Crime writer Eugen Chirovici's work has been translated into 38 languages. His 11th novel, The Book of Mirrors, is his first book written in the English language, after 20 years of writing in Romanian.
The Book of Mirrors starts with an unreliable memory. How do you turn a concept like that into a complex story?
The idea for this book started to germinate in 2013, over a conversation with my mother, who visited me in Reading, England. I told her that I could remember the funeral for a local footballer, who died young in a car crash when I was a child.
I told her that I could remember that the coffin was open, and there was a football placed on the dead man’s chest, which was odd.
She said that I’d been just two or three years old at the time, so I couldn’t have been at the cemetery. She said that the detail was true, but that I'd probably heard it from her or my father, after they’d attended the funeral.
That discussion planted the seed of my novel. What if our imagination is capable of transforming so-called objective reality into something else; into our own separate reality? What if somebody isn’t merely a liar, but rather his or her mind is capable of rewriting an event, like a film director and a scriptwriter all rolled into one?
Does a lot of your work begin with a concept, like unreliable memories? Or could they begin with, for example, a character or real event?
Each of my books springs from a very strong image, which then grows into a story.
The Book of Mirrors sprang from this image. There’s a college student, who comes home to find a new tenant in the kitchen, a tall young woman with long, blond hair. She’s trying to squeeze some French mustard from a plastic bottle, but she’s forgotten to peel off the tinfoil seal. He helps her and they start chatting.
To me, it was a powerful image, although it seemed ordinary. I didn’t see a body lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, or a cryptic message scrawled on the wall.
I began to wonder what was going on, and who those two people might be. Within a couple of hours, I knew that they were students at Princeton, and that they lived in a house near Bayard Lane, close to the Theological Seminary Library. I also knew that the young woman, Laura Baines, is the protégé of a very famous psychology professor, who is killed under mysterious circumstances, which will never be fully explained.
The rest of the story came within a couple of days.
There is probably some area of my brain in charge of making up stories, but I don’t know anything about it, the same as I don’t know anything about how my lungs work. They do their job, and I just let them get on with it.
Why did you write The Book of Mirrors in English?
I wanted to reach an international audience and to make a living from writing. I couldn’t submit my work to a British or American literary agent or publisher in Romanian.
If I were German, French or Spanish, I probably wouldn’t have made that decision, because German, French and Spanish are international languages too, with a huge audience all over the world.
English has always been singularly connected to so many things I’ve loved since childhood, especially literature and rock music. For my generation, who lived behind the Iron Curtain, English was the language of freedom.
What are the big differences between writing in Romanian and writing in English?
I started learning English at school, when I was about nine years old. But writing a novel in English was no easy task. As a writer, changing the language you write in is probably the toughest test in the world. You have to abandon your tools of vocabulary and grammar.
On the other hand, you’re still a writer, neither better nor worse. You can carefully transfer your storytelling abilities into your new linguistic home. But you have to reconstruct your toolbox.
I’m not as self-assured as I was when writing in Romanian, so I’ve been forced to kill the speed of my writing. That is always a good thing for an author, in my opinion.
Writing in English has had an impact on my style, too. Changing the language of your prose isn’t just a matter of grammar or vocabulary, but something intimately connected to your way of thinking.
Your stories are set in multiple global and historical contexts. How do you choose times and places for your novels?
Why and how I choose settings for my stories is difficult to explain. Many of my books are set in the United States, but others are set in Brazil, Italy and Germany.
Ernest Hemingway was born and raised in Illinois, but his novels are set in France, Cuba, Spain and Italy. On the other hand, Mario Vargas Llosa left his native country, Peru, at nineteen, and lived in Spain, France and Britain after that. Even so, most of his books are set in Peru.
I write historical fiction as well as crime, and it is even more difficult to explain how and why I choose a time-frame.
One of my historical books, The Second Death, is set in Bavaria, Germany, during the Great Plague in the mid-fourteenth century. The French Maze, another historical book of mine, is set at Hampton Court, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Why did I choose those periods and places? I don’t know.
How important are characters in a crime novel?
They’re very important. You might forget the plot of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye after you read it, but you definitely won’t forget Philip Marlowe.
My characters aren’t based on anybody in particular, but parts of myself and of people I know might seep in. I try to paint the broad brushstrokes in the early drafts, and then I let them emerge in the story naturally.
Do you work with the police or other sources when you research your work?
No, never. I think that good research is necessary, but not essential to the story itself. I’m a writer, not a reporter, even though I worked fourteen years for the press back in Romania.
As an author, you should build your stories around subjects of which you have first-hand experience. For example, John Grisham is a lawyer, and he writes legal thrillers. This is why I’ve focused my books on historical fiction or psychological mysteries. I know those subjects.
How do you balance the need for imagination and the need for research when writing a novel?
A novel is more than just a report on a given subject. It has to do with imagination, fantasy and creativity. Historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literature in general would be impossible without imagination.
The main tool of a writer is not knowledge and research, although obviously these are important, but the imagination.
On the other hand, novels aren’t written because authors are able to comprehend life better than other people. Writing fiction is a last, desperate attempt to spot something out of the corner of your eye, after all other rational efforts to do so have failed. Unlike a scientist, you’re not sharing with your readers your presumed certainties, but your questions, doubts, emotions and fears.
I don’t think that being a storyteller means something different today in comparison to what it meant a couple of centuries ago. We use laptops rather than quills, but you still need the same ingredients: a vivid and significant story, a few three-dimensional characters, and good language skills.
How does crime writing differ from other types of fiction?
I’m not sure whether such rigid classifications exist in the real world, rather than just in the imagination of critics, agents and publishers. My books might be literary thrillers, mysteries, crime novels, detective novels, or just novels, plain and simple.
It doesn’t make much difference to which category they belong, as long as they’re read.
A crime novel doesn’t necessarily have to be about who killed Harry or about the adventures of a seductive private eye facing villains, or about a hyper-intelligent serial killer playing hide-and-seek with a dashing FBI agent. Major literary works like Crime and Punishment, The Stranger or The Pledge are essentially crime books. They’re novels about crimes.
If your storytelling abilities are poor, your books will be pedestrian, whatever your genre. Plot is important, but sometimes readers are less involved in what happens and more interested in the characters and their inner world.
In a well-written mystery or crime novel, or a literary work, you can express the characters' greed, courage, pain, cruelty, compassion, fear, love and death.
Crime novels became the biggest-selling genre in the UK last year. Why do you think that is?
They’ve always been very popular. Think of Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon, for example.
Why? Well, since the biblical story of Abel and Cain, murder has been a subject of the utmost importance to legal experts, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, forensic scientists and, of course, authors.
Murder is irreversible. Once you’ve taken someone’s life, you can't repair the deed. Our fear of murderers is a profound expression of the biggest fear of all, the fear of death.
And murder is unnatural: we weren’t created to kill our fellow man, and many of us wouldn’t be able to commit murder under any circumstances, even if our lives were on the line. So, what happens in the mind of a murderer is an important question.
Are crime novels similarly popular in Romania?
They are to an extent, even though many readers lean towards literary fiction. Writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster and Julian Barnes, among others, are very popular in Romania.
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