war before the book ends?

Alan Furst: No. They don't enter the war until December '41. And this book is the spring of '41 and just into June.

GH: But it does include the period when the Germans invade Russia.

Alan Furst: Just. The climax of the book is built in a way on the German naval attack on the Russian fleet. Let's not give away too much, but I can say that.

GH: It's easy in hindsight to say, oh, it was the early stages of the war. But at the time they didn't know it was the early stages.

Alan Furst: They didn't know. They thought this might be a 20-year war. They had every reason to believe this might be a 20-year war, that it might go on and on. There was some possibility that Britain would have to make an accomodation with Hitler, and then start fighting again. There were still millions of French troops in North Africa. France quit; they didn't have to, they had a five-million-man army. But they crumbled, they gave in.

GH: But there is no sense of despair in your book. I mean, there is danger and there is uncertainty about how long the war is going to last. But it's not a despair like, we're done for.

Alan Furst: People didn't feel that. They felt that while they had breath and life in them, there was a chance to survive. There was a chance to do something good. There was a chance to win out over bad odds. And they did feel that. If you read the books of the period and find out what they thought, that is what they thought. Despair was the enemy. No question about it. That was to give in. And they didn't.

Especially if you read about the Blitzkrieg and how Londoners handled it. As miserable as life was made for them, they never caved. Hitler thought they would cave. What a foolish mistake he made. To think that by dropping bombs on London, these people were going to say, "Oh, we've been bombed, that's it, we've had enough, we give up." No way. The reverse. Every bomb made them angrier and made them more--just sure that they were going to get this guy in the end. And they did.

GH: So psychologically, it was really a key element of the war.

Alan Furst: Absolutely, it was a key element of the war. And it had better be understood. Because people don't respond that way. They don't tremble and fall on their knees at all. They will get up and fight you, with one arm if they have to. That's just human nature.