Gary Kriss isn’t just revising history, he’s totally rewriting it. In his debut novel The Zodiac Deception, Kriss rounds up a host of memorable (and infamous) historical figures in WWII Germany. As Nazi forces terrorize Europe, con artist David Walker finds himself a member of a resistence team bent on eliminating the Führer.
Accessing the minds of history’s villains wasn’t an easy task, the author admits—even when writing fiction. Kriss shares with Bookish how he used his mentalist training to write from the Nazi perspective, as well as his battle with ADD, and his upcoming prequel The Houdini Killer.
Bookish: Like your protagonist, you’re a magician and a mentalist. How does a journalist find his way into those disciplines? Or how does a magician find his way into journalism?
Gary Kriss: I’ve written for as long as I can remember. I don’t share Dalí’s ability to recollect his life during gestation; if I could, I wouldn’t doubt that I was scratching out some sort of gibberish on the walls of the womb. However, I was considerably older—all of 11—when I began writing for newspapers. I was also an early reader. I became fascinated almost immediately with the magical power of words on paper to transform and transport people. Somewhere along the line—I think I may have been about 5—I discovered that there were other means of manifesting magic. But then, there’s a long and proud history of writers being at least amateur magicians, so obviously mine was not a unique connection.
Journalism was only one part of my writing life. I did a lot of feature writing. There’s the old words and magic thing again: creating an environment—in this case reality, rather than imagination-based—transporting readers into it, and giving them an opportunity to transform their perception of matters. When I did do actual reporting, most of it was investigative, something near and dear to the heart of magicians who are driven to unveil secrets (although not to then share them).
Bookish: How does being a mentalist tie in?
GK: As a journalist, you probe the minds of others with your questions and, even before you formulate those questions, you try to think like the person you’re interviewing to determine what might unlock the information you’re seeking. As a novelist, you’re continually entering the minds of your characters to make them real. Also, you certainly try to enter the minds of your readers when crafting various parts of a book to “see” how they might react.
Bookish: How long have you wanted to write a novel? And how did you tackle it?
GK: I’ve wanted to write a novel ever since I knew what a novel was. Given this, I should be on number 200 by now. Alas, tis not the case. Not even close. The classic philosophical distinction between the “ought” and the “is.” Essentially I tackled it by avoiding it—which, by the way, is not a strategy I would recommend. Many years ago I wrote a novel outline and a few sample chapters—this after even more years of putting it off, which is another story—and, to my surprise, it sold for a boy-are-you-ever-in-clover-now size advance. I finished the book, convinced I was on my way. Nothing was going to stop me. Nothing, that is, but the takeover of my then-publisher, followed by the divesting (kind word inserted here) of a slew of properties, including mine, along with my dreams. It was enough to sour me on publishing, so I decided to get even by not writing any more novels. It wasn’t my most mature moment, by any means.
Still, I remained resolute, retreating into journalism and self-pity. Sure, I had ideas for other novels, plenty of ideas, but I resisted converting these into words. I wasn’t about to spoil the martyr effect. In fact, and I’m ashamed to admit this, I was so determined not to write a novel that I even turned to a side darker than Darth [Vader] and wrote for politicians. Understand, this was a career choice several steps below playing piano in a whorehouse. But that’s how low I had sunken.
Then one day I woke up and discovered that I had grown up, ready to admit to myself what others had long known: I was simply avoiding the possibility of again winding up in a painful situation. Don’t write another novel, and you won’t get hurt again. So, I returned to something I really wanted to do, even though I had fought it furiously.
This meant I finally came to grips with my ADD, which was a large part of the boredom and distractibility that made me loathe to undertake another novel. Even with medication, focusing isn’t easy. I still can’t read or write in a linear fashion and doubt I ever will be able to. It’s actually physically painful. Still, I realize now that ADD contributes to my creativity. If put to a choice, I’d rather have it than not, even if I’m consigned to never finding my car keys, putting my tablet in the freezer, and being a few minutes (hours, days, weeks, months…) late for an engagement.
