Q&A: Chris Pavone, January 2012

After moving to Luxembourg, where his wife had landed a job, former book editor Chris Pavone spent a year and half in the city’s cafés writing a novel that draws on his life abroad. The result is The Expats (see the starred review on p. 96), an elegant debut thriller about Kate Moore, an expat mom who also happens to be an ex-spy. LJ reviewer Barbara Conaty, a retired librarian and a former expat, chats with the repatriated Pavone about the genesis of his book, his literary influences, and writing from a female perspective.

Did Kate evolve as the main character, or was she the heroine from page one? Was the Luxembourg setting a happy accident, or did the city influence your decision to write a spy thriller?

Kate was always the heroine, and the story called The Expats. But when I started writing, it was a very different book-a portrait of a strained marriage set amid a close-knit expat community. Then sitting in a playground, talking to a woman who was obviously reluctant to tell me what she used to do, it occurred to me that I might be-that Kate ought to be-surrounded by people who were hiding big secrets, people who came to a small, secretive place like Luxembourg to escape those secrets. And what’s a greater deception than being a spy? And a spy whose spouse doesn’t know it?

What resources did you rely on to build Kate’s CIA spy-craft skills? Her exit interviews, for example, seem very realistic.

I wanted to write a book about people and marriage and being an expat-things I’d lived-not a book suffused with facts I had culled from other people’s research or experiences. So the espionage-type scenes are entirely imaginary, and they are driven by character and tension, not by spy-craft minutiae.

When I read The Expats, I thought of espionage novelist Helen MacInnes. Which authors influenced you?

I devour a tremendous amount of fiction, but I have to admit that not much of it is espionage, except for the inimitable John le Carré. As a reader, I tend to seek out books that are less defined by plot or action than by language, voice, or beautifully constructed, sharply insightful, or laugh-out-loud hilarious sentences-writers such as David Foster Wallace, Philip Hensher, and David Mitchell today, or Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Salinger when I was younger.

Your story builds slowly but ends with an elaborately executed plan. Was that deliberate?

Intentional! I wanted to write a book in which no one-not one single character, from the most minor players up to the protagonist-is who he or she at first appears to be.

You write convincingly from inside Kate’s psyche. Did you have interpretive help from the women in your life?

Kate is a woman who tired of the demands of her career and gave it up to be a homemaker, only to find that this new life isn’t entirely satisfying. I have spent a lot of time in the company of women who have made both types of choices-and in fact I’m a man who made a similar choice. I tried to create a protagonist with an exaggerated, dramatized experience of this near-universal predicament, this life-defining decision.-Barbara Conaty