Interview About Madagascar

I’ve visited Madagascar and this is not an easy culture to weave into a book. Holgate has done so with sympathy and affection, at the same time constructing a dramatic thriller with rich characters and subtle humor. Publishers Weekly—in a starred review—said: “Holgate has created a memorable lead character and made MADAGASCAR, where the ‘implausible is not only possible, it is mandatory,’ palpable. Le Carré fans won’t want to miss this one.” I have no quarrel with that assessment. — Excerpt From The Interview: Exploring An Island Of Ghosts The Big Thrill

Interview About Tangier

Did your work as a diplomat for the United States inspire Tangier or simply influence it?

I worked with the Public Affairs Section of the Embassy in Rabat back in the ‘90s and greatly enjoyed living in Morocco. It had a wonderful balance of the familiar and the exotic.

Each region of the country had its own flavor, with differing cultures, histories, even dialects.

Tangier was particularly intriguing. Moroccan friends characterized it as the “bad boy” of Morocco: headstrong, proud, and chafing under rule from anyone but itself. My wife and I went up to Tangier a number of times, sometimes for work, sometimes just to spend time in the city. We enjoyed its spectacular setting, with the bluffs overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar. On a sunny day, Spain was clearly visible on the other side.

We often stayed with a friend who directed the American Legation Museum, located within the old and twisting lanes of the city’s medina. No cars are allowed—or could fit within its tight spaces—and you feel as if you’re in touch with something very old and just a little dangerous.

Living in Morocco, I found that Casablanca is nothing like the movie Casablanca, but Tangier is.

To this day, you can get yourself into a lot of trouble very quickly in Tangier. I’ve described the city this way to friends for years, and I put these words in Christopher Chaffee’s mouth early in the book.

What was the inspiration for Christopher’s desperate search for his father?

Part of the inspiration came from people I met in Tangier.

While staying overnight at the Legation Museum, I met a private detective who, as I vaguely recall, had come to Tangier to help a family defend its good name after it was accused of having helped the Nazis in World War II. I also met a retired agent of the OSS, the precursor to the CIA; a charming man on whom I partially based one of the characters in the book. He had wonderful stories to tell, some of which end up in the book.

He explained to me that Tangier had long been an open city, not governed by Morocco or any other country, making it an ideal playground for spies and smugglers. Another strand came from a friend who described how the family of a diplomatic colleague had been torn apart during the war. The colleague’s mother had come to the United States with her young son early in the war, assuming her husband, a French diplomat, would soon join them. He never did. It was an intriguing story and the basis of part of the book. The only drawback to the story, I later found, was that it was totally untrue.

Anyway, these elements rolled around in my mind for several years, changed shape and curled around each other until I had the story I’ve set down. So Tangier, in essence, is a blend of misremembered stories, untruths, and bits of conversation imperfectly recalled. Maybe that’s what fiction has always been.

Which did you prefer Tangier or Casablanca?

Casablanca is a relatively new city, a huge and prosperous metropolis. Tangier goes back to Phoenician times, full of narrow alleys and dark secrets. Work took me more often to Casablanca. Fascination drew me more often to Tangier.

Tangier is full of intrigue, mystery, and has the feel of an old-age noir film. Are there any films that you were specifically envisioning as you were writing the novel?

People have told me that my stories read like movie scripts. I never think of them that way, but when it’s all going well, and the words coming quickly, it’s like a movie playing in my head, and I’m just writing down what I see and hear.

As for actual movies, I wasn’t consciously thinking of any while I wrote, though I hope it has something of the romance and intrigue of Casablanca. I’ve also always liked spy novels, so I had various models of style and mood in my head—a little bit of Alan Furst, a taste from a somewhat neglected master of the spy story, Charles McCarry. I’d had several CIA friends from my foreign service days, but it wasn’t my field, so as a final touch I ran Tangier’s manuscript by an old CIA friend, who said the spycraft looked good to her.

You seemed to have traveled everywhere! Can you tell us how traveling affected your life and your work?