The novel I was contemplating turned out to be The Zodiac Deception, although it was entirely different in its early, false-start stages. Once more, I wrote a synopsis and a few chapters. I was extremely fortunate once again: I acquired a wonderful agent, then a terrific editor, and, to complete the trifecta, a great publisher—Macmillan, and the legendary Tom Doherty. So, here I am. It’s still not easy to think about how many years I wasted spiteing no one but myself. But if I kick myself in the ass too much, I won’t be able to sit down and finish The Houdini Killer, the prequel to The Zodiac Deception.
Oh, and that earlier novel, which is a totally different kind of book, may suddenly reappear. You see I now know that getting published is the best revenge!
Bookish: Is the prequel as far you want to go with Walker, or do you see this as a series?
GK: My thinking on this has evolved. Initially, I saw The Zodiac Deception as a standalone novel. [I thought] that, once it was done, I would go on to an entirely different kind of novel. Then I became intrigued with the notion of good-versus-evil and saw that I had a protagonist in place who could help me explore this in greater depth through subsequent novels (again, set against historical events). Ultimately, however, I came to believe that to do this effectively both the readers and I needed to know more about this very unusual protagonist.
And so, The Houdini Killer takes place largely in the United States, between 1918 and 1933, and shows how [Walker] became such a brilliant con man. It starts with him running away from an orphanage and riding the rails, and [it] ends where the first chapter of The Zodiac Deception begins. Some questions that arise in The Zodiac Deception will also be explained, or at least partially explained. The book will cover a lot of territory including hoodoo and folk medicine, the rise of forensics, the growth of psychoanalysis in America, the development of the blues, the Spiritualist Movement, revival meetings, and carnival and circus life.
I already have three more books planned—one of them in detail—picking up where The Zodiac Deception leaves off. While not centering on World War II, these books [will] reveal, sometimes in startling but I believe satisfying ways, what happened to some of the other major characters.
Bookish: The Zodiac Deception features a number of historical figures, including Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and Adolf Hitler. How did you approach writing them into a fictional narrative?
GK: I approached them with enthusiasm, trepidation, and—with respect to the Nazi figures—revulsion. However, in every instance I tried to bracket my own predilections or prejudices and get inside the person. And once inside, you can’t simply look around and say, “My, isn’t that interesting.” You have to live that mind on its own terms. Not live it with your own set of values and expectations. If that sounds a bit mystical or metaphysical, that’s because it is. You can’t superimpose your mind on another real-life mind and make it convincing.
Obviously, this is much different than how you approach a character that you create. It’s more akin to how [Constantin] Stanislavski (who, incidentally, is one of the historical figures in the book) instructs actors on getting into a role. Can you see things in your own life experience that can resonate with those figures or, at least, bring about some understanding?
Let me very quickly add, we’re not talking about identifying specific hatreds an author might share with a figure like Hitler. Not at all. But if you begin with the premise that you are both, arguably, human; endowed with the same psychic structure (barring something physical that would alter this); how did the divergence occur? Now, we all diverge—that’s what makes us unique. But how did one aspect of the divergence become so extreme that it subordinated everything else? And, by the way, using a more positive example, it’s the same question an author might ask with respect to [Winston] Churchill, another player in The Zodiac Deception, and his phenomenal leadership abilities.
There is a “trick,” however, that in certain instances makes it easier to write historical figures: Insert your characters into a situation where you know how those figures actually acted. I knew how Hitler acted at the dinner table. I knew the conversations that went on, the actual words he and his top aides used. So when I inserted Peter and Max into a dinner scene, I was able to incorporate actual elements, including portions of small talk, that accurately portrayed the historical figures involved. However, in more instances than not, such as the scenes involving Archbishop Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII) now a saint, I had to try to be him. Now if I really could be but a fraction of the man he was…
Bookish: Having studied Hitler, do you have any theories as to what created him?
GK: Truth is, far-fetched stories about Hitler can never match the truth. The horrors he initiated and oversaw defy the imagination. I’ve often said that I’m incapable of creating anything in my fiction that matches what people actually do to one another in real life. We know what Hitler did, but the why has afforded countless scholars and writers highly successful careers, and will continue to do so. How did this basically unimpressive entity, with some modest artistic talent that he had originally hoped to capitalize on, instead morph into a monster? And I apologize for giving monsters a bad name.
Bookish: Walker doesn’t only use sleight of hand, astrology, and “magic” to pull off his schemes, he’s also an expert in plants, train hopping, and innumerable old-fashioned grifts. How did you learn about these things?
