American author and screenwriter James Grady was 24 and living in a garage when he sold his first novel. The book became the 1975 Hollywood blockbuster Six Days of the Condor, starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. Scores of novels later (as well as Hollywood scripts and stints as a US Senate aide and international investigative reporter) he has contributed an action-packed short story to the upcoming collection Phnom Penh Noir. The Phnom Penh Post caught up with him to hear about NGO corruption in The Fires of Forever, the noir in his life, and how he influenced the tactics of the KGB.
The story feels very familiarwith the inner workings of Phnom Penh. What is your relationship with the city?
The city has always intrigued me, feels like one of the last great “magic” cities like Casablanca and Paris once were. I've been to Thailand and Vietnam but never Cambodia. So I jumped on a chance to write a Phnom Penh story, and interviewed Phnom Penh residents or visitors.
One of the main characters in your story is a fixer who runs an NGO “for his public face”. Do you think NGOs here have a noir element to them?
Like many major global cities, the NGOs in Phnom Penh pulse with the city: are part of it, influenced by it, and impact it. I’m a huge supporter of NGOs that deliver direct human or ecological based help. But I’ve known too many NGOs over the world devolve into being about the staff and the organisation more than about the official cause. So if noir is a shade of Phnom Penh, NGOs there are touched by noir.
You have a background in Hollywood script-writing. Does that mean your writing has a more visual focus?
My father managed movie theaters until I was 17, so I grew up watching movies, being "schooled" by visual storytelling. I try to let the reader “see” what I’m writing about in my novels and short stories, and in my Hollywood script work, A good story gets better when the reader can “see” it. Better to say “a giant concrete Buddha dominated the park” than “the park was quiet and still and serene”.
Tell me about your experience writing Six Days of the Condor. Did you anticipate what a success it would be?
So much of it was surreal. It seems now like a dream. The first time I went into a bookstore and saw my novel on the shelf, I stood staring at it there for so long the clerks and security came over thinking I was some kind of thief or crazy. I showed them my picture on the back of the book. I got to have casual movie-making lessons on the set from director Sydney Pollack, and quiet mentoring standing on a concrete stoop with Robert Redford.
A few years ago, The Washington Post broke a story that the KGB thought the movie and book reflected reality so much that they created a secret 2,000 man spy division to do what “my” made-up Condor did in a job I also made-up. I am constantly humbled and awed by my luck. And wistful for those yesterdays.
There are moments in the story which are incredibly dark – do they stem from real life?
My story is dark but it's the darkness of noir, which I think must always contain a chance for or a moment of redemption, of making the best of only bad choices. I’ve been a crime reporter and political journalist since before my first novel got published, known gangsters and desperate people of all kinds: the real world noir I’ve seen has shown me the worst of mankind and the best. I hope my writing about the worst helps people better recognise the best.
You must have encountered noir as an investigative reporter. Have you always been on a search for noir in your life?
One reason I became an investigative reporter was to gain real world street experience and knowledge of the kind of noir things I portray in my fiction. I’ve been down more mean streets than I care to remember, many not wisely, but what I brought back with me helps me be honest and true with my prose fiction readers.
What stories were you proudest of during your time in journalism?
Despite having broken stories about political corruption, shady money deals, law-breaking fanatics, spies, prostitution, government absurdities and waste – all the usual suspects – I think I’m actually proudest of a quiet story I did, my first national story, about the end of an embassy when weird international law/relations suddenly said their country no longer existed. I got to witness and I think faithfully convey the breadth of human experience from soaring love to tragic loss.
Phnom Penh Noir is published via Heavenlake Press. The official launch will be on November 30 at the Foreign Correspondents Club. The authors and publishers will contribute 20 per cent of their earnings from this book to selected charity organisations in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Post is a media sponsor of the book.
To contact the reporter on this story: Poppy McPherson at [email protected]