Compared to most of my friends here in the States, it does seem that way. But in comparison to many foreign service colleagues, I’m a real piker. Although I suppose the real question is less about how many places you’ve been, and more about what they’ve done to you, what you have taken from them and learned. Like many travelers, the place I learned most about was my home,the United States. To state the obvious, people in foreign lands have ways of speaking, dressing, and thinking quite different from our own. But it’s the obvious that can really knock you off-center when you experience it yourself. These dislocations become the basis of a new understanding, not only of our fellow countrymen, but of ourselves. The new cultures I lived in were fascinating and disturbing and incredibly stimulating, all at once.

The wisest conclusion you can come to may be the realization that the more you learn about a foreign culture, the more you realize you don’t know.

There’s a great line from T. S. Eliot,

“And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

In a sense, travel is a search for ourselves.

Christopher Chaffee learns this truth at the end of Tangier.

How was writing Tangier different from your earlier work in short stories, plays, and freelance articles? What about this story moved you to write in a longer form?

Maybe I always wanted to be a novelist; even as a kid, I loved to read and I wanted to tell my own stories. I started my first story when I was about nine years old, and got maybe 200 words down before it all ground to a halt. Largely because, at nine, you only know about 200 words-worth of life. But I kept at it. It helped that I came from a family of storytellers. My grandma, particularly, was a great teller of tales. She had a wonderful ability to take the simplest things from her life and make exciting stories from them.

Stories are how we make sense of our lives. We build narratives to bring some kind of order and meaning to the things that happen to us.

In the couple dozen short stories I wrote over the years, I was telling tales that I thought had meaning. After a while, I wanted to invoke more complex stories, ones that could reach a little deeper, have more scale. So I decided to write a novel.

Tangier wasn’t my first. I wrote a comic novel about being young in southern California. It’s a real stinker. I also wrote Madagascar, based on the two years that I spent there. It’s scheduled to come out sometime after Tangier.

Looking back, those short stories were a form of training, a little like training over shorter distances in order to get in shape to run a marathon. Writing a novel is like running a marathon, you put one foot in front of the other, one word after another, and you just keep going, with the determination that you will eventually finish.

You served in the American Embassy in Morocco for four years. What was your most memorable experience there?

I don’t know if I can isolate one aspect of a place I’ve lived and say, “this was my favorite part.” Living in a foreign culture, especially one as fascinating as Morocco, is immersive. Everything seems new and different when you first get there: the people, the language, the food, the way buildings look, the countryside, everything. Yet all these things that are new to a traveler are in fact quite ancient. That sense of time, the scale of it, is staggering when you come from a relatively new country like the United States. The Moroccan sense of time, of history, is so different from ours.

I’ve been told that in Tangier some families still have the keys to the houses their ancestors were thrown out of in Spain during the Reconquista in the fifteenth century—and they’re still madder than hell about it.

Other places in Morocco hold that same feeling of history—walking around the old city in Fez is like dropping into stories from the Bible. It looks so much like we picture those times. In some areas of Morocco, things go so far back that the people there call any foreign language “Roman.” You say something in English or French and they dismiss you as just another parvenu, like the legionaries who came through a while ago: “Oh, he’s speaking Roman.” Or, in the spring, you can go up into the mountains, the Atlas, to the back of beyond, and way up there, where the roads have turned to gravel and then dust, the tribes come down from the isolated valleys where they have spent the winter and build temporary cities of tents. There, they meet and trade and swap stories and, at the end, hold a bridal festival where hundreds of couples—people who may only have met each other in the last few days—all get married in a huge, mass ceremony, and then travel back up to their valleys.

My wife and son and I loved to travel around Morocco. The roads are good, there’s always a decent hotel, and the food is consistently good and often wonderful. And all of it is grist for the mill. In Tangier, I use snatches of this and that, bits of everything we saw and learned there.

Do you see an ultimate villain in Tangier or are the characters merely victims of unfortunate circumstances?

There’s no one in the book who’s the ultimate villain. A lot of people do villainous things, and to put it mildly, have not been the best people they could be. Some of them have been truly horrible. But the villainy comes instead from the challenges life gives us and which we respond to in stunted ways: giving up our integrity for a little money, a little power, some fleeting bit of status, for revenge. There’s no one among the book’s flawed characters who couldn’t have chosen to be a better person. Chaffee realizes this about himself just in time.