GK: How, indeed. In various ways. I was raised in the mountains of the South, so folk healing (which is heavily dependent on plants and other components of the natural world) wasn’t foreign territory to me. Hoodoo, of course, is deeply associated with the South—and let’s be clear that hoodoo is not Voodoo. Hoodoo is not a religion. Hoodoo is very much in the folk healing/medicine tradition. But the book, and especially the next one, incorporates other [types] of these folk practices, such as braucherei or pow-wowing. I did a great deal of study on these various practices and will be doing a lot more. It’s not always easy because there’s quite a bit of rivalry among those who have set themselves up as authorities in one practice or another, and all insist their way is the authentic or true way. In reality, there’s no way of knowing. If your great-grandmother did things one way and yours another, well, so be it. I’m not about to argue.
And, no, I didn’t hop trains, although those who did fascinate me. Hobos are an amazing, too-little-appreciated component of American culture. Fortunately, we have some excellent accounts of train hopping and riding the rails. One of the best is by Jack London, who was quite proficient at it. In many ways, it’s much more difficult to determine exactly what kind of train—or better, train car—they caught and my characters will catch. Again, I want to be as accurate as possible and really don’t want someone in my next novel hopping a freight car in 1920 that didn’t come into service until 1922. Although this kind of slip-up is inevitable somewhere along the line and I just have to accept it.
Grifts. What a great word! Grifts, scams, cons—magicians have always loved these, in part because so many of them were masters of them. It’s still a popular sub-specialty of magic, and I love fooling around with the lower-level classics such as the shell game and three-card monte. For the more elaborate ones—well, we’re back to research and to getting some firsthand information from those who dabbled in the fine art of fleecing.
Fortunately I love research, so much so that I have to be careful, as many novelists do, not to get so immersed in it that I forget to write. I cultivated a good set of research skills in college and when pursuing my doctoral studies, but writing for the New York Times was really the best proving ground. There, you were expected to become an expert in anything related to a story you were covering, enough so that you could hold your own with the real experts. And if you were juggling a few stories at a time, well… Let’s just say it was a daunting and exhilarating experience.
Bookish: This is a novel, but so much of it feels like it could have really happened. If someone went back to look at where your historical figures were on the dates you provide at the beginning of each chapter, would the numbers always line up?
GK: Simple answer, no. Certainly not for some of the “mundane” events. I tried to have them line up as much as possible—consulting diaries and datebooks, for example—and, on certain occasions, we don’t know for sure where a character was at any given moment, so it’s possible they could have been where I said. Hitler spent most of December 1942 at his Eastern Front headquarters, so it’s conceivable he might have attended some special events away from there. However, key events are different: Churchill was indeed in North Africa with [Nigel] Montgomery when my protagonist confronts him; battle dates are correct, as are the dates when various policies that affect the plot went into effect.
Surprising to many, I’m sure, is the fact that the German, British, and American spy chiefs—[Wilhelm] Canaris, [Stuart] Menzies, and [William] Donovan—did secretly meet over dinner, usually in Spain, although no one is quite certain exactly how often. It definitely wasn’t a monthly boys’ night out, so I had no qualms about assigning them a date. Hitler spent many a fall weekend at the Eagle’s Nest, and when he did, his routine was always the same. It’s that routine, from what time he arose to how he seated guests at his table, the book portrays as accurately as possible.
While I love history, I’m not an historian and the book doesn’t purport to be a rigorous history. Overall, however, I think that a novel serves history best if it enables [readers] to participate in the mindset of the time it’s portraying, allowing them to become part of the zeitgeist. Such vicarious involvement can lead to a deep understanding of history, much more so than mere dates. It allows readers to “feel” the terror of Nazi Germany and what might lead people to act or react the way they do. It provides causal knowledge without authorial intrusion, if it’s done correctly. So if a reader comes away from The Zodiac Deception saying, “I was in 1942 Berlin and Paris and Cairo—I don’t know the exact days, but I certainly know I was there,” I’ll be extremely satisfied.
Gary Kriss, an award-winning reporter for the New York Times, was born in Brooklyn and raised in a small town in Eastern Tennessee. He and his wife live in a northern suburb of New York City. The Zodiac Deception is his first novel.