KJ Howe: The honey trap has been a powerful tool used to discover secrets in the spy game. Most people envision a female seducer who is able to penetrate enemy lines, but did you know about the Romeo program used in WWII? Well, Paul Vidich extrapolates this unique idea on his journey back to 1989 during the fall of the Berlin Wall in THE MATCHMAKER.
Seeing My Character In My Own Life
By Paul Vidich
Writers don’t write men or women – we write people and characters. Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights was written by a young woman, and the eponymous Anna Karenina by a middle-aged man, but neither is any less of a fully realized character because of the author’s gender. My decision to cast a woman, Anne Simpson, as the protagonist of my latest novel came after I chose to set the story in Berlin in 1989, as the Wall fell. The story I wanted to tell was inextricably tied to a woman’s point of view.
None of my previous novels was written through a woman’s eyes. I was comfortable inhabiting the skin of a middle-aged male protagonist: it is an identity I inhabit. But, I also knew that staying in my comfort zone risked being predictable and repetitious. As a novelist, I’m always striving for the best writing and storytelling I can offer, and pushing myself brought out unpredictable and surprising storylines.
To create Anne Simpson, I gave her a personal history filled with ambition, sadness, disappointment, joy, humor, dreams – all the little uncomfortable conflicts and details that makes each of us unusual, unique, and mysterious. My previous novel, The Mercenary, was set in Moscow, a city I had never visited, but the book was praised by reviewers for the authenticity of the setting. I approached the creation of Anne Simpson the same way I inhabited Moscow at the end of the Soviet era.
I came across the novel’s premise after reading the autobiography of Marcus Wolf, the legendary held of counterintelligence of the East German Ministry of State Security, colloquially known as the Stasi. His Communist parents fled Nazi Germany just before World War II for Moscow, and he returned with the victorious Red Army to set up East Germany’s spy service as a mirror image of the Soviet Union’s KGB. His job was to uncover whatever he could about NATO’s aggressions against the Communist Block. Wolf was intelligent, well-read, a sophisticated apparatchik of the Communist system who created what became known as the Romeo Network.
Spies have always used crude honey traps as tradecraft, but Wolf went further and used love as tradecraft. He trained handsome East German men to secretly cross into West Germany to begin relationships with young women who worked in military and political positions with access to secrets. His Romeos looked for a particular type of woman – woman on the edge, with drinking problems, difficulties with loneliness, money problems – women who were vulnerable to the affections of a handsome man. Romeos groomed their targets, offered friendship, and in many cases married the woman.
I chose to tell my novel through the eyes of a young Juliet: Anne Simpson. I was drawn to the notion that a woman loved her husband – was happy in her relationship, and also blind to his mischief. What goes on inside a marriage is always complex. Two people meet and give up a little of themselves to share in the togetherness of a marriage. Every spouse has some secret, or bit of his or her past that remains hidden.
My wife and I have been married forty-four years, but there are still moments when we surprise each other with a previously unknown incident from the past. My wife and I met when she was in her early thirties, and she had a marriage previous to ours. She had a whole life in the Peace Corps, and a young editor- by-day and gay cabaret actress-by-night. I wonder about her life then: Who was she? What hasn’t she told me about previous lovers? Which lead me to further questions, harkening back to my research about the Stasi Romeos: What happens when the secrets in a marriage are profound? What if you discover that your loving husband has a wife in East Germany, a son, and he’s a Stasi spy?
That story became the heart of The Matchmaker.
The actual history of the women groomed by Stasi Romeos is varied and sordid, and they informed the novel. There was the secretary in a government ministry whose throat was cut when she discovered who her husband was. Her murder made to look like a robbery. Another woman with access to defense secrets who shared secrets with her husband to satisfy his interest in classified weapons, who threw herself out a window when confronted by West German police. And there was the woman with a deep grudge against her high-ranking boss who, upon discovering her husband was an East German spy, became his active collaborator.
Anne Simpson’s life also balances on the knife edge of danger. I cast her as a young American working as a translator for the Joint Allied Refugee Operations Center. She is recently divorced, working at job that she was good at, but not interested in, which she took to pay the rent. She is adrift in her Berlin life. Smart, funny, almost thirty years old, living off the dreams of her adolescence but chastened by the banalities of adulthood. She wants to find a little joy in the darkness of the world. Stephan Koehler, a musician, happens to intervene when a thief at a winter seaside resort, attempts to steal her purse. Of course, it’s all planned to bring them together, but she is intrigued by his good looks and the possibility of companionship.
While writing the novel, I rarely thought of Anne Simpson as just a woman. She was always a well-rounded person with interests, fears, intelligence, and vulnerabilities that I understood because they were similar to my own and, in a way, similar to who my wife was before I met her.
They say write what you know: Anne Simpson became a fully realized character because of people I know and experiences I have had; even though our lives didn’t overlap in Berlin in 1989, we still have common ground.
What fascinating history the author has used when creating THE MATCHMAKER — I can’t wait to read it. However, I admit I had to smile (sort of) when I read about the Romeo Network” because here in Florida where there are so many retired folks, the term “Romeo” has come to stand for “Retired Old Men Eating Out.” Now, thanks, Paul, for being our guest here on Rogue Women Writers.
I’ve always believed that people have been exactly the same over time. Only circumstances change.
PS I’m dying to hear more about your wife’s adventures as a cabaret actress!!
What a rich history you’ve chosen, Paul. The era of Marcus Wolf has always fascinated me, too. Looking forward to reading your new novel!