Did Tangier require a substantial amount of research, especially so for Laurent’s part of the story?

For the more contemporary parts of the story, the passages with Chaffe, I didn’t need to do much. These were set in the period of time that I lived in Tangier and came pretty easily. If I needed to, I could find a map of Tangier online and refresh my memory about the name of a street or how far one place was from another. Old family snapshots brought back great, rich memories especially about how things felt.

However, for the parts about Chaffee’s father, set back in World War II, I needed help. One of the first things I found was that there isn’t much written about Morocco during that time—at least not in English. But I found a book about a Jewish family that spent much of the war there. It taught me about the smugglers and the black market, and how wild and wide open a city can be when there’s really no one in charge while in the midst of a war. I have a couple of scenes placed on a street, the rue es Siaghines, where the money changers wrote the values of the currencies they were trading on little chalkboards set on the sidewalk. I got all those details, and a great feel for wartime Tangier, from this obscure book about the travails of a Jewish family.

Another great help was a memoir by an OSS agent, a friend and colleague of the man I met years later, which gave me some good atmospherics and a story or two.

Despite all this, I had a specific problem with my story that I couldn’t find a way to solve.

I knew I wanted Chaffee’s father, Laurent, to get stuck in Tangier, but I couldn’t think of why that would happen. Then, one evening while I was trolling through Churchill’s war memoirs, he mentioned that the collaborationist Vichy government in France lent a naval cruiser to some former government officials who wanted to go to French Morocco to set up a government in exile. These former officials would have been smart to ask themselves why the Vichy government would help set up a rival. Once they landed in Morocco, they were all arrested and thrown in prison. Churchill mentioned that while most of them traveled on this ship, others traveled overland, crossing from Spain. I think I actually shouted out loud, “That’s it!” Laurent, on his way overland to French Morocco, gets as far as Tangier and finds that all his friends have been arrested, and he doesn’t dare continue south. At the same time, if he tries to get back to Spain, which at the time was very friendly to Hitler, the Spanish would likely arrest him.

He’s stuck. I had it, the bit of historical fact I needed to make everything fit. I was really tickled. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to get us bookish sorts excited.

Who is your favorite character in Tangier?

I probably identify most closely with Chaffee. He’s kind of an SOB, and I hope I’m not, but we’re at roughly the same stage of life. It’s a time when we should be trying to reconcile the many parts of our lives and make sense of it all, trying to collect ourselves as we get ready for that sprint to the finish. I never had the sort of position Chaffee had or, thank God, the same sorts of temptations, but I knew people like him, and if I had let myself get as far off track as he has, I think I know what that would feel like. For what it’s worth, my parents got divorced when I was young and my dad wasn’t around much. It leaves a void you’re always trying to fill; you’re always trying to seek the guy. I got lucky, spent a lot of time with Dad later on, but I think I understand what’s missing in Chaffee’s life.

You’ve held some interesting jobs in the past! How did your work as a gardener in Malibu, as part of a national improvisational theater group, or as a crew member on a barge in France assist you in writing Tangier?

Nothing is wasted. It all helps. A lot of things happened to me in Morocco, and I met a lot of people. Writing about that time and that place is maybe my way of making sense of it all, indulging in that urge to make a narrative that brings it all together.

In my first novel, I wrote about my time living in a tent in Malibu. The story didn’t come out well and I’ve always felt I let those characters down. I wrote a bit about life around the canals in France. While serving in one embassy, I nearly got blown up in a terrorist attack that was foiled at the last minute. In Madagascar, I nearly got shot—a guy pulled back the bolt on his AK-47 and braced to fire—as I went through an isolated checkpoint in the middle of the night. I don’t know if he thought I was trying to run the checkpoint, or if he was just trying to scare me. Maybe one of the other soldiers at the checkpoint stopped him at the last moment. It happened too quickly for me to be frightened, but I’ll never forget that feeling of wondering if bullets were going to come flying at me through the back window of my car. It’s another story I wanted to use, and it finds its way into Madagascar.